Greek lessons By Dan Hind

27 Aug 2012 – Aljazeera

Hind’s piece is followed by a response from Lenin’s tomb

Could political radicals learn a few lessons from how Syriza created a diverse coalition in Greece? By Dan Hind

The Coalition of the Radical Left (“Syriza”) in Greece includes communists, socialists, and environmentalists, reforming socialists and revolutionary communists. It campaigns on a shared platform, but each constituent party retains its own identity. Eight years ago in 2004 it secured just over 3 per cent of the popular vote. Since then, while the established parties of left and right took turns mismanaging the economy, the coalition has grown in popularity. It is now the second largest party in the country, winning nearly 27 per cent of the vote in the election in June this year.

The Greek electoral system combines some majoritarian elements with proportional representation and its particularities no doubt have some bearing on the nature of the Syriza coalition. But I wonder whether reformers and revolutionaries in the English-speaking world, Britain in particular, and England most especially, have something to learn from Syriza’s example. The British electoral system is punishingly difficult for small parties to break into. Nationalist parties are strong in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the big three parties dominate the electoral map in England. After decades of campaigning, the Green Party has managed to win one parliamentary seat. Salma Yaqoob’s Respect wins seats here and there, now and then, most recently in Bradford West. But the growing disenchantment with the current political and economic settlement finds scarce expression in the political class or the major media.

The Labour movement decisively broke the Liberal-Conservative duopoly in 1945 by converting the vast reserves of solidarity and trust created in workplace struggles into votes in national elections. But while Labour’s breakthrough secured important social advances – most notably a National Health Service – the party now seems intent on policies that do little or nothing for its longsuffering supporters. It is not a plausibly left-wing party, for all that most of the few socialists still in Parliament are Labour party members. It doesn’t have a convincing agenda for thoroughgoing reform and appears reluctant to acquire one.The Labour, Conservative and Liberal parties are all now thoroughly implicated in an economic crisis that is bad and getting worse. Yet at the moment they have the luxury of being able to ignore those who do not share their basic assumptions. What passes for responsible opinion in Westminster unites around the need to impose austerity on the majority in order to placate the markets and restore the animal spirits of the financial sector. The Coalition is to be protected until 2015, despite its manifest administrative incompetence and intellectual bankruptcy. Presented with evidence of their alarming lead in the polls, Labour MPs insist that they have a long way to go before they can regain the trust of the British people. The Labour leader Ed Miliband wants us to believe in him, it seems, but not too much.

This creates an opportunity for the Green Party, for disaffected former supporters of the Liberal and Labour parties, for TUSC and Respect, for the new movements associated with the student movement and the occupations of last year, for campaigners against austerity and those who have mobilised to resist the hollowing out of the welfare state. Much of the political nation has been asphyxiated by the combination of the first-past-the-post electoral system and the BBC. But though all too many have been denied the oxygen of publicity they are still there, and they are losing patience. Perhaps all the parties and groups listed above cannot find enough common ground to sign up to a coalition against austerity and a political culture that now seems almost comically bereft of ideas and imagination. But some of them can – particularly if this shared programme acknowledges that no consensus yet exists for what will have to be a far-reaching political and economic settlement. We can’t print money and give it to bankers indefinitely, after all.

A Coalition of the Radical Left in Britain could perhaps also agree to campaign for an end to the country’s predatory foreign policy, for the dismantling of the offshore network, for democratic control of the central banks, urgent action to address the threat of catastrophic climate change, and reform of the national media regimes. In my view this last measure is the most important. We urgently need a public culture in which we are able to discuss imperialism, the economy, and the environment in ways that connect meaningfully with the facts. The existing arrangements seem designed expressly to prevent the emergence of such a public culture.

