OKDE, the Organisation of Communist Internationalists of Greece, is a revolutionary socialist group of 80 or so members, mostly young. It is stronger in Thessaloniki than in Athens, and has groups in some other cities. It publishes the monthly Ergatiki Pali (Workers' Fight).
Other reports from Greece, July 2013:
- Greek school teachers to strike from early September
- The Greek left takes stock: July 2013
- Visiting the Greek left, July 2013
- Developing a left in Albania
AWL first met OKDE at the annual political festival organised by the French revolutionary socialists of Lutte Ouvriere, in 2010. Since then AWL comrades have attended OKDE's summer camps in 2012 (Ed Maltby and Dan Rawnsley) and 2013 (Tom Harris and me), and we have visited Thessaloniki and Athens to discuss developments in Greece with them (2012: Ed Maltby and me). An OKDE comrade spoke to AWL's 2013 summer school by Skype, and we also met them and talked at the Lutte Ouvriere fete again in 2013.
OKDE is active mainly among restaurant workers in Thessaloniki, telecom workers in Athens, teachers, and students.
OKDE is not the biggest revolutionary socialist group in Greece. SEK, the group linked to the SWP in Britain, is said to have maybe 400 members. There are two or three thousand in the Antarsya coalition, in which SEK is the second-biggest group after NAR, a group aiming for a "communist refoundation in which all communist ideologies will have a part". There are some hundreds of activists in the Trotskyist groups within Syriza, DEA and Kokkino.
However, 80 focused and well-organised activists can sometimes make a bigger impact than much larger numbers in a loose coalition. OKDE posters are as visible as any other group's in Thessaloniki, and on the march from the worker-occupied offices of ERT (the Greek equivalent of the BBC, which the government wants to shut down) to Thessaloniki city centre which we joined on 17 July, the OKDE contingent was as big and as loud as any.
Notably, many of the day-to-day leaders in OKDE's political work are also its leading trade-union activists: it doesn't have the tendency which plagues many revolutionary socialist groups for activists heavily engaged in trade-union work to become immersed in it and semi-detached from the general political activity of the group.
OKDE is respected by other activists. People from Kokkino told us they found OKDE "dogmatic but friendly". Vasilis Grollios, an unaffiliated Marxist in Thessaloniki, told us, approvingly, that he saw OKDE as like "council communists". OKDE would not take that as a compliment; but what Vasilis was referring to was OKDE's emphasis on workers' self-organisation.
In some ways our discussions with OKDE remain more valuable than with other revolutionary socialist groups in Greece: a talk with OKDE yields more sober detail about what is happening, what the group is doing, and what the results are, than with others more inclined to grandiloquence or vagueness.
Yet we often find ourselves more in agreement on some political issues with groups other than OKDE.
OKDE are outside and very critical of the official "Fourth International", the continuator of the political networks for which Ernest Mandel was the chief theorist and writer until his death in 1995. Yet they are "Mandelites" - much more loyal to Mandel, his close associates, and their theories, than are the official post-Mandelites.
The current issue of Ergatiki Pali carries a tribute to Mandel on the 18th anniversary of his death.
None of the official post-Mandelites is likely to have published such a tribute. Their attitude to Mandel is not unfriendly, but rather "that was then..." OKDE, however, values its tradition, and its status as the direct lineal descendant of the OKDE founded by Pantelis Pouliopoulos in 1934.
AWL has been critical of "Mandelism" since the very start of our tendency in 1966, and we have become more sharply critical over 47 years of experience. We have, however, seen the "Mandelites" as the mainstream, the most serious and substantial representatives, of the "orthodox" Trotskyism which diverged from "Third Camp" Trotskyism in the 1940s, and in that sense superior to the more screeching and incoherent, but self-proclaimedly more "orthodox", variants of that political current.
That OKDE takes its old Mandelite stock of ideas seriously, and will not lightly discard them, is a virtue, so long as it is not an absolute bar to critical discussion.
From our vantage point, then, OKDE is a three-sided entity. All three sides - the focused rank-and-file worker activism, the tenacious Mandelism, and some elements which (so we will argue) are more like "screeching Trotskyism" - are integral to the triangle, though they seem discordant to us. There is cause for much more discussion.
Here is an account of some of the discussions when OKDE generously invited us to its summer camp in 2013 and offered us the chance to lead a full session, to contribute in other sessions, and to converse with some of its leading members.
Above: the beach at camp site, and the opening session at the camp.
We had a formal OKDE-AWL discussion session, in two parts, with a leading OKDE member, Iraklios, with another OKDE member, Stefanos, acting as translator. Since we'd discussed current developments in Greece already with other OKDE members, we asked about OKDE's political and theoretical tradition.
