Note: Aristides Baltas, emeritus professor of the Philosophy of Science and the author of numerous books, served as Greece’s minister of Culture, Education and Religious Affairs and later as Minister of Culture and Sports during the 2015-2019 administration of SYRIZA, which stands for Coalition of the Radical Left – Progressive Alliance. Here he reflects on the experience of a left-wing party that, if only under crisis conditions, was afforded the opportunity to govern a modern European nation. This talk was delivered at a conference on “Left Theory and the Experience of Syriza” and will be published by the Nikos Poulantzas Institute in the conference proceedings.
In memory of Leo Panitch
All social experiences are singular. Each takes place at some fixed time and is discharged at a particular location; each is constrained by idiosyncratic factors that work both inside it and outside of it; each is dependent upon specific conditions, social as well as historical. No one can be replicated, repeated or serve as a prototype. Yet some may lay claim to more general interest for they can be both effective and instructive: a particular social and/or political experience is effective insofar as it transforms things and power relations at this or that scale and thus assists analogous experiences at different times and places. And it can be instructive insofar as it demonstrates the capacity of walking on untrodden ground thus opening new vistas. Vistas coupled to the experience’s bringing forth novel ideas as well as it’s pinpointing entrenched fallacies that have consistently led to impasses or dead-ends.
A social and/or political experience cannot attain immediately and effortlessly the theoretical level. Before achieving it and in order to achieve it, before acquiring the earnestness of worked out concepts, the experience has to be variously discussed as such and copiously elaborated. Its salient features have to be singled out in their own right, become connected to and differentiated from the salient features of analogous experiences, be thought out and thought through by everybody concerned.
Given these general remarks, the very fact that we are participating at the present conference implies –I take it– that we all share the belief that the experience that can be named “Syriza in power” is a case in point. But in respect to this experience, we are all still limited, I believe, to levels of reflection coming before theorization proper. We find ourselves still in the process of locating and identifying different parameters and dimensions of that experience and in particular those revealing the capacity to bear general interest, at least from the vantage point of the international Left. In other words, we are still at the stage when we have to locate what exactly might be instructive in the above sense, the processes, stances, attitudes and initiatives that can be offered to theorization.
The party of Syriza has proceeded to the clarification and initial evaluation of the experience it acquired in governing Greece for four and a half years. That experience has been discussed more or less thoroughly inside the party with the document presenting it (125 pages long) being voted unanimously (with one vote of abstention) by the party’s Central Committee. This document, titled Account of Syriza 2012-2019, is actually in the process of being translated into English. In addition, the Nikos Poulantzas Institute has initiated a process whereby the experience in question is being discussed and studied at a more detailed level.
In the present paper, I will not attempt to summarize the document in question or the first steps of its deeper discussion. Instead, I take up a few of the points the document raises and examine them in a way that might have appealed to Leo Panitch. In other words, I try to renew, as it were, the conversation we had started in 2012 and continued intermittently all these dense years in forcing myself at the same time not to succumb to the unbearable burden of his absence. This is a humble even if only indirect way of expressing publicly my deepest thanks for all he has done for us generally and for me personally…
To begin with, I try making explicit the minimal theoretical framework determining the contours of the experience in question, at least as I have come to understand both this experience and what has been framing it. This is a framework supposed to be general (and minimal) enough to embrace the views most of us in this conference share one way or another. It forms, at least according to me, the kind of common ground on which we all stand. Of course this does not mean or imply that the framework is beyond criticism. Far from it. Each one of its tenets as well as the way they hang together is up for elucidation, elaboration, interpretation, critical evaluation or even outright rejection. Nonetheless my formulating it right from the start, even if only very sketchily, might be helpful for channeling the discussion with a modicum of theoretical discipline.
In an interview given to a Greek newspaper (Εφημερίδα των Συντακτών, February 12-13, 2020) the South Korean film director Bong Joon Ho was asked how he explains the fact that his film Parasite won the Best Picture Academy Award (Oscar) for 2019. Despite, so to speak, the fact that the film is set in Seoul and conversation is conducted in the largely unknown language of his country. The reply was disarming in its generality and simplicity: “We live in a gigantic capitalist nation”.
