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Class, party and the challenge of state transformation


‘The Hand That Will Rule the World’ by Ralph Chaplin, Solidarity, June 30, 1917.

The following is excerpted from Socialist Register 2017: Rethinking Revolution, edited by Gregory Albo and Leo Panitch. Populated by an array of passionate thinkers and thoughtful activists, Rethinking Revolution reappraises the historical effects of the Russian revolution—positive and negative—on political, intellectual, and cultural life, and looks at consequent revolutions after 1917. You can purchase the edition here.

In 1917, not only those parties engaged in insurrectionary revolution but even those committed to gradual reform still spoke of eventually transcending capitalism. Half a century later social democrats had explicitly come to define their political goals as compatible with a welfare-state variety of capitalism; and well before the end of the century many who had formerly embraced the legacy of 1917 would join them in this. Yet this occurred just as the universalization of neoliberalism rendered threadbare any notion of distinct varieties of capitalism. The realism without imagination of the so-called ‘Third Way’ was shown to lack realism as well as imagination.

However reactionary the era of neoliberal globalization has been, it has seemed to confirm the continuing revolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie, at least in terms of creating ‘a world after its own image’. Nevertheless, the financialized form of capitalism that greased the wheels not only of global investment and trade, but also of globally integrated production and consumption, was clearly crisis prone. The first global capitalist crisis of the twenty-first century was rooted in the contradictions attending the new credit-dependent forms through which, amidst stagnant wages in the neoliberal era, mass consumption was sustained. Yet in sharp contrast to the two great capitalist crises of the twentieth century, as the crisis has unfolded over the past decade it did not lead to a replacement of the regime of accumulation that gave rise to it. Unlike the break with the Gold Standard regime in the 1930s and the Bretton Woods regime in the 1970s, neoliberalism persisted. This could be seen in the rescue and reproduction of financial capital, the reassertion of austerity in fiscal policy, the dependence on monetary policy for stimulus, and the further aggravation of income and wealth inequality – all of which was made possible by the continuing economic and political weaknesses of global working classes through this period.

We are now in a new conjuncture. It is a very different conjuncture than the one which led to the perception that neoliberalism, at the height of its embrace by Third Way social democracy, was ‘the most successful ideology in world history’. While neoliberal economic practices have been reproduced – as has the American empire’s centrality in global capitalism – neoliberalism’s legitimacy has been undermined. As the aftershocks of the US financial crash reverberated across the eurozone and the BRICS, this deepened the multiple economic, ecological, and migratory crises that characterize this new conjuncture. At the same time, neoliberalism’s ideological delegitimation has enveloped many political institutions that have sustained its practices, from the European Union to political parties at the national level. What makes the current conjuncture so dangerous is the space this has opened for the far right, with its ultra-nationalist, racist, sexist and homophobic overtones, to capture popular frustrations with liberal democratic politics in the neoliberal era.

The delegitimation of neoliberalism has restored some credibility to the radical socialist case for transcending capitalism as necessary to realize the collective, democratic, egalitarian and ecological aspirations of humanity. It spawned a growing sense that capitalism could no longer continue to be bracketed when protesting the multiple oppressions and ecological threats of our time. And as austerity took top billing over free trade, the spirit of antineoliberal protest also shifted. Whereas capitalist globalization had defined the primary focus of oppositional forces in the first decade of the new millennium, the second decade opened with Occupy and the Indignados dramatically highlighting capitalism’s gross class inequalities. Yet with this, the insurrectionary flavour of protest without revolutionary effect quickly revealed the limits of forever standing outside the state.

A marked turn on the left from protest to politics has consequently come to define the new conjuncture, as opposition to capitalist globalization shifted from the streets to the state theatres of neoliberal practice. This is in good part what the election of Syriza in Greece and the sudden emergence of Podemos in Spain signified. Corbyn’s election as leader of the British Labour Party attracted hundreds of thousands of new members with the promise to sustain activism rather than undermine it. And even in the heartland of the global capitalist empire, the short bridge that spanned Occupy and Sanders’ left populist promise for a political revolution ‘to create a government which represents all Americans and not just the 1%’ was reflected in polls indicating that half of all millennials did not support capitalism and held a positive view of socialism.

This transition from protest to politics has been remarkably class oriented in terms of addressing inequality in income and wealth distribution, as well as in economic and political power relations. Yet as Andrew Murray has so incisively noted, ‘this new politics is generally more class-focused than class-rooted. While it places issues of social inequality and global economic power front and center, it neither emerges from the organic institutions of the class-in-itself nor advances the socialist perspective of the class-for-itself.’ The strategic questions raised by this pertain not only to all the old difficulties of left parties maintaining a class focus once elected; they also pertain to how a class-rooted politics – in the old sense of the connection between working-class formation and political organization – could become revolutionary today. Given the manifold changes in class composition and identity, as well as the limits and failures of the old working-class parties and unions in light of these changes, what could this mean in terms of new organizational forms and practices? And what would a class-focused and class-rooted transformation of the capitalist state actually entail?

While leaders like Tsipras, Iglesias, Corbyn and Sanders all have pointed beyond Third Way social democracy, their capacity to actually move beyond it is another matter. This partly has to do with their personal limitations, but much more with the specific limitations of each of their political parties, including even the strongest left currents within them not preparing adequately for the challenge of actually transforming state apparatuses. The experience of the Syriza government in Greece highlights this, as well as how difficult it is for governments to extricate their state apparatuses from transnational ones.