Clearly those who are disenchanted with the established parties disagree with one another on many issues. At times a wild energy surrounds our differences while our shared principles go unremarked. There is nothing like the dream of a better world to bring out the worst in people. But still, I remain an optimist. The unreformed political and communications condominium currently denies millions a meaningfully public status. Their concerns are not represented in the national debate and they have no immediate means to articulate, much less secure, their objectives. An amalgam of reformist and revolutionary parties and individuals, organised around a comprehensible agenda, can begin to give form to the undoubted desire for change, in England in particular. At a minimum an effective Coalition of the Radical Left would force the Labour to become more straightforwardly social democratic. (It might also strengthen the hand of progressives in Scotland as that country takes on new powers and responsibilities.) If things continue to deteriorate at the present rate, it might be the means by which we secure a much more thorough transformation.Still the Britain is as it is. Territoriality is key. Winner-takes-all, single seat constituencies favour those who can present themselves as a national government in waiting while drawing on local organisation and established loyalties. There are no plausible challengers to incumbents at the moment because no single party seems capable of breaking the grip of the incumbents nationwide. But more and more people reject the governing consensus and are anyway sceptical about traditional parties, professional politicians and the habits of sentiment they seek to exploit. Perhaps they will support a programme of reform that opens the way to further changes. Perhaps they are ready to take responsibility for the predicament in which they find themselves. They can vote for a candidate who has subscribed to the shared platform – a set of transitional demands, as they used to say – without having to support their long-term agenda. Assemblies could be convened to debate the platform and indicate who they would like their candidate to be. The platform can provide the foundations for new kinds of political association.

The obstacles are formidable but they can be overcome because they have to be. It is too late for faith in the swindles of representation, too late for the purity of abstention. Things are too serious. Let’s focus on what we want and unite around an electoral alternative to the goons, frauds and chancers who currently run the show. We’ll still have plenty of time to tear lumps out of each other on Twitter.

Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His pamphlet Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty, was published as an e-book in March. He is a member of the Tax Justice Network.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


 The Problem of Left Unity

28 August, 2012 — Lenin’s Tomb

Dan Hind, enlivened by the Hellenic tumult, calls for a Coalition of the Radical Left in Britain.  I love it.  Of course I do.  But isn’t it, to any rational observer, a perfectly silly idea?

  Anyone who has spent much time listening to the British radical left these days would no more expect them to coalesce than they would expect grace, humility and talent from Gary Barlow.  The latest rumble has been over Assange, Wikileaks, US imperialism and the rape allegations, which has produced more mutual distrust and resentment on the Left than I have seen for at least weeks.  The disagreement seems to be between those who think the rape accusations against Julian Assange have been politicised in order to facilitate his forward extradition to the US, and those who think Assange’s supporters have greatly exaggerated this risk in order to justify his refusal to go and face these allegations in Sweden.  
 
  This epic combat between imperialist stooges and rape apologists has made the disagreements over Syria look like frightfully civilized by comparison, and for sheer libidinised apoplectics almost approaches the clash of ‘very principled positions’ over Tommy Sheridan.  So, we’re going to have a Coalition of the Radical Left?  Are we not, to the contrary, fucked?  Have we not demonstrated that we are as weak and stalemated as the ruling class we oppose?
 
  There is, however, a potentially comforting straw in the wind.  After all, the Greek left is itself bitterly divided.  Although unity has often been achieved in concrete struggles among networks of activists, the political forces are far from unified.  This is a real handicap, but it has not prevented the emergence of Europe’s most promising radical left for more than three decades.  Part of the reason that Syriza, despite its limited social basis, has been able to project such strong support electorally is its ecumenical approach to the Left.  Although it has never succeeded in winning over the support of rivals such as the Greek communist party, it has sought to position itself as a ‘canopy’ for those forces to the left of social democracy.  And in the elections, it proposed a united government of the Left, with a resulting poll leap that astonished its leadership.  
 
