Eric Chester provides an analysis of the Scottish Radical Independence Conference within the context of Syriza.
Greece has become the flashpoint for Europe. The Greek economy has collapsed, but Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and even Italy are also spiralling downward. Nevertheless, only in Greece does there seem to be an organized political response that can directly challenge for power.
SYRIZA began as a loose coalition of parties and organization that sought to present a non-dogmatic left-wing alternative to the mainstream social democratic politics of PASOK. As the crisis has deepened, SYRIZA has snowballed in strength to the point that current opinion polls show it with more popular support than any other party. At the same time, SYRIZA has been evolving into a unitary organization with a recognized leader Alex Tsipras.
From the start, SYRIZA has been dominated by those coming from the Eurocommunist tradition. It has always pursued a reformist path to socialism, but, as it has grown to become a significant player in Greek politics, it has modified its program to demonstrate that it could govern Greece in a “responsible” manner. SYRIZA insists that further austerity cuts are not possible, and that the memorandum of understanding imposed on Greece by the troika (the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission) should be rejected. Still, SYRIZA is also adamant that Greece must remain within the European Union, and, if possible, in the Eurozone. This contradictory perspective is tenuously held together by the fervent belief that the European Union, and specifically the German government, will accept a significant renegotiation of Greece’s debt leading to a substantial reduction in payments, accompanied by a further round of loans at a low interest rate.
Underlying the specifics of the SYRIZA program is the conviction that capitalism can be reformed, and that the European Union is an organizational structure within which structural reforms can occur. Thus, in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, SYRIZA has failed to advance a program that could move Greece toward socialism.
As the economic crisis worsens, many young people are being radicalized, correctly understanding that only fundamental change can create the prerequisite for a positive future. Some of them are attracted to the anarchist milieu, but others, looking for a more organized response, gravitate toward ANTARSYA. As with SYRIZA, this is a loose coalition, but one composed of radical organizations. ANTARSYA does not garner the electoral support that SYRIZA receives, and yet it has become a significant factor in Greek politics. ANTARSYA has not formulated a detailed transitional program that will move the country toward a socialist transformation. Still, it has stated clearly that Greece can not remain within the European Union, and that the enormous sovereign debt must be repudiated in its entirety. These represent a starting point for a revolutionary program, one that represents a sharp break with the current situation, rather than a vain effort to ameliorate the crisis.
Of course, the Greek disaster can only be understood within the context of the overall crisis within the European Union, and its member states. As the parties of the Second International drift further into the corporate center, fully accepting the necessity of cuts in social services as a consequence of the economic crisis, new formations have emerged that seek to hold the line, to block further cuts while maintaining current wages and working conditions. Often, these parties idealize the welfare state as a golden period of prosperity to once again attain.
In several EU countries, parties similar to SYRIZA have achieved considerable success. These parties have siphoned off enough of the traditional working class vote from social democratic parties that they can no longer be ignored by the mainstream. The Left Bloc of Portugal, the Front Gauche of France and Die Linke of Germany are loosely interconnected parties parties that share a similar political perspective.
Obviously, this is not a socialist perspective. In spite of vague rhetorical references to socialism, these parties hold a liberal reformist perspective, that is the belief that capitalism can be regulated by the state so that its worst features are overcome. With globalization, and the current downturn, there is no longer a place for liberal reformism. It is a failed strategy, not only because welfare state capitalism is still an exploitative and hierarchical social system characterized by massive differences in income, wealth and power, but also because the welfare state can not be sustained when capital has the power to transfer immense productive resources overnight to more profitable locations around the globe. Furthermore, transnational corporations manipulate their accounts to evade taxes, while the wealthy few individuals who own the corporations live in protected tax havens.
In reality, despite their protestations, parties in this tendency have, at times, accepted austerity budgets. Die Linke has joined with the German Social Democratic Party in several coalition governments at the state level. Once in power, their representatives have then signed on to cutbacks in social services in order to maintain the unity of the coalition.