If we do not place undue emphasis on the term “nation”, the reply is disarming for it reiterates the obvious: nowadays formal borders and dominant languages cannot erect impenetrable barriers to ideas or sensitivities coming from anywhere in the globe. Concern towards social issues can cross such obstacles and circulate throughout the “gigantic nation” while forms of reaction, stances, attitudes and modes of action can become generally known and inspirational for others. This is to say that the fates of a film or of a work of art and by extension the fates of any and all of us have become interdependent and interwoven, determined to this or that extent by what happens in this or another part, however remote, of the “nation” we all inhabit. To go one step further and to put it succinctly, the “capitalist nation” presently possesses no outside.
Of course this does not entail that capitalism is our inescapable fate: all kinds of struggle against its multiform manifestations have never ceased since its beginnings, they continue and will continue. That it presently possesses no outside means, then, that we are in no position to fight it by being situated, or imagine being situated, at some position allowing us to take it up and confront it as a whole. We can criticize and fight against what it has been doing to the peoples of this earth and to that earth itself –we start realizing that we live in the devastating anthropocene era– we can unravel its modes of operation and its ways of functioning, we can understand how it was brought about, how it evolved and how it managed to overcome its crises, we can even estimate where it is leading: the destruction of the planet as we have been knowing it for millennia. But at the same time we cannot help admitting that all the valiant efforts to overthrow it, despite the staggering successes that have inspired and emboldened us in the past, have all ended to capitalism’s landing back on its feet anew. The vantage point seemingly allowing us –even if only in imagination– to confront capitalism as a whole and from the outside has evaporated. And this obliges us to take stock of the fact that all what we are and all of what we are doing – what we eat, what we consume and what we discard or waste, what we work on and how we work, where and how we live or die, what clothes we fabricate and wear, the modes of how we enjoy ourselves or of how we move and travel, what we think and what we imagine– bears a presently indelible capitalist stamp. It is in this sense too that the “gigantic capitalist nation” has no outside.
On the other hand, our all being inside the “nation” also means that we are all its ‘citizens’. It means that our demands, our actions and our struggles against capitalism’s manifestations and symptoms as well as our critical ideas revealing what it is and what it is about are interconnected in multiform ways and can be shared by all. Shared by all that suffer from it in all countries and in all continents throughout the “nation”. Shared inside capitalism but also against capitalism. This is how the presently defining condition of the international Left can be summarized: not outside capitalism but inside and against it. Dentro y contro. These two unassuming little words, made famous by the Italian movement and highlighted by the theoretical labor of Etienne Balibar and Michalis Bartzidis, encapsulate precisely where we presently stand as well as how we have arrived here. For, in addition to the above, a minute of reflection makes us realize that the very same little words have been silently at work all along. “Inside and against” condense no less than the history of the ‘short’ 20th century.
Let me explain. Relatively early in the past century, struggle within capitalism and struggle against capitalism split their ways, so to speak, and embarked upon divergent directions: Reform or Revolution. This has been the fundamental dilemma encompassing and at the same internally dividing the Left for most of the 20th century. But in the era of globalization –the era “making global capitalism” as Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin have put it in their classical work– we cannot escape admitting that both of the dilemma’s horns eventually failed to cash out on their original expectations. What has been dubbed “left melancholia” results precisely from acknowledging this fact. Which is to say that, on the one hand, reformism –or if you like social democracy– became gradually absorbed without too many qualms in the political arsenal of capitalism while, on the other hand, successful revolutions fell back on capitalist relations of production and the associated values, even if only with qualifications of one sort or another. Regarding the latter, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the complex evolution of China after Mao situate the corresponding landmarks. These are the political landmarks of globalization, the landmarks making clear that thinking of capitalism from the outside and trying to confront it as a whole has driven us astray. In more abstract terms, we appreciate now that we had been silently renouncing immanence to the profit of some kind of imaginary, self-undermining standpoint of transcendence. And paid for it.
