The elections in France and Greece represent a fundamental change in the situation. The crisis of European capitalism has entered a new and turbulent stage. A mood of anger is sweeping across Europe. Of course, we understand that election results do not reflect the psychology of the masses with complete accuracy. They are like a snapshot of the mood at a given moment. But it is necessary to analyse election results carefully, since they do show certain trends in society.
The first effect of the economic crisis that started in 2008 was one of shock, resulting in a temporary paralysis. But this mood soon wore off, and was replaced by a wave of strikes and mass demonstrations. However, such is the seriousness of the crisis that pressure from the streets is not sufficient to bring about any substantial change. The movement is therefore moving back to the political front.
Voters in Greece and France have swung in favour of anti-austerity candidates. In Britain, the local elections registered a massive swing against the Con-Dem coalition and in favour of the Labour Party. The partial results from local elections in Italy also suggest a marked swing away from the mainstream parties. In the absence of a serious left-wing alternative, some voters turned to an anti-euro protest movement led by a former satirical comedian Beppe Grillo, which made significant inroads in many places, including cities like Parma and Genoa.
Markets slumped in France and Greece, but largely recovered later. Greek stocks fell to 20-year lows while in Paris the CAC 40 slid 2.8 per cent and Germany’s Xetra Dax closed down 1.9 per cent. The euro slipped 0.3 per cent against the dollar to $1.3022.
In fact, the markets have greeted the French election results with surprising equanimity. This suggests that they have an excellent understanding of the real nature of reformism, or else that they have been reliably informed that what M. Hollande says on an electoral platform is one thing, but what Monsieur le President Hollande will do is another thing altogether. However, the Athens stock exchange had plunged 6.67% by the end of Monday, reflecting the extreme nature of the crisis in Greece.
France: left turn!
In France the Socialists won the Presidential election for the first time in a generation. Nicolas Sarkozy now enters the history books as the first French president since 1981 not to win a second term. He becomes the latest European leader to be voted out of office amid widespread voter anger at austerity measures triggered by the eurozone debt crisis. The Socialist candidate, François Hollande stood on the need for a “growth pact”. In his campaign he attacked the bankers and the rich and he was clearly perceived by many as standing against austerity.
In the first round he came under pressure from the left, as the opinion polls were indicating that Mélenchon, the candidate of the Left Front (Communist Party and Left Party), was going to pick up a significant number of votes. Hollande attempted to cut across this by appearing to be more to the left than he really is.
Speaking to a euphoric audience in Corrèze, his home base in rural France, the newly-elected French president took to the stage and announced he would seek an alternative to austerity. Cars honked horns as they drove around the streets of central Paris that weren’t closed off to traffic. “Change is coming,” declared Mr Hollande, announcing an “end to austerity” and a new era of “youth and justice”.
He promised to raise taxes on big corporations and people earning more than one million euros a year. He wants to raise the minimum wage, hire 60,000 more teachers and lower the retirement age from 62 to 60 for some workers. And he won just under 52% of votes in the second round. This shows that the masses are looking for an alternative to the policies of cuts and austerity. This was underlined by the scenes of delight on Sunday night in France that resembled a massive street party.
Jubilant Hollande supporters gathered at the Place de la Bastille in Paris – a traditional rallying point of the Left – to celebrate. But like all good parties it will surely be followed by a gigantic headache. The problem is that all reformists believe that it is possible to solve the crisis without a radical break with capitalism. This is a dangerous and utopian illusion. If you accept the capitalist system you must also accept the laws of capitalism.
It is very good that M. Hollande speaks out against austerity. But there is a problem: in the context of the world crisis of capitalism, and if he is not prepared to break with capitalism, austerity is the only possible policy. If François Hollande does not understand this, the markets will soon make him understand it. Like the Greeks, Hollande wants to challenge the German insistence on austerity. Huge hopes were raised by Hollande’s victory, within France and across the euro zone, that the harsh austerity plans that have marked Europe’s response to the crisis so far will be eased in favour of a growth stimulus. The French now feel that things are moving firmly in their direction, and that they have support from various quarters within Europe as well as America.
