Even A Stopped Clock is Right Twice a Day

Were the radical Left wrong to participate in Syriza? I’m obviously aware that from afar, many things are difficult to tell. Still, we need to make some kind of assessment, just as we might make an assessment of history – for ourselves as much as anyone – and so below are some preliminary thoughts after having watched the recent debate between Stathis Kouvelakis and Alex Callinicos:

Since the capitulation of the Syriza government, a veritable Greek chorus of voices have claimed that that the Syriza project was compromised from the beginning, that this if further evidence of the cul-de-sac of ‘reformism’, and proof that one must build a separate ‘revolutionary’ organisation of self-conscious cadres, or the social force ‘from below’. Alex Callinicos presented a relatively sophisticated version of this in his recent discussion with Stathis Kouvelakis on socialist strategy, discussion well worth watching (as is their earlier debate, in February). The Syriza experiment is strategically defeated, he claimed. By implication, he reasserted the strategy pursued by Antarsya of remaining outside the Syriza front and building a theoretically coherent ‘core’ of Marxists.

No doubt, these criticisms should be taken seriously, especially as we weight up the scale of the defeat. Were we not foolish, to see in Syriza a step forward for the Left? Could we not say in advance – despite Syriza’s origins in the Greek social and anti-austerity movements – that it would turn out badly?

On the whole, it seems to me that these arguments miss the mark, and rather than think through the concrete conjuncture and arrangement of forces, simply repeat abstract verities. Worse, they threaten to erase the very lessons we might learn from the Syriza experience – about how a concrete political project might be constructed on the basis of a ‘transitional program’ of demands and by alliance-building across political traditions and theoretical outlooks.

The point, then, is not so much that one must build a self-conscious theoretically developed and coherent ‘core’ but how one does such a thing. Indeed, we can still assert that before this capitulation, the most intelligent strategy was to have built that core within Syriza.
There are a number of reasons why:

1. Syriza was, for the last few years, the key terrain of political struggle for the ‘Left’. It was where all eyes – Greek and international – were focussed. It was where the Greek working class put its hopes. To refuse to participate was to marginalise yourself from all of this.
2. Syriza was relatively open. This is a key question for the Left. No form of alliance or entryism can be undertaken if you are effectively muzzled, or controlled by the Right, but partly due to its recent origins, Syriza afforded space, and indeed positions of influence, for a conscious Left.
3. The development of Syriza was not preordained. Yes, it was clear that Tsipras and his collaborators were pursuing a dead-end strategy from early on, but it was also possible that, with pressure from below, they may have chosen to honour the Thessaloniki program rather than capitulate. It was also possible that the Left Platform might grow significantly, even to the position of leadership, or at least to a position where they might be unable to be ignored. It was possible that another round of mobilisations might take place from below. Events are not preordained, but depend on activity and intervention.
4. There is a tradition of such an ‘entrist’ strategy, in the form, for example of the ‘French Turn’ advocated by the Trotskyist movement in the 1930s, which was designed to bring the small groups from the margins back onto the terrain of struggle, into where there were significant activists and workers. The point of such entrism is to be in a position to influence events when the leadership makes its betrayals – to coalesce a force out of the struggles.

These reasons help explain the difficulties faced by the other socialist groups or coalitions such as Antarsya, which according to Kouvelakis, are ‘as weak as they were’ at the beginning of the crisis. By remaining outside of Syriza, not only was the Syriza Left weakened, but Antarsya removed itself from a key terrain of struggle.

It’s important not to see the past through the prism of the present. No doubt, with the capitulation of Tsipras, conditions have changed and so should strategy. To argue that now, after the capitulation, is the time to build a separate group from Syriza, is to argue it in the current conjucture. For this reason, we can agree with Callinicos when he makes a criticism of the Left Platform’s MPs, who refused to vote ‘no’ to the new ‘deal’. We can agree with him when he suggests the Left Platform need to break with the government and campaign among the Greek people against it, asserting that ‘we are the representatives of “oxi!”’ (though he fails to note that they are only in a position to make this choice because they have been within Syriza during its rise; we can only imagine how much of a better situation it might be if Antarsya (as a whole or in sections) was in the Left Platform).

The schism between the Greek people and the Syriza leadership is now wide. No Left can afford to accept the government’s proposals if it wants to avoid self-destruction. It may be that there is now a basis for organisational separation. Whether this would occur immediately, or after a period of struggle and organisation, or whether Tsipras – as some papers today suggested – will expel the Left, is a matter we can’t possibly comment on from afar. But certainly, the Left will quickly decay if it fails to fail to distinguish itself from the government line.

The claims that Left involvement in Syriza was always an error have an advantage: history has caught up with them. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day. A position held six months ago might become ‘correct’ in the present, but that doesn’t mean it was correct six months ago. Circumstances change. Correct lines become wrong. Wrong lines become correct. The question is to get the right line at the right time, and to keep the clock’s hand moving so that it tells the correct time, whatever the situation.

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