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Change the world without taking power, Marxist edition

May 31, 2012

In the following guest article, Pham Binh argues that the working people of Greece, now engaged in a titanic struggle against capitalist austerity, should seek governmental power. His text, reprinted with permission from The North Star, continues a discussion on this website in January 2012, in which Binh participated. Further comments are welcome.–JR

By Pham Binh. The Weekly Worker’s Eddie Ford wrote richly detailed and engaging overviews of a political earthquake in Greece that is rattling international investors and European governments alike: SYRIZA, a radical left coalition, may soon control the Greek government. Instead of concluding his articles with timeless, useless truisms like “what happens now depends on the class struggle,” he directly confronted the question posed point-blank by Greece’s upcoming elections: capitalist state power and what the left (specifically SYRIZA) should do with it.

Ford’s answer? “[R]eject all invitations to join or form a government” since “there is no Marxist party in Greece capable of forming” a “government committed to carrying out the full minimum program of Marxism.” Instead, we are told, it is better to wait: “Till we have a clear majority committed to a transition to socialism it is far better to be parties of extreme opposition which intransigently fight not only against the cuts but for a new, much more democratic, constitution.”

This is the Marxist edition of John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power.

If SYRIZA can form a government based on Alexis Tsipra’s (SYRIZA’s leader) five conditions, it would be criminal not to do so. Under the rules of the Greek constitution, refusing to form a government would mean ceding that power to an election’s runners up, meaning PASOK (social democrats) and/or New Democracy (ND, a right-wing big business party), the two parties responsible for the severe austerity policies that have unraveled Greek society.

For SYRIZA to voluntarily surrender power to ND and PASOK would be treason to the millions of Greeks who are giving SYRIZA a chance to govern. What use is voting for SYRIZA if PASOK and ND lose the election and form the government anyway because SYRIZA refuses to live up to its campaign promises? If SYRIZA hands power to PASOK and ND, becomes a party of “extreme opposition” instead of a party of government, and then begins to “intransigently fight” PASOK and ND for a “new, much more democratic, constitution” it will be met with well-deserved mockery and derision.

The single best way to demoralize SYRIZA’s new supporters and guarantee their return back to the PASOK camp would be for SYRIZA to follow Ford’s advice, washing its hands of its political responsibilities because conditions are far from ideal for the implementation of the “full minimum” Marxist program of a non-existent European Union Communist Party. This course of action (or rather inaction) by SYRIZA would give the very “bourgeois political game” the Communist Party of Great Britain derides a new lease on life. It would also preserve the game’s main players in the workers’ movement, Stalinism and social democracy, two forces that have held us back from revolutionary breakthroughs in Greece and almost everywhere else for almost 80 years. When was the last time millions of workers shifted their support from Stalinist and social democratic parties to the radical left, creating the possibility of supplanting both? Should we let this pass us by because circumstances are far from ideal and because the difficulties ahead are great?

What today exists in Greece is an opportunity of world-historic importance to “win the battle of democracy” as Karl Marx so eloquently put it in the Communist Manifesto and reminds us that “[t]he democratic republic is the nearest approach to the dictatorship of the proletariat,” as Lenin wrote in State and Revolution.

Canadian socialist John Riddell was prescient when he began in 2011 to raise the question of what in the Communist International’s glory days was called, “the workers’ government.” This term was a confusing way of discussing what mass worker-socialist/communist parties should do if they won formal, legal control of the capitalist state or parts of it through elections, coalitions, or appointments. (The clearest treatment of this question is an essay by Clara Zetkin, a criminally under-appreciated figure who deserves just as much study as her contemporaries Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg.)

In short, the hypotheticals that the Comintern discussed are now a real possibility Greece.

The main danger in Greece is not reformism or opportunism on the part of SYRIZA. If SYRIZA had strong opportunist tendencies, we would have seen pressure after the May 6 elections from within its ranks to water down, weaken, and compromise on its five-point pledge to halt austerity. Such a rotten and unnecessary compromise would have been the necessary precondition for a SYRIZA-led coalition government with PASOK, ND, and/or DIMA (a rightist split from SYRIZA). Instead, Tsipra stood firm and resisted the temptation to trade principles for power and enjoyed the full and unanimous backing of SYRIZA’s constituent elements in doing so.

