Greece and the temptation of Syriza

After victory comes hard work.

New European radical left parties are aware of all the temptations when it comes to seizing power, writes Horvat [AP]

Syriza’s victory in Greece – without any doubt – marks a new political sequence in Europe, and not only for Europe – but for the left as such. The future of this new political sequence will be decided in the days to come.

In autumn last year, I had the honour of being invited by Antonio Negri to the annual Euronomade gathering in a small Italian town called Passignano, with other guests such as Michael Hardt and David Harvey. To be honest, I was surprised when the famous autonomist philosopher Antonio Negri for the first time publicly declared two general propositions

The first one is that after 2011 “horizontality” (the concept of “direct democracy”) must be criticised and overcome, clearly and unambiguously – “not just in a Hegelian sense”. And secondly, that the situation is probably ripe enough to attempt once again that most political of passages: “The seizure of power.”

It might come as a surprise to hear these two radical propositions from the author of Empire and Multitude who was, together with Michael Hardt, one of the most important proponents of horizontality: The idea that the question of power has to be understood in terms of multitudes, as direct democracy, without any representation whatsoever (in parliament, institutions, etc). But it doesn’t come as a surprise that Pablo Iglesias – the leader of the Spanish radical left party Podemos – was part of the Euronomade group as well. Obviously there is a transition from horizontality to “verticality”, from occupations to political parties.

Political will

So, what is the current political situation in Europe? What is more and more obvious is that after the political sequence that started in 2011, with all the “occupy” movements and “springs” that turned into autumns, at least something was born out of the left defeats that all started with great enthusiasm; something we might call a new political will.  

This new political will is characterised by the consciousness that “springs” (sudden outbursts of progressive energies, protests, etc) and “occupations” (longer episodes of direct democracy, with general assemblies, working groups, etc) are still not enough to change the neoliberal status quo (austerity measures, indebtment, unemployment, etc). Instead of Hegel’s “beautiful souls” or Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic individuals”, sometimes it is needed to take a political risk and get one’s hands dirty. True politics – and this is also a lesson of true love – is characterised by risk.

Of course, Syriza and the new European radical left parties (the Spanish Podemos, Slovenian United Left, or newly formed Croatian Worker’s Front) are very well aware of all the temptations and possible failures when it comes to seizing power: Just remember Joschka Fischer as the perfect personification of  the transformation from a leader of 1968 into the foreign minister of Germany; or Manuel Barroso, who was one of the leaders of an underground Maoist group, to become the president of the European Commission. But this is still not a reason to stop aiming at seizing power. On the contrary, it seems it is precisely this awareness – not to end up like Fischer or Barroso – that keeps them moving into the direction taking over state power.  

What will decide whether new left governments in Europe will be truly left or will soon fall into the same trap of the ‘long march through institutions’, is precisely the question of power.

It is a problem already described by Stuart Hall in his article “The State – Socialism’s Old Caretaker” 30 years ago, in 1984: “On the one hand, we not only defend the welfare side of the state, we believe it should be massively expanded. And yet, on the other hand, we feel there is something deeply anti-socialist about how this welfare state functions. […] And where, to be honest, do we stand on the issue? Are we for ‘rolling back the state’ – including the welfare state? Are we for or against the management of the whole society by the state? Not for the first time, Thatcherism here catches the left on the hop – hopping from one uncertain position to the next, unsure of our ground.”

It seems this is the best description of the biggest temptation of Syriza now, after seizing power. We know very well that social democracy or the welfare state isn’t socialism, that it was the product of the historic compromise between labour and capital (in order to get rid of the spectre of Communism), but the social circumstances in almost every European country are so disastrous that even preserving or reforming the welfare state would be a radical measure.

We know very well that there is nothing radical in it per se, but it is the same as, for instance, Thomas Piketty’s recent proposal from his Capital in the 21st Century: Yes, we know that heavy taxation on wealth won’t bring Communism (especially if it is not done on a global level), but in a situation of radical inequality, even this measure (on a national level) seems radical. No wonder Piketty met with Pablo Iglesias recently

What will decide whether this, what we might call “the new political sequence” (Syriza, Podemos, etc) will be truly radical or not, is precisely how the two above-mentioned Negri propositions will be dealt with, how to combine horizontality and verticality.

Dialectal will

On the one hand, if the new radical left parties don’t stay in close contact with the movements from the squares, using the mechanisms of horizontality in their own party structure, they might easily end up like the worst nightmares of 1968. We should take into account all the new experiences of direct democracy to avoid the mistakes of the past. The political will must become a dialectal will.

On the other hand, when new radical left parties really seize power, what is of uttermost importance is the question of the state. And it is here that we should remember what Lenin wrote in his famous 1918 text “Left Wing Childishness”.

“Socialism is inconceivable without large-scale capitalist engineering based on the latest discoveries of modern science. It is inconceivable without planned state organisation which keeps tens of millions of people to the strictest observance of a unified standard in production and distribution. We Marxists have always spoken of this, and it is not worthwhile wasting two seconds talking to people who do not understand even this.”

However, what is for sure today is that we can’t just return to the Soviet model of monopoly state power, neither to the social-democratic (welfare state) compromise. What will, beside the relation to horizontality, decide whether new left governments in Europe will be truly left or will soon fall into the same trap of the “long march through institutions”, is precisely the question of power. How to enact power and how to resist power, at the same time. This is the easiest and most difficult thing to do. This is the most serious temptation of the left.

After victory comes hard work.

Srecko Horvat is a philosopher from Croatia. His latest books include “After the End of History. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement” and “What Does Europe Want?”, co-authored with Slavoj Zizek.