European Elections: Austerity and the Rise of the Left

The following is a talk I gave at a branch meeting of the ISO two weeks ago, focusing on the rise of left-wing electoral challenges to austerity in Europe, specifically Jean-Luc Melénchon in France and (more significantly) SYRIZA in Greece. Though it is now a bit dated since events move fast, I think the main points remain relevant and I particularly like some of the formulations I worked out on the question of the “workers’ government” or government of the left, a question which is being hotly debated, at least on the left-wing ghettoes of Facebook walls and blogs that I frequent.

I would like to begin this with some words from Alexis Tsipras, the president of the Greek Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA):

“We urgently need to ensure economic and social stability in our country. To this end, we need to undertake all the necessary policy initiatives to reverse austerity and recession. Apart from lacking any democratic legitimacy, the application of this “internal devaluation” program is leading our economy onto a catastrophic path, while at the same time annulling all the prerequisites for recovery. Internal devaluation has lead to a humanitarian crisis.”

These words mark an incredible departure from politics as usual in Europe. Where just a month ago the Greek government formed by social-democrats and conservatives in coalition was bent on ramming austerity down the throats of its people, the Greek people are now on the verge of breaking with the ruling-class consensus entirely, and forging a new path beyond the neoliberal policies of the last 35 years. Combined with electoral successes for the left in France and elsewhere in Europe, this could mean the start of a new and rising wave of struggle on a scale unseen by any of us yet in our lifetimes.

In this short presentation, I will outline the main features of the elections in France and Greece, while placing them in a larger context. I hope to explain why the defeat of Nicholas Sarkozy in France and the likely upcoming victory of SYRIZA in next month’s Greek elections are not just important to the working class of France, Greece and the European continent, but to all the workers of the world, including us here in Poughkeepsie.

First, allow me to broadly outline the climate of economic recession and austerity in Europe. Since the financial crisis of 2008 that began in the United States, Europe has been plagued by what is known as the “sovereign debt crisis.” Briefly put, government expenditures in the wake of bank bailouts rose from 60 to 90% of GDP for the OECD countries, which represent the largest and most advanced economies. This debt crisis catches the capitalist class in a bind because of the ongoing recession. In the event of renewed crisis, the governments caught in debt will simply not have the money to conduct another round of bailouts. Therefore the ruling class has insisted on a double pronged strategy to contain the debt crisis: revived growth through exports combined with harsh austerity directed against the working class’ wages, benefits, and the social programs that keep us afloat.

Let’s ignore for a second how economic growth is supposed to occur when all of our livelihoods are under severe attack. In Greece, the weakest link in the ruling class’ agenda for Europe, we can see the future of Europe and perhaps our own. In the midst of the crisis, the Greek government was encouraged to borrow large amounts of money by foreign firms, essentially forcing Greece into a debt trap while they relied on the countries of Europe to provide a bailout in case Greece defaulted on its debt.

Since a year and a half ago, it has been increasingly clear that Greece will not be able to pay down anywhere near enough of its debt to avoid default. The Memorandum of Understanding between the EU and Greek Government calls for Greece to pay 15% interest on its loans while its creditors take a large “haircut” on the money owed them. The Memorandum requires deep cuts to the salaries and pensions of public sector workers, the raising of retirement ages across the board, and privatization of the railways and other national infrastructure. So deep is this crisis in Greece that a while ago, the German President cynically suggested that to help cover its debts, the Greek government should sell off some of its beautiful and historic Mediterranean islands to private investors.

I think the example of Greece shows us what austerity means in the current period. This has not been met with by silence from the Greek working class, probably the strongest and most combative on the continent. Greece has gone through 12 general strikes against austerity measures in the past two years, an unprecedented show of force which takes as its background the global rise of struggle which includes the toppling of dictators in the Arab Spring, the struggle of the squares in Spain and Greece, the riots of last summer in London, the rise of Occupy in the US and the current struggles by students against the rising cost of education from Quebec to Chile.

How do elections, which are the topic of this talk, fit into this climate of increased struggle against the neoliberal austerity agenda? It is important here to present what we as Marxists see as the role of elections in a capitalist society. We believe that we cannot elect our way to socialism. The state in capitalist society is an organ of ruling class dominance. It is not a fundamentally democratic institution. As such, it cannot be reformed through even the most fully democratic and socialist measures. It must be dismantled so that new, radically democratic institutions can take its place in the transition to a society that is genuinely of, by and for the people.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to think that the electoral sphere is just a sham enacted to provide the illusion of democracy. Under certain conditions, especially a rising level of struggle, the participation of leftwing and socialist candidates can provide a powerful anti-systemic voice in a way accessible to millions of workers. As Lenin wrote in Left-Wing Communism, where the capitalist state continues to enjoy the perception of legitimacy among large sections of the working class, it is imperative that revolutionaries participate in elections and representative institutions to provide that voice, to help them break from reformist ideas. A successful showing by a left-wing candidate, for instance, has the capability of providing national support to workers’ struggles, thus energizing them tremendously.

