The Death of Social Democracy
In reading Yanis Varoufakis, Greek finance minister’s essay “How I Became an Erratic Marxist1,” I was reminded of a line in Karl Marx’s famous letter to Arnold Ruge where he declares “But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”2Marx was of course arguing real radicalism cannot shy from harsh truths.
The harsh truth we are faced with is that Syriza represents the last gasp of honest, reformist, left-Social Democracy.
After the deal made with the Troika on Friday, it, as Rosa Luxemburg declared its predecessor – revolutionary Social Democracy – is now nothing but a stinking corpse. The constraints of the capitalism world-system, the EU, and the European ruling class have conspired to make all attempts at real left-Social Democratic policies impossible.
Honest, reformist left-Social Democracy has attempted over the years to be a broker between the needs of the working class and poorer sections of the middle class, the state, and the bourgeoisie. More Keynesian than socialist, its social and electoral base has demanded expansion and enforcement of pro-worker labor laws, reversal of privatizations, higher minimum wages, and political checks on the power of large corporations.
Syriza does not call itself a social democratic party – and given the neoliberal trajectory of the official Social Democratic parties (PASOK in Greece) – we can only call it social democratic inasmuch as its Thessaloniki Programme3 of four pillars: 1. Confronting the Humanitarian Crisis, 2. Restarting the Economy and Promoting Tax Justice, 3. Regaining Employment, and 4. Transforming the Political System to Deepen Democracy, is a mirror of what social democracy aspired to be until all official Social Democratic parties had accepted the demands of neoliberal capitalism and financialization of the capitalist world system. Its defeat and looming fate as enforcer of the Troika’s austerity demands represents the end result for honest reformism within the system’s constraints.
Syriza’s decision to attempt honest negotiation with the Troika over the demands placed on Greece to continue a program of austerity in exchange for continued loan tranches stems from a very real analysis by the party and thinkers like Varoufakis that the European Union is a project worth salvaging, that bluster, open diplomacy and explanation might persuade and cover up Greece’s weak negotiating position, and that as Varoufakis explains in his essay: “we, the suitably erratic Marxists… must try to save European capitalism from itself… Not out of love for European capitalism, for the eurozone, for Brussels, or for the European Central Bank, but just because we want to minimise the unnecessary human toll from this crisis.”
Varoufakis and his colleagues in Syriza have, over the last month, emboldened the hopes of the left in Europe and the United States that anti-austerity forces could triumph over the neoliberal hegemony that has been in place since its construction under Reagan and Thatcher and expansion under the watchful eye of Germany, the European Union and the Bretton Woods institutions. They have done so by carefully outlining the needs of the unemployed workers in Greece and how fiscal expansion led by the Germans, ECB and IMF would ultimately benefit Greeks and the rest of the EU. In this they are correct: the Stability and Growth pact limiting public deficits and debts, alongside the inability of individual countries to create currency has an ultimately deflationary effect on debtor states, especially if there is no stimulus program to recycle trade surpluses into those debtor countries.
Syriza have also, quite rightly, pointed out an EU “New Deal” program would solve most of these dilemmas while keeping the superstructure of the union intact. It is always the case that sincere left-reformist social democrats like Syriza understand how to save capitalism from itself: they have the analytical tools and a base far more interested in stability than bourgeois parties in core surplus-generating nations, which tend to have much to gain politically and financially from economic collapse in the periphery. Yet they have overestimated the desire or need of the capitalist class, especially in the EU, to rescue the periphery as a consumer zone, when they instead prefer to plunder it.
The problem with Syriza and its defeat is that their election talk of bucking the EU, ECB and the IMF is now revealed to be not just bluster, but bluster harmful to the development of a truly radical political and class consciousness in Greece and the European Union. Seasoned analysts pointed out from the beginning Greece was in a weak bargaining position and unlikely to attain any of its demands of debt reduction/extension, rollback of austerity and EU democratization. The illusion created by Syriza, Prime Minister Alex Tsipras and Varoufakis was that the electoral will of the Greek working class as represented by Syriza would come to fruition in negotiations with the Troika, and that the party would not betray its base by allowing Troika monitors to continue austerity in exchange for continued financial backstopping of the Greek banking sector.