All this compels a fundamental rethink of the relationship between class, party and state transformation. If Bolshevik revolutionary discourse seems archaic a hundred years after 1917, it is not just because the legacy of its historic demonstration that revolution was possible has faded. It is also because Gramsci’s reframing, so soon after 1917, of the key issues of revolutionary strategy – especially regarding the impossibility of an insurrectionary path to power in states deeply embedded in capitalist societies – rings ever more true. What this means for socialists, however, as we face up to a long war of position in the twenty-first century, is not only the recognition of the limitations of twentieth-century Leninism. It above all requires discovering how to avoid the social democratization even of those committed to transcending capitalism. This is the central challenge for socialists today.

Class struggle before class: Then and now

The Communist Manifesto of 1848 introduced a new theory of revolution. Against the conspiracies of the few and the experiments of the dreamers, an emerging proletariat was heralded with the potential to usher in a new world. The argument was not that these dispossessed labourers carried revolution in their genes; rather it pointed to their potential for organization, which was facilitated by modern means of communication as well as by the way capitalists collectivized labour. Even though their organization would be ‘disrupted time and again by competition amongst the workers themselves’, it indeed proved to be the case that ‘the ever expanding union of the workers’ would lead to ‘the organization of workers into a class, and consequently into a political party’.

It was this sense of class formation as process that led E.P. Thompson to argue so powerfully that class was not a static social category but a changing social relationship, which historically took shape in the form of class struggle before class. Out of the struggles of the dispossessed labourers against the new capitalist order in England in the last half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth came the growing collective identity and community of the working class as a social force.6 Moreover, as Hobsbawm subsequently emphasized, it was really only in the years from 1870 to 1914 – as proletarianization reached a critical mass, and as workers’ organizational presence developed on a national and international scale through mass socialist parties and unions – that the revolutionary potential in the working class that Marx had identified looked set to be realized.7 However arcane the very term ‘workers’ state’ now may seem, it made sense to people in 1917 – and not least to nervous bourgeoisies.

Yet there was much that made this problematic even then. The fact that so many new trade unions and workers’ parties had emerged that did not aim to create socialism reflected how far even the newly organized industrial proletariat stood from revolutionary ambitions. And where there was a commitment to socialist purposes, as was ostensibly the case with the social democratic parties of the Second International, this was compromised in serious ways. The winning of workers’ full franchise rights had the contradictory effect of integrating them into the nation state, while the growing separation of leaders from led inside workers’ organizations undermined not only accountability, but also the capacity to develop workers’ revolutionary potentials. This was of course contested in these organizations even before Roberto Michels’ famous book outlined their oligarchic tendencies. But these two factors – a class-inclusive nationalism and a non-revolutionary relationship between leaders and led in class organizations – combined to determine why the catastrophic outcome of inter-imperial rivalry announced with the guns of August 1914, far from bringing about the international proletarian revolution, rather ambushed European social democracy into joining the great patriotic war and making truce in the domestic class struggle.

What made proletarian revolution ushering in a workers state still credible after this – perhaps all the more credible – was the Russian Revolution. But what Rosa Luxemburg discerned within its first year would definitively mark the outcome: a revolutionary process which in breaking with liberal democracy quickly narrowed rather than broadened the scope of public participation, ending as a ‘clique affair’. Lenin, she noted, saw the capitalist state as ‘an instrument of oppression of the working class; the socialist state, of the bourgeoisie’, but this ‘misses the most essential thing: bourgeois class rule has no need of the political training and education of the entire mass of the people, at least not beyond certain narrow limits’. The great danger was that:

Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom then, a clique affair.

Isaac Deutscher, looking back some three decades later, succinctly captured the dilemma which had led the Bolsheviks to bring about a dictatorship that would ‘at best represent the idea of the class, not the class itself’. He insisted that in consolidating the new regime the Bolsheviks had not ‘clung to power for its own sake’, but rather that this reflected a deeper quandary. Even though anarcho-syndicalists seemed ‘far more popular among the working class’, the fact that they ‘possessed no positive political programme, no serious organization, national or even local’ only reinforced the Bolsheviks identification of the new republic’s fate with their own, as ‘the only force capable of safeguarding the revolution’.

Lenin’s party refused to allow the famished and emotionally unhinged country to vote their party out of power and itself into a bloody chaos. For this strange sequel to their victory the Bolsheviks were mentally quite unprepared. They had always tacitly assumed that the majority of the working class, having backed them in the revolution, would go on to support them unswervingly until they had carried out the full programme of socialism. Naive as the assumption was, it sprang from the notion that socialism was the proletarian idea par excellence and that the proletariat, having once adhered to it, would not abandon it … It had never occurred to Marxists to reflect whether it was possible or admissible to try to establish socialism regardless of the will of the working class.

The long term effects of what Luxemburg had so quickly understood would contribute to reproducing a dictatorial regime regardless of the will of the working class – and relatedly, also to the gaps in the ‘political training and education of the entire mass of the people’ – were chillingly captured by what a leader of the local trade union committee at the Volga Automobile Plant said to us in an interview in 1990 just before the regime established in 1917 collapsed: ‘Insofar as workers were backward and underdeveloped, this is because there has in fact been no real political education since 1924. The workers were made fools of by the party.’ The words here need to be taken literally: the workers were not merely fooled, but made into fools; their revolutionary understanding and capacity was undermined.

