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The Death of the Millennial Left: Neo-Social Democracy

Giorgos Stefanidis

Platypus Review 137 | June 2021

I JOINED PLATYPUS in 2011, right after I discovered the project through its published activities. During the 2000s I participated in the student movement that fought against the privatization of higher institutions. Youth militancy culminated in the 2008 uprising, when massive demos and nationwide riots followed the murder of a teenager by the Greek police. Radical direct democracy demands were promulgated and local assemblies sprouted all over the country. Although the uprising soon came to an end, it became obvious that the Greek Left was going through serious ideological and political transformations. The economic crisis that followed resulted in an overall crisis of political representation, which opened up the space for a radical Left response.[1] Platypus set foot in Greece at this critical juncture. Since the inception of our chapter in Thessaloniki, little by little, we managed to attract more people around the project trying to implement the Platypus tripod, i.e., public fora, reading groups, and coffee breaks. Although political activity and ideological debates were thriving during these days, our initiative was met by disbelief because of its critical approach to the current Left. Our puzzlement towards leftist politics and distance from established practiced was characterized as theoretical brashness that couldn’t but result in political irrelevance. Although we never renounced our goal to remove ideological obstacles in the pursuit of the practical reconstitution of a Marxian Left, we were described as some kind of Marxist wannabe gurus, detached from the ongoing struggles. Initiating a project of self-reflection and self-education that wishes to critically engage with the Left had either no raison d'être or a hidden political agenda. Neither theoreticians nor activists, we highlighted the importance of historical consciousness, namely we tried to address ideological as well as political issues that were played down or circumvented by the Left. In what follows I will approach the Death of the Millennial Left through our activities in Thessaloniki since they exceptionally reveal our efforts to intersect and interrogate the Greek Left in close relation to Platypus pedagogy and panel initiatives of the day.

The year 2011 was the heyday of anti-austerity discourse and protests that had begun in 2010, when Greece was paralyzed by massive strikes and a vehement discontent caused by the neoliberal response to the financial deadlock. The 2008 economic crisis reverberated as a sovereign debt crisis that triggered widespread political turmoil. In 2011 the prime minister had to step down for an avowed technocrat, former Vice-President of Central European Bank, to take over. The traditional bipartisan political system collapsed, while its successor wasn’t yet identified; while the traditional right-wing party of New Democracy retained its prominence, the social-democratic party that had ruled the Greek political scene since 1981, PASOK, was actually outdated, leading to a phenomenon of the crisis of neoliberalism known now internationally as “pasokification”.[2] In terms of parliamentary politics the center-Left political force was no more; radical leftist opposition could finally have its chance. At the time there was a general plea for democracy expressing itself as demand for sovereignty in relation to internal and external affairs, mainly in the face of the EU’s austerity policies. Not only the Greek political system but also the EU structure was under heavy criticism for its undemocratic character, since all the financial regulations were in compliance with and under the strict supervision of the so called “Troika” (the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund). The will of the Greek people was subordinated to the strategic financial interests of neoliberal governance exemplified by the EU and its policies; austerity was presented as a formidable but necessary sacrifice for the normalization of Greece in order to secure some distant and abstract prosperity in the long future.

Our first event took place at the end of 2011, being an iteration of our emblematic “Crisis of the Left” fora. The challenge was to shift emphasis from the objective to the subjective factor: from the crisis of capitalism that the Left was expecting to magically bring positive results in revolutionary perspectives, to the crisis of the Left that seemed unable to provide any leadership towards a revolutionary transformation. As Chris Cutrone put it rather succinctly: “For the crisis to become political, there has to be some constituted agency able to turn a crisis into an opportunity. In other words, when a crisis hits, it can be an opportunity for an already constituted Left, but it is not an opportunity for constituting the Left.”[3] The Greek Left wanted to rise to the occasion, but faced insurmountable obstacles. When the high tide of popular mobilization retreated, the crisis of the Greek Left met its turning point; given that street activism couldn’t go on forever, the need for political representation came to the fore.

By the end of 2012 we hosted a panel on Democracy and the Left. In the aftermath of Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and the Square/Indignados movements the problem of democracy was dominant in the agenda of the Left because of the political and ideological impasse represented by democracy itself which was felt as both the cause and the solution of the social discontents. We invited prominent figures of the sectarian (Trotskyist and Maoist) Left, as well as representatives of the Eurocommunist and direct democracy tradition, in an attempt to display the fullest possible symptomology. This “Janus” face of democracy expresses an underlying contradiction: it points to the problem of “Bonapartism” which codifies the authoritarian outcome of a frustrated fight for social democracy. The democratic counterbalance of civil society’s antagonistic nature under capitalism took the shape of SYRIZA, since gradually the political upsurge calmed down following a course from protest to politics. The peculiarity of SYRIZA consisted in its pluralistic composition, since it was a coalition of many disparate organizations and trends. Given its internal differentiation and activist discourse, it departed from the traditional leftist parties, although it drew on the evolution of a version of the Stalinist tradition that became known as Eurocommunism. Taking advantage of the political impasse and the inability of traditional bourgeois parties to guarantee the prosperous reproduction of society, SYRIZA embodied an alternative party type that could give voice to the popular discontent.[4] The prospect of a far-leftist party coming to power excited the Left’s imagination; although many leftists didn’t endorse the SYRIZA candidacy (for example KKE denied explicitly any possible collaboration), nonetheless a radical break or even exit from the EU was now palpable. The ghost of socialism or social-democracy was again haunting the present.

