Whoever battles monsters should take care that he doesn’t become one in the process. And if you stare for a long time into an abyss, the abyss looks into you, too.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
With the recent victory of Alexis Tsipras’s post-referendum, streamlined electoral machine, shorn of its nettlesome Left Platform, it is finally time to soberly survey the wreckage the Syriza sequence has left in its wake. It was not long ago, we should remember, that much of the European left was sent into a frenzy by the prospect of a properly socialist mass party assuming command of the levers of state power. Across the continent, militants young and old looked to Greece as a “laboratory of hope” while dusting off the old Eurocommunist playbook (Gramsci, Poulantzas) with earnestness, as if things had gone well the first time, or as if the resounding defeats of decades ago could be made right. Just a few days after Tsipras’s first turn at forming a government, in late January, Antonio Negri enthused that “the situation is probably ripe enough to attempt once again that most political of passages: the seizure of power.”1 To refer to the forming of a government with a dubious right-wing party—less surprising if one noticed the unseemly nationalist rhetoric that ran through even Syriza’s left faction—as a seizure of power is surely an exaggeration, even for Negri; that such a pronouncement echoed in the void of any real open antagonism, in the streets or in workplaces, underlines just how heady those days really were.
And what sort of power would a victory at the polls really bring this recently formed “party,” in fact an auberge espagnol of leftist tendencies, united solely by the prospect of political power (if not also by a common repulsion for the Stalinist senility of the Greek Communist Party)? In the absence of the social movements and struggles that emerged in the crisis years—roughly 2008 to 2012—Syriza’s room for maneuver was severely cramped from the start; but this was hardly its only handicap. The prospects for Tsipras and company were uniquely bleak, as was registered in the Thessaloniki Program platform they ran on: no insurrectionary fantasy, it proposed the most modest of Keynesian measures, meant to restart economic growth, or dampen the blows of austerity. Syriza was never going to win to its side any of the security apparatus, which polls showed supported the goonish Golden Dawn in droves; the Colonels’ coup of 1967 surely hovered in the deep background as well, with Tsipras as a potential Greek Salvador Allende should things spin out of control. But graver still was Greece’s participation in the European monetary union, which stripped the Greek government of one of the core capacities of the modern state: the ability to print—that is, devalue—its own currency.2 To contend for state power under such conditions was really to compete for the booby prize of who gets to administer the Troika’s medicine. Considering the grim history of the parliamentary left, it was hardly anomalous that Syriza would find itself tapped to carry out dramatic modernizing reforms, tailored to Brussels’s orders: when the dust had settled, Syriza had agreed to impose “pension cuts, new taxes, and privatizations”3 while promising in turn a war on the corporatism, patronage networks, and the “corruption” said to pervade Greek society. Such service to the European program, perhaps induced by one too many trips to the Troika woodshed, paid off handsomely for Tsipras and his party, whatever the humiliations entailed. On September 20, Syriza’s mandate was reaffirmed in another round of parliamentary elections. Tsipras was seen not long after draped in the camouflage of the Greek army, surrounded by colonels.
As this fiasco unfolded over the course of some months, Syriza’s Left Platform distinguished itself from its capitularde leadership less by its push to leave the Eurozone altogether—a plunge that was never really contemplated, much less prepared for, even as the devastating effects of such a gamble were routinely downplayed—than by its tenuous revision of what a Syriza electoral victory should mean. Where the party’s leadership assumed the guise of provincial hatchet man for Brussels, seeing itself as a management team negotiating over just how tight the German vice would be wound, the party’s left current saw the opportunity for a kind of circuit to be set up between state power and mass mobilizations. The assumption, or desperate premise, was that though Syriza’s strength could be attributed precisely to the fading of the mass movement a few years before, its real mandate was somehow to summon these movements back into existence. Such was the topsy-turvy form the “translation” of the crisis-period movements took: far from giving them a political articulation, the emergence of electoral machines like Syriza was premised on the withering away of these movements. This mutation is neatly emblematized by the passage from the Thessaloniki riots of December 2008 to the prudent Keynesianism of the Thessaloniki Program adopted by Syriza in late 2014.