But Hollande will soon be confronted with a thorny dilemma. Will he stand with the Greek people fighting against austerity or with the German government and the International Monetary Fund, who say that the Greek bailout cannot be renegotiated?
France and Germany
Mrs Merkel lost no time in congratulating the president-elect by phone and inviting him to Berlin to hold talks soon, but she warned the fiscal compact was "not up for grabs". She told a news conference in Berlin: "The core of the discussion is really all about... whether we are going to have again programmes for growth which are on the back of debt or indeed whether we are going to have programmes for growth that are sustainable and indeed rely on the competitiveness of the countries."
France can no longer be bracketed together with Germany as the main European power. Instead, it is seen as part of the European south, a member of the club for sick people, although at present only waiting uneasily in the outpatients’ department. The Spanish and Italian governments are looking hopefully towards the French President. Paris makes sympathetic noises to Italy and Greece. Hollande has even found some kind words for the old enemy, Britain.
This could lead to a shift of the balance of forces within the EU. It might result in a move to create a counterbalance to Germany, a break with the post-war foreign policy of the French bourgeoisie which had the delusion that it could rule Europe in tandem with the Germans. In practice, this was always an impossible dream. Germany’s industrial and financial muscle has given her a dominant role, relegating France to the role of a second-rate “partner”.
As long as the European economy was going forward, this situation could be at least partly disguised. But after the economic debacle of 2008, the real relationship has been cruelly exposed. France’s weakness has been revealed to all. It is Germany that rules the roost. The tensions between Paris and Berlin could end in the shipwreck of the Euro, and even the unravelling of the EU itself. In the words of The Financial Times (May 7), “an open split between France and Germany would cause Europe-wide problems, opening up a seismic fault in the foundations of the EU and its single currency”.
The Greek crisis has put M. Hollande to the test far more quickly than he expected or desired. Madame Merkel will demand that he takes a position in very simple language: are you with Athens or with Berlin? This is a very tricky question to answer, but answered it must be. However, when addressing his remarks to Berlin, he hastens to clarify: he is a reasonable man who does not wish to cause problems. He does not wish to change the deal “only add to it” and so on and so forth.
The Greek political crisis has thrown everything into the melting pot. The problem is so serious that no amount of manoeuvres and deals can fix it. Hollande may think that a few cleverly-drafted clauses added to an EU treaty will be enough to win him credit. M. Hollande’s plans include “project bonds”(or bonds for growth as others describe them) to finance infrastructure spending in Europe, and more investment by the European Investment Bank. He also, in the longer run, wants the European Central Bank to lend directly to individual states. But Mrs Merkel has made it clear that this is not her vision.
The German Chancellor might even agree to EU-backed “project bonds”, financing infrastructure projects. Some increase in lending by the European Investment Bank may also be agreed. But she is not prepared to “renegotiate” the treaty. As we have seen, she insists that “programmes for growth” must be based on countries’ “competitiveness”. If in this she is referring to France she is too polite to say so openly. But the Germans will be watching France like hawks.
M. Hollande has yet to explain how he intends to reduce its budget deficit to 3% of GDP next year, as he has promised while honouring all his other campaign pledges, such as boosting welfare benefits at the start of the school year, the extra thousands of teaching jobs, and the partial reversal of the retirement age from 62 to 60 years. All this involves extra spending. Yet in France public spending already accounts for 56% of GDP, and the overall tax take is also high. And the IMF is forecasting a deficit closer to 3.9% for 2013.
Here we have the central dilemma. Will Hollande remain firm on his promises to the French people? Or will he bend before the merciless pressure of Merkel and the “Markets”? It seems more than likely that he will decide that discretion is the better part of valour and retreat, while accepting some face-saving gestures from Berlin. He will say that he has changed the direction of the EU policy in favour of “Growth”. Merkel would agree to some kind of vaguely-worded “growth pact” but the price would be more cuts. In essence, everything will remain as before. “plusça change, plusc'est la même chose (“the more it changes, the more it's the same thing”).