In 2013 we organized two more events: The 3 Rs: Reform, Revolution, and "Resistance" and Marxism and Anarchism.[5] Reflecting back on them I recall vividly two things: the all-important debate on the compatibility of electoralism and movementism between the pro-SYRIZA and pro-direct democracy (grass-root politics) speakers at the first panel, and the identification of anarchism as a moral stance rather than a transformative political agency. I would like to reproduce verbatim a part of our 3 Rs panel:

Nikolas Sevastakis: Why is it necessary to present an absolute disjunction between this kind of social reformism within movements and its actual political mediation? An autocratic structure, let’s say, is not the same as a less autocratic one. These can appear to you as quantitative nuances, but historically they are very significant. I mean, the New Deal was not identical with fascism, right?

Thodoris Karyotis: First of all, I cannot accept the term social reformism, because reformism in all its manifestations has to do with a change throughout all social relationships. However, in all its manifestations that I have witnessed, it always amounts to change from the top.

NS: But the unions of mutual aid and the experimentation with cooperatives were structures included in the history of the workers’ movement and they were not always “from above.” In fact, they started “from below.”

TK: Exactly, it would begin from below, but the welfare state was about integrating these mechanisms into the logic of state and capital, which is when it became reformism. But it had always been a small, limited revolution, a small island in which totally different conditions were being held. That is, it was an island of autonomy. The state integrates them and turns them virtually into heteronomous mechanisms. That is the reason why I cannot accept the concept of reformism. On the other hand, I cannot accept the notion of the state as an integration of social will or as a privileged field of competition, or as the field towards which all the requests are being directed. The state is intertwined with capitalism; it is capitalism or at least capitalism’s tool. Of course that does not mean that we just turn our back on it—that we cannot use it for our own purposes.

The urgency of political mediation paved the way to SYRIZA as the new form of social-democracy that would overcome the incapacity or the unwillingness of the Left to entangle in the problem of power once old-school leftist and anarchoid politics meet the direct political needs. Although these remarks may sound obvious or trivial, back then they had an impact on our understanding of the political juncture.

In 2014, our most active year in terms of panels, we conducted an iteration of Marxism and Anarchism in Athens, Trotsky and Trotskyism, What is imperialism?, and The Politics of Anti-Fascism. All of them tried to shed light on the then unfolding situation while they had recourse to the history of the Left as a form of critical awareness about the present. The last two panels were also direct responses to the problems raised by the political upheaval: the break with the EU and the electoral (as well as activist) increase of the far-right party, Golden Dawn. In the discourse of the Left there was a lot of “hope” for a real change, a fight that had to be won against EU oligarchy and the bloodthirsty neo-Nazis. The Left was somehow joining forces against the common enemies, in a way that bore resemblance to the Popular Front of the past. Electoralism and activism pledged allegiance for the sake of tactics; although socialism was discussed, transitional programs were drafted, real democracy was raised in direct opposition to bourgeois parliamentarism, and people were turning into politics, at the same time any substantial discussion about the dictatorship of the proletariat and the self-organization of the working class on an international level was missing. As a replacement for agency, horizontalism and grass-root politics were supposed to check the Left coming to power, i.e. SYRIZA. At that time inspiration was also drawn from Podemos in Spain, since they also gained traction by a similar collapse of the political establishment, although not of the same gravity as the Greek one. SYRIZA and Podemos both instrumentalized what was called Leftism-populism in their attempt to win large majorities over their political program. The moralistic juxtaposition of people’s dignity with the neoliberal regulation of economy defined largely the discourse of both parties. The notion of the European South or the European periphery created the delusion of a united front, although the situation never got out of hand for bourgeois politics. But that’s a foreclosure of the possibilities in the wake of our present.

