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Political Organisation In Transition


In a context of uncertainty and flux, it helps to start from the specific. My starting point is the rise of Syriza, the radical left coalition rooted in the movements resisting austerity that has become the main opposition party in the Greek parliament. Syriza’s ability to give a focused political voice to the anger and despair of millions has made a breakthrough from which we can learn.

This is a matter not only of its soaring electoral support, which rose from 4 per cent of the national vote in 2009 to 27 per cent in June 2012 on the basis of a refusal of the policies imposed by the IMF, the European Commission (EC) and the European Central Bank (ECB), but also of the fact that this electoral mandate is reinforced by organised movements and networks of solidarity that Syriza has been part of building.

This is not to imply that Syriza’s success is stable or that its momentum will necessarily be maintained. One of its 71 MPs, the ex-Pasok member and trade union leader, Dimtris Tsoukalas, warns that ‘votes can be like sand’. Threatening winds will blow persistently from a hostile media determined to exploit any sign of division; from national and European elites creating an atmosphere of fear towards the left and from an aggressive fascist party exploiting xenophobic tendencies in Greek society with some success, having won 7 per cent in the polls.

Syriza does not provide a template to apply elsewhere; it is a new kind of political organisation in the making. Reflection on its rise, however, which has taken place alongside the collapse of support for Pasok (from around 40 per cent of the vote in 2009 to no more than 13 per cent in 2012), throws the present quandary of the left, especially in Europe, into relief. Such reflection also stimulates fresh thoughts on forms of political organisation that could help us find ways out.

Failure of social democratic parties

The quandary is this. On the one hand, there is the inability of social democratic parties to stand up to, or even seriously to bargain over, austerity for the masses as a solution to the financial crisis. To varying degrees these parties are demonstrating their inability to rise to the challenge of a visibly discredited neoliberal project. The decay in party democracy and culture, moreover, combined with an entrenchment of market-driven mentalities, has meant that in social democratic parties the forces of renewal are negligible or very weak.

On the other hand, most political organisations of the radical left, with the notable exception of Syriza, are in weaker positions than they were before the financial crisis of 2008. In addition, the traditional forms of labour movement organisation have been seriously weakened. There has been an impressive growth of resistance and alternatives of many kinds, many of them interconnected and many, like Occupy, besmirching the brand of an already dodgy-looking system. But through what strategic visions, forms of organisation and means of political activism they can produce lasting forces of transformation is an open question under active and widespread discussion.

In other words, while the right, in the form of neoliberalism, was ready for the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, the left in the North, when faced with capitalism coming as near to collapse as it can – given its ability to call in state guarantees – has been unable to find appropriate ways of building a dynamic of change driven by its alternative values and directions for society.

Syriza in its current form has been forged in the intense heat of the most ruthless turning of the screw of austerity. Syriza is going to face many problems, both within its own organisation as it changes from a coalition of parties and groups to becoming a party with its own direct membership, as well as in the face of new pressures that will come from its opponents both inside and outside Greece. However, after interviewing a wide range of activists and reading interviews and reports by others, I have a grounded belief that the long and difficult process of developing a framework of rethinking political organisation beyond both Leninism and parliamentarism is producing qualitatively new results.

Many of the political resources that shaped Syriza’s response to the present extremities and led it to a position in which it is uniquely – but still conditionally – trusted by so many people in Greek society are the outcome of considerable learning from the trial and error of other radical parties across Europe and the experience of the European Social Forum.

This essay seeks to contribute towards continuing this dialectic of transnational political learning on the left. By generalising from the distinctive features of Syriza, and also bearing in mind lessons from other experiences where parties with similar ambitions have been unable to sustain their transformative dynamic, I will suggest approaches to problems of political organisation, further consideration of which might help to overcome the quandary of the left.

Transforming the state

My discussion of these themes will focus on the problem of transforming the state. This is a major issue for Syriza as it campaigns and prepares for office in and against a notably corrupt and anti-democratic state. One of four sections of the programme drawn up in 2009 by members of Synaspismos, the largest party in the Syriza coalition, is entitled ‘Restructuring the state’.

My framework for approaching this fundamental issue sees sources of democratic transformative power autonomous from the state as decisive to the possibilities of change.

The economic dimension here is crucial. Political change is seriously hindered if it lacks a base in non-capitalist relations of production, including the production of services and culture, however partial and incomplete. At the same time, it must be said that a conflictual engagement in as well as against the state is a necessary condition for systemic change. Such an engagement has to be rooted in, and accountable to, forces for democratic change in society. Without a strategy of this kind to transform and, where necessary, break state power, transformative struggles will recurrently lapse into containable counter-cultures and their potential for the majority of people will be unrealised.