The fillip that 1917 had given to fueling workers’ revolutionary ambitions worldwide was more than offset by the failure of the revolution in Germany and the Stalinist response to an isolated and beleaguered Soviet Union after Lenin’s death, with all the adverse consequences this entailed. Though the spectre of Bolshevism hardly faded, it was the spectre of fascism that dominated radical change in the interwar years. Nevertheless, there was also widespread recognition of the potential of the working class as the social force most capable of transforming state and society. This perception was not least based on worker organization and class formation in the US during the Great Depression. As the US already was the new world centre of capitalism, even before the Second World War, this contributed to the sense on the part of leading American capitalists and state officials that among the barriers to the remaking of a liberal capitalist international order, ‘the uprising of [the] international proletariat … [was] the most significant fact of the last twenty years’.

The strength of the organized working class as it had formed up to the 1950s was registered in the institutionalization of collective bargaining and welfare reforms. The effects of this were highly contradictory. The material gains in terms of individual and family consumption, which workers secured directly or indirectly from collective bargaining for rising wages as well as from a social wage largely designed to secure and supplement that consumption, were purchased at the cost of union and party practices that attenuated working class identity and community – especially in light of the restructuring of employment, residency and education that accompanied these developments. To be sure, the continuing salience of working-class organization was palpable. This was increasingly so in the public sector, but it was also measurable in class struggles in the private sector which resisted workplace restructuring, as well as in the wage-led inflation that contributed to the capitalist profitability crisis of the 1970s. Yet the failure to renew and extend working-class identity and community through these struggles opened the way to the neoliberal resolution of the crises of the 1970s through a widespread assault on trade unionism and the welfare state, and the interpellation of workers themselves as ‘taxpayers’.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, aided by the realization of a fully global capitalism and the networked structures of production, finance and consumption that constitute it, there were more workers on the face of the earth than ever before. New technologies certainly restricted job growth in certain sectors, but this also introduced entirely new sectors in both manufacturing and especially high tech services. Though this weakened the leverage of class struggles in important ways, it also introduced new points of strategic potential: strikes at component plants or interruptions of supplier chains at warehouses and ports could force shutdowns throughout a globally integrated production network, and whistleblowing could expose vast stores of information hidden by corporations and states.

The precarious conditions workers increasingly face today, even when they belong to unions, speaks not to a new class division between precariat and proletariat. Precariousness rather reflects how previous processes of working-class formation and organization have become undone. Precariousness is not something new in capitalism: employers have always tried to gain access to labour when they want, dispose of it as they want and, in between, use it with as little restrictions as possible. There is in this context limited value in drawing new sociological nets of who is or is not in the working class. Rather than categorizing workers into different strata – nurses or baristas, teachers or software developers, farmhands or truckers, salespeople or bank-tellers – what needs to preoccupy our imaginations and inform our strategic calculations is how to visualize and how to develop the potential of new forms of working-class organization and formation in the twenty-first century.

There are indeed multitudes of workers’ struggles taking place today in the face of an increasingly exploitative and chaotic capitalism. Yet there is no denying that prospects for working-class revolutionary agency seem dim. It was factors internal to working-class institutions, their contradictions and weaknesses, which allowed, in the developing as well as the developed countries, for the passage of free trade, the liberalization of finance, the persistence of austerity, the further commodification of labour power, the restructuring of all dimensions of economic and social life in today’s global capitalism. The inability of the working class to renew itself and discover new organizational forms in light of the dynamism of capital and capacities of the state to contain worker resistance has allowed the far right today to articulate and contextualize a set of common sentiments linked to the crisis – frustrations with insecurity and inequality, and anger with parties that once claimed to represent workers’ interests. Escaping this crisis of the working class is not primarily a matter of better policies or better tactics. It is primarily an organizational challenge to facilitate new processes of class formation rooted in the multiple dimensions of workers’ lives that encompass so many identities and communities.

This organizational challenge will have to include developing socialist parties of a new kind. As can be seen from the two examples to which we now turn, the recent shift from protest to politics has already shown the popular resonance which a renewed socialist appeal can have today, even if it has only begun to probe what a consistent socialist politics would actually entail and the barriers that will be encountered.

Political revolution today? From Sanders to Syriza

‘Election days come and go. But political and social revolutions that attempt to transform our society never end.’ The speech with which Bernie Sanders closed his Democratic primary election campaign began with these sentences; it ended by pointing to future historians who would trace the success of the long effort to transform American society from oligarchy to social justice as beginning with the ‘the political revolution of 2016’. It is tempting to treat as ersatz the rhetoric of revolution deployed here, taking the meaning of the word from the sublime to the ridiculous, or from tragedy to farce. The last time an American politician vying for the presidency issued a call for a political revolution it came from Ronald Reagan. But for all the limits of Sanders’ populist campaign, the national attention and massive support garnered by a self-styled democratic socialist who positively associated the term revolution with the struggle against class inequality in fact represented a major discursive departure in American political life, which can be a resource for further socialist organizing.

Of course, the specific policy measures advanced by Sanders were, as he constantly insisted, reforms that had at some point been introduced in other capitalist societies. But when the call for public medicare for all, or free college tuition, or infrastructure renewal through direct public employment, is explicitly attached to a critique of a ruling class which wields corporate and financial power through the direct control of parties, elections and the media, this goes beyond the bounds of what can properly be dismissed as mere reformism, even if the demands hardly evoke what the call for bread, land and peace did in 1917. And it is no less a significant departure, especially in the US, to make class inequality the central theme of a political campaign in a manner designed to span and penetrate race and gender divisions in a way that explicitly poses the question of who stands to benefit more from high quality public health care and education and well compensated work opportunities than African-Americans and Latinos, while pointing to the need to move beyond the ghettoes of identity towards building a more coherent class force.