Politically speaking, the Left has started slowly to realize during the past decades that such strategic failure has deeper roots, for the dilemma as such had been mostly overblown after the First World War and the stabilization of the Soviet Revolution or even initially misconstrued. It seems as if the subtle qualifications it had always required, the different actualizations or embodiments in time and place it displayed, the demand for its correct handling in varying circumstances, had been for the most part undervalued and theoretically ignored or dismissed, if not simply pushed under the rug. In other words, we have presently ‘discovered’ that either horn of the dilemma –at least as a dilemma formulated is such starkly divisive terms early on– cannot invigorate lastingly successful social resistance. And since such invigoration is connected, directly or indirectly, with Left theory, the failure in question appeared clearly as such after the ‘discovery’ that Left theory cannot appeal to inexorable historical laws to cheer up those suffering, cultivate hope and brighten promises for a happy future. By now we have come to realize that historical laws simply do not exist. What ‘governs’ history throughout is what Althusser has called “l’aléatoire”. Which implies that the Left can rely socially, historically, theoretically and politically only on a ‘mere’ tendency.
I am referring to a tendency inherent in society all along and proper to society as such, a tendency that forms something resembling a historical constant. This is a tendency that has been manifested in history under different names, a tendency that has become more or less explicit in the differently worded programs of those who have risen against exploitation and repression throughout the ages, always claiming freedom, equality and justice: from the slaves of Spartacus to Münzer’s peasants and from the Paris Commune to the successful revolutions or major uprisings of the 20th century. Up to today’s black lives that matter, lives that should have mattered since the beginnings of colonization and ever before and after.
The tendency in question can be named the tendency to communism, to honor the Communist Manifesto, the womb from which most of us descend one way or another. But names can vary. Benjamin calls the horizon of this tendency “redemption” and Derrida calls it “democracy-to-come” or “infinite justice”. Where “infinite justice” forms the horizon bringing together freedom and equality (both social equality and equality in respect to the law), the two thereby ceasing to be at odds with one another as is often the case even within the ‘best’ of the democracies having appeared in history. Hence the term “democracy-to-come”, an analogue of Balibar’s “equaliberty.”
To this we may add, I take it, that in the opposite direction so to speak we humans do possess the experience of justice and this from infancy: kids in all cultures and through all historical periods distinguish sharply attitudes that are just from attitudes that are unjust either in regard to praise or to reprimand. Therefore, to the extent that the inference is valid, the tendency to communism is not only a historical constant, unceasingly at work within our societies –for all actions of generous unselfish solidarity (or fraternity) are its manifestations– but also a quasi-anthropological constant, overriding the dilemma we are talking about. What Benjamin calls “heliotropism” of the past towards the present amounts, I believe, to the double nature –historical because anthropological and anthropological because historical– of this constant. I don’t have the space to delve deeper into the matter here, but I hope the idea is clear enough for the purposes at hand.
To take up the second tenet of the general framework I am suggesting, I stress that the experience “Syriza in power” is mainly a political experience. According to Poulantzas, now, the political instance is the instance integrating, condensing and representing the forces at play within any given social formation while, in addition, it is the decisive instance: it is there that resides, pace Foucault, decisive power over the formation’s reproduction or transformation. Given this, we cannot subscribe to the more or less standard formula that the political as such amounts to the administration of the feasible. From the vantage point of the Left, political action cannot but aim at enlarging and deepening the feasible: a directed and engaged enlarging and deepening that maintains unwavering the pointing of the compass toward the horizon of communism.
Nevertheless “feasible” should remain in the formula for we are obliged to take into account the specific circumstances and the power relations actually at play in any given conjuncture; take them into account realistically and in cold blood. This is to say that we are always obliged to walk on a narrow path between inspired but thoughtless voluntarism, on the one side, and cautious but over-thoughtful adjustment to the forces at play, if not capitulation proper, on the other side. We are obliged to walk, that is, between the twin ‘temptations’ that are always at work, eager to destroy our efforts and engulf our aspirations. The name of this narrow path is, of course, Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect”–for in most cases the power relations actually at work are fundamentally hostile to an enterprise such as ours– but at the same time “optimism of the will”. Of an unflinching will always prepared to muster the necessary forces to overcome such hostility. Forces which lie always-already there if the tendency to communism is indeed an historical constant, forces which are practically invincible if mobilized.
