Thursday, May 31, 2012

Some thoughts on the Egyptian and Greek elections


Some thoughts on the Egyptian and Greek elections.

Some people are asking how can the IS tendency vote for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) but not for the left reformist, Syriza ? The first thing that needs to be said is that the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialist (RS) are an independent organisation who make up their own minds on these questions. And before anyone suggests this is pedantry they should realise this is a very important point for our Egyptian friends.

The second thing is that these people seem to think this is self -evidently a monstrous contradiction. But this is not a serious way to pose the question. There are two different elections in two different countries and each has to be considered concretely – they should not be mechanically counterposed.

In Egypt there is a run off between two candidates, Shafiq and Mursi.. The only possible options for the left in this election are abstention or a vote for Mursi (the MB candidate). In Greece, Antarsya and SEK (SWP) face the problem that in their election if they vote for Syriza they cannot stand themselves. Conversely if they stand they cannot vote for Syriza.

The RS have decided that in their concrete situation it is very important to prevent the election of Shafiq – a leading Mubarak supporter and ‘feloul’ (remnant of the old regime) – as this would mean a serious victory for SCAF and the counterrevolution. Therefore it is necessary to give critical support for Mursi, without in anyway agreeing with his programme or ideas. This may be correct or not but it is a perfectly reasonable and principled decision for a revolutionary organisation to take. And need I remind people that the RS are a very serious and principled organisation.

SEK and Antarsya have decide they will stand in the election, even though they know they will be squeezed and get a low vote, because they have a distinct programme (more radical than Syriza’s) they want to put before the Greek working class – they call for for Greece to default on its debt, nationalise the banks, cut the working day, and leave the euro on its own terms. This is only an obviously ‘mad’ or ‘sectarian’ decision if you have faith in the ability of a Syriza led government to resolve the crisis in the interests of the working class.

I’m not in Egypt or Greece, so I don’t feel well qualified to judge the situation. Nevertheless I know Egypt (having visited quite often) better than Greece so I’ll start with there. I support the RS statement. In my opinion there has been for some time a serious danger facing the revolution and the revolutionaries and this danger has been compounded by a tendency of the revolutionaries to run too far ahead of the less advanced majority of the masses as if they could overthrow SCAF simply through will power and their own heroic . struggle on the streets. This is an understandable, and very brave, mistake but a mistake nonetheless. To overthrow the regime the revolutionaries have to win over the masses, and that means, as Lenin explained at great length in ‘Left- Wing Communism- an Infantile Disorder’, knowing when to engage in direct battle, when to retreat and when to ‘patiently explain’.

As I said I know much less about Greece but I do know that the entire historical experience of ‘left’ governments in times of serious crisis shows that this is a perilous situation for working people – remember Allende, the Spanish Popular Front, the Hungarian ‘Soviet’ Government of Bela Kun, and so on: all followed by merciless repression. The French revolutionary, St Just, warned that those who make a revolution half way dig their own graves.

This is not a reason to ‘oppose’ Syriza, or ‘workers’ governments’ in general [on the contrary they should be given critical support ] and that is not what SEK are doing, but it is a reason to maintain and build a clear independent revolutionary alternative, which is what they are trying to do. It is also a reason for Marxists not suddenly to drop all their historic critique of reformism and centrism.

In reading some of the debate online with, as so often, people who don’t know very much about the situations  pronouncing dogmatically (especially if they can bash the SWP) I found myself recalling something written by Lukacs in ‘History and Class Consciousness’.

It is ridiculous,” Lenin says in a statement that only caricatures the situation formally, not essentially, “to imagine an army taking up battle positions somewhere and saying: ‘We are for Socialism’ while somewhere else another army will stand and declare: ‘We are for Imperialism’ and that such a situation should constitute a social revolution."” The emergence of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary fronts is full of vicissitudes and is frequently chaotic in the extreme. Forces that work towards revolution today may very well operate in the reverse direction tomorrow. And it is vital to note that these changes of direction do not simply follow mechanically from the class situation or even from the ideology of the stratum concerned. They are determined decisively by the constantly changing relations with the totality of the historical situation and the social forces at work. So that it is no very great paradox to assert that, for instance, Kemal Pasha may represent a revolutionary constellation of forces in certain circumstances whilst a great ‘workers’ party’ may be counter-revolutionary. [G.Lukacs, H&CC, 1971, p.311]