All of this makes the claim by British socialist Alex Callinicos that SYRIZA’s actions thus far are illustrations of reformism’s contradictions either a bad ultra-left joke or a hopelessly dogmatic attempt to force SYRIZA to conform to the British SWP’s schema for categorizing political organizations as reformist, revolutionary, or centrist. Fighting to implement SYRIZA’s five points will be far more revolutionary than anything the SWP has ever done.

The main danger now is that the rulers of Greece and Europe will use force, fraud, and fear-mongering to thwart SYRIZA’s victory at the polls. They fear that such a victory would strip the austerity regime of any remaining democratic legitimacy and create the threat of a good example for the rest of Europe should SYRIZA make good on its pledge to reverse austerity and, in so doing, stimulate economic growth, much as Iceland did when it refused to socialize the losses of its big banks. A popular regime whose austerity for banks and the wealthy brings general economic growth and prosperity to the 99% is the last thing they want.

To counteract this danger, SYRIZA must grow numerically and qualitatively, sink roots into every neighborhood, workplace, campus, and barrack by organizing its supporters in all those places, and continually mobilize these supporters to maximize SYRIZA’s vote in the June 17 elections. This activist policy will pressure other forces such as the KKE (Communist Party [Stalinist]) to work with SYRIZA to consign austerity to the dustbin of history. Militant grassroots action and organization against fraud, force, and fear-mongering by Greece’s rulers is also the best insurance against any wobbling or weakness by SYRIZA leaders. They will need such support if they come to power, in order to help confront enormous difficulties in trying to solve the complex problems that come with trying to govern in the interests of the 99% from within state institutions created by the 1% to keep the 99% in check.

The lesson of Greece is this: we can change the world without taking power, but only within the limits set by the political parties that have that power. Like it or not, states continue to be among the world’s most powerful institutions, and the forces that hold the reins of state power control the direction and speed of the carriage we ride in. ND and PASOK ignored the dozen general strikes and mass mobilizations that shook Greek society for two years, rendering those actions ineffectual from the standpoint of steering policy away from austerity. Only when a political organization born of and inseparably linked to those mobilizations – SYRIZA – began to compete with ND and PASOK electorally for the reins of state power did the possibility of changing the direction Greek society go from the realm of popular demands at demonstrations to the realm of political realism.

To be truly effective, direct action in the streets, workplaces, and campuses must be matched by direct action at the ballot box. We must take power, not because we crave power over others or aim to replace the old hierarchy of party bosses with a new one but because we can no longer afford to allow the 1% to control any government, anywhere, for any reason, whether it is because we are against states in principle or think elections are a difficult and boring waste of time.

We don’t want to take power so much as we want to stop them from using it on us. To protect ourselves and the lives of the elderly, poor, pensioners, and differently abled who depend state incomes to survive, the levers of government must be pried from the hands of all parties working in the interests of the 1%, whether they label themselves liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, Tory or Labour, socialist or democratic makes no difference. It is too dangerous to allow these parties to control politics or policy at any level – global, national, regional, local.

This is not a matter of anarchism, Marxism, principles, or ideology, it’s a matter of survival – for humanity and for the planet. If the economic system is controlled by an international band of rapacious fraudsters and organized to systematically disregard human decency, ecological sustainability, and common sense, the political parties that are loyal to that system and those fraudsters cannot be allowed to wield the reins of state power unchecked, unchallenged, because as long as they do, the closer and closer to the precipice we get.

Removing the parties of austerity and environmental destruction from existing governments will not create the horizontal, borderless, corporationless, stateless world we want, since state institutions are so intimately part of the oppressive social fabric that must be unraveled to get to that world. However, at this point, we are not going to have much a world left to win unless and until we occupy governments and stop their ruinous policies ourselves.

Check out Pham Binh’s column at

  1. I agree with Pham Binh’s argument here. Leftist nitpickers might seize on his use of the phrase “taking power” here to claim that he has conflated winning elections with really taking power, even though that is not his intent I am sure. John Riddell’s work on the Comintern discussions about workers governments and workers and farmers governments is apt here.