Drawing lessons from local democratisation

To develop my argument, I draw particularly on the experience of the radical left of the Labour Party in governing London in 1982-86; and that of the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) in opening up decisions about new municipal investment to a citywide process of popular participation in Porto Alegre from 1989 until 2004. Despite these cases being well known, their lessons for political organisation have yet to be fully distilled.

For my argument, what is significant is that their achievements – each of the city experiments involved a redistribution of resources and, for a period, power and capacity, from the rich and powerful to the poor and marginalised – depended on opening up to and sharing resources with autonomous sources of democratic power in the cities concerned. In other words, they combined initiatives for change from within government structures with support for developing wider, more radical sources of power outside.

But it was very significant that not only had such a strategic orientation failed to change the Labour Party in the UK, it also turned out that neither did the PT in Brazil adopt such a dual strategy once it was elected at the national level, which partly explains the limits of the Lula government in fulfilling many expectations it had aroused for radical social change.

In the Greater London Council (GLC) and Porto Alegre experiments political parties used their electoral mandates to move beyond the constraints imposed by the existing system and instead to strengthen and spread challenges to that system. The spirit they embodied can also be seen in widespread campaigns by public service workers and users against privatisation that involve effective strategies to change the way that public services are managed and public money administered, dragging political parties after them.

All these experiences have underlined the importance of struggling to create non-capitalist social relations in the present rather than defer them to ‘after winning power’. Lessons from these local experiences, however, can help the rethinking that is necessary of what political organisation needs to be like in a context of plural sources of transformative power.

In drawing these lessons, we need also to bear in mind that there are further distinct problems in changing state and quasi-state institutions on national and international levels. To understand the wider significance of the way these local political experiences combine a struggle as representatives within the local state with support for democratic movements and initiatives outside, we need to distinguish between two radically distinct meanings of power.

These are on the one hand power as transformative capacity and on the other hand power as domination – as involving an asymmetry between those with power and those over whom power is exercised. We could say that historically, mass social democratic parties have been built around a benevolent version of the second understanding. Their strategies have been based around winning the power to govern and using it paternalistically to meet what they identify as the needs of the people.

Both the experiences of the GLC in the early 1980s and the PT in municipal government in the 1990s were attempts to change the state from being a means of domination and exclusion to becoming a resource for transformation by campaigning for electoral office in order then to decentralise and redistribute power. I would argue that in practice Syriza is attempting the same project at a national level.

Syriza and the dynamics of social change

The most distinctive feature of Syriza, in contrast with traditional parties of the left, is that it sees itself as more than simply a means of political representation for movements, but as being involved practically in building the movements. Its political instincts make responsibility for contributing to the spread and strengthening of movements for social justice a high priority.

In the weeks following the election of 71 Syriza MPs in June 2012, its leaders stressed the importance of this as central to ‘changing people’s idea of what they can do, developing with them a sense of their capacity for power’, as Andreas Karitzis, one of its key political coordinators, put it. While the party believes state power is necessary, it is clear that, in Karitzis’s terms, ‘what is also decisive is what you are doing in movements and society before seizing power. Eighty per cent of social change cannot come through government.’ This is not just talk.

This view of strategies for social change influences how Syriza is allocating the considerable state resources it is receiving as a result of its high level of parliamentary representation. The party will get €8 million (almost triple its present budget) and each MP is allocated by the parliament five members of staff.

The idea at the time of writing is that a high proportion of the new funds should go to solidarity networks in the neighbourhoods – for example, to employ people to extend initiatives such as social medical centres, to spread what approaches have succeeded, to link, online and face to face, people in the cities with producers of agricultural goods. Funds will also go to strengthening the capacity of the party in parliament, but a greater proportion will be directed towards Syriza’s work in building the extra-parliamentary organisations for social change.

Of the five staff allocated to MPs, two will work for the MP directly. One will work for policy committees that bring together MPs and civic experts and two will be employed by the party to work in the movements and neighbourhoods.

Behind these priorities is a learning process arising from the vulnerability shown by left parties in other European countries to letting parliamentary institutions, with all their resources and privileges, pull them away from the movements whose political voice they had intended to be.

Committed to movement building as much as party-building

From its origins in 2004 at the height of the alter-globalisation movements (which had a particularly strong impact in Greece), Syriza was at least as concerned with helping to build movements for change in society as with electoral success. There was also a learning process through the European Social Forum and then the Greek Social Forum.

This contributed to not only Syriza’s clear strategic view of the limits of state power for social transformation, but also a self-conscious insistence o

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