Electoral earthquakes have rocked one country after another across Europe.
Parties that dominated the mainstream for decades are seeing their support hollowing out or collapsing.
They’ve been punished for pushing through austerity, corruption scandals and supporting a war that millions marched against.
The biggest losers are the Labour-type social democratic parties that claim to represent workers, but end up managing capitalism when in office.
It’s been decades since these reformists offered significant reforms, let alone a meaningful vision of a better society for workers. Many have also forged alliances with Tories.
But new forces are filling this political vacuum. Most exciting for the left is Podemos in the Spanish state and Syriza in Greece.
There are important differences between them, but both surged to the top of the polls from almost nowhere. This followed several years of workers’ struggle and mass social movements, which their activists were involved in.
Ten years ago, the anti-capitalist movement was dominated by debates about changing the world without taking power. Now people are leaping at the opportunity to join formations that put forward a different vision of how society could be run by trying to get rid of those who run it.
This development should encourage Marxists, who argue that workers can do just that by using their economic power to overthrow capitalism.
But even with capitalism still mired in crisis and workers under sustained attack, that idea still seems far-fetched to most workers.
Many Marxists are asking if they need to do something entirely different, arguing that it’s “sectarian” to distinguish between reformists and revolutionaries. They say we need to get out of the far left “ghetto” first and worry about our long term goals later.
But as the Cheshire cat told Alice in Wonderland, which way you go “depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”The leaders of Podemos and Syriza want to replace the people in government with others who they argue would do a better job.
But power doesn’t stop with the people in office. Elected governments are still part of a capitalist state that is made up of powerful unelected bureaucracies, not to mention the police and the army. They are part of the class which owns the factories, supermarkets and the media.
The ruling class is rarely completely united, especially in times of crisis. But the state and capitalists rely on one another.
Our rulers are bound together by the need to keep profits coming—profits that come from exploiting workers.
This severely limits the ability of left governments to deliver real change.
They can implement some reforms, but will have to pursue the bosses’ interests once they’re holding the reigns of the capitalist state. It doesn’t matter how left wing their own ideas are.
The leaders of Syriza and Podemos both want to follow in the footsteps of left governments in Latin America.
But these increasingly work with bosses and often against workers.
Syriza has already begun to make this journey fast enough to disorient many of its own supporters.
Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky described in his History of the Russian Revolution how the masses choose their leaders through a process of “successive approximations”.
Workers and soldiers toppled the old Tsarist regime in 1917 only to elect a party that would rather have kept it mostly intact.
They’d started “not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old regime.”
But a year of intense struggle gradually brought workers face-to-face with the true nature of the system.
They went through “a change of parties in which the more extreme always supersedes the less.”
This learning curve can’t be skipped, and it has to start somewhere.
So revolutionaries celebrate a left reformist breakthrough because it means workers are beginning a journey that could lead to them to break with reformism altogether.
However, this process isn’t inevitable either. The movement can fall backwards into passivity and demoralisation if it fails to overcome the obstacles facing it—just as we see in France today.
Some socialists argue that we should still support left governments, because even limited reforms could trigger a bigger confrontation with the bosses. Yet even if a left government dares start such a fight—and most don’t—winning would depend on mobilising the working class.
Syriza has already helped call off strikes to avoid seeming too radical. In office the pressure to do this would be even greater.
Demobilising workers in this way can even leave left governments defenceless against the right’s attacks.
There has to be an argument within the working class for going beyond left reformism.
By Dave Sewell
Socialist Worker UK