“Broad parties and the example of SYRIZA – The opportunity that ended in disaster for the revolutionary Left. The lessons learned for the forging of revolutionary organizations today”

By Charis Papadopoulos

Translated by Alex Visalo Rainers

[The following text is based on the talk given by the writer during the 5th Work meeting of Political and Social Institute “Pantelis Pouliopoulos” on: «REVOLUTIONARY STRATEGY – Revolutionary Parties and Social Movements in the 21st Century« , that took place in Athens from 8 to 10April 2022]

Thank you to the Institute “Pantelis Pouliopoulos” for the opportunity given to me today, to present in front of you all, an attempt to account for the adventure that was the participation of revolutionaries in SYRIZA.

It was an experience that ended the summer of 2015, after the signing of the 3rd Memorandum, this time by Tsipras’ government. A signing that completely reversed the referendum of July 5, 2015, in which 62% had voted “NO”.

I am attempting this account as one of the members of the revolutionary Left that ended up fighting within SYRIZA until Tsipras’ somersault. I had been a member of the political organization “KOKKINO” since March 2010. After the consolidation of the organization the December of 2014 with DEA (Internationalist Worker’s Left), I continued as a member of DEA until 2018. Today I am a member of the editorial team of the monthly newspaper “I KOKKINI”, that is published in Thessaloniki since May 2019.

Of course, I know that the audience here belongs to that part of the revolutionary Left that made the choice not to take on the fight to act within SYRIZA. And so, we disagree in the first place. But ideas become clearer when we scratch at and grapple with them. And I hope that my words will help so that a lively and sharp-witted – and thus, useful- conversation will follow, on our duties then and now.

Required standpoints for this conversation

Where do I start? By returning to the basics, to our origins. Returning to one of the first texts written by Marx and Engels. I am referring to “The German Ideology”, the text in which the theory of historical materialism was put forth for the first time.

So, it is in this work, that the two classics note that for the regime of capitalist exploitation to end once and for all, it is necessary for the proletariat to start the revolution. And that is for two reasons:

  • Because otherwise, the capitalists will not give up their power and their riches.
  • Because in order for society to be free from the dirt of centuries, the proletariat will need to be charged with unusual vigilance, energy, alertness. Otherwise, a new society will not be able to establish itself. And only a revolution can achieve this mobilization and alertness of all the powers of the proletariat.

Three initial conclusions from the above statements:

  1. Whoever chooses a different path from the revolutionary one, one supposedly easier and less painful, in reality chooses a different cause, as also noted by Rosa Luxembourg. Assimilating to the system, rather than overthrowing it.
  2. We revolutionaries are in love with the masses of the proletariat, when they are in action. We have our antennae turned toward them. We try to be taught by the masses, to express the passions of the masses and become one with them.
  3. Every path and every purpose each require their own political party. What does this mean? It means that revolutionary Marxists on the one hand, and reformists on the other CANNOT, under regular circumstances, coexist in the same party. And if there is an exception where this happens, then this co-existence can only occur under the circumstances of ideological war.

Revolutionary intolerance, then, is about fighting ideological battles without backing out, so that we can win some of the pioneering elements of the working class and of the movements of the oppressed. This is why we ought to be where they fight their battles, so that we can walk beside them, while, at the same time, fighting their delusions. And not to quarantine ourselves from them.

What need lead to the creation of broad parties?

During the ’90s and the 2000s new political organizations appeared in a series of European countries – and also Brazil. These organizations, the “broad parties”, as they have become known to an international revolutionary leftist audience, had different starting points, but were meant to fill the same gap: the ground, that was quickly being left behind both by social democracy, that had by this point shifted everywhere into fully systemic parties, and the Communist Parties.

The Communist Parties in particular, had, after the fall of the countries of state capitalism in Eastern Europe and Russia, fallen into a deep identity and orientation crisis. Thus, they were being rapidly abandoned by their worker and grassroots base.