  This suggests that if sections of the radical left can pull together and strike the right balance between heterogeneity and unity in action, the recalcitrance of other forces need not be a retardant to success.  In a situation where, across Europe, the traditional parties of reform and social democracy are breaking down, there will be unusual opportunities for those radical leftists who come correct.  They will be judged less by their proven social weight (in which terrain they can’t possibly hope to compete with social democracy), than by the seriousness of their intent and the ostensible practicality of their immediate proposals.  (Notice how I’m tactfully leaving aside the jarring differences in the level of organisation and militancy, the persistent, near-insurgent level industrial and social struggles in Greece versus the staggered, uncertain, numerically impressive but tactically cautious responses of the British trade union movement?  I’m just trying to protect you.)  
 
  But who on the British Left would be up for this?  And how would it be possible for us to overcome the accretions of suspicion and disdain from past disputes?  Even granting that I might be exaggerating these a bit, they do exist and they are an obstacle.  Perhaps part of the answer is to think anew about how we handle our differences.  Here I’m talking just about the level of political culture, not institutions.  Having been through several acrimonious moments, including the car crash that was the break-up of the Respect coalition, I think I have participated in enough sectarian bullshit and petty denunciations to know the dimensions of the problem we have here.  I think we have three related issues.  First, regardless of protestations to the contrary, we sometimes do treat difference as betrayal.  Second, we occasionally forget to subordinate divisions among ourselves to those in the wider society.  Third, for all that we are practical types, we often forget that our arguments should be oriented toward political action in some way.
 
   Let me take each of these in turn.  First, it’s clear that differences over concrete questions such as the Assange issue or Syria don’t necessarily reflect a logic of betrayal.  One’s interlocutor may not, in fact, be an imperialist stooge or a rape apologist.  There are plenty of both about, and posing the question of left unity always raises the sub-question: on what basis?  Surely not on the basis of keeping schtum when another leftist does or says something destructive?   Naturally, no.  There is no question of politeness in the face of attack.  But where there’s any doubt, it would be helpful to assume good faith.  Nor are the differences between leftists merely capricious.  Serious political differences reflect judgement calls based on specific historical experiences.  At a certain level, these questions are not resolved by logic or empirical data, but by what is commonly called ‘gut instinct’.  This just refers to the way in which people from different political traditions reflecting different experiences tend to solve questions whose answer is indeterminate.  
 
  The most interesting writing on both of the subjects I mentioned has been that which has tried, with different emphases, to transcend these specific experiences and point to the underlying unity of apparently counterposed priorities: democratic revolution vs. anti-imperialism; feminism vs. anti-imperialism.  The least interesting interventions have simply reproduced the polarising tendencies that are amplified through social media like Twitter, where snark and self-righteous sentiment-mongering is the currency of interaction.  (Imagine being stuck in a room with a bunch of intelligent people who nonetheless constantly trademark their mundane thoughts with a hash-tag, or over-value expressions such as ‘roflcopter’, ‘lmfao’, ‘wtaf’, ‘zomg’ and ‘step away from the internet’.  Then imagine they won’t shut up, ever.  Then imagine you’re one of those people.)  
 
  Second, it seems to me that the most destructive invective flying about on the Left has always been incredibly insular, insensible of how these arguments relate to the discussions taking place beyond the Left.  We should by no means be wary of giving the impression that we have substantial disagreements and lively debates.  Nor should we scruple to criticise our allies if need be.  But we should certainly avoid giving the impression that we’re paying no attention to what is going on around us, or that the outcome of internecine feuds actually matters more than the outcome of social and political struggles.  Finally, such venom is all too often not oriented toward doing or achieving anything concrete, but rather has to do with posturing, spectacle-positioning: we who are virtuous say ‘down with this sort of thing (careful now)’.  One way of testing for this is to ask what, concretely, mutual denunciations are supposed to achieve apart from mutual dissipation and disorganisation? Or, which of the contending ‘very principled positions’ are actually being advanced?  If the answer is, ‘actually none’, then there’s possibly a problem.
 
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