The mobilizations never came. What we saw instead was a call for still another vote—this time the referendum on the Troika’s new austerity plan—whose meaning was never quite clear to begin with: the “no” vote could easily have been cast, and certainly was, by supporters of those right-wing parties that, after all, Syriza had in a certain sense made peace with, those same parties that in fact echoed the Left Platform’s own appeals to “national independence,” and “national sovereignty,” indeed, “national rescue.” The final flourish of Tsipras’s heel turn briefly allowed this vote to be framed as a significant popular mobilization betrayed by scoundrels rather than a deeply ambiguous symptom taking place over a pronounced downtick in social contestation. The September elections seemed to show, in fact, that the meaning of the vote was less a “no” to austerity—or a “yes” to the managed free fall of an exit from the Euro, which would have been carried out on the backs of the poor, elderly pensioners, and immigrants—than an endorsement of Tsipras tout court, whatever course of action he decided to take. That the purged Left Platform assumed in turn the same sobriquet as Allende’s Chilean formation was at once an overreach and disconcerting, considering Popular Unity’s marginality, and Allende’s eventual fate. With the new round of voting in September, the “Popular Unity” grouping quickly found itself wandering the wastelands of electoralist ambition. Receiving less than half the vote of the openly neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, its three percent take at the polls dispatched it to the historical homeland of parliamentary Trotskyism. What Negri called the “most political of passages,” from mass movement to state power, was no translation at all. The rise of the mass left party in the present is less the concentration of the class antagonisms that surfaced during the crisis than a prosthesis fitted over their truncation: a beard grown to hide a weak chin.
Reflecting recently on the predictably dreadful outcome of the “politicization” of the Tahrir Square movement in Egypt, the scale and historical importance of which surely dwarf similar movements seen in Spain and in Greece, Alain Badiou has underlined the tactical use that the appeal to elections has for governments buffeted by such surges.4 It is invariably the case that, confronted with a mass mobilization able to sustain itself longer than the short week of the punctual riot, states with parliamentary systems will see elections as their go-to weapon. At stake for the state is pitting the passive mass of those who might make their way to the polls against the compact, active minority of those who throw themselves into social upheavals such as Tahrir Square. The vote’s essential function is to feed the still fragile logic of the mass movement into the number-crunching algebra of the state. Seen in the light of the inert metrics of political representation, mass movements, however expansive they might be, are by definition minoritarian. Whence the fail-proof effectiveness of elections in combatting them. It is for this reason that Badiou poses the following question: shouldn’t the tactical objective of all such movements be the pure and simple thwarting of elections? From this perspective, the measure of success of such movements would not be the ease with which they assume political forms—crystallize into organizations eager to vie for state power—but rather their ability to preempt or scuttle just such a conversion or curtailment of their energies.