OKDE banner at the summer camp: "Against police oppression and fascism - organise to stop them"
OKDE separated from the "official" Mandelites (or post-Mandelites) in 2004, dissenting from their 2003 congress decision which amounted, more or less, into converting their network into a think-tank and resource-centre for the building of "broad anti-capitalist" parties. What did OKDE think were the roots of that turn in the previous theory of that political current?
In the late 1980s we started expressing disagreement with the FI's policy of unifications with Maoist groups, for example in Spain and Germany [where a segment of the Mandelites, led by Winfried Wolf, joined with an ex-Hoxhaite group to create the VSP in 1986: it didn't go well]. We were at the congress in 1992 when broad parties were proposed as a tactic and expressed disagreement.
We separated in 2004, when the Fourth International wrote "broad parties" into its statutes, making them more than a tactic, and dropped the idea of constructing a world revolutionary party and programme, and national sections.
We were not officially a section then, but that is when we separated politically. We think Mandel continued until his death in 1995 to oppose the abandonment of building sections, though he agreed with broad parties as a tactic.
That doesn't mean everything was correct until 1992. The broad parties question was not the only problem. There were also problems about the assessment of the economic crisis and of the strength of the reformist parties, and of Trotskyist identity.
We think they started to believe that Trotskyism was good up to the death of Stalinism, but irrelevant after that. They stopped believing in the working class.
How come you were not a section in 2004?
We were the Greek section of the Fourth International until 1986, and had been since 1938. In 1986 some people quit to merge with another group and form OKDE-Spartakos, and they were recognised as the section. [They still are today]. There were no real political differences in the split, and we continued to think of ourselves as part of the Fourth International.
The context was that the whole Greek revolutionary left had grown fast after the fall of the dictatorship in 1974, and then it declined, especially after the PASOK election victory in 1981.
In 2004 we dropped our claim to be the section of the Fourth International. We applied to be permanent observers, but were fobbed off.
The "broad parties" line comes out of the official FI's disorientation after the collapse of the Stalinist states in Europe and the USSR in 1989-91. What they had described since the late 1940s as an ongoing "rise of the world revolution", creating workers' states (though deformed ones) in country after country, suddenly collapsed, either through mass popular revolt against the supposed workers' states or by their governments moving fast enough for a conversion-from-above to market capitalism before they faced open popular revolt. In 1991 the LCR in France officially decided to re-discuss the whole issue of the nature of the Stalinist states, but it never did. Instead it boxed that period off and coined the slogan: "New epoch, new programme, new party".
As an organisation we are not able to fully understand how the change came about in Eastern Europe and why the USSR collapsed. But there were other factors in the FI's turn - lack of faith in the working class - seeming strength of the reformist parties - defeats of the working class. In the late 1990s some of them were saying that capitalism was going into a new long wave of expansion and no revolution was likely for maybe 50 years.
Yes, but that is because for 40 years before 1989 the supposedly ever-advancing "world revolution" had been defined for them centrally by the victories of Stalinist or Stalinising movements which they insisted were not Stalinist - the Titoites in Yugoslavia, then Mao in China, then Castro in Cuba, then the Vietnamese, then the Sandinistas in Nicaragua... They had to face the fact that those "advances of the world revolution" had been hollow, and there were going to be no more like them.
We disagree. The FI looked at more countries than just Yugoslavia, China, and so on. It was also active in the industrialised countries, in France in 1968 for example.
To be sure. And I don't doubt that in France, for example, they wished and worked for the working class to make a revolution. But the world perspective was defined by the actually-existing revolution in Cuba, Vietnam, etc. The JCR/ LCR in France defined itself at the start as "Trotskyist-Guevarist", rather than Trotskyist, and in the years after 1968 invested great hopes in the Vietnamese Communist Party, which it defined as an "empirically revolutionary" party. Everything they did was informed by a theory which told them that the second half of the 20th century was a time of advancing "world revolution", with the advance being defined by Yugoslavia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc. What do you think of that basic theory?
We think the basic theory about the 20th century was correct. It is not just a matter of Mandel's writings: basically, we support the documents of the Fourth International until about 1990. We should look back at the history and revise what was wrong, but we believe that was the best current of the movement.
In Nicaragua after 1979 they failed to press for building a revolutionary party, and there were other mistakes here and there, but generally they were right. We don't think the theory was as you describe it.
Daniel Bensaid, the main theorist of the official "Fourth International" after Mandel's death and until Bensaid's own death in 2010, drastically, though in our view inadequately, criticised the old theories. He argued that it was wrong to have seen the Stalinist states as "deformed workers' states" or "post-capitalist". [In fact, in the official tribute volume for Mandel, just the year after his death, post-Mandelites were already rejecting Mandel's "deformed workers' states" formula, and you find few post-Mandelites defending it today]. What do you think of Bensaid's arguments?