In today’s Europe, it is a fact beyond impeachment that elections are one very notable method through which the masses of people have begun to break with decades of neoliberal policies. Though I focus on France and Greece, this is a trend taking place all over Europe and one we will see in more and more countries. I just want to mention quickly the upset victory of socialist George Galloway of the RESPECT Party in a Parliamentary contest in Yorkshire, England, and the recent defeat of the pro-austerity Christian Democrats in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.

So how should we view the elections in France? In the French electoral system, presidential candidates must win an absolute majority to gain office. In the first round of elections, a number of candidates were competing, the two main ones being the incumbent, Nicholas Sarkozy, a conservative and co-author of the current austerity program, and the Socialist Party’s (PS) Francois Hollande. Other candidates included Marine Le Pen of the far-right Fronte Nationale (FN), the Left Front’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and two other leftist candidates sponsored by the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) and Lutte Ouvrier.

There are several important results in this election. I want to address, in turn, the victory of Hollande as a repudiation of Sarkozy’s austerity, the alarming rise of Le Pen and the far right, and the candidacy of Mélenchon and future prospects for the French left.

First, I should say that the defeat of Sarkozy is absolutely to be celebrated as a first step in defeating austerity in France. As president, Sarkozy raised the retirement age and launched a savage attack on public schools and universities. Had he been reelected, the French ruling class would have felt more enabled to launch more attacks on union rights, working conditions, and public services among other things.

Hollande comes into office as a seeming departure from the Sarkozy era. He has promised to halt the privatization of public services, to radically expand educational opportunities at various levels, to legalize gay marriage and withdraw French troops from Afghanistan. However, France remains at the head of the austerity consensus within the EU. If push comes to shove, Hollande as a reformist politician will be forced to decide in favor of the financial markets’ demand for austerity over his own aspirations for reform.

Hollande comes into office promising greater rights for immigrants, which is welcome at a time when especially Muslims and Middle Easterners in France are under attack. This is something, however, that his party has participated in creating. The PS shamefully supported a law banning the hijab and niqab in public spaces, making them part and parcel of a right-wing assault on immigrants. Sarkozy attempted to mint political gold during the election by scaremongering over the idea that, supposedly, 90% of butcher shops in Paris slaughtered animals in accordance with halal requirements.

The force best poised to take advantage of anti-immigrant hysteria, is, of course, the National Front under Marine Le Pen. In a time of economic crisis, it has been observed that the far right tends to grow as the petty bourgeoisie, the class of professionals, managers, small business owners and others being squeezed between the forces of capital and labor develop their own political expression: fascism. Le Pen ran on a nationalist platform that was critical of austerity yet the main thrust of which was scapegoating French Muslims as an enemy force within the Republic. That she received almost a fifth of the popular vote in the first round of the election is a deeply worrying development, with requires immediate attention through solidarity between the left and Muslims in anti-fascist campaigns.

Unfortunately, there is little indication that the French left is up to this challenge at present. The French far left is complicit in the anti-immigrant hysteria from which Le Pen has drawn her support. The NPA, for instance, in the past several years voted against running candidates in local elections who choose to wear hijab, a concession to reactionary French nationalism.

Combined with this, the French left hopelessly divided between small competing groups. Mélenchon had a significant showing of 10% in the first round of the election, through his anti-austerity stance. However, the NPA and Lutte Ouvrier stood aside by running their own presidential candidates. The NPA now finds itself in a probably terminal crisis as one faction prepares to leave and join Mélenchon’s Left Front while others remain committed to sectarian practices. Though Mélenchon showed some detriments ideologically from a socialist perspective, but he is a committed and popular advocate against austerity and fascism. We must hope that as his coalition gains more support, French revolutionaries will collaborate with his forces whether from within the coalition or without in order to strengthen the revolutionary pole within this broad leftist force.

The condition of Greek society as shown in the recent and upcoming elections is a picture resonant in broad strokes with that of France. Though the crisis is more advanced, we see a corresponding political struggle against austerity, combined with a deep polarization between the far right and the far left. As I described earlier, Greece is the weak link in European capitalism. Its coming debt default will have a worldwide impact. The elections there may prove to be just an important event as the rise of Occupy and the Arab Spring.

To sketch out the situation briefly: Greek elections of this month ended with the conservatives, New Democracy, holding the largest portion of the vote at 23%. Following them was SYRIZA at 19%. Trailing them with a dismal 13% was PASOK, the “socialist” party which has completely discredited itself through its relentless advocacy for austerity as leader of the previous government. Behind PASOK was the Communist Party (KKE), the right wing Independent Greeks, and the far-right Golden Dawn.