Historically, the quality of mass movements has been gauged not by their appeal to the phantom majority of a given society, but by their internal composition and consistency: their ability to mobilize and incorporate various class fractions, young and old, men and women, students and wage-earners, immigrants and street kids (or, say, Muslims and Christians). The differentiated texture of these movements is what allows them to migrate out of the margins from which they typically emerge. Their ability to spread out in space, taking hold of, or at least besieging, crucial sites—streets, universities, workplaces, infrastructure—within a given society is the yardstick with which they are assessed. At a certain point in their development, their capacity to attack the economy becomes key. If today the vast majority of workers in Europe and the West, but also in Egypt and elsewhere, find themselves only tenuously connected to the remote abode of production, they are nevertheless still occupied with getting commodities to market, to be bought and sold; they are a vast army of humanity, greasing the rails of capitalist valorization, tasked with ensuring that capitalist social relations are given new life from day to day. This is where a powerful mass movement really meets its match, and where it is required to grow new organs if it is not to wither away: it must find the means to cripple the economy while ensuring its own reproduction. It is at this point that the movement mutates; it is here that the prospect of the commune is envisioned, and the dilemma of meeting collective needs without the mediation of the economy—work, money, commodities—
Powerful mass movements therefore activate an array of different social sites, from the streets and the ineluctable confrontation with the forces of order, to workplaces and their eventual blockage or occupation, and most importantly in their assuming the tasks of social reproduction (health, education, housing, and so on). The more the distinctions between these spheres—street, workplace, life—erode, the more ungovernable the situation becomes. Over the course of the past seventy years or so, such scenarios have largely failed to take shape in the West. The post-’68 sequence in Italy (its so-called “creeping May”) no doubt brought together some of these elements; the more recent piquetero movement in Argentina did as well, in a context of social collapse probably like what could be expected from the Grexit (which was never really envisioned during Syriza’s “negotiations” with its EU overlords). Even the most vigorous of such movements quickly reaches its limits, its staying power depleted. Social movements have notoriously short fuses; they, by their nature, quickly blow up, fizzle, or decompose. Their internal dynamics tend, when they are on the upswing, to bracket or suspend the social divisions and fractures that organize capitalist society, and are policed by the state. These structures nevertheless reassert themselves without fail, as internal and external pressures on the movement mount. The spontaneous reaction of the state to significant social contestation is to send in its riot police, and to pursue through all means necessary (often only nominally “legal”) its perceived leaders. The lash of repression is, though, the least subtle of the state’s ways: as has been underlined above, in democratic societies, it is often the bell jar of elections that is placed over them, depriving them of air, deflating them with bitter victories.
The ends of such movements are not, all told, simply imposed from without. They stalk them from their start. Eventually the contradictions within them, held at bay as the movement swelled, make themselves felt (the way rifts between class factions overdetermined by, say, the old wounds of race, deepen into open conflict); seams begin to show, tearing at their texture. Sometimes such movements fray and tear; sometimes, in a sudden turn, they crack like a plate. The great uprisings in the history of the workers’ movement in Europe (and not just there) were almost always occasioned by carnage: blood ran in the streets in June 1848, and the outer walls of Père-Lachaise are still pocked by bullets that carried Communard names. And yet the term movement we use to designate these social conflicts—uprisings through which the underpinnings of class power are laid bare, for a time—ties them to the heat and intensity of life, and to the fate of the living. Movements, by their nature, are riddled with errors and mistakes, shortfalls and overreaches. But they also carry their death within. The constituted bodies they form are incapable, somewhere along the line, of developing the new organs and antibodies necessary to defuse or absorb the divisions latent within them, which come to the surface under the hot light of repression. They become disoriented, dissociated, unable to distinguish between external threats and internal tensions, between existential menaces and structural tensions. Their crepuscular phase sets in when they can no longer meet the former with force, and the latter with new forms.5
Across the board, recent assessments of the shortcomings of the crisis-era riots and revolts of the past half-decade have described their ebbing and abatement as failures, if not defeats. These diagnoses cite not only the way the movements began to crumble beneath the weight of their own divisions but, in a reflex characteristic of the historical Left, almost invariably prescribe a single twofold fix: strategy, and organization. Even groups as openly contemptuous of the historical Left as The Invisible Committee reproduce this syntax, arguing that these movements were defeated because the forces arrayed against them were themselves organized, and acted with the ruthless calculation expected of any party of Order. In certain quarters the old name party is given to the meshing of these two motions, this conjugation of strategic analysis and practical discipline. The word is no doubt said knowingly and sotto voce, among friends; it is placed, in turn, between brackets, or surrounded by qualifiers (Marx’s supposed “historical” party, for example, in place of the now discredited “formal” variety). No one knows quite what it means; but anyone who utters it without contempt imagines it is the knife that will cut through the kinks that form in the lifeline of movements. Whether it is a matter of the mass parliamentary party, promising to translate the dynamism of the streets into the strict arithmetic of political power, or the invoking of an invisible web spun between a proliferation of communes (a “diffuse conspiracy [. . .] confronting the objective conspiracy of the things”6), the party—our party—is pronounced as if the word held a special, incantatory power: a formula that might dispel the crippling riddles set loose by social war, a shibboleth that opens the strait gate of history.