Here, however, appears an additional question. And this leads to the third and last tenet of the framework I am attempting to lay out. For, how can we effectively walk along the path lit by the inherent tendency to communism if even our richest theories are in this respect inadequate by definition? If, that is, they cannot predict or harness the unexpected –Althusser’s l’aléatoire– which is always lurking in the shadows of the future and can thus derail even our best efforts? Since we cannot answer theoretically, we can appeal to “ποίησις”. Not just in the current but also in the original sense of the word. Which means that we should not take poetry only as our always-welcome sanctuary, but also assume each time the responsibility of the naked deed, the deed that, as Goethe has taught us, is always in the beginning: Am Anfang war die Tat. For “ποίησις” originally means doing, performing, creating. It means doing and creating while assuming the relevant, theoretically naked, responsibility. It means doing by replying each time specifically and by deed to Lenin’s canonical question: what is to be done? There is no other way, as Antonio Machado makes limpidly clear:
“Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.”
“Wayfarer, there is no path,
you make the path as you walk”.
Where here the path is not any path. It is the path we make in walking and while walking toward the horizon of communism.
Let me summarize. One: capitalism has no outside, we can only struggle inside and against it. Two: our political struggle amounts to enlarging and deepening each time the feasible by walking toward the horizon of communism even as its corresponding tendency is constantly at work and indelibly inscribed within our societies. Three: the path we have to walk is not subject to laws or even theoretically describable but is made just as we walk it. These are the basic tenets of the framework I am proposing, the tenets having emerged from the experience of “Syriza in power”. At least as I have participated at and understood this experience and as I have helped compose and have read the document presenting it.
Certainly, these tenets as well as the ways they are connected have not been worked out thoroughly. All kinds of questions may –or rather should– be raised in respect to them, all kinds of disagreement or even of rebuke are to be more or less expected. This last remark is not a token of modesty or of polite presumption: a very clear symptom of the insufficiency in question is all too apparent in what precedes. This is revealed, among other things, by the unbridled proliferation of direct references, allusions and hints regarding different authors and works rarely if ever associated in one breath or even appearing to bear readily noticeable relations to one another. Therefore and at least in respect to such major gaps, legitimate questions, queries, reservations or rejections cannot but arise. If they do, it will be just fine. For then the process of theorization proper, as I tried to explicate from the beginning, will have started. But I believe we are not yet even there. We still have to render explicit the salient features of the experience “Syriza in power” and put them up for discussion in themselves. It is only by proceeding in this way that, hopefully, not only such gaps will start to be filled but the theorization we are looking forward to will get into course uninhibited.
In what follows, I single out and limit myself to merely one such feature. Not only for its inherent importance, but also to renew in imagination, as I said, the conversation with Leo Panitch. For this is a feature that we had not the opportunity to discuss and would, I believe, have interested him a lot. I am referring to certain aspects of the Greek State as they emerged to full view and became rationally and politically connected by Syriza’s coming to power.
Aspects of the Greek State
The Greek State is a relatively new creation. It was instituted after 1827 when the naval forces of Britain, France and Russia defeated the Ottoman fleet at Navarino thus obliging the Ottoman Empire to grant independence to a number of provinces forming part of historical Greece. The Greek war of independence –the Greek Revolution– was proclaimed in 1821 and had passed through various difficult stages before finding its resolution in that decisive victory.
The vicissitudes encountered by the evolution of the Greek State from that time to the present are many and multiform. Here I cannot even start describing them whereas for present purposes one remark suffices: the fact that Greek independence was achieved through the victory of the great powers of the time has left a lasting mark on the course followed by this State. For, to begin with, these powers took it as a matter of course that Greek society was too immature to govern itself. Therefore they appointed as a fully empowered Governor of Greece Ioannis Capodistrias, an ex Foreign Minister of the Russian Empire of Greek origin. And after the assassination of Capodistrias, it was they again that appointed as a fully empowered King the young Prince Otto of Bavaria. After a revolt in 1843 King Otto granted a very defective constitution –the regime thus becoming formally a constitutional monarchy– but dependence on the great powers had already left an enduring stamp on political evolution and all particularly on casts of mind. Among other things, the Greek political parties of the time had taken the cue and aligned themselves even by name to these powers. Thus we had the “British”, the “French” and the “Russian” parties whose antagonisms determined much of the political life of the country for decades. The net result has been that the Greek State appeared and mostly acted from its very beginning as something foreign to Greek society, as an all-powerful arrogant institution, contemptuous if not properly hostile to the ‘natives’ and to their needs and demands.