We don't know his writings, but we don't have a high opinion of him, because he was one of the supporters of the broad party strategy.
What other currents have you discussed with?
We've had a limited capacity to make contacts. We have had some contact with the former Irish group of the Fourth International, with Voix des Travailleurs [a group formed by activists who were expelled from Lutte Ouvriere in 1997; they later joined the LCR] with the Morenists of the LIT, with the Fraccion Trotskista [an ex-Morenist current] and, mostly, with Lutte Ouvriere.
Have you learned anything from your discussions with Lutte Ouvriere?
No, we haven't had theoretical discussions with them. We believe the rebirth of the Fourth International will have to come from a synthesis of different ideas.
Your membership is mostly young. So you've grown mostly since 2004?
We have only one comrade from the 1960s, Sofronis. There are six or seven from the 1980s, a few from the 1990s, but over half our members have joined since 2004-5, won in the movements about globalisation and war.
In fact the organisation was practically reborn in 1983, from just two or three comrades. For a while our members were mostly students under 21 years old, but a lot of those have now left student life and entered working-class sectors, so the average age of the organisation has increased.
What do you use in the organisation for political education?
Mandel's Introduction to Marxism, with some commentaries. But most of the education and consolidation of our members comes through our interventions. We print the documents of our congresses, which happen every year or two years, and we have published many of Mandel's writings in Greek. But in the last two or three decades people don't want to read much.
We have created a study programme of 30 titles. It includes many Marxist classics, Salama's and Valier's introduction to political economy, and three or four books about the history of Greece.
Twice each year we hold a Marxist school, with four sessions in each school. It is open, but mainly for our members. At the summer camp, the sessions are usually about current events, but it is a bit different this year to mark the anniversary of the death of Pandelis Pouliopoulos [the founder of Greek Trotskyism].
One thing we have learned, and partly from discussions with comrades from the region, is about the reactionary nature of Islamism, and the fact that there can be revolutions, as in Iran, which produce regimes worse than before the revolution. Connected with that lesson is our view on Israel and Palestine: we support self-determination for both nations, the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Arabs.
Iran? It was a revolution. The Islamists dominated. That was a step back. We're not sure whether the result was worse than before. In all regimes, for example semi-feudal ones, the number one priority is to oppose imperialist rule. Imperialism is the number one evil.
But which imperialism? The Iranian state is itself a regional-imperialist or sub-imperialist power, dominating non-Persian subject nationalities like the Kurds and the Azeris, deploying its army in Syria, sponsoring Hezbollah in Lebanon, exerting dominant influence in Iraq...
Iran is not anti-imperialist. Maybe the Iranian government opposes US imperialism, but not imperialism in general or capitalism in general. At most there is a tendency of anti-imperialist movement there. The Arab masses feel that at least the Islamists oppose imperialism. The defeat of Islamism is important, but we must not overlook opposition to the USA.
We oppose US imperialism, but we also oppose reactionary expansionist powers in conflict with the USA. Like Stalinist Russia. If you want to call the looting and oppression which Stalinist Russia imposed on Eastern Europe something other than imperialism, then you have to recognise that this "something else" was just as bad as imperialism.
I don't know about that. It is US imperialism which poses the threat of wiping out humanity through nuclear war. Israel-Palestine? It's complicated. I don't think the national question there can be solved without a socialist federation in the region. Of course we don't think that the Jews should be driven out, but the existence of the Israeli state depends on US imperialism.
Historically, that is not true. The US has backed Israel heavily since 1967, but Israel was created in 1948 by a war against British imperialism and its allies. The US imposed an arms embargo on Israel at the time, and Israel depended on a decision by Stalin to supply it with arms by way of Czechoslovakia.
In any case, we don't support Israel's alliance with the USA, or its oppression of the Palestinians. We support the Israeli Jews' right to national self-determination.
Do you think there can be a peaceful Israeli bourgeois state?
As much or as little as there can be a peaceful bourgeois state of any other nation. Every capitalist nation with a state which acquires a certain level of strength has expansionist and aggressive tendencies, but it is possible for the pressure of neighbouring states and of the working class within the state to keep it relatively peaceful. That is as true of the Israeli-Jewish nation as of any other. There is no special vice of the Israeli Jewish nation which means that it cannot be allowed the same right of national self-determination as other nations.
We think the existing Israeli state must be overthrown.
By the neighbouring Arab states? That is conquest, not a programme of peace or democracy.