The President of France will find himself between a rock and a hard place. If he goes with the Germans it would immediately expose the hollowness of his anti-austerity rhetoric. It would provoke deep divisions in the Socialist Party and strengthen the position of Mélenchon and the Front de Gauche, the alliance between the Communist Party and the Left Party (Parti de Gauche), which won 11.1% of the vote in the first round of the election.
Earthquake in Greece
The victory of Hollande in the French elections is important, but it was the elections in Greece that shook the markets more than anything else. The results in Sunday’s general election, however, were not really a surprise.
Greece has been forced to make deep cuts to pensions and pay, raise taxes and slash thousands of public sector jobs. Under Greece's current bailout plan, billions of euros in further austerity cuts will have to be found in June – and the country is also counting on a 30bn euro (£24bn; $39bn) instalment from the EU. This is clearly unsustainable for the simple reason that one cannot squeeze blood from a stone.
Despite all this, the EU and International Monetary Fund have warned they will block further loan payments until the Greek parliament approves the medium-term package, which would include further deep cuts in healthcare spending and in public sector jobs. These were precisely the measures that triggered mass protests under the two previous governments.
This result shows a rapid change in consciousness of the masses. Only a few months ago the main bourgeois party, the New Democracy, was confidently expecting power to drop into its lap like a ripe apple. Instead, it was humiliated, while Pasok saw its vote collapse. Thus, anti-austerity parties won more than 65 per cent in Sunday’s vote as Greeks expressed rising anger over high unemployment, wage cuts and a forecast of another 18 months of recession.
The alarm of the bourgeois was echoed in Greece’s stock market. The ASE Index dropped 3.8 per cent to 619.52, the lowest since November 1992. It has lost 9.1 per cent this year, reflecting the extreme nervousness of the Greek bourgeois. The inconclusive character of Sunday’s general election is a clear indication of a sharp polarisation to the left and right. The political centre is collapsing before our eyes. Both mainstream pro-Europe parties saw their votes slump. This is the shape of things to come, and not only in Greece.
In Greece, both the right-wing New Democracy and its former coalition partners Pasok saw their support melt away in favour of radical parties on the left and right. New Democracy's support fell from 33.5% in the last election to just 18.9% of the vote and 108 seats in the 300-seat parliament. It only got this result thanks to a law that gives the winning party an extra 50 seats. Pasok was pushed into a humiliating third place, with 13.2% of the vote and 41 seats. It had previously had 43% of the votes. New Democracy and Pasok barely garnered about one-third of votes between them.
This is a political earthquake, a sudden and sharp change in the situation. Antonis Samaras, leader of New Democracy, wanted to form a national unity government with himself as prime minister but almost immediately abandoned the attempt. The Economist says:
“His party, which pushed for an early election when it was far ahead in opinion polls, is reeling. So is Pasok, which although expecting to do badly did not foresee being overtaken by Syriza. Several socialist deputies who defected from Pasok last year over the austerity programme won seats with Syriza yesterday, while prominent Pasok reformists, among them Anna Diamantopoulou, the development minister and a former European commissioner, lost their seats. (George Papandreou, the former prime minister, scraped a seat in a provincial constituency.)”
The big winner was Syriza, the Left Coalition headed by Synaspismos, which came in second and almost beat New Democracy into first place. Although it was evident that Syriza was going to significantly increase its vote, the final outcome was a surprise for the opinion pollsters. It won support from Pasok voters and took 16.8% of the vote (up from just 4.6% per cent at the previous election, in 2009), and will take 52 seats in parliament, thanks to large gains in Athens and Piraeus, Greece’s largest constituencies and other working class strongholds, where Syriza came first.