The most convincing refutation of the party as a form of historical action has been its own working existence, to deform a famous phrase of Marx concerning the Commune. The Syriza debacle is no more than a minor entry in this catalogue of horrors and humiliations. The history of the mass parties of the Left over the course of its century of relevance—from the consolidation of the German Social Democratic Party in the 1880s, to the squelching of the last factory-anchored revolts of the 1960s and ’70s, in France and Italy, Poland and Portugal—swung between Stalinist terror and naked opportunism, a dialectic of the ballot box and Soviet tanks. In 1968, the largest general strike in the history of France was broken by the concerted efforts of de Gaulle and the French Communist Party; negotiated wage increases were immediately followed by snap elections, in which the party of Order won going away. Such experiences led many on the far Left in France and elsewhere in Europe to develop properly theoretical analyses of the structural limitations, or even obsolescence, of party-style formations in contemporary capitalist societies. Anti-authoritarian anarchist tendencies flourished in such an environment, which also gave rise to an unexpected resurgence of interest in council communism, with the spontaneous formation of “Soviet”-type organizations at the point of production proposed as the antidote to the machinations of mass parties. Following the wildcat strikes during Italy’s “hot autumn” of 1969, a host of extra-parliamentary partitini crystallized, uncertain of whether to break from the party-form altogether, or to rebuild a properly revolutionary party from scratch, starting from the expansion and intensification of struggles within the mass mobilizations that spilled out of the factories (struggles around social reproduction, including a particularly vibrant feminist analysis taking up the themes of abortion and unpaid labor). But as early as 1964, well before these developments, the key theorist of the Italian operaismo tendency wrote:
The continuity of the struggle is a simple matter: the workers only need themselves, and the bosses facing them. But continuity of organization is a rare and complex thing: no sooner is organization institutionalized into a form, than it is immediately used by capitalism (or by the labor movement on behalf of capitalism). This explains the fact that workers will very fast drop forms of organization that they have only just won. And in place of the bureaucratic void of the general political organization, they substitute the ongoing struggle at factory level.7
This passage captures the divisions that emerged, across Europe, between an increasingly militant working class and the alienated forms of struggle that claimed to represent it: such forms were experienced not as organs necessary for the generalization of struggles, but strategies deployed to contain them.
Some post-1968 formations saw the party as a simple instrument of the mass movement. Rather than a properly critical analysis of these party-type organizations, the latter was treated like a skin that could be shed with ease, under the pressure of internal divisions or the state. The Gauche prolétarienne in France, and to a certain extent Lotta Continua in Italy, used organizational schemes as mere tools to be cast off at a moment’s notice, as devices that could be dissolved and reformatted as movements mutated. This solution was premised, however, on the “continuity of the struggles” that Tronti speaks of, in which struggles ceaselessly deepen and spread. These tactical uses of the party device assumed the arc of mobilization to be one of constant growth and expansion, a spilling over or outpouring in which organization is conceived as a momentary fixation of this flow, a flickering shadow cast by its radiance. Other post-Leninist tendencies looked to the putatively socialist societies of the USSR and China in order to emphasize the incapacity of Communist parties of the Bolshevik-type, however successful they might have been in insurrectionary warfare and the armed seizure of state power to organize the transition toward communism that was their apparent historical mandate. Fusing irrevocably with the machine of state power they commanded, and intent on pursuing the extermination of residual class enemies thronging them on all sides, these excrescences ended up instituting a state terror of a new type as they secreted new class formations and divisions from within, a necessary complement to the maintenance of commodity production. Still others introduced a periodization of capitalist social relations into their analysis, allowing them to characterize party-type organizations not as alienated forms of struggle per se, but rather as no longer suited (“adequate”) to the prevailing technical composition of capital and the corresponding class composition keyed to it. Organization, in this reading of the history of the workers’ movement, mutates with each restructuration of capitalist social relations, and each reshuffling of fractions and layers within the working class. These analyses, which have been developed by a number of different tendencies across the far Left, were invariably proposed against the background of the global restructuration of capitalism that occurred after the wave of struggles whose emblematic date is 1968. The transformation of capitalist social relations over the past forty years, and the corresponding class recomposition—now no longer anchored in a privileged fraction of class—has, the story goes, dissolved the historical pertinence of the party-form itself.