Before anyone gets excited I’m NOT saying that Mursi and the MB are a ‘revolutionary constellation of forces’ or that Syriza is ‘counter revolutionary. I merely quote Lukacs to show that these matters are not as simple as some people seem to think. And while we are at it it is also worth recalling that when Zinoviev debated Martov at the USPD Halle Congress in 1920 and won the majority over to the German Communist Party and the Third International, the social democrat Hilferding mocked the Bolsheviks for their alliance with ‘the mullahs of Chiva’ at the Baku Congress of the People of the East and Martov denounced them for their dealings with Enver Pasha.(See ‘Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle’, edited by Ben Lewis and Lars Lih). [Zinoviev’s reply was simply that if you are serious about world revolution you have to relate to the hundreds of millions of Asia. Many of whom are muslim].

Obviously none of these historical references proves that either RS or SEK have made the correct decisions in their respective situations – that will have to be tested and proved in practice. However they do show that neither organization is being ‘obviously’ unprincipled or absurd.

John Molyneux
1 June 1, 2012

25 comments:

Phil said...

How does running candidates who have no chance of getting anywhere close to winning seats in parliament and whose vote, if current polls are correct, will decline significantly from last month's election, help "build a clear independent revolutionary alternative"? And how is it consistent with giving "critical support" to Syriza, when Antarsya candidates will be running against Syriza?

SEK could call for critical support for Syriza in this month's election while maintaining its organizational and ideological independence. It could build a common front with the various revolutionary organizations that are part of Syriza, both to pull the Syriza leadership further to the left and to engage in non-electoral activity (like organizing against Greece's fascists). If done successfully, these would be ways of building an effective revolutionary current. By contrast, running candidates against Syriza will simply look sectarian to the vast majority of Greek workers. Unfortunately, that's because it is sectarian.

NM said...

For all the talk about concrete analysis of the situations on the ground, there's very little concretely being said here.

Concretely—of what benefit of the Egyptian working class or the revolution is it to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood? When was the last time such a tactic "worked"? When was the last time a national left found itself decimated when an imperialist stooge was replaced by an Islamicist movement? (How strange it is to mention Chile etc., but leave out Iran when discussing Egypt!)

This is abstract excuse-making or what is fairly obviously in both cases a mistake. The Greek section's mistake is very obvious—the argument SEK/Antarsya is making has to be made, in part, to Syriza, which does represent a significant portion of the class! Minor elements in coalitions can wield influence; much more influence than sectarian outliers.

On the other hand, calling for a far-right vote as your Egyptian comrades is doing is just madness. How is Mursi any less counter-revolutionary than Shariq?

John Mullen said...

I agree, John, that the position of the SEK is not a position which is always and everywhere wrong in principle, although I suspect it is wrong in Greece today. I am rather intrigued by the idea of preferring to ally with other Trotskyists and maoists rather than with Left reformists-in-a-historic-crisis. Surely in general one would ally with Maoists only when the situation is so bad we need to huddle together and keep warm? Noone thinks the masses will turn to a mix of maoism and trotskyism any time soon. It would be good to have an idea how many new people are drawn to the different revolutionary organizations inside and outside Syriza.
Of course I am being flippant, and the Greek revolutionaries have a job which is a hundred times harder than ours right now, but ...

johng said...

"By contrast, running candidates against Syriza will simply look sectarian to the vast majority of Greek workers. Unfortunately, that's because it is sectarian."

You know this how Phil? My understanding is that some of the most advanced sections of the class (my understanding is that its the duty of revolutionaries to relate to them) are unfortunately organised in the stalinist and really sectarian KKE. Its also true that revolutionaries in Greece are not marginalised or on the fringes of the very significant class struggles and mobilisations of the last few years. There is, in other words, in Greece, a real vanguard in the class that revolutionaries have to relate to. Many of those workers are quite hostile to some of the organisations involved in Syrizia. Partly this is indeed sectarians. Partly its real experiance (the eurocoms have a pretty scummy record) partly it reflects the fact that they are extremely cynical about the political process. This means that many are pulled by the arguments of the KKE. It is the main task of revolutionaries to influence these people. It would be good to hear explained how entering Syrizia or standing down politically would help in this process. I am, in this discussion, increasingly reminded of the film Sexy Beast. The Don Logan's of the international brigade are gathering to tell the comrades whats what. But seem utterly uninterested in their actual situation.