Obviously, it is incredible that SYRIZA gained almost one-fifth of the vote. Since the leading parties failed to form a government, Greece will have new elections next month. SYRIZA, having refused on principle to participate in any government that agrees to austerity, is poised in these to become the largest party.

The breakdown of the Greek vote shows a typical polarization between parties along class lines that Marxists would predict in a situation of deep crisis. While SYRIZA stole the base among manual and public sector workers, which traditionally rallied to PASOK, the radical left as a whole, including the KKE and another revolutionary coalition, ANTARSYA, gained over half of the working-class vote, public and private.

At the same time, the polarization occurs at both ends. The petty bourgeoisie in trade and crafts polled the highest for Golden Dawn, a fascist party which openly claims association with Hitler, is only open to “Aryans by descent and Greeks by origin,” and has launched hate attacks on immigrants from Albania, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Though their share of the vote has somewhat declined in the polls at this point, as the crisis deepens in Greece they will remain a threat the left would be unwise to ignore.

It is furthermore imperative that the left begin to overcome its internal differences. It is ridiculous, for example, that the radical leftist coalitions of SYRIZA and ANTARSYA remain separate from each other. In this regard however, the largest obstacle to leftist unity is the KKE. The KKE has a mass base among manual workers, which it has held onto since its popular role in the anti-fascist resistance in World War II. Today, however, it remains stuck in an attitude of sectarianism, reserving all its venom for the “fake revolutionaries of SYRIZA,” and refusing to form a government with them despite the fact the KKE has previously collaborated in forming governments with both PASOK and New Democracy. We must hope as the struggle continues that the KKE leadership will come under pressure from its base to form a united front with other leftist forces.

If the left can manage to overcome these obstacles, there is a good chance that SYRIZA can form a government in collaboration with other leftist forces – as the party highest in the polls, it would receive a 50-seat bonus intended by the Greek electoral system to help form a government quicker. If SYRIZA wins big, a left-wing government becomes a real possibility. I would like to take a minute to explore this.

SYRIZA is a broad left coalition. Though all its parties are opposed to austerity, they vary in their radicalism. The largest party is Synapsismos. Synapsismos are Eurocommunists, left-wing reformists. Other groups in the coalition such as our comrades, the Internationalist Workers’ Left (DEA) form a more revolutionary pole.

Though Synapsismos are committed to an anti-austerity program, they remain reformists. If they can take a leading role in a SYRIZA government, they will feel under pressure from the European ruling class to implement austerity under a less severe face. We can hope that the mass mobilizations on the ground that have accompanied their stunning electoral result will keep them to their promises if elected.

Even assuming a left-wing government can be formed which will depart from austerity and neoliberalism, however, Greece will remain a capitalist state. I say this because Greece is not yet in a revolutionary situation. Though it has had twelve general strikes in the past two years, these have remained for the most part under the control of the trade union bureaucracy. There is not yet any mass movement to set up workers’ councils in Greece as an alternative to the capitalist state. For Marxists, that is the point at which we can begin to talk in serious of the question of the seizure of power.

Even knowing this, however, I believe it would be disastrous to oppose the formation of a left wing government. I say this knowing that the ISO’s tradition of socialism from below has been very skeptical to say the least of the idea of a “left-wing” or “socialist” government elected within a capitalist state, and for good reason. One reason is that, however unreliable a left-wing government may turn out to be, the alternative is surely worse. In the case a government cannot be formed and the working class is unable to smash the state, the only alternative is some kind of EU-backed extra-constitutional or emergency rule – that is to say, a dictatorship – that will enforce austerity by smashing heads.

In this situation, revolutionaries have the responsibility to back the formation of a government of the left and support it insofar as it breaks with austerity, while organizing in the streets and workplaces to take the movement forward, to even deeper changes.

A successful and popular withdrawal of Greece from the politics of austerity will provide a tremendous impetus to working-class struggles around the globe. The second Greece defaults on its debt, the governments of Italy, Portugal, Spain and Ireland will face the same choice. A default forced through the popular refusal of the working class to pay for their rulers’ crisis will form a shining and positive example to the workers of those countries, who will realize that they could do much the same thing. With this development, it is likely that the EU will begin to unravel, extending the debt crisis to other countries with very recent revolutionary experience. I mean of course the Arab nations, specifically Egypt.

The elections in Europe, especially Greece, show us all the way forward as activists in the United States. Though I know we have a long time and a hell of a lot of work between where we are and a situation like Greece, much less a revolutionary situation, I have more hope than ever before as a socialist that we can say “no” to all this bullshit and begin to construct a fundamentally different kind of society than we have ever known or will be able to imagine.

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