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You are here: Platypus /Ghosts of national sovereignty: SYRIZA and the Left in the current situation

Ghosts of national sovereignty: SYRIZA and the Left in the current situation

Teo Velissaris

Platypus Review #79 | September 2015

A SPECTER IS HAUNTING THE LEFT lately: the specter of national sovereignty. If the ghosts of dominant powers in the past were expressing existing social trends—such as the “ghost of communism” over Europe—the ghosts of the Left, instead, seem to ignore these trends. The specter of communism was a real historical force, whereas the specter of national sovereignty appears irrelevant and obsolete.

Devotees of sovereignty complain because within the world capitalist division of labor, people are crushed by prevailing TINA (There Is No Alternative) policies of the supra-national technocrats of power. In this concept of sovereignty, we can include the anti-authoritarian left with the local sovereignty, self-sufficiency, autonomy and the autarky it fosters as ideals. On the one hand we have a project of statism, on the other a project of localism. When referring to national sovereignty, emphasis rests on sovereignty, that is why we can recognize it even in those who politically reject the nation-state (many of whom nevertheless explicitly accept national sovereignty as a first step towards their vision of anti-national/local sovereignty). Hence, sovereignty unites statists and anti-statists in the current prevailing ideas among the Left.

The idea of ​​emancipation comes forward as a vision only if people manage to regain their sovereignty from the powerful international markets. And after they recover national or local sovereignty, and only then, they will indulge in the work of left internationalism. This perception of internationalism implies as preconditions strong nation-states and powerful folk communities, otherwise it is a misnomer. Here are the prophecies of the ruling left: We cannot sublate the spurious pseudo-internationalism of the system towards real internationalism. The latter requires a long detour of national and local retreat. Some steps back, and then one forward.

Here two problems arise: first, whether a retreat is possible, secondly, whether it is politically desirable. On the former, suffice at this stage to note that even the most powerful force internationally, the United States, is economically dependent on the international market and in no way self-sufficient. Despite the relatively broader range of policies that it can implement, U.S. politics are limited by the international environment. Needs today are (pseudo-)covered through an unprecedented globalized division of labor. Regarding the second problem, one wonders what particular leftism is peculiar to these demands, especially inasmuch as they are supported by the right. For example, the struggle of SYRIZA to end austerity in Greece within the Eurozone was perfectly defensible from the uber-right party, ANEL. How can one find the difference when both Tsipras and, say, the leader of UKIP, Farage, understand democracy in Europe to mean the enhancement of the role and power of each nation-state (even if the former wants this enhancement within EU)? How much more conservative do those claims appear compared with the bourgeois revolutions like the American or French, revolutions that the Left imagines it has progressed beyond, and the international brotherhood they were calling for?

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The head of SYRIZA party Alexis Tsipras takes a selfie with the leader of right-wing, anti-bailout Independent Greeks party (ANEL), Panos Kammenos.

A problem of the Left in the present is the belief that the 20th century was a century of progress for revolutionary ideas and actions. We are facing a complete naturalization of the nationalist framework of politics, a legacy we are carrying on semi- or un-consciously. The Stalinism of “socialism in one country,” to cite one example, prevails unquestioned by both Stalinists and anti-Stalinists who seem to imply that a nation can prosper if the correct set of policies are implemented. Another example is the emergence of the New Left or identity movements, whose importance is taken for granted even though they were advanced basically in a narrow national framework, detached from the idea of an international socialist revolution and very weak in concrete organization towards this direction.

At the same time, the narrative about technocrats against democracy obscures the possibility of politicizing in a revolutionary way what appears technocratic: It is easy to yell “technocrats!” and still miss the fact that they express, and are used by, dominant modern forms of politics. Rather, we have the clash between different policies, not technocrats versus politics. Reference to technocrats may express a fear of a mass form of international politics. But what conditions make technocrats necessary today? Why do mass politics appear, as from necessity, to acquire similar characteristics? Wouldn’t a revolutionary politics utilize technocrats? So, for that matter, can the European political scene become a realm for revolutionary politics? Can the Left seek the expansion of this realm, beyond the provincial anti-Americanism of the European status quo and its racist and conservative stance towards immigrants? The answer to these questions cannot be automatically negative without any serious consideration.

Those on the Left who uncritically adopt these ideas of national and local sovereignty might need to remember Marx’s bitter criticism of the Gotha Programme adopted by his comrades in 1875:

“In fact, the internationalism of the program stands even infinitely below that of the Free Trade party. The latter also asserts that the result of its efforts will be ‘the international brotherhood of peoples’. But it also does something to make trade international and by no means contents itself with the consciousness that all people are carrying on trade at home.”1

Have we even wondered if the Left’s internationalism today stands infinitely lower than that of the forces it opposes? How poor in relation to Marx’s quote is modern talk by intellectual celebrities, like Joseph Stiglitz, who hoped that via a “no” vote in the recent referendum, Greece would “grasp its destiny in its own hands”: a phrase that the Left likes to use in many variations.2

Not that the European Union is internationalist. It remains a superficial union of nation-states without any substantial prospect for fiscal, not to mention political, integration (at least on the short-middle-term). And even if the latter gets some time on the agenda within the established framework, it would appear under the statist perspective of one dominant Europe opposed to “international dangers” (e.g., U.S., China, and, worst of all, immigrants).