At the same time, the revolutionary Left in those same countries was miniscule and disempowered. It wasn’t ready to show up as a visible alternative, even for the forefront of the working class, much less for the sum of the working masses. That’s why the workers, in their efforts to defend their interests from their employers and better their lives, turned to the new organizations that were in the horizon.

Common characteristics of the broad parties

All of these parties, from the smallest ones like the “Communist Refoundation Party” in Italy, and the “Left Party” in Germany, to the largest ones like the “Workers’ Party” in Brazil shared some common characteristics.

  1. They were all relatively massive parties and, in every case, recognized by the working class. At the same time, they used, at least during the first few years, quite radical and combative speech.
  2. In all of the broad parties, at least during the first years of their appearance, there co-existed within them, all of the shades of the Left. In other words, the participation of comrades from the revolutionary Left was more than accepted. Broadly speaking, the appearance of revolutionary marxists in the broad parties was even welcome. At least, at first.

The co-existence of members of organizations from the whole spectrum of the reformist to the revolutionary Left happened in a climate, that could be described as “radical agnosticism”: Frequent fighting for causes and marching in the streets on the one hand, and on the other, the feeling that all the historical traditions of the Left have failed in their entirety. And that the new “broad” party being built, is a hybrid, a configuration where the old disagreements are now obsolete.

Often, in this atmosphere of unity and mutual tolerance, the speech of the collectives of the revolutionary Left resolved in fighting and criticism.

  • None of these parties – with the exception, to an extent, of the “Worker’s Party” in Brazil – had strong ties to the working class.

In other words, the unionized working class and the pioneers of the working class knew of the existence of these parties. To an extent, they voted and supported them, sometimes enthusiastically. But generally, they did not become members in large numbers and did not bond with them organically, in the way that it happened, for example, during the ’70s and early ’80s with PASOK and the unionized Greek working class.

And so, without deep roots to connect them to the working people, the broad parties were from the start, evidently more vulnerable to corruption and less influential than the traditional social democratic and Communist Parties.

  • All of these broad parties, without even one exception, fully contradicted the expectations of the working class from the first time they faced an obstacle. They compromised, they assimilated to the system, they lost their dynamism and, to an extent, their voters. A number of these broad parties ended up in the margins, like the “Communist Refoundation Party”, that has now faded out, or their influence was stunted, like the “Left Party” in Germany, the “Left Bloc” in Portugal and “Podemos” in Spain.

Usually, the time of crisis for these parties has been the moment they took on governmental responsibilities. It is then that the broad parties showed what they were made of, their quality. And, of course, it was then that they made sure to get rid of the members of the revolutionary Left within them.

Rivera, Diego (1886-1957): Distributing Arms (El arsenal), 1928. Mural, 2.03 x 3.98 m. Court of Fiestas, Level 3, South Wall.. Mexico City, Secretaria de Educacion Publica*** Permission for usage must be provided in writing from Scala.

How did SYRIZA gain so much power?

SYRIZA showed its electoral power already in 2012, within the tempest that were the Memorandums. It was the May of that year that it gained almost 17 % and it reached 27% the following June. It was a triumph for an electoral alliance that, until then, was fighting to go above the 3% limit.

I will claim here that it was in 2012, with the rise of SYRIZA, that the changes in the consciousness of the working class were electorally presented. Changes that happened during the extraordinary years of 2010 and 2011, and during the first months of 2012.

2010 was a year that left an impact on the Greek working class. And it was not just the shock of the first Memorandum.

The most noteworthy element in the consciousness of the unionized parts of the workers and the people was that BEFORE 2010, marching in the streets could, possibly, bring some victories. Even defensive ones. With the more characteristic ones being the overthrow of Giannitsi’s law with only one day-long general strike and the victorious battle regarding article 16 in the universities.

But AFTER the voting of the 1st Memorandum in 2010, dozens of general strikes followed. Some of them had noteworthy participation. Papandreou’s government, however, as well as, the next coalition governments did not even give an inch on the Memorandums.