In line with developments in Western Europe, new political formations to the left of mainstream social democracy have begun to appear in England and Scotland. In northern England, RESPECT is eroding the support for the Labour Party in working class districts. RESPECT proudly proclaims that it is the true heir to the heritage the welfare state programs instituted by the Labour Party decades ago. In addition to opposing further cuts in the provision of social services, RESPECT looks with nostalgia to the welfare state of the 1950s, when the National Health Service was more generously funded, and universities were opened up to aspiring children from working class backgrounds.
The first past the post system used to elect the British Parliament has hindered the polarisation of the political landscape. Still, the enormous stresses caused by the economic crisis are undermining support for the major parties. Already, the Tory’s electoral base has been significantly reduced by UKIP, while the Lib Dems have seen their constituency nearly disappear. It is very possible that RESPECT will have the same impact on the Labour Party vote that UKIP has had on the Conservative’s support. The global crisis has not hit England as hard as it has Greece, but the same fissuring of the political system can be seen, although on a lesser scale.
Scotland operates within a significantly different political context than England. The two parties in the governing coalition in Westminster have become insignificant factors in Scottish politics. Furthermore, right-wing politics, in the form of UKIP or the BNP, has gained little traction. Instead, two centrist parties, the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party, dominate Scottish politics.
Nevertheless, even in Scotland the first signs of a political polarisation are beginning to appear. In a desperate attempt to demonstrate that it is a ‘responsible’ party that can be trusted to defend the interests of transnational capital, the SNP leadership has antagonized its more left-wing members. Specifically, Alex Salmond’s decision to ram through support for NATO has made many question the direction being taken.
The recent Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow, attended by nine hundred, could well mark the formative stage of a broad coalition that encompasses those coming from the left-wing of the SNP, dissidents leaving the Labour Party, and the remnants of the Scottish Socialist Party, along with other left groupings. This is a coalition that does not even pretend to be based on the goal of socialism. Indeed, this emerging coalition is very much in the tradition of the welfare state politics at the core of labourism that has dominated working class politics in Scotland and England for a century. One of the two main plenaries at the conference featured speakers from SYRIZA and the Front Gauche, a clear indication of the underlying political perspective. An article in the New Statesman covering the conference took it for granted that it had been convened as an initial step toward the formation of a new political party on the left-wing outskirts of the two dominant parties.
For the next period, the RIC will provide the SNP and its ‘yes vote’ campaign with a convenient patina of progressive politics. Still, the effort is not likely to succeed. Polls show the independence referendum being defeated by a margin of two to one. In the likely possibility that the referendum is defeated, more dissidents will be ready to bolt the SNP to join a new formation that can pose a progressive alternative to the mainstream policies of both the SNP and Labour.
Of course, this raises the question of whether socialists who do not believe that capitalism can be reformed, and who do believe that a socialist transformation is an urgent necessity, should join this new formation as a left-wing opposition. Few socialists are eager to join RESPECT, given Galloway’s unsavory record. The situation in Scotland is more complex.
It has been argued that the large size of the Radical Independence Conference makes it necessary for socialists to join it, and yet the size of a political formation does not provide a sufficient basis to join it. Over the decades, socialists have repeatedly joined the Labour Party with that as a rationale, only to be either absorbed into the bureaucracy, or spit out as troublemakers. This is even clearer in the United States, where socialists have been repeatedly sucked into the Democratic Party on the basis that this is where the working class can be found. In my view, entering into the Radical Independence Conference, and its successors, would be entering into a liberal morass, one where policies are determined undemocratically, and where radicals are marginalized and silenced.
I believe that the developments in Greece show the way forward. Just as ANTARSYA has begun to present a radical alternative to SYRIZA, we need to build a radical socialist alternative to the political perspective represented by both RESPECT and the RIC. In addition to presenting its political perspective through a variety of formats, including journals and public forums, a radical organization will focus its energies on direct action, in the streets and in the workplace, with electoral politics being reserved to a secondary place. Forming a militant opposition to union bureaucrats, especially those in public sector unions, will need to be an important component of this strategy.
This is a critical period for socialists. The deepening crisis creates the objective circumstances in which a significant segment of the working class may be drawn toward revolutionary politics. We need to hold firm to our principles, and to avoid the easy and illusory short-cuts.