Waves of modernization ensued from time to time since then while many important changes occurred. But the DNA, so to speak, of the Greek State did not vary that much. The deeper reasons for this have become obvious: this has been a state not built by the practices and reflective efforts, however divided internally, of a people’s having gained independence by its own forces alone as happened, say, in the US. Nor has it evolved to post-absolutism through the kind of internal transformations, however moderate, disruptive or radical, having led to the modern states of most major European countries. Instead, the Greek State has been concocted by foreign intervention, not taking into account popular aspirations, popular expectations and popular will. And since this inheritance has never been effectively confronted head on, it continues characterizing it in many respects. Thus the Greek State is still felt as standing above Greek society, as a self-interested, haughty and domineering instance, lending mostly a deaf ear even to the most legitimate of popular demands. Family-based political dynasties that control electoral enclaves run it, nepotism regarding public posts is the rule rather than the exception, labyrinthine bureaucracy reigns unchallenged, corruption at various levels and in various forms and guises has been continuously at work in its interstices and, as it has almost never been defied and punished, has continued to thrive.
The institution of the Greek State by foreign intervention and the attendant absolutism have endowed it from the start with disproportionately great power as well as with a dynamic aiming to encompass and regulate from above everything social. Which means that civil society rarely gained a real purchase on matters. Control of the State as such, or participation at the higher of its echelons, has been instead the main driving aim for practically all involved in public life. Given the financial means and other privileges at the State’s disposal, such control has constituted the coveted trophy of any political party (and of each of its factions or ‘families’) for its power base was formed and shaped by promises to be honored through dispensing state positions and state funds. Even if elections were at times lost to the profit of some competing party (with its own factions, ‘families’ and electoral basis), there were always the next elections to look forward too. Eventually, switching alternate parties in government through rapidly succeeding elections became a more or less stabilized political ‘habit’ whereby the power base of each party (and faction and ‘family’) acquired characteristics of a traditional belonging. The unity of the political system as a whole was thus assured even if ideological differences and political agendas had to be filtered by such traditions and accommodated correspondingly.
In such stable conditions, profitable to all, no interest and hence no political will to transform the State and change its role and function has ever been envisioned: the rules of the political game had been set and no political force was keen on changing them. Excepting of course the Communist Party. But this has been either outlawed or banned from the State for the longest part of the 20th century. It follows that with the political instance formed in such ways grass roots movements rarely appeared or, if they did, they either remained extremely weak or soon became mere extensions of the political parties at play. In other words, political parties reigned undisturbed over everything social while their internal connection to the State (excepting again the parties of the Left, either communist or valuing critically their communist descent) offered a clientelistic handle to individual –or family– aspirations. To make a (very) long story short, it is this kind of State that Syriza inherited and had to govern.
However, as Poulantzas has taught us, the State is not just an instrument of the ruling class; it is itself traversed by class struggle in its various forms and guises even if most of such forms and guises have been consistently underplayed in popular perception. In any case the experience of Syriza in government has verified the assertion: quite a few of those working in the public sector surprisingly ‘materialized’ individually, if not collectively, not as dull bureaucrats, servile to those above, haughty to those below and arrogant toward the public at large. They did not appear, that is, in the way they had been traditionally considered through the more or les standard experience of dealings with a public agency’s representatives. Instead, they emerged quite often as eager to change their ‘habits’, waive the bureaucratic ‘aura’, promote honesty and oppose corruption and participate at initiatives aiming to embody the idea that a ministry, say, is there to serve a particular sector of society, not dominate it. In short, they appeared as having been obliged rather than willing to conform to the ‘standard’ rules of State functioning and thus as all too eager to change entrenched stances and attitudes so as to recover real meaning in their work.