Against the hypocritical pseudo-internationalism of the dominant forces, the Left needs to be truly internationalist, and not nationalist or localist because of a reflexive reaction, and furthermore, by necessity, pretensiously local or national, given the international interdependence achieved today (with all its monstrous unevenness). Without extending a revolution to the core capitalist centers, any international economic arrangement would not, self-evidently, be neutral, innocent, or in the interest of the oppressed.

One of the many unexamined preconditions of leftism today is the reaction against what is considered the dominant capitalist policy as an end-in-itself. (The “secondary” capitalist policies, e.g., in the level of nation-state, or of pariah-states, are often considered better.) But the abstract, absolute reaction to capitalism is not automatically progressive; it can frequently multiply the suffering that it wants to overcome. For example, the movement that deposed the representative of the major capitalist force in 1979 in Iran, the Shah, was not accompanied by the consolidation of a left theory and practice, but by the ayatollahs and the physical and ideological annihilation of the Left. The example is not mentioned here because the Left had to be in favor of the Shah, but as a demonstration of the fact that anti-capitalism itself is not necessarily progressive. That is why Lenin in his classic polemic against “left-wing communism” stressed that Marxists aim at the overcoming of capitalism “on the basis of capitalism itself.”

Marx and Lenin are not mentioned here as models but as examples of how revolutionaries in the past did not want to resist capitalism, but to overcome it, in a way that seems neglected today. Let us look at another example from Lenin’s thought:

“The bourgeoisie makes it its business to promote trusts, drive women and children into the factories, subject them to corruption and suffering, condemn them to extreme poverty. We do not ‘demand’ such development, we do not ‘support’ it. We fight it. But how do we fight? We explain that trusts and the employment of women in industry are progressive. We do not want a return to the handicraft system, pre-monopoly capitalism, domestic drudgery for women. Forward through the trusts, etc., and beyond them to socialism!”3

To a large extent all of the aforementioned problems are associated with the idea of ​​the Left as a tool of the oppressed in their reaction against their oppressors. The Left sees itself through a sociological perspective, considering how to foster the demands of weak and exploited social strata. This becomes problematic only in its one-sidedness, which does not recognize the Left as a potentially revolutionary political expression of the discontents of the exploited, without which the oppressed will be expressed through reactionary political forces. It is assumed that an existing emancipatory politics of the oppressed already exists, and in its “tail” the Left should stand and “push.” Marx warned, however, not only that the oppressed social strata may spontaneously support reactionary policies (in his analysis of the phenomenon of Bonapartism), but even that capitalist society without capitalists could exist, still oppressing itself! The need for serious international socialist politics has been cast aside for the sake of social defense against the capitalist march, instead of complementing and guiding this defense.

In the Greek case of the leftist mobilization around the referendum, the Left itself thought that it was guiding the mobilization of the oppressed, but the opposite happened, the oppressed were guiding the Left, as long as the main ideological position of that mobilization remained the feeling of “national pride” and “dignity,” the wave of which swept some of the prominent representatives of the Left. The “no” vote was supported mainly, not only from SYRIZA, but also ANTARSYA, and sections of the anti-authoritarian/anarchist milieu (especially those fostering direct democratic politics and autonomy, or those that are workerist in perspective). Those resisting the “no” vote supported abstention from the referendum. The main leftist force in this side was KKE (the Greek Communist Party), but also other Stalinist or Maoist extra-parliamentary, smaller groups, together with some anarchists (of the communist or “communisation” tendencies). It is symptomatic that the possibility of a leftist “yes” was absolutely excluded, and any small minority of (basically liberal) leftists supporting it was attacked immediately as traitors, without allowing even the slightest discussion of it. We are not advocating the choice of a leftist “yes” here, but rather the difficulty, or even impossibility, of any serious leftist response to the problem posed by the referendum.

To return to previous concerns, the aforementioned sociological and incomplete self-consciousness of the Left has lead furthermore to a series of misunderstandings concerning SYRIZA in government. Because SYRIZA seems to promote (in their declarations) a program less painful for the poorest social strata, this automatically means classifying it in the Left (let’s not expand now on how SYRIZA failed as a government to deal with conservative forces like the Church, the military, the rich tax-evaders etc). A similar program of opposing harsh austerity can be promoted by anyone, not necessarily leftist, e.g., Obama. Does this make SYRIZA and Obama leftists, while Merkel is right-wing? The Left as an idea has to do with the demand for the radical transformation and overcoming of the dominant framework towards individual and social emancipation. Not with the complete acceptance of this framework and the struggle for its improvement. That does not imply that reforms and policies of immediate relief should be avoided, quite the opposite: At stake is their connection with the aforementioned transformation.