The key question is whether Sanders’ campaign really could lay the grounds for an ongoing political movement capable of effecting this ‘political revolution’. Sanders’ argument during the campaign that he could be sustained in the White House amidst a hostile Congress and imperial state apparatus by a ‘mass movement’ marching on Washington D.C. was not very convincing. Much more serious was his call after he lost the primary campaign for a shift from protest to politics at every level, including ‘school boards, city councils, county commissions, state legislatures and governorships’. But even if this happened, such engagement would also have to be directed at the institutions in which workers have heretofore been organized.

The very fact that the Sanders campaign was class-focused rather than class-rooted may be an advantage here. It opens space for a new politics that can become ‘rooted’ in the sense of being grounded in working-class struggles but committed to the radical transformation of the generally exhausted institutions of the labour movement. This ranges across turning union branches into centres of working-class life, leading the fight for collective public services, breaking down the oligarchic relationship between leaders and led, contributing to building the broadest member capacities, emphasizing the importance of expressing a clearer class sensibility, and even becoming ambitious enough to introduce socialist ideas. This also applies to Workers Action Centers, which have spread across the US but which are so often overwhelmed by having to reproduce themselves financially in order to continue providing vital services to Black, Latino, immigrant and women workers. Becoming more class-rooted and effective would require building the institutional capacities to creatively organize workers in different sectors into new city-wide organizations, as well as develop a coordinating national infrastructure.

Similar challenges would need to be put to consumer and credit cooperatives, which are broadly identified with the left, but whose primarily narrow economic activities need to be politicized, above all in the sense of opening their spaces to radical education about the capitalist context in which they operate, actively participating in left campaigns, and contributing a portion of their revenue to funding organizers to carry out such tasks. And to get beyond the frustrations so often voiced in the environmental movement with workers’ defensive prioritization of their jobs, turning this into a positive rather than negative class focus by speaking in terms of ‘just transitions’ to a clean energy economy would also mean raising the necessity for economic planning to address both environmental and social crises, with the corollary of challenging the prerogatives of private property and capitalist power structures.

A new class politics cannot emerge ex nihilo, however. The Sanders campaign, initiated by an outsider in the Democratic Party, confirmed that if you are not heard in the media you are not broadly heard. But whatever the advantages of initially mobilizing from within established institutions in this respect, the impossibility of a political revolution taking place under the auspices of the Democratic Party needs to be directly faced (even in the Labour Party, it is hard enough to imagine that what Corbyn represents could be sustained without major institutional recalibration). After it had become clear he would not clinch the nomination, Sanders and the movement that had begun to take shape around him appeared at risk of falling into a myopic strategy of internally transforming and democratizing the Democratic Party. In part, this is one of the contradictions in Sanders’ choice to run as a Democrat. While the Sanders campaign showed that Democratic Party institutions offer certain bases from which to advance a left politics – lending his campaign a certain legitimacy and credibility within mainstream discourse – in the long run, an alternative political pole will have to be constructed around which social struggles can condense.

It was far from surprising that the thousands of Sanders supporters who gathered at the People’s Summit in Chicago after the primary campaign ended did not come to found a new party. What happened there, as Dan La Botz described it, ‘was about vision, not organization or strategy’, so that one could at best only hear ‘the sound made by the Zeitgeist passing though the meeting rooms and the halls, brushing up against us, making its way, sometimes gracefully, sometimes clumsily, to the future’. One key test will be whether, as it ‘makes its way’, lessons are learned from the US Labor Party project of the 1990s, links are made with attempts already underway to spawn new socialist political formations, and traces of either Bolshevik sectarianism or ‘Third World’ romanticism are avoided while nevertheless also abandoning the naïve admiration for Canadian and European social democracy that has long characterized so much of the US left.

This takes us from Sanders to Syriza, the only party to the left of traditional social democracy in Europe that has actually succeeded in winning a national election since the current economic crisis began. Syriza’s roots go back to the formation of Synaspismos, first as an electoral alliance in the 1980s, and then as an independent, although factionalized, new party in the early 1990s. This was part of the broader institutional reconfiguration inaugurated by the Eurocommunist strategic orientation, searching for a way forward in the face of Communist and Social Democratic parties having lost their historic roles and capacities as agencies of working-class political representation and social transformation. This search went all the way back to the 1960s and accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and social democracy’s embrace of the ‘Third Way’. In Greece especially the Eurocommunist orientation was characterized by continuing to embrace the tradition of political revolution as experienced in the Civil War after 1945, even while distancing itself from the Soviet regime; and it would increasingly be characterized by the inspiration it took from, and a willingness to work with, new social movements.

Although Synaspismos through the 1990s offered enthusiastic support of European integration, as the neoliberal form of Economic and Monetary Union buried the promises of a European Social Charter the grounds were laid in Greece, as elsewhere on the European radical left, for a more ‘Eurosceptical’ orientation. This new critical posture towards the European variety of capitalism was a crucial element in Synaspismos explicitly defining, by the turn of the millennium, its strategic goal as ‘the socialist transformation of Greek society’ while increasingly encouraging ‘dialogue and common actions’ not only with the alter-globalization movement, but with radical ecologists and political groups of a Trotskyist or Maoist lineage. The goal of the Coalition of the Radical Left, with the acronym Syriza, which emerged out of this as an electoral alliance was designed, as Michalis Spourdalakis put it, ‘not so much to unify but rather to connect in a flexible fashion the diverse actions, initiatives and movements … and to concern itself with developing popular political capacities as much as with changing state policy’. But actually turning Synaspismos, and through it Syriza, into such a party was, as Spourdalakis immediately adds, ‘more wishful thinking than realistic prospect’.