Getting back to our activities, it is striking that the organizations involved in our panels have been fractured, dwindled or even disappeared (especially those affiliated somehow with SYRIZA), in the aftermath of 2015 elections. While we tend to understand the new social-democratic upsurge as an active period (in terms of leftist politics), the SYRIZA government caused an unprecedented inertia and stupefaction. The Left surrendered to SYRIZA, its aspirations proved delusional, what remained was the defamation of the Left and the bitterness of betrayal. Instead of focusing on its own ideological and political deficits, the Left fall prey to the idolization of the referendum that revealed SYRIZA’s deceit and betrayal of people’s will. We witnessed similar dynamics in the cases of Great Britain with the “socialist” turn of the Labour Party under Corbyn leadership and the United States with the “socialist” candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Although in Great Britain and the United States the socialist turn was strongly related to the established political parties and their leadership, while in Greece right from the beginning we were dealing with a leftist party, direct descendant of a pre-existing Eurocommunist party, the result was pretty much the same: liquidation of the Left into progressive politics. The party question was raised in different forms, either in the notion of a new party structure (mainly in the case of Podemos) or in the notion of a party with strong activist offshoots (like Momentum or DSA), but it nonetheless was botched. Unable to critically engage with its own history, the Left neutralized the party question based on two pivotal arguments: a) the working-class can’t achieve unified political representation because of its extreme fragmentation in modern capitalist division of labor, and b) the idea of the working-class party has been discredited by the irresistible authoritarianism of the Marxist-Leninist parties. Having said all the above, it should be less of a surprise to mention that in 2015 we organized solely a panel on the referendum and the Left’s stance in the face of it.

In 2016 we restarted our activities and among them we formed another panel that focused on the previous year’s referendum and the reflection of its stakes: people’s sovereignty amidst neoliberalism and its institutions set against the background of national politics. The panel was titled The position of the Left towards the EU. We actually tried to address implicitly the crisis of neoliberalism via the shake of its European institutional superstructure. During all this period the question of democracy was closely intertwined with the question of national sovereignty, i.e., the indefeasible right of a people to define its own affairs. Teo Velissaris has formulated the problem as follows:

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.[6]

Of course, the real blow to European integration didn’t come from a leftist government in Greece but from the Tories in Great Britain. Instead of a Grexit we had a Brexit that should have been a Lexit, so the story goes. Under the existing power relations and political constellation, any attempt to use the exit out of the EU as a means to socialist transformation betrays the complete absence of a leftist strategy based on the politics of the working class. A Grexit certainly could have taken place, for better or worse. But we couldn’t and can’t avoid raising awareness on the issue: how can socialist transformation occur without active agency and political organization on the basis of class interests as such? How can international solidarity be achieved without forging actual political bonds among the Left on an international scale? Unless we believe SYRIZA could substitute for the aforementioned deficiencies.[7] We tried to further reflect on these issues with two more events in 2017: The Crisis of Neoliberalism and the Left and The Death of Social-Democracy. Willy-nilly, the rise of new social-democracy ended up in what we should call the neoliberal Left, since the goal of radical social reforms such as wealth redistribution, workers’ control over their workplace, nationalization of banks advancement of democratic rights, etc., turned into a neoliberal reproduction of capitalism with a humane face. But that’s not what the Left is about.

Platypus raises the question: Is "electoralism" e.g., SYIRZA, Corbyn, and Sanders, the opposite or rather the corollary of "movementism"? A Hegelian interpenetration of opposites seems at work here but in an ominous direction. Instead of an updated form of politicization that instrumentalizes the streets and the ballots according to the interests of the people, movementism and electioneering seem to confirm the abandonment of any prospect of leftist politics; instead of post-politics we are left with new forms of right-wing politics.

Throughout this extended period we approached the issues of democracy, socialism, social democracy, and neoliberalism negatively, i.e., through the confessions of the dead Left and the historical consciousness of Marxism. Any political initiative that doesn’t tail the status quo (e.g., the Democrats à la Jacobin) is treated as just another sect. But it is exactly our Marxism as the ruthless criticism of everything existing that helped us so far survive the extinction of the Millennial Left. |P


[1] A discussion of the climate of this period can be found in: Teo Velissaris, Letter from Greece: Brief notes on Revolt and Crisis in Greece and the Greek situation, PR 41, <https://platypus1917.org/2011/11/01/letter-from-greece/>.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pasokification

[3] Chris Cutrone (ed.), Marxism in the Age of Trump (Platypus Publishing, 2018), 103.

[4] See John Milios, The Greek left tradition and the SYRIZA phenomenon, PR 86, <https://platypus1917.org/2016/05/03/greek-left-tradition-syriza-phenomenon/>.

[5] Transcript available in English <http://platypus1917.org/2013/02/01/the-3-rs-reform-revolution-and-resistance-the-problematic-forms-of-anti-capitalism-today/>.

[6] Teo Velissaris, Ghosts of national sovereignty: SYRIZA and the Left in the current situation, PR 79, <https://platypus1917.org/2015/09/01/ghosts-national-sovereignty-syriza-left-current-situation/>.

[7] Among other things in his contribution to the PR, Periklis Pavlidis emphasized the international character that any real challenge to capitalism should have. See his article The crisis in Greece and the prospects for the Left, PR 81, <https://platypus1917.org/2015/11/20/crisis-greece-prospects-left/>

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