No, the bourgeois Israeli state must be overthrown by the Israeli masses, not the Arab masses. We support self-determination for the Palestinian people, but we doubt whether a bourgeois Palestinian state can be viable.
We think OKDE's attitude is something on the line of the old Mandelite formula of "a socialist federation of the Middle East, with self-determination for the non-Arab minorities: Israeli Jews and Kurds". The formula leaves it vague what we advocate now as the basis for winning some immediate redress for the Palestinians, and for creating the regional working-class unity which alone could make a socialist federation possible, but in many interpretations it is closer to AWL's attitude than are the "smash Israel" views of many others on the British left.
On the Israel-Palestine question, the OKDE bookstall carried a pamphlet by Michel Warshawski and Jacob Taut. These are writers on the old Mandelite line: Taut wrote in 1969: "This state [Israel], whose creation we criticised... is now... a fact, the elimination of which by whatever Arab forces you care to think of would only lead to new misfortunes, murders and killings".
For much of the summer camp I was wearing Gush Shalom t-shirts proclaiming the aim of "two states" in Israel-Palestine: I got neither the censure those t-shirts get from the SWP milieu in Britain, nor the approval they often get from less pickled sections of the left.
We resumed the discussion with Iraklios the next day. That time it was his turn to ask the questions, and he asked us about political and social developments in Britain, not about our theories and views on world politics.
A couple of days later we got a discussion with Sofronis, the one comrade in OKDE who goes back to the 1960s.
In a summer camp session on Pouliopoulos, Sofronis had mentioned his conversations with Christos Anastasiadis, so we started by asking about Anastasiadis.
What we know from the web about Anastasiadis is this: he was born in 1910 in Izmir, studied law in Athens, joined the Archeo-Marxists in 1929, and then the splinter from the Archeo-Marxists which merged with Pouliopoulos's group in 1934. He was one of Pouliopoulos's closest co-workers.
After World War 2, Christos Anastasiadis led the segment of the Greek Trotskyists aligned with Pablo (Michel Raptis) and Mandel, as against a segment closer to Healy (led by Loukas Karliaftis, which did not finally separate to make formal links with Healy until 1963-4) and a segment led by Agis Stinas which was influenced by Cornelius Castoriadis and faded away in the 1960s.
Anastasiadis worked as an editor and proof-reader at the mainstream leftish newspaper To Vima, translated copiously from French, and died in 1987 at the age of 77. His pen-name in the Trotskyist press was Th Thalassinos.
So Sofronis knew Anastasiadis?
Yes, especially after the fall of the dictatorship in 1974.
When did Sofronis join the Trotskyist movement?
And Anastasiadis was still active?
Yes, he remained active in the Trotskyist movement until he died in 1987.
This was confusing, but I suppose the story is that Sofronis, as a young man before 1967, knew Anastasiadis as the senior leader of his organisation, but not well. Under the dictatorship communications would have been difficult. After 1974, maybe, Sofronis was in the leadership of the organisation and working more closely with Anastasiadis.
There was an important development of the Trotskyist movement in Greece in the 1960s, although there were two splits. There was a split linked to Healy, and an in-between group. The group led by Christos Anastasiadis was the biggest of the three. It did entrist work in EDA [the legal front organisation of the illegal KKE, and by all accounts a much looser and more open organisation than the Stalinist KKE] and independent work.
The "Marxist Bulletin" published by the Greek Trotskyists in the 1960s
Under the dictatorship there was a big split, to do with the Democratic Committees of Resistance. [We don't know what this refers to, and did not pursue it]. Then after the Athens Polytechnic uprising of 1973 and the fall of the dictatorship in 1974, there were many Trotskyist groups. I don't consider the SWP [UK] Trotskyist, but their group became active then, and there were three or four groups with links to the USFI.
Initially the group linked to Healy was strongest. Then it declined after a couple of years, and now there is no Healyite group.
It is not exactly a continuation of the Healyite group. The old Healyite group broke up at the end of the 1980s, when Healy started acclaiming Gorbachev as the leader of the "political revolution" in the USSR, and most of its members dispersed or joined Synaspismos.
Anyway, in the 1970s OKDE gathered many fragments from the other Trotskyist groups, and by 1976-7 it had about 300 members and an important intervention in the working-class movement. Then the whole movement declined.
The 1986 split?
It was not very political. It was carried through by the United Secretariat, because they knew we had never been yes-men.
This was confusing, because the old Mandel Fourth International (United Secretariat), whatever its vices, never imposed rigid conformity on its groups in different countries. Sofronis continued:
There were always some people who had studied in France or in Belgium...