As the eurocrisis broke, however, with Greece at the epicentre of the attempt to save the euro through the application of severe austerity at its weakest point, all the elements of Syriza threw themselves into the 2011 wave of protests, occupations and strikes, while supporting the 400 or so community solidarity networks around the country to help the worst affected cope. This prepared the ground for Syriza’s electoral breakthrough of 2012. Syriza’s active insertion the year before into the massive outbursts across Greece of social protest from below was a source of radical democratic energy that went far beyond what can be generated during an election campaign, however successful. What this meant was eloquently articulated at Syriza’s Congress in 2013 when it finally turned itself from an electoral alliance into a single party political organization. The conclusion to its founding resolution called for ‘something more’ than the programmatic framework that resolution set out. Since ‘for a Government of the Left, a parliamentary majority – whatever its size – is not enough’, the something more it called for was ‘the creation and expression of the widest possible, militant and catalytic political movement of multidimensional subversion’.

Only such a movement can lead to a Government of the Left and only such a movement can safeguard the course of such a government … [which] carries out radical reforms, takes on development initiatives and other initiatives of a clear environmental and class orientation, opens up new potentials and opportunities for popular intervention, helps the creation of new forms of popular expression and claims … Syriza has shouldered the responsibility to contribute decisively to the shaping of this great movement of democratic subversion that will lead the country to a new popular, democratic, and radical changeover

This sort of language, articulating this sort of understanding, was rare on the European radical left, let alone anywhere else. Yet as the Syriza leadership contemplated the dilemmas it faced as it stood on the doorstep of government, its concern to appear as a viable government in the media’s eyes led them to concentrate, as was evident in the Thessalonika Manifesto proclaimed just a year later, on refining and scaling down the policy proposals in the 2013 party programme. This was done with little internal party consultation, with the leadership mainly concerned with there not being enough experienced and efficient personnel in the party to bring into the state to change the notoriously clientelistic and corrupt state apparatus. Little attention was paid to who would be left in the party to act as an organizing cadre in society. The increase in party membership was not at all proportionate to the extent of the electoral breakthrough, and even when new radical activists did join, the leadership generally did very little to support those in the party apparatus who wanted to develop these activists’ capacities to turn party branches into centres of working-class life and strategically engage with them, preferably in conjunction with the Solidarity Networks, in planning for alternative forms of production and consumption. All this spoke to how far Syriza still was from having discovered how to escape the limits of social democracy.

Syriza and the problem of state transformation

[This] is not a ‘betrayal’. It’s not about the well-known scenario ‘they have sold out’. We have seen that there was real confrontation. We have seen the amount of pressure, the blackmailing by the European Central Bank. We have seen that they want to bring the Syriza government to its knees. And they need to do that because it represents a real threat, not some kind of illusion of a reformist type. So the reality is that the representatives of the Greek government did the best they could. But they did it within the wrong framework and with the wrong strategy and, in this sense, the outcome couldn’t have been different … The people who think that ‘the reformists will fail’ and that somehow in the wings stands the revolutionary vanguard who is waiting to take over somehow and lead the masses to a victory are I think completely outside of reality.

All this was said within a month of Syriza’s election at the end of January 2015 by Stathis Kouvelakis, whose interpretation of the dramatic unfolding of events in his country garnered widespread attention on the international left. Himself a member’s of Syriza’s Central Committee as a partisan of the Left Platform, he was speaking at a meeting in London and addressing the disappointments already felt when the new government agreed to new negotiations with the EU and IMF. Less than five months later, as these negotiations infamously came to a climax, he would, along with many others, leave Syriza in response to what he now called the government’s ‘capitulation’, which indeed became the most common epithet used by the international left. Yet the need to ask whether the outcome could really have been different was now greater than ever. And while the answer did indeed hinge on the adequacy of Syriza’s strategy in relation to Europe, that in turn related to deeper issues of party organization, capacity building and state transformation – as well as the adequacy of strategies on the wider European left, at least in terms of shifting the overall balance of forces.

The common criticism of Syriza, strongly advanced by the Left Platform, was that it had not developed a ‘Plan B’ for leaving the eurozone and adopting an alternate currency as the key condition for rejecting neoliberal austerity and cancelling debt obligations. What this criticism recoiled from admitting was that the capital and import controls this also would require would lead to Greece being forced out of the EU as a whole. After 35 years of integration, the institutional carapace for capitalism in Greece was provided by the manifold ways the state apparatus became entangled with the EU. Breaking out of this would have required Syriza as a party and government to be prepared for an immediate systemic rupture. It could certainly be said that Syriza was naïve to believe that it could stop the European economic torture while remaining in the eurozone, let alone the EU. At the very least, this simultaneously posed two great challenges: could such a state as Greece be fundamentally changed while remaining within the EU, and could the EU itself be fundamentally changed from within at the initiative of that state?