The irony of the situations is that even the conservative Samaras knows that the austerity plan is counterproductive. He wanted to lower taxes on Greek businesses. But this is rejected out of hand by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he has clashed, and who remains implacable. Reacting to the election results, Merkel said austerity measures were "not negotiable" and described Greece's reforms as of the "utmost importance". This is the central contradiction, which has prevented the formation of a new government after the elections.
The abject failure of the government of Lucas Papademos, the unelected “technocrat” premier and apostle of “national unity”, has left a vacuum that must be filled. But who will fill it? Papademos, a former European Central Bank vice-president, has called for political stability “so that the sacrifices of the Greeks don’t go to waste... after we have already covered a large part of the difficult journey towards rebuilding the economy”. But after three years of torment, falling living standards and growing unemployment, which has reduced millions of Greeks to abject poverty, the people are tired of the same old song. They can see no sign of any “rebuilding the economy”.
On the contrary, they see everywhere the all too visible signs of economic collapse: closed factories and shipyards, shutters on shop windows, and ever increasing unemployment. As a result of the policies imposed by Brussels and Berlin, Greece has been pushed into an even deeper recession than expected in 2012, according to the country’s central bank. In a revision to the previous estimate, the Greek economy is to shrink by a further 5% in the next few months.
The suffering of the Greek people is being pushed to the limits of human endurance and more. When ten percent of Greeks are reduced to receiving food parcels or health aid, talk of more austerity in the name of “national unity” falls on deaf ears. The financial chaos has caused terrible suffering and sparked huge social unrest. There is now a deep mistrust of the parties that the masses rightly see as the architects of austerity.
As leader of the biggest party in parliament Samaras tried and failed to put together a coalition. Samaras stressed on Monday night that his party had done "everything possible" to form a government. "I tried to find a solution for a government of national salvation, with two aims: for the country to remain in the euro and to change the policy of the bailout by renegotiation," he said in a televised address. "We directed our proposal to all the parties that could have participated in such an effort, but they either directly rejected their participation, or they set as a condition the participation of others who did not accept."
Next all eyes were on Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, who entered into negotiations with other parties to form a government. "We will exhaust all possibilities to reach an understanding, primarily with the forces of the left," Tsipras said. However, he posed conditions of such a nature that they made it impossible for any of the bourgeois parties to accept. These included:
- Cancelling the bailout terms, notably laws that further cut wages and pensions
- Scrapping laws that abolish workers' rights, particularly a law abolishing collective labour agreements due to come into effect on 15 May
- Demanding proportional representation and the end to the 50 seat bonus to the first party
- Investigating Greece's banking system which received almost 200bn euros of public money and posing the need for some kind of state control over the banks
- Setting up an international committee to find out the causes of Greece's public deficit and putting on hold all debt servicing.
The leader of Syriza skilfully used his position to publicize his rejection of the “barbaric austerity measures” imposed on Greece by the EU. At the same time he wants Greece to remain inside the eurozone. This is slightly more complicated than squaring the circle! The conditions imposed by Tsipras naturally made the formation of a new coalition practically impossible. He called on both New Democracy and Pasok to withdraw their written guarantees to the Troika.
Thus the only possibility to form a left government depended on the agreement of the KKE (Greek Communist Party). But they rejected his advances out of hand. This has caused unease within the ranks of the KKE, whose members are increasingly critical of the sectarian and divisive policies of the leaders. It is this sectarian stance of the leadership – a constant feature during the election campaign – that explains why in such a favourable situation the party only increased its votes by less than one per cent. In some working class areas the party actually lost votes. [See Greek elections (II): Communist Party leadership limited the impact of the party for more on this].
As a footnote we might add that the small coalition of ultra-left groups (Antarsya) got a mere 1.2 percent. They will claim this is a “big step forward”, as they quadrupled their votes, winning 75,000 in total. However, this remains an insignificant force as the masses looked to Syriza and the KKE. It also conveniently ignores the fact that in the 2010 regional and council elections it had won 97,000 votes.