I suppose it may have been a matter of "young Turks", fresh back from Paris, who disliked the old leadership round Anastasiadis without having worked-out differences.
Trying to discern the political complexion of OKDE as it was in the 1980s, I asked what they had thought about the dispute over Nicaragua in 1979. In June 1979 the Sandinista guerrilla movement overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, and a big political crisis hit the FI. The American SWP was moving away from even nominal Trotskyism very fast after the death of Joseph Hansen in January 1979. It endorsed the Sandinista leadership to the point of supporting its expulsion from the country of some members of Latin American FI groups who, in an off-the-cuff effort to intervene, had constituted themselves as a "Simon Bolivar Brigade" and come to Nicaragua to join the very last stages of the Sandinista uprising. Those Latin American FI groups, under the leadership of Nahuel Moreno, broke away from the FI and linked up briefly with the "Lambertist" current centred in France. Mandel and his close associates steered a middle course, praising the Sandinistas but reserving some criticisms.
Nicaragua? We more or less agreed with the USFI, except that we wanted the creation of a revolutionary party in Nicaragua, which they didn't.
This was not a detail. Irrespective of the practical ability or otherwise of small Trotskyist networks actually to build parties of their own in Nicaragua, or previously in Vietnam, Cuba, China, Yugoslavia, the debate for or against that building was about whether independent working-class politics should be counterposed to the Sandinistas (or Ho Chi Minh, Castro, Mao, Tito) or whether the Trotskyists should instead position themselves as polite critics and advisers.
So I asked: and were you for the building of a Trotskyist party in Cuba, too?
And what about the whole syndrome? About the FI's stance against building Trotskyist parties in China (before 1969), Vietnam, Yugoslavia? Sofronis seemed to think that we were polemically exaggerating, or inventing things about the history.
The differences on China and Vietnam were not so big. It is true that the position of Mandel, Maitan, and Frank was not so clear. They were carrying a lot of illusions, for example in Guevara. But the differences were not so big.
In one summer camp session, in passing, Sofronis mentioned the massacre of Vietnamese Trotskyists in the 1940s by Ho Chi Minh - a massacre usually glossed over by Mandelites - but evidently he saw such glossings as errors on the edges, and not as we see them, as central indices of the entire orientation of the Mandelite FI for a whole era.
What did he make of the slogan "new epoch, new programme, new party" adopted by the LCR and others after 1991 (because, in our view, they did see the enthusing for "world revolution" in Yugoslavia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua, etc., as central, and now recognised that no more "world revolution" of that sort was likely soon)?
In the early 1990s we had poor contact to follow developments. We did not know fully what was happening. We understood better later. It was a disastrous policy.
What was OKDE's own assessment of the fall of the Stalinist states in 1989-91?
It was not the political revolution [as Mandel himself first described it]. It was the collapse of Stalinism. It was not counter-revolution.
OKDE had apparently been very weak in the 1980s and 1990s. How had it been able to grow again, especially since 2004-5?
We managed to create a leading group. The organisation defined its areas of intervention according to what it could do - among workers and among students. Then there were big movements to intervene in. We could expand to cities other than Athens and Thessaloniki. We carried out important publishing work and our own theoretical work.
Sofronis was anxious to be off, and we concluded with two questions arising from the summer camp session on Pouliopoulos. How did Pouliopoulos get access to Trotskyist literature in 1927, when the Russian Left Oppositionists were isolated and there was no international Left Opposition network? And on what sources might Pouliopoulos have beend drawing in his comments on dialectics in his prison notebooks, which suggest an affinity to Gramsci but cannot possibly have been influenced by Gramsci?
I don't know where Pouliopoulos found Trotskyist literature. He was fluent in many languages, so there are many possibilities. There are no references to Gramsci or Labriola in Pouliopoulos's prison notebooks - only to Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, and so on...
The bookstall at the OKDE summer camp showed us OKDE has published 37 books since 2001. The publishing peaked in 2005, with seven titles. Of the 37 titles, nine are Marxist classics (Marx, Trotsky, etc.); six are OKDE's own work; 19 are translations of works by Mandel or his close associates; two are the memoirs of Margarethe Neumann and Leopold Trepper; and one is a text by Robert Brenner on the current crisis.
The three most recently published are Greek translations of Marx's Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, of Brenner, and of the 1969 book by Livio Maitan (a close associate) of Mandel) on China.
We asked Stavros, another leading member of OKDE, about their choices for translation.
The translations, he said, had been done by Iraklios with some help from younger comrades. Why choose Maitan's 1969 book? "Because it was the best book on China from that tradition". Why choose China as a subject? "Because there was a lot of interest in China from the militants". Not for reasons of self-armament against Greece's numerous Maoist groups? "Not at all" - the Maoists are in decline, and not confident on the China question.