Since this restructuration of capitalist social relations began in the early 1970s, contemporary capitalist societies have lurched from crisis to crisis, and from fix to temporary fix. The massive cratering of the economy that took place in 2007-08, plunging the world into a deep recession from which it has yet to emerge, was met with a proliferation of mass movements across the globe: a powerful riot in London, a mobilization involving millions in France, the movement of the squares as it migrated from North Africa to Southern Europe and found its echo in the U.S.; the devolution of the Arab Spring into “civil” wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen; the setbacks and surges of the South American pink tide. This pattern is not likely to be broken as long as the global economy continues to wobble, the momentary patches increasingly less effective, the repairs more shoddy and ad hoc with each go-round. In the absence of viable organs of struggle (of the classical sort), the coming years are likely to witness more popular rebellions assuming various shapes, whether as anti-police riots, new rounds of anti-austerity militancy, or even unprecedented forms of struggle spurred by and formed around recent waves of immigration. These mobilizations will coalesce, build, peak, and expire. Parties of all sorts, Neo-Populist or on the far Left, will swarm them, eager to assume their direction, or waiting for their collapse in order to then undertake their political “translation,” only to be routed in their turn. Militants of every stripe and hue will read their remains for signs of new historical life, and devise in their wake organizational schemes drawn from half-forgotten historical episodes and propositions: a return to the Commune, send-ups of Soviet power, the building of all tomorrow’s parties.
- ROAR Collective, “Toni Negri: from the refusal of labor to the seizure of power,” ROAR Magazine, at Roarmag.org
- “Devaluation,” Wolfgang Streecker writes, “functions as handicaps do in sports like golf or horse racing, where the differences between players are so great that without some mechanism of equalization they would be divided into a few permanent winners and many permanent losers [. . .] Seen this way, the removal of devaluation through the European Monetary Union was equivalent to the abolition of progressive taxation in national political economies, or of handicapping in horse racing.” Buying Time (London: Verso, 2014), 183.
- Cognord, “Changing of the Guards,” Brooklyn Rail, July / August, 2015,
- On this question, see Alain Badiou’s delightful pamphlet Sarkozy: pire que prévu, Les Autres: prévoir le pire. Circonstances, 7 (Paris: Éditions Lignes, 2012), Chapter 1.
- By analogy, we might speak of movements as Hegel, in Encyclopedia of Nature, spoke of the living organism, which carries within it “its original sickness and the inborn seed of death,” such that at an uncertain moment in its arc of life, its activity is “blunt[ed]” and it “grows ossified, and thus kills itself by itself.”
- The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 2015), 16. On this “syntax” of defeat – strategy – organization – party, see my “Since the End of the Movement of the Squares: The Return of the Invisible Committee,” the Brooklyn Rail, June 2015. It would be worthwhile to analyze the symptomatic way the figure of the “historical party” the way Marx formulates it—exactly once, in a letter—has emerged as an organizational figure across the contemporary Left, in tendencies as diverse as those of the “communization” milieu (in the writing of Gilles Dauvé, for example) and that represented by Alvaro García Linera, currently the Bolivian Vice President.
- And yet, Tronti concludes: “What we call ‘Lenin in England’ is a project to research a new Marxist practice of the working class party: it is the theme of struggle and of organization at the highest level of political development of the working class.” See Mario Tronti, “Lenin in England” (1964), at Marxists.org.
ContributorJason E. Smith
Jason E. Smith writes about contemporary art, philosophy, and politics. His book, Smart Machines and Service Work: Automation in an Age of Stagnation (London: Reaktion, 2020) is part of the Field Notes series.