Tsipras having inevitably failed in his endeavour, Pasok leader and ex-finance minister Evangelos Venizelos, took upon himself the task of trying to form a government with even less chances of success. "It is necessary for the government of national unity to include all the forces that have a pro-European outlook," Venizelos said. "The minimum level of agreement is that Greece remains in the euro."
The formula of “national unity” was always the hollowest of all political slogans. The Greek people are not so foolish that they are unable to see that the idea of unity of rich and poor is in reality the “unity” of the donkey and the man who rides it, digging his spurs into its side. As I write these lines, Venizelos was still making an effort to patch together some kind of coalition. However, any government that would be seen as a continuation of the previous set up would be extremely and seen as illegitimate and could provoke the masses to take to the streets again.
The rise of Syriza
The Economist (May 7th) described the election results in Greece as a spasm of fury. But in reality they represent far more than that. A spasm passes quickly, but the processes that are unfolding in Greece and other countries are not likely to disappear any time soon. “Some people interpreted the election result as a vote of anger,” Tsipras said. “They are making a mistake. It was a mature and conscious choice.”
Syriza is the electoral front around Synaspismos, which came out of a split in the KKE in the past. Tsipras was the leader of the Greek Communist party’s youth organisation, when he organised sit-ins to protest against reform of the education system under a right-wing government and took part in anti-globalisation protests. Syriza is therefore clearly seen as being part of the Communist “family”.
Considering the scenario outlined above, it is clear that new elections will have to be called, possibly as early as next month. “We are now heading for a second vote next month in a deeply polarised atmosphere,” said a disappointed government official. But what will new elections change? The trends already observed in these elections will not be very different, except that the centre will continue to disintegrate and the left-right divide will continue to grow at its expense.
The main winner will be Syriza, whose popularity has been greatly enhanced by its intransigent stand over the formation of a coalition. By taking a hard-line stance against the EU and the International Monetary Fund Syriza is likely to win first place at the next election. “Syriza is standing up for people who have suffered because of the bailout measures, so I voted for them,” said Demos Stergides, who lost his job in the textile industry last month and expresses tghe thinking of many workers in Greece.
Thus Syriza has become transformed into a vital factor in Greek politics. “To form a government you need the support or tacit acceptance of Syriza, and it is clear that is not going to be forthcoming,” said Loukas Tsoukalis, head of the Athens think-tank Eliamep.
At present the three Left parties have only 97 seats in the 300-member parliament, leaving Syriza far short of a majority even if Pasok, with 41 seats, decided to join them – a move that the right-wing leader of Pasok, Evangelos Venizelos, is unlikely to make. But it is clear that Syriza will increase its share of the vote at the next elections, as the latest opinion polls already seem to indicate.
According to a poll carried out by Alpha TV, SYRIZA would jump from 16.7 to 27.7%, while ND would regain some votes from other right-wing parties, going from 18% to 20%, the PASOK loses further (from 13% down to 12%), the KKE loses (from 8.5% down to 7%), the Independent Greeks remain the same, while Golden Dawn loses (from 6.9 down to 5.7%) and Democratic Left loses (from 6.1% down to 4.9%, and this even before it was announced that they were prepared to rule with ND-PASOK).
Unemployed university graduates who may have to emigrate to find work are turning to Syriza. Young, unemployed Greeks voted massively for Syriza at the election, along with self-employed professionals opposed to the liberalisation of their closed shops and older left-wingers facing further pension cuts under an €11.5bn package due to be approved by the incoming parliament.
Tsipras’s aim of forming the country’s first left coalition government clashes with the sectarianism of the Greek Communist Party (KKE), which has repeatedly rejected his offers of co-operation. The only other left-wing party in parliament is the Democratic Left, a right-wing split from Syriza, which has been vacillating on whether to accept entering a coalition with ND and Pasok. In the end Fotis Kouveli, leader of the Democratic Left, clarified that his party will not participate in a coalition government with only ND and PASOK and without SYRIZA. He has understood that to do so, would simply mean a haemorrhaging of votes from his party to Syriza.