To us, this is a puzzle. Activists interested in China now must want to know about its dramatic conversion to world-market capitalism, and about the scathing indictments of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution published recently. Maitan's book will not help on those issues.
The next translations? Stavros reported no definite plans: there are financial difficulties.
I asked also why OKDE had chosen Brenner's text to publish. "It seemed to be in line with the 'long wave' analysis". This is a puzzle, too.
In his 1972 book Late Capitalism, Mandel adapted the ideas of the 1920s Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev about capitalist development proceeding in "long waves" of expansion, then stagnation, generated according to Mandel by big fluxes of technical innovation. He constructed a table (p.130-2) from 1793 to his day of four up-waves, and four down-waves. The longest "wave" had been 32 years, the shortest 19, and the average 25.
This pointed towards a new "long wave" of expansion starting around 1991 (25 years after the start of the "long wave" of stagnation which Mandel dated from 1966). In his last years Mandel argued that the turning-points between waves are not automatic, and that in the early 1990s the conditions for a new up-wave had not yet been met.
Maybe Mandel made a mistake within his own framework, and there was an up-wave from the late 1980s or early 1990s until 2007. Or maybe the "long wave" formula has now broken down. Or maybe it was never right. But when OKDE talk, as they do, of a continuous "worsening of its [capital's] crisis as well as of the crisis of the international bourgeois leadership", with no prospects of any up-wave, that is not a "long waves" view, even if they use the term "long wave".
Brenner's analysis is completely different. He depicts a one-off long period of capitalist expansion from World War Two to the late 1960s, generated not by a rhythmic flux of technical innovation but by global imbalances. The levelling-out of those imbalances led to "ruinous competition", and then to the world economy getting stuck in a long-term rut of industrial over-capacity and continued ruinous competition.
There has been much debate about Brenner's work, to which we have contributed. It is very different both from a scheme of relatively regular long waves across the centuries, and from a scheme of inevitably ever-worsening crisis.
One of the summer school sessions was offered to AWL, and we used it to explain the idea of "Third Camp" Trotskyism. The text of our introduction to the session is below. We will report the objections raised from the floor of the session, but not our responses.
Iraklios: This is just a first discussion, a beginning of a discussion. Of course it is difficult to explain to workers that the Stalinist states were degenerated workers' states. But we cannot avoid the problems by choosing a different label.
If you say that the Chinese or Vietnamese revolutions led to bureaucratic collectivism, then you put the Russian revolution into question too. Why make a revolution, if all it will produce is bureaucratic collectivism?
Stavros: The foundation of revolutionary Marxist politics is the idea that capitalism is in decay. But how can you sustain that if you deny that China, Vietnam, and Cuba had socialist revolutions?
Millions of people in China sacrificed their lives for the revolution there. They couldn't have been fighting just for bureaucratic collectivism. You can't deny that the masses in Cuba were happy with the revolution there. If the Stalinist states were bureaucratic collectivism, doesn't that mean that the whole future of humanity is not socialism, as we thought, but bureaucratic collectivism?
Sofia Theodoropoulou: If the Stalinist states were bureaucratic collectivism, then what kind of state is bureaucratic collectivism? If they were a kind of state capitalism, can you explain whether the law of value operated there, whether there was a free market there? What were the laws of motions of this bureaucratic collectivism or state capitalism?
Other comrades: Is it useful going back over old history like this? The Trotskyist tradition shows us how not to follow the popular fronts, and how to fight the class struggle, and that is what we need today.
Yes, there were killings in the Stalinist states. But Western states also killed people. States are not divided between those which kill and those which don't.
If we take the logic of revolutions like the one in China not being socialist revolutions, then we would end up saying that the bourgeois revolution in France was not a bourgeois revolution because it resulted in Napoleon becoming emperor. Even the most successful socialist revolution, however, cannot really succeed unless there are socialist revolutions all over the world.
One notable thing, to me, was that these were "what if" responses - arguments not directly against our assertions about the Stalinist states, but that if one accepted those assertions, then one would have to accept some difficulty.
Although we referred frequently to China in our responses, no-one came back with specific counter-claims about China, or with references to Maitan's book as an source of information. No-one used the argument from the supposed "welfare-state" benefits of Stalinist states for the working class (full employment, cheap public services) which was the backstop retort of the Mandelites in Britain in the last period when they were willing to debate the nature of those states. No-one referred to texts from Trotsky (though in the last year of his life he turned, wrongly we think, against the "Third Camp" alignment) or to the political degeneration of Max Shachtman in old age.