Roobin said...

The point about the article, as far as I can see, is not to offer advice from Coyoacán, but to say to people who are not immersed in these struggles to f-ing cool it. There's too much "ah-ha, gotcha!" going on. These may turn out to be mistakes, they may not, but they're not obvious mistakes perhaps derived from some heinous political heresy that needs rooting out by the CPGB Provisional Marxist-Leninist-Onanist Committee for a Movement Towards a New International of Socialist Renewal of Marxism-Leninism in the 21st Century (ML).

Also, what the heck is anybody going to actually DO about this, from 2,000 miles away on a Friday?

John Mullen said...

Well, given the ease of communications these days, quite a lot of revolutionaries elsewhere have regular contacts with comrades in Greece, so comradely discussion may be of practical use, as well as being part of our own education.

Roobin said...

I can understand if the Greeks debated this subject with verve and passion (and sometimes strayed into calling each other sterile polemicists). But when it comes to the British online left, the bulk of the debate seems like grenade tennis, just pure bonkersness. It doesn't help that there's no chtat delo at the end of the discussion.

Harry Monro said...

I think the situation in Greece would be tactically different if the vote for Antarsya would deny Syriza being the biggest party, but no evidence from the last election or the current polls suggests that. In the present circumstances it would be foolish for Antarsya not to put the their program before the class at every opportunity. One further point both Syriza and Antarsya are not parties but alliances, this obviously makes things more complex for SEK in terms of peripheries they focus on. Of course they have a program aimed at the class as a whole but in terms of building a party out of a very small group other considerations can come into play.
On considering Iran in regards to Egypt, I think the difference is enormous, most obviously because of the nature of the politics of the two biggest "leftist" groups in Iran at the time of the Shah.

mr singh said...

Its like you didn't even read it.

mr singh said...

Who the hell are you?
The people who made this decision will have to deal with whatever happens - have some respect. So patronising ona computer screen - wonder if that is what you are always like.

louisproyect said...

Maybe the IST comrades can begin to analyze why they continue to function as left critics of faulty leaderships rather than becoming unfawlty leaderships themselves? There is something that psychotherapists call the Coyoacan Complex, ya know.

Roobin said...

Is it listed in any reputable journal of psychotherapy...? If anything this is the opposite of a "Coyoacan Complex"...

Mark P said...

The decision taken by Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists to back the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood is deeply regrettable. As is its call for the "formation of a government across the whole political spectrum" (ie a popular front government). As too are the decisions of the Irish and British SWPs to back the stance of the Egyptian group uncritically in their press.

I don't say that to score points or to dismiss a young and inexperienced group of socialists operating in difficult conditions. The building of an independent political movement of the working class is a central issue in Egypt for the moment, and any decision to fall in behind capitalist forces, whether religious or otherwise, serves only to undermine that effort. It's all the more unfortunate when you remember that while the RS does have the capacity to play something of a role in helping the development of the Egyptian workers movement, it does not have the capacity to meaningfully influence the results of the second round of the Presidential election no matter what stance it takes. Lesser Evil politics are dubious at the best of times but downright silly when your decision is extremely unlikely to influence which Evil you end up with.

Having said that, John is correct that there is no obvious reason why this stance should be viewed in juxtaposition with the stance taken by the Greek SWP in the Greek elections. That comparison displays that there is no particular coherence to the IST's tactics, but beyond that it doesn't really tell us much about the strengths and weaknesses of either group's approach. A better comparison is with the LCR's decision to call for a vote for Chirac in the second round of the 2002 French Presidential elections.

The issues at stake in Greece are quite different. I do however agree with some of the SWP's critics that the Greek SWP is making a sectarian mistake in counterposing its little "revolutionary" alliance to SYRIZA, rather than engaging in a battle in and around SYRIZA.

There's nothing particularly unprincipled in the Greek SWP's approach - sometimes it is necessary for revolutionaries to contest elections under their own banner - I just think that they are tactically mistaken to stand aside from SYRIZA when that is where the Greek workers are turning.