The realization that such was the state of affairs led to the design of an obvious policy: insofar as those assuming the political responsibility to run a governmental agency (a) treated right from the start all those working in it as responsible citizens, proud in their self-respect, willing to fulfill their assigned tasks and serve public interest to the best of their abilities irrespective of political preferences of even affiliations; b) encouraged the free expression of ideas, proposals and initiatives irrespective of hierarchical constraints while appreciating well-defined hierarchies that are being run justly and efficiently; c) helped create an open atmosphere of freedom, companionship and solidarity across the board; and d) set the example by working in this way themselves while relinquishing unjustifiable privileges, symbolic, material or otherwise, no matter how well tradition had entrenched them, that is in short, insofar as such a policy was implemented, experience demonstrated that most of those working in the agency were all too ready to embrace a renovating spirit in respect to their tasks at the same time as practically everybody started to literally enjoy her work.
Big deal? Perhaps not, for I am well aware that such a policy may well sound trivial: practically all MBA programs teach that much. However in a country like Greece and with a State and a whole political system defending jealously the characteristics I tried to sketch, the policy in question nurses the potential of important changes indeed. For it may become a policy by which a governmental agency opens up, becomes directly acquainted and connected without intermediaries to what happens in the sectors of society it is responsible for, can assist and thence enhance initiatives undertaken in a similar spirit outside its walls, and finally become a social subject in its own right, a subject aspiring to equality freedom and justice for all. In the longer run, society at large can come thus to feel and act as owning a State that should be there only to serve its members whilst the State itself starts to become dissolved within society. This is a tall order indeed and the path leading there certainly untrodden. Yet there is nothing forbidding a Left government particularly in Greece to start walking on such a path, deepening and enlarging the feasible by each step taken, correcting its policy when necessary and making the path by its very walking it. Popular support and the attendant initiatives from ‘below’ might then deepen the transformations and accelerate the pace.
The document Account of Syriza 2012-2019 describes roughly this path and gives some examples. However, the same document tries to clarify that the overall surrounding conditions were not particularly propitious to lay emphasis on such an undertaking while time proved not adequate for the initial steps to bear visible fruit.
Nonetheless a final remark seems to be in order. Very few people or agencies outside Greece, both to the left and to the right, seem to have taken into serious consideration the historically entrenched features of the Greek State I have tried to sketch. They rely on its purely formal characteristics (quite ‘up-to-date’ in their own right) and thus tend to perceive it as a modern State more or less like the others. Accordingly, a policy such as the above cannot help appearing, with all the force of the self-evident, as just a policy of further modernization with no left political bite to speak of. Needless to say I disagree completely. Without implying, moreover, that we have ‘first’ to pass through some ‘stage’ of ‘further’ modernization so as to put forth ‘socialist’ demands only afterwards. On the contrary, the untrodden path I have been talking about is a path oriented directly, with no intermediate stages, to “infinite justice” or “democracy-to-come”. That is to communism.
The only forces having understood that such a policy is of altogether different proportions are the Greek political forces struggling to wipe Syriza off the political map. And this for very good reasons. Although they cannot escape estimating that the social reforms implemented by Syriza were both necessary and mild while its program could not be understood as promoting ostensible ‘socialist’ goals, it’s very coming to power has been perceived as endangering the very real interests invested in how the Greek State has been functioning since its inception and for two hundred years. This is certainly worth fighting for while the fact explains the uninhibited fury against Syriza raging since 2012.
Closure or Opening
That Syriza came to power in the first place appeared as a kind of miracle even to us who participated actively in the process. What were the forces that brought this about, how they brought it about and the way they have been faring afterwards and up to now are big subjects in their own right, pregnant with essential lessons, all requiring profound examination. This conference tackles some of the issues involved. However not only us in Greece but also the world as a whole is facing nowadays an altogether different situation. The pandemic is in the process of changing everything. What the next day will be and how each individual, each class or group of people, each country, big or small, each international institution, will fare afterwards is up for grabs. Fights to that effect are already raging everywhere, either openly or behind the curtains. Of course we cannot predict what will happen. But our values and our ideas, if exchanged systematically in solidarity, discussed thoroughly and elaborated carefully are in a position to withstand most shocks and capable of preparing us to face effectively the oncoming tasks. Once again optimism of the will and the ‘poetic principle’ I have tried to stress are our best advisors.