Display at the OKDE summer camp of leaflets from their work with restaurant and cafe workers in Thessaloniki
Discussion sessions at the summer camp included: Turkey; Cyprus; the Greek revolutionary socialist movement between the World Wars; the life and ideas of Pantelis Pouliopoulos; the struggle against fascism and war; the crisis of contemporary culture; and workshop sessions for students, for teachers, and for other workers to discuss OKDE activity in those respective fields.
In the session on Turkey and Cyprus, Iraklios spoke about the question of the EU. He argued that relief within the EU is improbable, because "Germany is not the USA. It cannot do Marshall Plans".
In any case, the EU's specific problems, he argued, are not only its internal imbalances, but the weakening of the position of the EU as a whole in world trade. (But the share of Europe in world trade has long been weakening as industry rises in China, India, Korea, Brazil, etc. It is not clear that this is a crisis, any more than the more-or-less continuous fall in the UK's share of world manufactured exports, from 46% in 1872 to maybe 4% today has meant continuous crisis in the UK for the last 140 years).
However, Iraklios also said that Greek exit from the EU is "not a proposal which can solve the crisis. If all member states exit the EU, the crisis would only deepen. And for now exit is an influential idea only in Greece, though there are second thoughts elsewhere". (I think in fact the polls show that exit from the EU is far more popular in Britain than in Greece).
"In Greece, supporters of this view say that Greece could retrace the pre-euro past. They cite the model of Argentina after it broke the link between the peso and the dollar". (This is done especially by the left-wing economist Costas Lapavitsas). "But Greece does not have the same industrial base to expand exports that Argentina had". (Argentina gained especially from huge soya exports to China). "And these people forget the price paid by Argentina. Argentina cannot be a model".
The indicated conclusion would seem to be that socialists should agitate not against the euro and the EU, but for workers' unity against capital across the EU. In fact Iraklios concluded: "It is necessary to exit the EU, but to combine that with control of the economy by the masses, and nationalisation of key sectors of the economy... Our proposal to exit the euro is not aimed at autonomous national development, but as a first step to reunify Europe on the basis of a Socialist United States of Europe".
In other sessions OKDE speakers explained that OKDE has a baseline "emergency programme" which it strives to promote in every struggle: cancel the debt, exit the EU and the eurozone, nationalise the banks and industry under workers' control.
Nationalisations of key sectors and workers' control would be good, but why they should be presented as add-ons to exiting the EU is puzzling. Of course, a workers' government implementing such measures could find itself expelled from the EU or even blockaded, but it does not follow that we should want exit from the EU "in itself", or welcome it any more than we would welcome a blockade.
I made some of those points in a contribution from the floor, but the session included no final summation from the opening speakers, and so I never got a reply.
In the session on the Greek workers' movements between the war, Stavros noted that the KKE had assumed that capitalist Greece must be either "imperialist" or "a colony". Pouliopoulos, by contrast, located Greece in the world economy more precisely, as neither an imperialist world power nor a colony or semi-colony, but instead a second-rank capitalist power with its own regional ambitions for domination and expansion. Stavros also noted that few countries then had similar status, but many do now.
In the sessions on Pouliopoulos, there was discussion about the slogan of "an independent Macedonia and Thrace", launched by the KKE in the 1920s. It was for advancing that slogan, in line with Comintern policy, that Pouliopoulos was jailed.
There had been a real basis for it. When those regions were first incorporated into Greece, after the Balkan wars of 1913, Greeks were only a minority there, and less numerous than either Jews or Slavs in the biggest city, Thessaloniki.
That changed with the influx of refugees from Turkey after the 1919-22 war between Greece and Turkey, who most came to that north-eastern part of Greece; negotiated population exchanges with Bulgaria and Turkey; and a tendency among remaining Jews and Slavs to assimilate to a Greek identity. In the 1920s the slogan was dictated more by the Comintern's and the Bulgarian CP's efforts to ally with Macedonian nationalists of IMRO, a parallel to the Comintern-imposed switch of the Yugoslav CP to demanding independence for Croatia.
There was also discussion about the Archeo-Marxists, who were the first Left Opposition group in Greece, and strong enough for a while to rival the official KKE. Pouliopoulos stayed separate from the Archeo-Marxists after being excluded from the CP in 1927, and was able to get official links with the Trotskyist movement only in 1934 when the majority of the Archeo-Marxists turned away from the Trotskyist movement and a minority split off to unite with Pouliopoulos. Pouliopoulos never after 1934, not even by word of mouth, said he had been wrong about the Archeo-Marxists, but OKDE speakers argued that in fact, in view of the sizeable working-class base of the Archeo-Marxists, in fact he was.
