Greek elections have been exciting for the global Left, primarily because of the sharp ascendancy of SYRIZA, the Coalition of the Radical Left. The vote clearly represents a strong "no" to the austerity and class warfare from above being imposed by European ruling classes--but it also represents a huge opening for Left politics in a period of increasing struggle and protracted economic crisis.
Now, for those who harbor illusions that society can be transformed from top to bottom merely by electing the right people to parliament in a capitalist society, the "end game" here is rather simple: all the Left needs to do is find a way to increase SYRIZA's vote tally until it has majorities big enough to reform its way to a different kind of society in which ordinary working people lay claim to the commanding heights of the economy.
But this perspective is flawed, first of all because--as history shows us rather clearly--there is no parliamentary road to socialism. The state in capitalist society is both an organ of ruling class dominance and an institution that functions to secure the conditions for capital accumulation. As such, it cannot be reformed. It must be fully dismantled so that new, radically democratic institutions--such as workers councils and popular general assemblies--can take its place in the transition to a society that is genuinely of, by and for the people.
The basic problem with the pure-electoralist perspective is that it confuses a mere vehicle for struggle--participation in parliamentary elections--for an end in itself. Participation in capitalist electoral systems is a tool that revolutionaries should have no principled opposition to making use of in certain conditions (more on that below).
But the pure-electoralist perspective is also flawed because it fails to acknowledge how the SYRIZA breakthrough came about through massive extra-electoral mobilizations, general strikes and a large general upswing in struggle from below. A single-minded focus on increasing the vote tally as such would actually fail to capture the social processes that yielded the favorable results for SYRIZA in the first place. Seeing electoral strategies as a potential tool for revolutionaries should never entail counter-posing it to extra-electoral struggle.
But if these pure-electoral perspectives are flawed, the following question remains: what, then, exactly is the point of getting excited about the recent Greek elections? It would be easy to mistakenly assume that if one thinks that a social revolution is needed to replace capitalism and all of its global effects (e.g. manufactured famine and starvation, global crisis and instability, imperialist war and conflict, neo-colonial exploitation, etc.), then bourgeois elections are, in principle, worthless as vehicles of struggle. The thought would be that revolutionaries, as such, must--everywhere and always--be opposed to electoral interventions. If the State is always a class-state, then operating within its scope simply gives it a legitimacy it doesn't deserve.
This argument commits a grave error. Just as electoral strategies should not be fetishized, neither should they be inflexibly and abstractly negated as possible means of advancing struggle from below. Sometimes revolutionaries should boycott parliaments and other times they should participate--only a concrete analysis of the concrete balance of class forces and objective conditions can yield the right verdict. And, as far as legitimacy is concerned, shattering the legitimacy of the existing state formation is an achievement that revolutionaries should fight to win by building mass participation in struggle. The State already enjoys some form of de facto legitimacy among the working population--if it didn't, we'd be in a revolutionary situation and talk of parliamentary participation would be worthless. The question has to be: how can we shatter that appearance of legitimacy and galvanize struggle? It seems to me rather obvious that when workers aren't already revolutionary, participating in electoral movements can be a way of winning new layers to a revolutionary perspective.
The key is to see participation in elections as a mere means of galvanizing working class militancy and the kind of extra-electoral struggle that really does have the power to transform society. The revolutionary case for participation is not, in the first instance, so that parliamentary representatives can enact the right legislative reforms. Those reforms--such as those in the 5-point plan put forward by SYRIZA--are important because they will improve the immediate life conditions of millions of workers and because they will increase the confidence of workers to fight for even more. But the goal is not reform as such. The goal has to be to do whatever it is possible to do from within parliament to thwart class enemies and encourage workers' struggle in the streets.
But how exactly does one do that? There is no blueprint for how to handle such situations, but some general principles stand out. First, as the disastrous history of the opportunist, right-wing "popular front" tactic has shown us, SYRIZA shouldn't compromise its basic demands for the sake of putting together a ruling coalition at any cost. The goal, as we've seen, is not to get SYRIZA into a position of "power" in parliament come hell or high water; the goal is to advance the class struggle, full stop. Thus, SYRIZA is right on target in holding firm to its "5-point Plan" and using it as a bludgeon to expose the pro-austerity collaboration between European Capital and the mainstream parties. The more SYRIZA does this, the better. If mainstream parties agree to it--they won't, but set that aside--then they must hold to a firm anti-austerity Left platform on pain of public humiliation if they fail to implement it. If they don't agree to it, then they are forced to show their true colors and reveal their inherent conservatism.
This has several important political effects.