In fact both Venizelos of the Pasok and Kouvelis of the Democratic Left realise that the formation of a coalition government with the support of New Democracy but not SYRIZA would raise questions about its legitimacy in the eyes of the masses and therefore of its viability.
The fact is that although a PASOK-ND-Democratic Left government would have a total of 168 seats, such a government would simply prepare the ground for a further strengthening of SYRIZA. However, ND, PASOK and the Democratic Left also face the dilemma that if no agreement is reached now and new elections are held in June, SYRIZA will increase its share of the vote – coming first and thus also benefitting from the 50 seat bonus – while the others will see their support decline. If they don’t from some form of coalition now and elections are held in June the prospect of a left government become even more concrete!
As we have seen above, it is hard to see how any party, or combination of parties, could form a stable coalition to continue with the austerity measures agreed with Greece’s creditors, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. They are the real masters of Greece now.
If, as is possible, Syriza wins an election in June and manages to form a Left government, its policies and leaders will be put to the test. Its leaders will immediately come under the pressure of the bourgeois, not only in Athens but in Brussels and Berlin. On the other hand it will be under the pressure of millions of Greek workers who voted for a change.
In voting for Syriza, the workers, radicalised youth, desperate pensioners, the unemployed and ruined petty bourgeois were not only voting against the old parties that brought austerity and misery. They were voting against a status quo that has become intolerable, against a rotten and bankrupt system. They were voting for a fundamental change: for a revolution. But unless the Left takes immediate steps to expropriate the bankers and capitalists, it will find itself the plaything of the markets.
The fact remains that the leadership of Syriza insist on seeking a solution within the confines of capitalism, even within the European Union. A solution that is not based on the abolition of capitalism is the one already adopted by the previous governments. The result therefore would be a government of crisis. It would fail to satisfy the demands of the masses that voted for it. On such a basis it would eventually disappoint its own base, the workers and youth of Greece. That would prepare the ground for a return of the right at some stage. Thus after a period a Left government would be replaced by a coalition of right-wing parties.
Greece has been plunged into social and political turmoil by the crisis of capitalism. These problems cannot be solved by “normal” means. Matters have gone too far for half-way solutions. One cannot cure cancer with an aspirin. In the long run the crisis can only be resolved either by the working class taking power into its hands, or a nightmare of reaction.
The noose is tightening around Greece’s neck. Everything points to a new and even more serious crisis Greece in the next few months. The EU will face a stark choice: will it send yet more aid to Greece to make uo for the withdrawal of IMF funds? Or will it turn off the tap and allow Greece to sink?
The later possibility is now being openly discussed. Jörg Asmussen, a European Central Bank executive board member, for the first time raised the possibility of a Greek exit from the euro – an option the ECB had previously refused to acknowledge in public. “Greece needs to be aware that there is no alternative to the agreed reform programme if it wants to remain a member of the eurozone,” Asmussen told a German newspaper.
The Economist concludes: “Greece’s future in the euro now looks shakier: some market analysts today say the chances of a “Grexit” have increased from 40% to over 50%. The next government was due to push yet another austerity package through parliament in June under Greece's second bail-out agreement with the EU and IMF. It includes another €11.5 billion of spending cuts, along with unpopular structural measures: pensions will shrink again and thousands of public-sector workers will become sackable.
“IMF officials have warned that if the reform timetable slips, Greece will not receive its next round of funding. That could mean that salaries and pensions may not be paid next month, a prospect likely to focus voters’ minds after yesterday's outburst of fury. "Perhaps you should think of yesterday’s result as the first round of an election, when people let off steam," said one former cabinet minister. ‘Then they vote according to their real interests in the second round.’"