For a small country without significant oil resources, a break with the EU would have entailed economic isolation (along the lines of that endured by the Cuban revolution, yet without the prospect of anything like its geostrategic and economic support from the former USSR). The Syriza government faced the intractable contradiction that to fulfil its promise to stop the EU’s economic torture, it would have to leave the EU – which would, given the global as well as European balance of forces and the lack of alternative production and consumption capabilities in place, lead to further economic suffering for an unforeseeable period. Despite the massive popular mobilization the government unleashed by calling the referendum in July to support its position against that of the EU-IMF, the intractable dilemma was the same as it had been when it first entered the state. That the government managed to win re-election in the fall while succumbing to and implementing the diktats of the ‘Institutions’ indicated that Kouvelakis’s observation when it entered into the negotiations back in February still held: ‘People support the government because the perception they have is that they couldn’t act otherwise in that very specific situation. They really see that the balance of forces was extremely uneven’.

Costas Douzinas, another prominent London-based Greek intellectual newly elected as a Syriza MP in the fall of 2015, hopes the story may not be over. He outlines the ‘three different temporalities’ through which the radical left must ‘simultaneously live’ once it enters the state. There is ‘the time of the present’: the dense and difficult time when the Syriza government - ‘held hostage’ to the creditors as a ‘quasi-protectorate’ of the EU and IMF - is required ‘to implement what they fought against’, and thus ‘to legislate and apply the recessional and socially unjust measures it ideologically rejects’. This raises ‘grave existential issues and problems of conscience’ which cannot go away, but can be ‘soothed through the activation of two other temporalities that exist as traces of futurity in the present time’. This begins with ‘the medium term of three to five years’, when time for the government appears ‘slower and longer’ as it probes for the space it needs to implement its ‘parallel program’ so as not only to ‘mitigate the effects of the memorandum’ but also to advance ‘policies with a clear left direction … in close contact with the party and the social movements’. This is the bridge to the third and longest temporality, ‘the time of the radical left vision’, which will be reached ‘only by continuously and simultaneously implementing and undermining the agreement policies’. As this third temporality starts unfolding, freed from the neoliberal lambast, ‘the full programme of the left of the 21st century’ will emerge. ‘It is a case of escaping into the future, acting now from the perspective of a future perfect, of what will have been. In this sense, the future becomes an active factor of our present.’

It is indeed significant that the Syriza government’s continuing ideological rejection of neoliberal logic – even as it implements the measures forced upon it – is precisely what distinguishes Syriza from social democratic governments in the neoliberal era. The crucial condition for the three temporalities to coexist, however, is precisely the ‘close contact with the party and the social movements’, which Douzinas only mentions in passing. Even in terms of its relations to the party, let alone the social movements, the Syriza government has failed to escape from familiar social democratic patterns as it distanced itself from party pressures, and seemed incapable of appreciating the need for activating party cadre to develop social capacities to lay the grounds for temporality two and eventually three. The neglect of the party turned to offhand dismissal when the government called the second election of 2015. As so many of its leading cadre left the party in the face of this – including even the General Secretary, who also resigned rather than asserting the party’s independence from the government – the promise that Syriza might escape the fate of social democracy in neoliberal capitalism was left in tatters. There are still those in Syriza, inside and outside the government, who, operating with something very like the three temporalities in mind, are trying to revive the party outside government as the key agent of transformation. But whether they can manage to create the conditions for ‘Syriza to be Syriza again’ is now moot indeed.

Yet the problem goes far broader and deeper than with those who still have hopes for Syriza. It was ironically those who advanced the ostensibly more radical Plan B who seemed to treat state power most instrumentally. Little or no attention was paid by them to how to disentangle a very broad range of state apparatuses from budgetary dependence on EU funding, let alone to the transformations the Greek state apparatuses would have to undergo merely to administer the controls and rationing required to manage the black and grey markets that would have expanded inside and outside the state if Greece exited the eurozone. This was especially problematic given the notorious clientelistic and corrupt state practices which Syriza as a party had been vociferously committed to ending, but once in government did not have the time to change, even where the inclination to do so was still there. When confronted with a question on how to deal with this, one Syriza MP who was a leading advocate of Plan B responded privately that in such a moment of rupture it is necessary to shoot people. But this only raised the bigger question of whom the notoriously reactionary coercive apparatuses of the Greek state, as unchanged as they were, would be most likely to listen to, and most likely to shoot.

Perhaps most tellingly, advocates of Plan B showed no more, and often rather less, interest in democratizing state apparatuses by linking them with social movements. This stood in contrast with the minister of social services, who had herself been the key founder of the federation of solidarity networks, Solidairty4All, and openly spoke of her frustrations that Syriza MPs, even while paying over a sizeable portion of their salaries to the networks, insisted that they alone should be the conduits for contact with solidarity activists in their communities. The Minister of Education visited one school a week and told teachers, parents and students that if they wanted to use the school as a base for changing social relations in their communities they would have his support. However, the Ministry of Education itself did not become actively engaged in promoting the use of schools as community hubs, neither providing spaces for activists organizing around food and health services, nor the technical education appropriate to this, nor other special programmes to prepare students to spend periods of time in communities, contributing to adult education and working on community projects.

Yet it must be said that the social movements themselves were largely passive and immobilized in this respect, as if waiting for the government to deliver. Activists from the networks of food solidarity were rightly frustrated they could not even get from the new Minister of Agriculture the information they asked for on the locations of specific crops so they might approach a broader range of farmers. But they did not see it as their responsibility to develop and advance proposals on how the state apparatuses should be changed, even minimally, so as to cope with the economic crisis. How, for instance, could the agriculture ministry have been engaged in identifying idle land to be given over to community food production coops, and in coordinating this across sub-regions; or how the defence ministry might have been engaged in directing military trucks (at least those sitting idle between demonstrations) to be used to facilitate the distribution of food through the solidarity networks.

