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A different kind of state

Leo Panitch on Syriza, party building, and how socialists should approach state power


Alexis Tsipras. Photo by Olaf Kosinsky/Flickr.

The position of Syriza is unenviable. It has taken power in a country in the grips of economic depression, riven by oligarchic networks and, for now, still at the mercy of international institutions. Nevertheless, it is the first European government of the radical left in living memory, and one whose actions can not only transform Greece, but will serve as a point of reference for the international left.

Syriza has done what some only recently cautioned the Left against: they have taken state power. Leo Panitch has always argued, on the contrary, that the Left should not be afraid of taking power; indeed, it should organize to enter the state, even as it remains cognizant of the dangers. Over the years, he has written extensively about the state, its role in contemporary transformations of capitalism, and socialist strategy.

Here, Canadian writer and researcher Michal Rozworski speaks with Panitch about the difficulties of working within political constraints while trying to transcend them, the role of international solidarity, and the importance of political organization.

The interview took place last Thursday, just one day before Greece signed an agreement with the Eurogroup to extend, with modifications, its current bailout program for four months. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.


What do you make of how the negotiations have developed? How is Europe reacting to Syriza?

This is, of course, very important. The Greeks have very, very little room for maneuver: in terms of their ability to float bonds on the international bond market, in terms of the drawing down of bank accounts by Greek shipowners and corporations, which could really portend a run on the banks. This is a daily thing hanging over their heads, which would cause anyone responsible for a government sleepless nights.

On top of that, they are committed to staying in Europe. The leaders of Syriza are very Europeanist and have no intention of leaving Europe. So these negotiations really matter to them.

Right, it’s not a case of some obscure game theoretic strategy.

No, no, it’s been my view for years — not just this year — that if Syriza gets into government, they will only go as far as the Europeans will let them go in relation to the crisis of Greek finances in the international arena. It’s very severe because although they will try to increase their tax capacity, and hopefully even introduce a wealth tax, the danger is that this will cause a greater outflow of capital. And if they introduce capital controls, what price would they have to pay for that from the Europeans? Would they be expelled?

But also, where are they going to get the funds to try to deal with 50 to 60 percent youth unemployment? Where are they going to get the funds for the type of public investment to deal with Depression–era levels of unemployment that exist in Greece. What had to be done in Canada and the United States in the 1930s was enormous public expenditure to get this addressed. These are enormously important questions, and the European are really playing hardball.

And it looks like, as of this morning, Yanis Varoufakis has issued a letter to the European finance ministers, which gives them the form of words that they want. This really means that they will honor the previous agreement while asking for an extension of it for another six months. This means honoring the memoranda in general terms and the neoliberal austerity on which they are conditioned.

Now, this doesn’t meant they won’t have room for maneuver in terms of when to apply it and how they apply it. But they’ve given the Europeans the form of words that they required after the negotiations broke down last week. It’s still possible the letter will be rejected because they don’t trust the Syriza government.

I think I saw some news that the German finance ministry might reject it outright.

We’ll see exactly what happens. I still am of the view that this Syriza leadership will go only as far as the European leaders let them.

The tragedy of this, of course, is that, apart from the demonstration in London in support of Syriza I read about last week, where is the European left? I don’t just mean that as the broader or more radical left, which should be demonstrating in great numbers, but also the social democrats. The left-wing social democrats and the unions should be sitting on their leaders. After all, the German social democrats are in the German government for heaven’s sake!

And Dijsselbloem, the finance minster of the Netherlands, that Syriza is dealing with at the Eurogroup is also supposedly a socialist politician – at least socialist in name, as in the European system.

As is the case with Hollande in France. The trouble with that is that Hollande just introduced an austerity budget promising business everything they need in order to be bribed to invest. Therefore, what Syriza says in that respect makes them look bad.

What should be the role of the international left with respect to the developments in Greece? What not only can we learn, but what kind of support is it possible to provide to influence the situation from the outside?

Well, there’s only so much that the broader left can do, unfortunately, because it has so few political vehicles. I don’t think demonstrations would hurt, especially if they could be in very sizeable numbers. We should be doing the kind of media work that you’re doing; we should be trying to get more and more into the mainstream press as well.

We should be challenging Western democracies with regard to their hypocrisy – challenging them insofar as they say, so long as one is playing by the rules, one gets elected. “Socialists can get elected” is the line that they give us, and we should really be pressing this.

Beyond that, I think we also need not to treat Greece as the Left too often treats governments that it gets hopeful about. In the 1930s, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Fabians from Britain who were not all that left-wing, went to the Soviet Union and said, “I’ve seen the future, and it works” because they had full employment.

And that was at the height of the show trials in Moscow. Too many people from the West have gone to Bolivia or Venezuela or the Social Forums in Brazil, where after knowing nothing about participatory budgeting they were told a few things about it and upon coming back they said, “I’ve seen the future, and it works.”