The choice is now posed in the starkest terms: will Greece agree to make further billions of euros worth of budget cuts in the next few months, as demanded by Merkel and co.? Tsipras has expressed himself very clearly: “The popular verdict clearly renders the bailout deal null.” But if that is the case, the IMF has been equally clear as to its intentions: it will not authorise the release of the next tranche of money to Greece. That would mean that the Greek government simply ran out of money. The vicious cuts to pensions and wages implemented so far would be nothing compared to the consequent slashing of living standards.
The forced exit of Greece from the euro would be posed point blank. The resultant chaos and social upheavals would be extremely dangerous for capitalism in Greece. It would be the difference between a car going downhill with bad brakes and one with no brakes at all. The bourgeoisie of the EU are appalled by such a prospect. But if nothing is done and done soon, this perspective might soon have to be confronted sooner rather than later.
The inevitable result is a chaotic default and the ejection of Greece from the eurozone and probably also from the EU itself. The consequences for the whole of Europe would be catastrophic, but for Greece it would be even worse. Contrary to the nationalist illusions of the KKE, a return to the drachma would solve nothing and make a bad situation far worse. The new drachma would be worthless in international markets. The collapse of the currency would spell sky-high inflation, a run on the banks and the liquidation of savings and pensions. Such a situation would be pregnant with revolutionary implications, as in Germany 1923.
Revolution or counterrevolution?
The movement towards the socialist transformation of society will not take place in a straight line. There will inevitably be ups and downs. Periods of stormy advance will be followed by periods of tiredness, lulls, defeats, even periods of reaction. There will be violent swings to the left and right. But every move towards reaction will only prepare even bigger swings to the left. At the present time there is no danger of fascism or even Bonapartist reaction in any developed capitalist country. But that can change in the period that opens up.
Sooner or later, the Greek ruling class will draw the conclusion: there are too many strikes, too many demonstrations, too much chaos. Down with anarchy! We demand Order! In the long run, the ruling class will move openly towards Bonapartism. There will be all kinds of right-wing conspiracies like the Gladio conspiracy of the 1970s. But given the strength of the working class and its organisations, this can pave the way for an explosion of the class struggle and even open civil war.
But that is not an immediate perspective. In Greece the perspective is a lengthy period of extreme political instability, in which one unstable coalition government will follow another. The pendulum will swing wildly from left to right and back again. And with every swing of the pendulum, the more extreme will succeed the less, as Trotsky explained in the Preface to The History of the Russian Revolution:
“The swift changes of mass views and moods in an epoch of revolution thus derive, not from the flexibility and mobility of man’s mind, but just the opposite, from its deep conservatism. The chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions, right up to the moment when the latter crash over people in the form of a catastrophe, is what creates in a period of revolution that leaping movement of ideas and passions which seems to the police mind a mere result of the activities of “demagogues.”
“The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses. The fundamental political process of the revolution thus consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis – the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations. The different stages of a revolutionary process, certified by a change of parties in which the more extreme always supersedes the less, express the growing pressure to the left of the masses – so long as the swing of the movement does not run into objective obstacles. When it does, there begins a reaction: disappointments of the different layers of the revolutionary class, growth of indifferentism, and therewith a strengthening of the position of the counter-revolutionary forces. Such, at least, is the general outline of the old revolutions.”
The crisis of capitalism creates the kind of festering conditions in which racist and reactionary ideas can find an echo in sections of the population. Where the labour movement does not offer an alternative, people who do not understand the real reason why there are not enough jobs and houses can be persuaded by reactionary demagogues to look for a scapegoat.
The elements of this can already be seen in the rise of movements like the Golden Dawn (Chryssi Avghi) in Greece. will enter parliament for the first time, having won 7% of the vote and 21 seats. This is a racist neo-Nazi group that stands for the expulsion of illegal immigrants, and comes complete with blackshirt gangs who attack and beat up left wing activists. In France, the vote for Mélenchon on the one hand and Marine Le Pen on the other indicated the same process of polarization (although the French FN has moved away from fascism).