In other words, the working people completely realized that the policy of the Memorandums “does not need to be amended, but overthrown”. February 2012 in Athens, with the incredible rampage of police brutality, showed the limits of the resistance of unorganized protesters against organized state violence. And thus, it showed that overthrow could be achieved with the election of a new government, one that would cancel the Memorandums completely.

This was the framework that, within two years, lead to:

  • PASOK’s collapse
  • the cutting down of New Democracy
  • SYRIZA’s rise

And the catalyst, that brought the huge rise of SYRIZA in the polls – and then in the elections – was nothing but the slogan that its leaders dropped the spring of 2012, that of a “government of the Left”.

It was in that exact moment that the rest of the Left, KKE and ANTARSYA, chose to back down from the fight. And to condemn the slogan that expressed all of the rage of the working class who aimed to change their lives.

An important question: should the revolutionaries have joined SYRIZA?

To answer this question, we must first make clear what it would mean for the powers of the revolutionary Left, if such an attempt was successful.

First of all, under no circumstances, could it have been that the revolutionary marxists ambition was to control and guide SYRIZA’s path. That would be entirely utopic.

However, we ought to be aiming to become useful to the working class by setting three goals:

  • To warn – always openly and directly – SYRIZA’s electoral base about the betrayals, that would undoubtedly be born from the route of “honorable compromise” and the politics of its leadership.
  • To face Tsipras’ leadership, the most self-important and unworthy reformist leadership of all time, with courage in every step.
  • To always be ready for the critical moment of the rupture, and when that comes, to leave:
  • With more members
  • With improved cadres
  • Having built better relationships with some of the pioneering parts of the working class

The far Left and giving up the fight

Trotsky writes in “The Revolution Betrayed”: “There are so many more reformists than there are revolutionaries on this planet. So many more easily adaptable people than insubordinate. There is a need for extraordinary times in History, so that the revolutionaries can come out from isolation and we can see the reformists acting like fish out of water.”

Unfortunately, most of the collectives that swear by Trotskyism in Greece have shown complete indifference regarding Trotsky’s suggestions. Only a few organizations joined the battle of SYRIZA.

From those, “XEKINIMA” made sure to leave SYRIZA quickly and at an inopportune moment, “KOKKINO” coalesced with DEA and so, stopped existing as an independent collective, and “Kommounistiki Tasi” was too small to reach any significant results.

Here, I will attempt to account for DEA’s involvement in SYRIZA, as it was the organization that took part in this venture from the start.  And that, thanks to its size, was became more easily recognizable as a separate organization by fractions of pioneers, both inside and outside of SYRIZA.

Of course, I will attempt to stand critically toward what I consider to be the mistakes and deficiencies of DEA. But it is impossible not to note here that DEA at least became involved with SYRIZA. And did not evade the responsibility of the fight.

DEA: a timid opposition

In 2014 and 2015 this organization consisted of approximately 300 members.

What did it declare to be its main tactic within SYRIZA? The “policy of the united front”.

What was actually happening? Τοο many mistakes, that could be placed under the same title: “The policy of the tail” against SYRIZA’s opportunistic leadership.

DEA did act as opposition to Tsipras’ leadership, but:

  • Its oppositional speech was almost exclusively communicated within SYRIZA’s governing body.
  • As an organization, it obeyed the alliance of Lafazanis’ “Left Platform”. This configuration did not have any inside procedures, other than some meetings between the leaders of Lafazanis’ Left Current with DEA’s leadership. As a configuration the “Left Platform” very lightly criticized Tsipras’ leadership team.
  • The “Left Platform” obeyed, in turn, SYRIZA’s majority, submitting a series of amendments that were systematically rejected during central procedures. And life went on.
  • The fights within SYRIZA did not reach its base. Much more, they did not, in the least, reach the working class, that supported SYRIZA. And worst of all, DEA itself consented to SYRIZA’s base not being “bothered” by the disagreements and conflicts happening at the top.