This, of course, has always been a fundamental contradiction when left-social democratic parties have swept to power: the political consciousness of its working class base demands a direct attack on the inequities and injustices of capitalism but not to the extent of overthrowing capitalism itself. Social democracy is thus philosophically idealist about fundamentally altering the dynamics of capitalism while ignoring that those reforms will never change capitalism’s core dynamic of class rule and exploitation, but it will cloak this under the rubric of pragmatism and the endless possibility of voting in a bourgeois electoral system. In an era of expanding worldwide demand and growth of industry in the core, the social democratic system of working class empowerment could be tolerated as it tamed the wilder impulses of the working class while creating the consumers now lauded as the “middle class” of 20th century capitalism’s 30-year golden age in the post-WWII era. Social democracy never won the working class political control, but the power wielded by socialist parties allowed segments of the working class access an increasing share of capital’s immense accumulation in the post-war era.
Syriza has arrived on the scene decades after the last meaningful acts of social-democracy could occur. Capitalism in the core has long since ceased to need to make deals with socialist parties as representatives of an industrial proletariat; those jobs have been replaced by shifting industrial work to the periphery as the capitalist world-system tends to do specifically as acounter to the success of mid-century social-democracy, or by increasing mechanization in the core – again, a tendency within capitalism well described by Marx. Straitjacketed by a capitalism that no longer needs to tame a restless proletariat into a large consumer class, Syriza faces immense pressure from “the institutions” to allow continued profiteering from privatization and bond repayment – the very things that constitute super-profit in the financial era of this end of capitalism’s long-cycle. Add to this the European Union’s structure itself, which was built to constrain any national attempts at left-reformism, and Syriza’s determination not to even bluff about a Grexit – which might provide a modicum of control over at least the nation’s currency and deficit spending – and there is little room for a party like Syriza to deliver on its promises.
Returning to Marx, if constructing for the future and settling everything for all times is not Syriza’s (or Podemos, etc.) task, then what is to be done? A party like Syriza – supposedly a “Coalition of the Radical Left” – that wishes to develop radical, even revolutionary class consciousness must be honest with its membership and voters. To explain the reforms are difficult, if not impossible in the current circumstances, that they would fight for them anyway, and that they would never implement the austerity measures demanded by the Troika would be a start. To also encourage workers to take over failing businesses as cooperatives, collectives, and to begin discussing what that might mean if and when Greece exited the Eurozone: how the development of worker control over the economy could help buoy them in the desperate economic times and begin a real fight back against neoliberalism, while waiting for allies like Podemos or the 5 Star movement to win power, this would be the stirrings of a radical analysis and abandonment of the idealist phraseology around Syriza’s win and subsequent defeat.
To do so would not, of course, be easy and would likely be furiously combated by the Troika, its representatives inside Greece, and the Greek capitalist class. To turn a phrase: there is, however, no alternative. Greece is presented with the challenge, and the possibility, of being at the forefront of the new class struggle, which will require abandoning the illusions that reformism has a chance of success and stability in this era, and building the radical alternative. Otherwise Syriza will be turned into just another dead social-democratic party, enforcing the structural demands of capitalism while claiming to want the opposite.
Peter A. LaVenia has a PhD in Political Theory from the University at Albany, SUNY and is a member of the New York State Green Party’s executive committee. He can be reached on Twitter @votelavenia and at his website, unorthodoxmarxist.wordpress.com.
1 Yanis Varoufakis, “How I Became an Erratic Marxist,” The Guardian, Wed., Feb. 18, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/feb/18/yanis-varoufakis-how-i-became-an-erratic-marxist
2 Karl Marx, Letter to Arnold Ruge, September 1843. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09.htm