SM said...

Im not sure the ISO description of the egyptian election as "lesser evilism" is particularly useful. The situation in the US, two historic parties of the bourgeoisie, and the current situation in egypt are quite different. In the main, because the mb has a very different social base to its opponents, and a critical vote for them is part of a process of trying to split away the forces at the bottom of that base. Obviously it was a very different context, but i think that trotskys comments about "lesser evilism" is a very useful starting point here
"We Marxists regard Brüning and Hitler, Braun included, as component parts of one and the same system. The question as to which one of them is the “lesser evil” has no sense, for the system we are fighting against needs all these elements. But these elements are momentarily involved in conflicts with one another and the party of the proletariat must take advantage of these conflicts in the interest of the revolution.

There are seven keys in the musical scale. The question as to which of these keys is “better” – do, re, or sol – is a nonsensical question. But the musician must know when to strike and what keys to strike. The abstract question of who is the lesser evil – Brüning or Hitler – is just as nonsensical. It is necessary to know which of these keys to strike."

johng said...

I thought it was excellent that John drew attention to the tendency for revolutionaries (very bravely) to substitute themselves for absent social and political forces. There WAS a revolution in Egypt even if its not one that the left led. The left has certainly made great gains in this (one can see this in the first rounds of voting). But at issue here is whether a representative of THE and not A counterrevolutionary force will be elected. If that happens its a disaster. Its wildly ultraleft in those circumstances to abstain. There is a counter-revolutionary mood around crime, security of property, social instability etc. To abstain is effectively to back this mood of fear of the future and regret about the past. I’d also noticed comrades noting how weak the working class movement was and the disasterous impact that restoration of dictatorship (with the mass support of a vote) would have. As a side note its why some had concerns about permenant revolution as a description of events as opposed to a longer term strategic goal. The recomposition of the class under neo-liberalism. the legacy of dictatorship etc, etc all mean that the working class needs space to breath and organise and so do the left. To behave as if it makes no difference if most people vote for a return of the old regime and all this is shut down…how crazy. The comparison with American lessor evilism just seems obsessively parochial in these circumstances.

Phil said...

Apparently many on the Egyptian left are "wildly ultraleft": http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=107982. There is a sharp debate going on in the country about whether leftists should hold their noses and vote for Mursi, or boycott the second round. It is a hard choice. To his credit, John Molyneux recognizes this. Unfortunately "johng" doesn't.

johng said...

I do. But it would be really nice if you could actually respond seriously in relationship to the politics. There are so many far more important questions in the world then a rather pathetic contest within the IS tradition. I have to say (if this doesn't make it through moderation I DO understand)I am so bitterly disappointed by all this crap. Is it possible not to behave like a bunch of Healyite moonies and have a real political discussion? Its not as if there are not serious questions to discuss.

Harry Monro said...

As someone who when in the SWP always opposed the split with the ISO, I find their language towards the Egyptian comrades very depressing. If they do not understand the difference between US ruling class politics, that have prevailed in a stable democracy for 150 years with the present situation in Egypt and the role of the army in the background I'm afraid they are in serious trouble. Personally I'd find voting for Ralph Nader more problematic than finding common cause with a section of the MB voters.
Similarly while I hoped to find from them a sophisticated critique of SEK (so I could test my own opinions against co-thinkers with a different) I found the coverage of Greece weak. Yes the DEA say the real struggle is outside of the elections and put forward three good demands, but also talk about a Syriza changing the Memorandum and say to achieve anything they must rely on the European working classes because "But we need strong support in this, because alone, we can't do much". This sounds very much like preparing your excuses in advance. Of course any workers struggle calls for solidarity but to start of saying you can achieve nothing without it is a strange way of mobilizing your own forces.

Phil said...

I guess what if find, if not depressing, then a little sad, are the people who view the whole world through the prism of "debates within the IS tradition". The real debate is going on among the Egyptian left, many of whom see the two remaining candidates as "Two Faces of the Old Order" (as Adam Schatz put in the LRB a few days ago: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2012/05/26/adam-shatz/two-faces-of-the-old-order/). Speaking personally, I don't have a firm view about who is right, but I do think that characterizations like "wildly ultraleft" and "Healeyites" make clear why this forum would not be a useful place to debate the substance, even assuming that people had something more to offer than superficial generalizations that repeat the party line. Debate is good. Ritual denunciation of the heretics just wastes all our time.

johng said...

