The Left in Europe: From Social Democracy to the Crisis in the Euro Zone

Published on ZNet (Source: New Politics), Interview with Leo Panitch, by Adaner Usmani, January 21, 2013.

… AU: Well, and partly isn’t it a result of the fact that this crisis has occurred — certainly this contrast works best in the case of the United States — in a context where the left infrastructure of an earlier age has disintegrated?

  • LP: Well, yes, I was going to say: the whole reason it takes this quasi-anarchist form — and why the zeitgeist of the time for so many people is quasi-anarchist — is because of the failures of working class institutions. This is a very old story, dating to long before this crisis. I mean you need only think of their failures to energize generations of youth in the 1950s; by the 1960s that generation thought that social democracy and communism were already finished as the future of the left. So, yes, there’s no channeling of that sentiment into the traditional working-class parties in Europe. It fits into our previous discussion.
  • Moreover, there’s also the fact that where social democratic parties are in government they find themselves burdened with actually administering the crisis. This means that they’re doing things that make them the immediate targets of popular outrage.
  • So you get this explosion, and it indicates a substantial crisis of legitimacy. This is not new; it’s already been around, at least since the late 90s. Neoliberalism has had very little ideological purchase. Davos, remember, was spending its time trying to prove that the rich would engage in anti-poverty programs, rather than simply pushing free market ideology. After the World Social Forums in 2002 and 2003, Davos had to respond.
  • So ideologically it as already in trouble. Nevertheless, what you’ve seen is a reinforcement of neoliberal forms. There’s now enormous pressure for austerity, even in the rich countries. And that has effects, which are very, very interesting, I think. And pregnant with possibilities.
  • The problem is that it isn’t easy in liberal democracies, even if they’re structured with proportional representation, to displace any existing parties. It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult. It’s very, very difficult. And you’d have to look at each particular case. But it’s striking how difficult it is to make a breakthrough.
  • You saw it with Mélenchon. There you get an alliance between the CP, which still has a very large membership, the old Trotksyist left, and a portion of the Socialist Party left which came out of the alliance they formed to defeat the European constitutional referendum in 2005. But even there, even if they make a breakthrough in the first round, it proves not enough of a breakthrough. They end up supporting the Socialist Party, which then reproduces the Socialist Party as an institution. It’s very difficult.
  • I think it’s tragic in the German case that Die Linke have not made a breakthrough. Partly this has to do with internal divisions within them, which coincided with the moment of the crisis…

AU: And then also the fact that the crisis hasn’t been as severe, in Germany?

  • LP: Yes, I think that’s probably true.
  • Anyway, so the one breakthrough has come in Greece. And that has very much to do with the fact that the Eurocommunists in Greece had already established a strong institutional base through the 1990s — certainly by 2004. That had very much to do with the dynamics of Greek politics; it can’t be generalized. Perhaps above all it had to do with the trajectory of PASOK, which got elected on a very radical program in the 1980s (as radical as Mitterand in 1981), under Andreas Papandreou. It had absorbed a good part of the Greek left. Some had been suspicious of it, but people in general were very happy in 1981. They weren’t quite the celebrations that they had at the Polytechnic when they brought down the dictatorship in 1974, but they were close.
  • What happened very quickly was that PASOK was absorbed into the clientelism of the Greek state. What one has to say about the Greek state is that it’s not a Weberian state. Very few of the states that came out of the Ottoman Empire look like a bureaucratic-rational state. So, for example, the Greek state does have a problem collecting taxes. Votes are bought through a clientelist system of a kind that certainly Canada and the United States have known, but not quite since the 19th century. It is terribly blatant in Greece. The logic is “I’ll give you and your family jobs if you ensure that we get the votes in this village.”
  • PASOK very quickly accommodated itself to that form of Greek state — very, very quickly. So you got a break, by the end of the 1980s, by Eurocommunists who were modernizing forces. The CP was utterly Stalinist, and although it entered very pragmatically into a coalition government in 1991, it became more and more entrenched in its Stalinism, especially after the Gorbachev experiment failed. It’s very openly Stalinist, it’s quite staggering, really.
  • As a result there was a big institutional void, and that was eventually filled by the most impressive forces in Greece—by the coalition which became Syriza, which grew out of the largest party that had broken away from the Communists, which was SYNAPSISMOS, together with various social movements.
  • It’s all very impressive. Take, for example, its economic program, a four hundred-page document written in consultation with the social movements, in 2008. It’s like the kind of program Greg Albo, Sam Gindin, and I wrote about in the last two chapters of In and Out of Crisis. Something like a transitional socialist program to be carried out by an elected government—including, perhaps most importantly, nationalizing the banks and then socializing them, by which you’re trying to say that they would no longer act as traditional banks.
  • So Greece is the one case where you saw that there was the requisite institutional capacity. They didn’t know how much institutional capacity they had, at the time, but it turned out to be a lot.

AU: If you were to generalize the lessons from their success, then, what are they? Is the simple implication, then, that where you have infrastructure in hand, you are well placed to take advantage? And that, otherwise, the consequences of crisis are generally bleak?

  • LP: Yes. I say this and I believe it because it confirms the politics I have failed at for most of my life. Since the 1970s I and many comrades have been trying to found — and I’m in Canada, so I do it there, but I speak of it much more broadly — to found a post-Leninist, post-social democratic type of working class political organization. One which is non-insurrectionary but committed to social transformation. And my generation has failed to do that. There are others of my generation who have tried to build a better Leninism. And they were mostly Trotskyists, and that too has failed.
  • What’s happened in Syriza is what I’ve always wanted to happen, and called for. I have always thought it is a very difficult and slow process. In this country, for example, I meet activists who agree that we need to get beyond localism. Who agree that we need to build a cadre right across the country who are committed to building a socialist organization. In fact I’ve seen more of them here in the United States than I see anywhere else. Certainly more than in Europe, and usually more than in Canada. They’re often black activists out of these kinds of local worker action centers, or their equivalent.