And thus, even before the somersault that was the 3rd Memorandum, a disadvantageous result was created for DEA and its involvement in SYRIZA. This result, is in my opinion, reflected in three realizations concerning the relationship between the working-class pioneers and DEA after its years of involvement in SYRIZA:

  • The workers did not separate DEA or Lafazanis politically and see them as alternatives. They considered them different “shades” of the same thing.
  • Under no circumstances was DEA (or Lafazanis) considered the vessel of an other, a different political plan.
  • When the Left Platform and DEA diverged openly, after Tsipras’ somersault, the working class just considered them fractions of SYRIZA created after the split.

How DEA ended up

DEA left SYRIZA without noteworthy losses at first, but also without having managed to gather around itself a group of fighters from its base. Unfortunately, during the following years DEA attempted to repeat the same actions it had taken with SYRIZA, within Lafazanis’ LAE. All of this during a process of slow decay and the shift of LAE to a chaotic patriotic mess.

In 2018, the year I was leaving DEA, only half of its members were left, while at the same time, no new leadership had emerged during these years. The main feeling of the members was, in my opinion, tiredness.

Even this disappointing result, though, I consider to be better than the state of utter dissolution that other revolutionary organizations faced within the broad parties around the world, when they were in crisis. Like the DS of the 4th International, that literally turned into shambles within Brazil’s “Worker’s Party”. Compared to these examples, and despite its errors, DEA at least kept a part of its members and did not disappear completely.

At any rate, in the sum of the cases of revolutionary organizations joining broad parties worldwide, there was not one case in which the revolutionaries left the party having at least taken one further step towards their establishment. That is as much with quantitative, as with qualitative profit and political clarity. And I believe that DEA’s example was the least destructive of these experiences.

What was missing

Despite the general failure of the revolutionary organizations’ course within the broad parties, I personally stand by the opinion that the error did not lie in if we should have gotten involved. But instead, it was in how we charted our course within them.

We always and in every circumstance set a good example, participating fully in all political battles fought by the broad parties, as well as in all that was going on inside them. We too often forgot, however, the battle of opposing the ideas and political plans of the reformists within them.

During the ’30s, Trotsky argued in favor of the involvement of the revolutionary groups that followed him with reformist parties. It was a time of fighting, when many workers and young people were enlisted by those parties. The new factions of fighters entered these parties to battle the upcoming fascism and the attack of the employers.

Trotsky insisted that the revolutionaries should not lose this chance. But he emphasized even more strictly that his supporters should not adapt to these new environments. “The flag of the 4th International ought to clash with the other flags under all circumstances.” Common organizations with reformism could only exist as an exception. And not as a rule. And this exception could only stand to exist under circumstances of relentless ideological war.

Revolutionary organizations, whether we did or did not get involved with the broad parties during the last few years, had to deal with better general circumstances than the Trotskyists of the ’30s that were aiming at entry. But we lost the opportunity.

And now we have to deal with the duties of the new era – fighting against war and against the new attacks on the working class – as groups and as organizations that barely go above the level of just creating communist propaganda. And it is still uncertain that we’ll find small local opportunities, where we can manage to operate as the organizers of the rage of the oppressed.

Self-criticism

I was enlisted in DEA from December 2014 to April 2018. In all this time I did not – even for a moment – hold any guiding responsibilities. And often, like other members, I turned to the leadership during the inside procedures of the organization, to make one or another criticism on how and how much we reacted, as DEA, to Tsipras’ right-wing turns.

But in no point during the whole SYRIZA adventure, did those of us that expressed a critical stance react together, collectively and in an organized manner within the organization. And, I admit, I was not an exception to this rule.

Creating an opposition within DEA, one organized and collective, was only attempted by some of us much later, when the dead ends of our involvement in LAE became too many. But that is a different story, the one of DEA’s fragmentation in 2018 due to the organization’s political tailing of Lafazani’s nationalist downfall.

And the lesson that I am creating for myself from this whole story is that, as important as it is to fight your political battles with your comrades, it is just as important, if not more, to always try and think with your own mind. Uncritical trust should not be freely given to anyone.

And, especially when it comes to our own leaders at the time, we must over and over again put our fingers on the wound.

*You can read the article in Greek in this link.

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