This is a warning to the working class of what can happen if it fails to take power. However, it is wrong to exaggerate. At this stage the fascists are a small force. They won less than seven percent of the vote, compared to almost 17 percent for Syriza. Furthermore, they basically picked up the votes that LAOS was losing due to its participation in government. And as we have seen from the opinion poll quoted above, already some of the Golden Dawn’s voters have already had second thoughts. It would be very wrong to think that all the voters of this party are neo-Nazis. Many voted for them in protest Also, the combined vote of the Left parties was over 31 percent. This means that the fascists got less than a quarter of the votes of the Left.
However, we should also not ignore the threat that such parties can pose in the future. The fascist gangs like the black shirt hooligans of Golden Dawn can be used to intimidate and terrorise the working class, like Patria y Libertad in Chile. This they are already attempting to do.
That is, they can play the role of auxiliaries of Bonapartist reaction. However, the bourgeoisie will not permit them to take power, as they did with Hitler and Mussolini in the past. Recent history shows that when the bourgeoisie does reach the conclusion that democracy no longer serves them, they revert to military rule, preferring the army tops to the mad men of these small fascist parties. The bourgeoisie, however, will not resort to open reaction until all other possibilities have been exhausted.
What we have to emphasis, however, is that long before we reach this stage, the workers will have had many possibilities of taking power in one country after another. Only after a series of serious defeats of the working class would the danger of Bonapartist dictatorship be posed.
The ruling class, whether in Greece or any other country, does not support democracy out of sentimentality, but because it is usually the most economical way of ruling society, while deceiving the masses into thinking that they can decide affairs. In the last analysis, when they see that their fundamental interests are threatened, the bourgeois will not hesitate to resort to naked reaction, casting aside the mask of democracy and the rule of law, to reveal its true face.
Although a section of the Greek ruling class will undoubtedly be toying with the idea of a coup even now, the objective conditions for this do not exist at present. The election results show a clear swing to the Left. The Greek working class is stronger than at any time in history. They have not suffered a decisive defeat for decades. Moreover, the middle class is looking to the Left (particularly Syriza) for an alternative. The memories of 1967 and the brutal dictatorship of the colonels are still fresh in the minds of the working class.
For all these reasons, any attempt to move in that direction would be fiercely resisted. It would result in civil war, which the bourgeoisie could not be sure of winning. Therefore, the perspective of Bonapartism in Greece is not immediately on the order of the day. The crisis can drag on for years before a decisive showdown is reached. Long before the question of reaction is posed, the working class will have had many opportunities to take power.
When one considers the heroic actions of the workers and youth of Greece during the last three years, one would have to be made of wood not to feel profoundly moved and inspired. What more are we entitled to ask of them? They have moved heaven and earth to change society. If they have not succeeded thus far, it is not their fault. It is because they lacked the necessary leadership to guarantee victory.
This concretely means that the immediate task is to strengthen Syriza both politically and as an organisation. At the moment Syriza is a coalition based on its main component, Synaspimos. Syriza should become a party with the right of different tendencies to express their views. Secondly, it should avoid any temptation to be “realistic” or “pragmatic” falling into traps the bourgeois parties are busily preparing. At the next elections it is clear Syriza will emerge much stronger in parliament. At the same time it should insist on unity with the KKE and other left forces. Already many KKE voters have indicated they may switch to Syriza in new elections. This is a lever that can be used to push the KKE leaders to abandon their sectarianism and join Syriza in a genuine United Front of the workers’ organisation. Thirdly, the party leadership must adopt a genuine revolutionary socialist programme, the only programme that can bring about the change the masses so much desire.
Ultimately, its chances of success depend on the ability of the Marxists to win over the decisive layers of the working class and the youth for the programme of socialist revolution. That means strengthening the Marxist wing of the party, as a first step towards winning the whole party and then the whole of the working class to the programme of revolution.
London, 11 May