AU: The challenge is to give that political coherence, is it not?

  • LP: To give it political coherence — in this specific case to make sure it’s not laden with the odd, weak kind of third worldism that is so blatant on the American left. It has to shed traces of being enthralled with certain Leninist principles. But it’s a long and slow process. People are quite right to ask, “Well, what about in the interim?” That’s why they end up voting for Obama. It’s a very long and slow process, but if we’re ever going to get anywhere, we have to build those sorts of institutions.

AU: Just briefly I’d like to return to the issue of Syriza’s economic program. You published a piece in the 2012 Socialist Register by Costas Lapavitsas, which made the argument that the left needs to break with its Europeanism. The only true radical strategy, he argues, is a strategy of default. This is obviously not what Syriza was thinking. It was of course the source of much tension with others on the left, notably ANTARSYA. What do you make of that argument?

  • LP: I think Lapavitsas is objectively right but has no politics. So, I too felt that if the Greeks had only defaulted immediately they could have saved themselves tremendous hardship. It also would have been exemplary, in terms of exhibiting the necessity of introducing capital controls, not only in terms of inflows/outflows, but also capital controls in the sense of controls over investment.
  • But the problem is that most Greeks don’t want it. Very genuinely the leadership of Syriza doesn’t want it. There’s a strong psychological and emotional attachment to being part of the Euro zone.
  • Moreover, any serious politician has to be aware of the costs. You know, in a way you’re back in 1917. That is, the weakest link would break, but the question remains: would there be a shift in balance of forces in Germany, which would at least lessen the pressure on Greece? They after all have to secure imports, and the consequences of being frozen out of financial markets might well be severe. It’s a real dilemma.
  • Now one should not at all be naïve, and accept the mendacious reporting of most of the bourgeois press: that what Syriza intends is to pull out. The danger is in fact that Syriza might accommodate in order to avoid pulling out. But if they are to be believed, and if the pressures inside the party are such that they hold their feet to the fire, I think they’d be kicked out for refusing to engage in these negotiations with the Troika. They would introduce the legislation that they promised, which would repeal the legislation that implemented the previous structural adjustment reforms. And it’s not impossible that they then would be pushed out.
  • But one shouldn’t have any illusions: the consequence of that would be very severe. For them not to be very severe they would then have to do some very radical things. But then the big question is whether they have the institutional capacity in the State to do those things.

AU: And whether they have the political capacity, as well.

  • LP: To mobilize the population, yes. But even if they did, I mean.
  • And there’s a dilemma there, too. Because if they took the best cadre and put them into the state knowing that they need to reform the state desperately, the party would suffer. You would be taking the most honest people, the most capable people out of the party. So could the party, then, be doing the mobilizing that it needs to do? It’s an old problem.
  • So this is a great dilemma. One should never look at this stuff with rose-colored glasses. The worst thing that the left can do — and I think it’s really important now in the case of Syriza, because it is not unlikely that they’ll get elected — is to do what they tended to do with the Workers’ Party in Brazil, which is to romanticize the experience. One needs to look at developments from the point of view of the difficulties that the party will have, what contradictions they will run into, and not regard whatever as terrific because they’re nice people.

AU: This is my last question. If we take a step back and look more generally at what the effects of the crisis have been politically, in Europe, it’s certainly important to note there has been this incipient left radicalization, in some places, both electoral and street. And there’s also been the rise of the right, in some parts. But then there’s also been — and there are different ways of cutting this — a level of stability in bourgeois politics. The center is holding, in some ways, in many places. Do you think that says anything? About liberal democracy, maybe?

  • LP: I do. I think there’s a great danger that we’ll scare ourselves out of our wits if we point to Golden Dawn too much. At the moment, thankfully, the far right has not made enormous strides. There’s a tendency on the left to try to look at how bad things are. That can only have the effect of producing a popular front politics again. Although that may be necessary in the long run, at the moment it’s not. The effect of producing a popular front politics now would mean that you would have to accommodate to that wing in the popular front that was furthest to the right. Which, of course, is the nature of popular front politics. When we need mobilization, socialist education, and the development of class capacities, this is not a path that we want to be on. So I don’t think we should scare ourselves about Golden Dawn or other tendencies inside Europe.
  • And I think your point is therefore very important. What is very striking — while there is this enormous protest — is, as you say, the stability of the bourgeois democratic form. Despite, again, the reinforcement of the neoliberal form of economic rule.
  • And maybe that’s fortunate, for us. Because we need time. If the catastrophists, of which there are a great many, are right that we’ve only got five or ten years, we’re screwed. I mean, really screwed. Whether that’s the ecological crisis, or before fascism takes over, or what have you.
  • If we’re to be successful in the tasks ahead of us, we have to hope for a certain stability of the liberal democratic form.

(full long interview text).


We Stand with the Greek People Fighting Austerity, For Their Sake and Ours: Campaign for Peace and Democracy, on New Politics, Vol:XIV-2, Winter 2013;

An Ascending Trajectory? Ten of the Most Important Social Conflicts in the United States in 2012, on New Politics, by Dan La Botz, December 31, 2012;

Building a Better World, on New Politics, by Greg King, December 24, 2012.

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