The point is this. Insofar as the Syriza government has failed the most crucial democratic, let alone revolutionary test, of linking the administration up with popular forces – not just for meeting basic needs but also for planning and implementing the restructuring of economic and social life – there were all too few on the radical left outside the state who really saw this as a priority either.

Signposts towards democratic socialism

Whatever the final outcome in Greece, it is useful to look back at Nicos Poulantzas’s ‘Towards a Democratic Socialism’, especially given its formative influence on those who founded Synaspismos in the 1980s (Syriza’s research institute bears his name to this day). Written in 1978 as the epilogue to his last book, what Poulantzas articulated was reflective of a much broader orientation on the European left, already represented by Gorz, Magri, Benn, Miliband, Rowbotham, Segal, Wainwright, and others, towards trying to discover new strategic directions beyond both the Leninist and Social Democratic ‘models’ which, despite taking different routes, nevertheless evinced in their practices a common distrust of popular capacities to democratize state structures. As Poulantzas put it: ‘There is no longer a question of building “models” of any kind whatsoever. All that is involved is a set of signposts which, drawing lessons of the past, point out the traps to anyone wishing to avoid certain well-known destinations’. For Poulantzas, the ‘techno-bureaucratic statism of the experts’ was the outcome not only of the instrumentalist strategic conception of social democratic parliamentarism, but also of the ‘Leninist dual-power type of strategy which envisages straightforward replacement of the state apparatus with an apparatus of councils…’

Transformation of the state apparatus does not really enter into the matter: first of all the existing state power is taken and then another is put in its place. This view of things can no longer be accepted. If taking power denotes a shift in the relationship of forces within the state, and if it is recognized that this will involve a long process of change, then the seizure of state power will entail concomitant transformations of its apparatuses … In abandoning the dual-power strategy, we do not throw overboard, but pose in a different fashion, the question of the state’s materiality as a specific apparatus.

Notably, Poulantzas went back to Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin in 1918 to stress the importance of socialists building on liberal democracy, even while transcending it, in order to provide the space for mass struggles to unfold which could ‘modify the relationship of forces within the state apparatuses, themselves the strategic site of political struggle’. The very notion to take state power ‘clearly lacks the strategic vision of a process of transition to socialism – that is of a long stage during which the masses will act to conquer power and transform state apparatuses.’ For the working class to displace the old ruling class, in other words, it must develop capacities to democratize the state, which must always rest on ‘increased intervention of the popular masses in the state … certainly through their trade union and political forms of representation, but also through their own initiatives within the state itself’. To expect that institutions of direct democracy outside the state can simply displace the old state in a single revolutionary rupture in fact avoided all the difficult questions of political representation and opens the way for a new authoritarian statism.

Indeed, as Andre Gorz had already insisted in his pathbreaking essay on ‘Reform and Revolution’ a decade earlier, taking off from liberal democracy on ‘the peaceful road to socialism’ was not a matter of adopting ‘an a priori option for gradualism; nor of an a priori refusal of violent revolution or armed insurrection. It is a consequence of the latter’s actual impossibility in the European context.’ The advancement of what Gorz called a ‘socialist strategy of progressive reforms’ did not mean the ‘installation of islands of socialism in a capitalist ocean’, but rather involved the types of ‘structural reforms’ or ‘non-reformist reforms’ which could not be institutionalized so as to close off class antagonism but which allowed for further challenges to the balance of power and logic of capitalism, and thereby introduce a dynamic that allowed the process to go further. In calling for the creation of new ‘centres of social control and direct democracy’ outside the state, Gorz was far-sighted in terms of what this could contribute to a broad process of new class formation with revolutionary potential, not least by extending to ‘the labour of ideological research’ and more generally to the transformative capacities of ‘cultural labour aiming at the overthrow of norms and schemata of social consciousness’. This would be essential for ensuring that ‘the revolutionary movements’ capacity for action and hegemony is enriched and confirmed by its capacity to inspire … the autonomous activity of town planners, architects, doctors, teachers and psychologists’.

What this left aside, however, were the crucial changes in state structures that would need to attend this process. Poulantzas went to the heart of the matter, a decade later, stressing that on ‘the democratic road to socialism, the long process of taking power essentially consists in the spreading, development, coordination and direction of those diffuse centres of resistance which the masses always possess within the state networks, in such a way that they become real centres of power on the strategic terrain of the state’. Even Gramsci, as Poulantzas pointed out, ‘was unable to pose the problem in all its amplitude’ since his ‘war of position’ was conceived as the application of Lenin’s model/strategy to the ‘different concrete conditions of the West’ without actually addressing how to change state apparatuses. Yet it must also be said that Poulantzas, even while highlighting the need for taking up the challenge of state transformation, did not himself get very far in detailing what actually changing the materiality of state apparatuses would entail in specific instances. Lurking here was the theoretical problem Miliband had identified of not differentiating state power from class power, and therefore not specifying sufficiently how the modalities and capacities involved in exercising capitalist state power would be changed into different modalities with structurally transformative capacities. And as Goran Therborn pointed out, in envisaging an important role for unions of state employees in the process of transforming state apparatuses, it was necessary to address the problem that ‘state bureaucrats and managers will not thereby disappear, and problems of popular control will remain’, thereby continuing to pose ‘serious and complicated questions’ for the state transformation through socialist democracy.