    Engagement in elections to win (not just to make propaganda) is not alternative to building the movement in the streets, workplaces, campuses and neighbourhoods for serious revolutionary socialists It should go hand in hand.

    Hopefully the discussion in the left around the world on the challenge for the Greek left to unite put up a serious challenge to austerity in the coming elections will bury some of the abstentionist madness that is a part of the sectarian heritage that the socialist movement desperately needs to break from.

    You only have to watch the frustration and demoralisation of Egytian socialists and other revolutionaries at the recent elections to understand how important is the opening that Syriza’s anti-austerity platform and public support offers.

    The other thing that is laughable is the superstitious faith that some people place in the paper programs of tiny outfits which are untested in struggle. Put those people in under the pressure of real political responsibilty and I bet most of them would go to water faster than some of the so-called “reformists” in Syriza, who (unlike the armchair socialists who would stay out of the political fray and hang on to their pure paper programs) will in due course be put to the test.

    We continue to distribute from Resistance Books (Australia) a very useful pamphlet by Maurice Sibelle called Revolutionaries and Parliament, which surveys the attitude of Marx, Engels and later the Russian Bolsheviks to parliamentary elections. A small excerpt follows:

    * * *

    In his 1895 introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France, Engels noted that “The Communist Manifesto had already proclaimed the winning of universal suffrage, of democracy, as one of the first and most important tasks of the militant proletariat.”

    When universal male suffrage was granted in Prussia by Bismarck’s government in 1866, “our workers immediately took it in earnest and sent August Bebel to the first, constituent Reichstag.” Through such socialist election campaigns, the German Marxists had been able to transform the parliamentary franchise “from a means of deception, which it was before, into an instrument of emancipation.” Engels continued:

    “And if universal suffrage had offered no other advantage than that it allowed us to count our numbers every three years; that by the regularly established, unexpected rapid rise in the number of our votes it increased in equal measure the workers’ certainty of victory and the dismay of their opponents, and so became our best means of propaganda; that it accurately informed us concerning our own strength and that of all hostile parties, and thereby provided us with a measure of proportion for our actions second to none, safeguarding us from untimely timidity as much as untimely foolhardiness — if this had been the only advantage we gained from the suffrage, it would have still been much more than enough. But it did more than this by far. In election agitation it provided us with a means, second to none, of getting in touch with the masses of the people where they still stand aloof from us; of forcing all parties to defend their views and actions against our attacks before all the people; and, further, it provided our representatives in the parliament with a platform from which they could speak to their opponents in parliament and to the masses without, with quite other authority and freedom than in the press or at meetings.”

    Engels went on to say that electoral propaganda was a more effective means of struggle than “revolutionary” adventures “carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses” — referring to various ultraleft attempts by small groups to seize power through street fighting. He viewed the participation of socialists in elections as “one of the sharpest weapons” to fight the state institutions and expose the other parties to the masses; as an effective method of reaching the masses of people with the ideas of the party; as a useful platform to express the ideas of the party and attack its opponents if the party succeeded in winning seats; as a gauge of strength and support of the party among the masses; as a means of legitimising the party before the masses and putting the party in a position where attempts to outlaw the party could be fought more easily. This was particularly important in Germany in light of the Anti-Socialist Law. The party’s legal activities — its election campaigns — were powerful weapons enabling it to fight for the right of the party to exist.

    More here: Revolutionaries and Parliament

  2. Thanks for reposting this John! I got some interesting comments on the original here:

    Surprisingly, leaders of Solidarity in NYC are claiming that SYRIZA is “right wing,” reformist, etc. and are supporting ANTARSYA. Maybe it’s not surprising since these are some of the same people who say MAS “reconstituted neoliberalism” in Bolivia.

  3. Socialist and communist countries like Cuba and Vietnam do not spend on luxuries or non-essentials if the costs would exceed their alloted budgets. Capitalist countries must follow suit. Gasoline should be rationed if the state cannot afford to pay for them. With trains and buses, I am sure citizens of these socialist countries will reach their destinations and maybe who knows, faster than when they drive their own private cars. Living up with the Joneses is one of the vices of capitalism. No wonder Vietnamese and Cubans are not burdened with debt!!

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