Phil I made serious points. You responded in a sectarian way. John's points about the dangers of substitutionalism, the egyptian comrades points of the political weaknesses of the class in the present situation, the wider issue that this is a run off between a supporter and an opponent of the old regime in the aftermath of a revolutionary movement overthrowing its figurehead, that perhaps seeing this as the equivilant of lessor evilism in the united states is a little parochial....

These are 'repetitions of the party line', 'ritual denunciations of heretics' etc, etc. (I should say its also not the 'party line' to suggest that the theory of permanent revolution may not be the best framework for understanding the immediate reality).

It seems the other way round to me. A simple refusal to engage politically.

johng said...

I very much enjoyed the response of the Egyptian revolutionary socialists in the US Socialist Worker:

http://socialistworker.org/2012/06/03/reply-on-egypts-elections

johng said...

This lot seem ok to me:
http://4thinternational.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/manos-skoufoglou-pendulum.html
...."But there is also one more reason why I am extremely skeptical about a collaboration or a vote “without any illusion” for SYRIZA, though not denying that such a proposal could have a fair reasoning. Deluded or not, all votes in a ballot count the same, which is as one vote. Moreover, it is proven that there are few bigger illusions than thinking you can support a party without any illusions. Because the illusion here regards the influence you suppose you have on a party just because you have proved your credibility by supporting it. I strongly believe that ANTARSYA, despite its bureaucratic mistakes, pressures SYRIZA from the outside much more efficiently than anticapitalist organizations who are “recomposing” or “applying entryism” inside it. What exactly are those organizations determining about Tsipras post-electoral game? PASOK can offer plentiful information from the past of a delusion that has cost trotskyism a lot: the concept that reformism can change its route or at least discredit itself in the eyes of its supporters by the activity of informal revolutionary lobbies who pressure its bureaucratic leadership from the inside. It is a paradox that a current that came to life striving to build really revolutionary parties in the place of the old degenerated ones has often undervalued the importance of autonomous revolutionary parties – I am not talking so much about the program as about the painful task to structure it into a distinguished collective subject."

Harry Monro said...

Phil
while my first thoughts are with how the struggle play out in Egypt and Greece, the truth is most of the commentators on this bog, and others I read, come from the European and North American world, their political positions reflect that. I come from one tradition with certain theoretical positions. I become upset when people who come from that tradition seem to reject the analysis developed by comrades in those countries without paying attention to their arguments and instead substitute polemics based on arguments foreign to that tradition. I realize those outside of the IS might find that boring but the article at the top started off looking at the positions taken by our comrades in Egypt and Greece, I sought to defend those comrades.
You choice of evidence of the minds of the Egyptian masses are the words an LRB writer chose to select to express his version of events. The evidence I choose to back up our comrades are the masses that rallied against the recent court verdicts. I see those masses as proof that the Egyptian comrades understand exactly how the Egyptian working class identify with one side as being for the defense of the revolution and one side against it. The Egyptian comrades have no illusions in the MB, but they understand how large sections of the working classes do, all their statements say that to me at least. On the other hand the ISO make great play of an alliance of 8 "leftist" groups that will abstain, I spend a couple of days reading all I could find on these "leftist" groups and most of them all I can say, "leftist"? I would one day like to see a revolution in the US, it is less likely if the best group in the US is drifting badly when it comes to understanding how small groups relate to the masses.

Phil said...

Harry,

I made one simple point: if you want a serious discussion about anything, don't begin by characterizing your opponents as "Healeyites". Apparently I am a sectarian for suggesting this.

I will add that if you want to see a serious discussion about this issue, read the debate currently unfolding at http://socialistworker.org — three contributions so far and more to come.

GrahamB said...

"In Egypt there is a run off between two candidates, Shafiq and Mursi.. The only possible options for the left in this election are abstention or a vote for Mursi (the MB candidate)."

Would you have voted for Chirac against Le Pen in the 2002 French Presidential run-off, or abstained?