Socialists have since paid far too little attention to the challenges this poses. While the recognition that neither insurrectionary politics to ‘smash the state’ nor the social democratic illusion of using the extant state to introduce progressive policies became more and more widespread, this was accompanied with a penchant for developing ‘market socialist’ models in the late 1980s which has subsequently been succeeded by a spate of radical left literature that – in almost a mirror image of neoliberalism’s championing of private corporations and small business firms against the state – weakly points to examples of cooperatives and self-managed enterprises as directly bearing socialist potential. Replicated here is exactly what Poulantzas identified in the conception of those for whom ‘the only way to avoid statism is to place oneself outside the state. The way forward would then be, without going as far as dual power simply to block the path of the state from the outside.’ Yet by concentrating exclusively on ‘breaking power up and scattering it among an infinity of micro-powers’, the result is that the ‘movement is prevented from intervening in actual transformations of the state, and the two processes are simply kept running along parallel lines’.


Political hopes are inseparable from notions of what is possible. And possibility is itself intimately related to class formation, the role of parties in this and developing confidence in class institutions, and especially the question of potentials to transform the state. The alliances that socialist parties would have to enter into, not least in face of the growing threat from the far right of the political spectrum, should not just be amongst elites but be directed at new working-class formation of the broadest possible kind; and given the uneven capacities of the class, should also be directed at developing its actual potential to become the transformative agent in a transition to socialism. New socialist parties cannot, however, see themselves as a kind of omnipotent deus ex machina in society. Precisely in order not to draw back from the ‘prodigious scope of their own aims’, as Marx brilliantly wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire, they must ‘engage in perpetual self-criticism’ and deride ‘the inadequacies, weak points and pitiful aspects of their first attempts’. Developing commitments to socialism – getting socialism seriously on the agenda – consequently requires not only addressing the question of political agency, but overcoming a prevailing sense that even sympathetic governments will either be stymied by state apparatuses hostile to the socialist project, and/or that in a globalized world the problem in any case lies beyond the nation state.

To stress the importance of a democratic socialist strategy for entering the state through elections to the end of transforming the state is today less than ever – amidst the deep political and social as well as economic contradictions of the neoliberal era – a matter of discovering a smooth gradual road to socialism. Ruptures, or extended series of ruptures of various intensities, are inescapable. This is so because of the contradictions inherent in reaching beyond capitalism while still being of it, and the virtual inevitability of conditions being premature as the project is attempted in ‘circumstances not of our own choosing’. The contradictions for any radical government that would be engaged in this process will include responsibilities for managing a capitalist economy that is likely in crisis while simultaneously trying to satisfy popular expectations for the promised relief, and yet also embarking on the longer-term commitment to transform the state, i.e., not pushing the latter off to an indefinite future.

It is this tension among the various new state responsibilities which makes the role of new socialist parties that will bring such governments to office so fundamental. Given the legitimacy and resources that inevitably will accrue to those party leaders who form the government, the autonomy of the party is crucial in order to counter the pull of those leaders towards social democratization. The party must more than ever keep its feet in the movements and, far from trying to direct them, remain the central site for democratic strategic debate in light of their diverse activities. This is why strategic preparations undertaken well before entering the state on how to avoid replicating the experience with social democracy are so very important. But even with this, the process of transforming the state cannot help but be complex, uncertain, crisis-ridden, with repeated interruptions and possibly even reversals. Beginning with election to local or regional levels of the state would allow for developing capacities of state transformation before coming to national power. Developing alternative means of producing and distributing food, health care and other necessities depends on autonomous movements moving in these directions through takeovers of land, idle buildings, threatened factories and transportation networks. All this in turn would have to be supported and furthered through more radical changes in the state that would range over time from codifying new collective property rights to developing and coordinating agencies of democratic planning. At some points in this process more or less dramatic initiatives of nationalization and socialization of industry and finance would have to take place.

For state apparatuses to be transformed so as to play these roles, their institutional modalities would need to undergo fundamental transformations, given how they are now structured so as to reproduce capitalist social relations. State employees would need to become explicit agents of transformation, aided and sustained in this respect by their unions and the broader labour movement. Rather than expressing defensive particularism, unions themselves would need to be changed fundamentally so as to actively be engaged in developing state workers’ transformational capacities, including by establishing councils that link them to the recipients of state services.

Of course, the possibility of such state transformations will not be determined by what happens in one country alone. During the era of neoliberalism state apparatuses have become deeply intertwined with transnational institutions, treaties and regulations to manage and reproduce global capitalism. This has nothing at all to do with capital bypassing the nation state and coming to rely on a transnational state. Both the nature of the current crisis and the responses to it have proved once again how much states still matter. Even in the most elaborate transnational institutional formation, the European Union, the centre of political gravity lies not in the supranational state apparatus headquartered in Brussels. It is, rather, the asymetric economic and political power relations among the states of Europe that really determines what the EU is and does. Any project for democratization at an international scale, such as those being advanced by many of the left for the EU in the wake of the Syriza experience, still depends on the balance of class forces and the particular structures within each nation state. Changes in international institutions are therefore contingent on transformations at the level of nation states. And the changes in international state apparatuses that should be pursued by socialists are those that would allow more room for manoeuvre within each state. What socialist internationalism must mean today is an orientation to shifting the balances of forces in other countries and in international bodies so as to create more space for transformative forces in every country. This was one of the key lessons of 1917, and it is all the more true a century later.

Leo Panitch (1945 – 2020) was Professor Emeritus of Politics at York University in Toronto. He was co-editor of the Socialist Register and author of several books, most recently Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn, co-authored with Colin Leys and published by Verso.


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