This is naïve. It’s what I call a cargo cult mentality, where whatever ship you see that has “Socialism” on its sail on the horizon is treated like the messiah that’s arrived. We shouldn’t be doing that. We should be looking at Greece with all of its problems and all of its limitations.

We should be trying to learn lessons from how they built such a party over two, three decades but also from the limitations that they’re running up against, as well as the compromises that they might enter into. This includes the embrace of parliamentarism that undermines their radicalism; we need to be watching this.

Greece is a very specific state: it had a military junta, got democracy in the 1970s, and is still wracked by clientelism and the networks inherited from the old days. How do the specifics of the Greek state interact with the more radical program of Syriza, and what are the contradictions and limitations there?

At one level — insofar as Syriza represents the Greek left that was never absorbed into that Greek state — when they promise reform, one can have some hope that they will mean it. The Pasok program in 1980 was radical. However, they simply entered into the same patterns of clientelism and paternalism to benefit Pasok.

I think we can have much more hope – and even the European powers that be should have more hope – that when a Syriza government promises reforms, what they mean by structural reforms, hopefully, is not flexible labor markets, but is creating a law-based system with a relatively honest bureaucracy. I would hope, on the other hand, that it wouldn’t turn into the type of efficient capitalist state bureaucracy that we know in the other advanced capitalist countries.

I would hope that it would be far more open and democratic. I would hope there would be people appointed in the Greek state who would see it as their role to organize the unorganized, to promote a much fuller democratization of the state and society than we know. That won’t make the powers that be in Europe all that happy, but one hopes that it would be those types of creative interventions that they would be engaging while trying to create a law-based, honest, and efficient state.

Is there something significant about the fact that this has happened in Greece, which has experienced full-blown economic depression? Is this kind of creativity and radicalism only possible in the context of severe economic problems? Is this something we should expect?

Very severe economic crises don’t necessarily yield this kind of political creativity or popular support for it. People also get frightened in a crisis and batten down the hatches — don’t want to upset the cart, etc.

I do think the opportunity for this comes from a lot of patience on the Greek left: institution-building in the case of Syriza, this coalition of the radical left, that really goes all the way back to the 1980s. This should be a lesson to us in terms of going beyond protest, which the left has been mostly good at and engaged in over the past decade or fifteen years.

We should start paying attention again to the need for political organization, for party political organization. Even if that doesn’t look like it’s going to yield results in electoral terms, it does involve building the kind of infrastructure that might eventually get us to the position in other countries of being able to enter the state. I think that’s what the example of Syriza shows.

How creative they’re going to be is another question. Whether this crisis gives them room to be, I’m not so sure. This has to be watched very closely.

What are the lessons we can draw from Greece – you already hinted at organization – and how would they apply in the Canadian context or the context of countries that haven’t experienced the same level of economic crisis and dislocation?

What I said before and what you’re raising now as well is the main thing: we need to learn that we can protest until the cows come home and we will never change the world. You can’t change the world without taking power, although the opposite was a slogan very popular on the alter-globalization left and is also to some extent popular on the ecological left (which heaven knows is doing wonderful work with its protests). Yet apart from the Green parties that aren’t very radical, ecosocialists are more engaged in protest than party-building.

So I do think we need to take that very, very seriously. However long it takes, however the slow the process, we need to develop our political capacities. We need these not only to engage in protest, but also to try to develop the type of political organization which could not only enter the state but could address state policy in a serious way.

Take the question you raised about the negotiations with the Europeans. People think that we have neoliberalism just because there is a neoliberal thought collective: people reading Hayek and shoving it down the throats of our politicians. I don’t think we take seriously enough the great difficulties of trying to operate a government in advanced capitalism and what it would mean to try to operate a socialist government that would somehow find room for maneuver to eventually escape advanced capitalism.

This is serious stuff, and it’s not enough to just dismiss the powers that be as evil people, as free marketeers, as in the hands of Hayekians. This is a type of politics which all too often of course intellectuals encourage — especially radical economists, who like their right-wing colleagues, think that the ideas of economists govern the world.

The ideas of economists don’t govern the world. They’re made use of by politicians in the face of the difficulties they have in managing capitalism. We need to break away from this and really get serious about thinking about program as well as about organization.

I think alongside developing organization, we also need to develop a language.

It’s a difficult thing and I’m not sure it’s done well anywhere, but I think that you’re pointing at the right thing. It’s not just a matter of program, and it’s not just a matter of organization; it’s learning how to speak popularly in a way that is nevertheless socialist.

To speak in a way that is not just anticapitalist, but gives people a validation of a socialist conception of running the state in a different way — not just more state or less state, but a different kind of state. Not just more market or less market, but a different kind of economy. That’s how we need to be articulating a new political language.

Leo Panitch is a professor of political science at York University and the editor of the Socialist Register. His latest book, with Sam Gindin, is The Making of Global Capitalism.

This article originally appeared in Jacobin.


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