There is another problem with the SYRIZA government as a representative of the Left in leftist imagination which has to do with the statism we highlighted earlier. A leftist force that is aware of the tasks to be carried out cannot be exhausted in negotiating games of a bunch of people behind closed doors or in ministerial offices. The Left as a transformative power cannot be based simply on voting, but on the organized majority. This is lacking to a large extent, not only for SYRIZA, but for the whole Left, in Greece and internationally. The application of a left program is not enough to be declared, but must be applied, which requires conflicts throughout the social field of civil society. In this way the Left can assume responsibility for the aspirations and the results of its choices, without compromising essentially to the status quo, appearing as an opportunist or gambler in each situation.

The failure of responsible revolutionary politics on the part of the Left is obvious from its call, on any given Sunday, to transform any crisis into a “break,” a rebellion or even a revolution. But all days are not Sundays for social revolution. Every revolutionary force that respects itself knows when to proceed to call for a revolutionary rupture and when to practice revolutionary patience. Otherwise we end up being sectarian keyboard revolutionaries (without revolution), or being the counter-revolutionaries of eternal procrastination.

Given all that, we cannot but also recognize that SYRIZA, at least, was not afraid to participate in, and deal with, mass forms of politics, as opposed to its super-revolutionary critics. Even in its narrow character and bourgeois scope, SYRIZA’s intervention opened up political discussion and horizon, despite its utter failure (or demonstrated how this horizon is perhaps not totally ruined), especially concerning the crucial issue of political power.

Furthermore, responsibility for this failure lies more with Germany as the leading Eurozone power, despite the fact that SYRIZA fell like an amateur into Germany’s (and its followers’) trap in order to discredit and destroy SYRIZA and all other possible anti-austerity parties. Germany, and the rest of “Troika,” could complete the Greek program with the previous Greek government, but was afraid that a SYRIZA government, after the end of the program, would reverse all of its results. They preferred instead to risk a disaster and allow for a SYRIZA government before the program ended so that they could easily manipulate SYRIZA, since, while still in program, any Greek government would be totally dependent on the “institutions.” Germany and its allies acted as bankers, lenders or, put bluntly, as rackets, and not as “responsible” capitalist leaders (simarly in the first memorandum, when they imposed austerity with no debt relief to protect their banks). The “harvest” of this miserable politics is a more unstable Eurozone still under crisis, with Germany ending up considering possibilities that they was trying to avoid, like Grexit. The bourgeois class can no longer rule and the working class is not yet able—to recall another classic Marxist formulation.

SYRIZA's greatest mistake, however, was that the Eurozone was already changing, slowly, towards a direction of less harsh austerity. Not towards a welfare state of course, but in a way similar to the one SYRIZA was advocating, resembling U.S.-Obama politics, with Draghi winning in European courts the right to apply his quantitative easing program against Germany’s reactions. That does not mean at all that Obama’s model is necessarily better for workers and the majority in general. So, instead of aligning with and enforcing a change that already takes place, SYRIZA tried to restart the game from scratch with childish negotiating tactics. Instead of exploiting these tendencies and conflicts within the “institutions,” SYRIZA’s adventurism united all these forces against itself! Why? Because SYRIZA had to play the role it has given itself within the populist anti-memorandum politics that led to its alliance with ANEL in the first place. With a better consciousness of international politics, they would have closed the program while they could when the economy was slightly recovering, and only afterwards trying to raise their own agenda broadly. But they were afraid that the people would attack them as traitors, so they had to pretend they were negotiating hard, supposedly realizing how they needed to capitulate only in the last instance, when the economy could not suffer any more damage. When SYRIZA decided to “capitulate,” it was as if Greece was transferred by a time machine back to 2012, returning to recession, budget deficits, unsafe banking system, etc. SYRIZA focused in the marketing task of persuading the people that “it tried its best”; a populist policy that fed nationalism and led to harsher economic conditions.

But there is a limit in addressing all these issues. An international left as a serious and organized political agent is needed both in order to be able to interpret our world today and to change it. Insofar as this condition is missing, the Left will engage in a series of unfortunate events, always in the role of the conformist who permanently makes a virtue out of necessity. |P


  1.  Marx, Karl. Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875. Available online: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm  

  2.  Stiglitz, Joseph. “How I would vote in the Greek referendum,” The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/jun/29/joseph-stiglitz-how-i-would-vote-in-the-greek-referendum  

  3.  Lenin, Vladimir. The Military Programme of the Proletarian Revolution, 1916/17, available on-line at: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/miliprog/ii.htm >.)  

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