First, it brings political clarity to the situation in Greece and shows Greek workers who is on their side and who isn't, who is willing to fight for their interests and who isn't. The significance of this increase in clarity is not confined to the walls of parliament. This effect is likely to bring larger numbers of workers into the orbit of the radical Left in general--which will surely have the effect of opening up new and ever greater avenues for extra-electoral struggles.
Second, the hard argument for the 5-point plan shows workers outside of Greece that austerity is neither inevitable nor natural. It can be fought and there are obvious, concrete ways of avoiding it entirely if only the political proxies of the ruling class are challenged. The great result for SYRIZA has given the Left a global platform to make arguments that weren't given a hearing only weeks ago. This, too, has the possibility of advancing the struggle and raising anti-capitalist consciousness around the world.
Third, the victory of SYRIZA has the potential to increase the confidence of the radical Left in Greece and beyond. The victory for SYRIZA is a small victory for Greek workers. But Greek workers need all the small victories they can get after two years of brutal austerity and class warfare from above. Small victories can accumulate quantitatively to produce qualitative shifts in the character of the struggle. A series of electoral victories need not remain on a linear course of purely-electoral struggle. They can also lead to breaking points where new forms of struggle erupt from below.
We have to be clear here: none of these positive effects would have been produced had SYRIZA taken a wooden, abstentionist anti-electoral approach to the Greek elections. There is, to be sure, a time and place to boycott elections and opt for entirely non-electoral vehicles of struggle--but that time and place was not last week in Greece. The possibilities for the Left created by the elections are a testament to the possibility for revolutionaries--in certain conditions--to participate soberly in elections to advance class struggle.
But surely someone will reply that I am hypocritical. Readers of this blog know that I have no love for the Democratic Party and oppose all Left strategies to enter, participate in or support the Party at any level. Moreover, I have often said that the Presidential campaigns between Democrats and Republicans in the US are basically "non-political" and virtually meaningless as far as the Left is concerned. Can I coherently praise SYRIZA and maintain my stiff anti-Democratic Party line in the United States? Yes, I believe I can.
The Democratic Party is a particular kind of formation that resists comparison with even the most opportunistic and neoliberal "center-Left" parties in Europe. The electoral procedures in the US are profoundly undemocratic and also make it difficult to compare with parliamentary systems such as what they have in Greece. All the same, let us compare PASOK and the Democrats to help illustrate my argument. In 2010 or 2011, someone could have said: Don't support SYRIZA, don't build groups like Internationalist Workers Left (DEA), you have to organize where the workers are, namely, inside of PASOK which enjoys the support of the majority of the working-class. They might have continued: we have to work within PASOK because it is the most credible party that has the potential to beat the Right.
Of course, that would have entirely unconvincing as an argument. Indeed, the results of the election--in which PASOK got pummeled--bear this out.
Yet the same tired arguments are made in defense of working within the Democratic Party--a party more ruthlessly committed to austerity and war than PASOK. Of course, the pull of "lesser-evilism" is stronger in the US because of the much greater dominance of the two main parties, the suffocatingly conservative procedures, the relative weakness of the anti-capitalist left, etc.
But the absurdity of the argument remains. We have seen what happens when the Democrats get elected to all levels of government with crushing majorities. The policies of Bush continue, expectations are pushed down from above through ideological means, and nothing is done to facilitate struggle from below--on the contrary, moves are made to contain it and rein it in. The Democratic Party is funded by the ruling class, its leaders are drawn from the ruling class, and its policies nakedly benefit that class. The Democrats offer little opportunity for reform of any kind and they are part of the ruling class duopoly that dominates US electoral politics. The Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements, not a facilitator of struggle.
The dialectic of lesser-evil is a key aspect of how the political shell of US capitalism functions. Interestingly, Greek politics had a similar dynamic for many years, where governmental power oscillated between the center-Right New Democracy and the center-Left PASOK.
As I wrote in the Fall, the electoral mechanism in Greece--and the installation of technocrats by the EU--seemed to function like a "safety valve", containing struggle rather than encouraging it. This remains true as long as the working-class has no viable, independent representation and two neoliberal mainstream parties dominate. But the meteoric rise of SYRIZA has burst asunder this stale dialectic of lesser-evils. It has caused a serious realignment and new possibilities have come to the fore as a result. Nothing of this kind could ever be brought about through participation in a party--like the Democrats--dominated, funded, and run by members of the ruling class. If a viable Left third-party challenge to the Democrats was on the horizon, revolutionaries should consider working with it in order to "pull a SYRIZA" and tear apart the constricting grip of the two-party straitjacket. But working within such an independent push should never be seen as a substitute for extra-electoral struggle--in the US, Greece or elsewhere. The whole point of participating--while building independent struggles at the very same time--is to create conditions favorable to an up-tick in the self-organization and confidence of the working class.