The headline reads: "Exit from the slaughter of the euro"
Over current politics in Greece, there have been four main issues on which we have debated with OKDE.
Comrades from Lutte Ouvriere gave a presentation on the political situation in France in one summer-camp session. To promote debate, I asked them for their view on the agitation in France from both the far right (the Front National) and a section of the far left (POI/ Informations Ouvrieres) for French exit from the euro or EU as an answer to the capitalist crisis.
They replied that workers are not interested in such agitation. The French Communist Party sometimes tries to divert social issues into vague agitation against "Brussels", but half-heartedly.
Iraklios intervened. French government debt is predicted to rise to 96% of GDP in 1014. And then France will face a Memorandum, like Greece. What will you say then? Won't you have to decide then whether Europe is good or bad?
The LO comrades replied: It's not just Europe. And it is not our debt to pay. Our discussions with workers do not focus on the debt, but on the class struggle. The answer is to get out of capitalism, not out of the euro or the EU. Brussels? It is not just "Brussels". The big corporations, French, German, and Greek too, all have their offices in Brussels to lobby the European Commission. To blame "Brussels" is to divert from the battle against the bosses.
We think LO is right on this. We were ready to intervene to support them, but further interventions from OKDE did not respond to LO, and instead turned the session to other issues.
OKDE banner at the summer camp: "No to the closure of ERT/ Down with the coalition junta/ Indefinite political general strike"
The indefinite political general strike
In one session we asked: for what objectives do OKDE propose the indefinite political general strike? We understand well why revolutionary socialists in Greece should agitate for purposeful indefinite all-out strikes to step forwards from the 20-odd 24-hour or 48-hour general strikes held in recent years, and from the recent indefinite sectional strikes defeated because particular groups of workers hit by the Memoranda were left to fight on their own.
But in OKDE's agitation, we thought, the indefinite political general strike had become a cure-all, a formula covering up inadequate political alternatives.
The question brought no response in the session, but afterwards I talked with Stavros. The indefinite political general strike, he said, is to bring down the government.
But if you can mobilise an indefinite general strike, I asked, why focus it on removing the government, i.e. getting a new election? Look at France in May-June 1968. The calling of an election demobilised the general strike, and the demobilisation of the general strike gave the right a big majority in the election. When conditions exist for a general strike, better focus it on a clear-cut social demand - scrapping the Memorandum, reinstating suspended public-service workers - while retaining the opening to develop further demands if the strike settles in and generates local workers' committees and councils to run services, supplies, and self-defence.
Stavros replied that he saw the problem. OKDE also calls for the scrapping of the Memorandum, the cancellation of the debt, and the nationalisation of banks and industry under workers' control. It demands unions call General Assemblies for workers to control their struggle, and sees those as crucial.
But the indefinite political general strike is a starting point, because it is a way out of the current dead-end. OKDE, he said, advocates a workers' government based on the self-administering groups of the movements.
Those self-administering groups, however, mostly do not yet exist. The idea of a workers' government plays little role in OKDE's agitation.
I could have added that for OKDE to call on workers to make an indefinite general strike to remove the government is odd when in May-June 2012 OKDE did not think it worth the effort for workers even to vote out a similar government. (OKDE reckoned it impractical to run its own candidates, and made no recommendation about voting in those elections, instead campaigning to build up workers' self-organisation).
In a discussion among OKDE's school teachers, one of them asked what sense it made focusing teachers on the call for an indefinite political general strike to bring down the government. If the strike succeeded, then there would be an election and another government. So then we'd call for another indefinite political general strike to bring down that government? And the next government, after the next election? And the next? In other words, the call begged the question of an alternative government.
We discussed with OKDE comrades in 2012 about their decision to stay outside Syriza and not even to back voting for Syriza in the May-June 2012 elections when OKDE itself had no candidates.
In that discussion, the OKDE comrades did not make the argument of the KKE and some in Antarsya, that the vote for Syriza represented a rightward shift by the working class. They said that the vote for Syriza represented an important leftward shift by the working class. But their arguments against the post-Mandelite "broad parties" orientation seemed to have left them insistent that organisational separateness is a principle.
A session in the summer camp discussed the Archeo-Marxists, who were the first Left Opposition group in Greece, and for a while the biggest Left Opposition group outside the USSR. In 1934 the leader of the Archeo-Marxists, Dimitris Giotopoulos, parted ways with the Trotskyists, and later took his organisation into the "London Bureau" with the ILP and the POUM; a section of the Archeo-Marxists split away and united with Pouliopoulos to form a new Trotskyist group in Greece.
From what I know from Trotsky's writings, the up-front issue between the Archeo-Marxists and the Trotskyists in 1934 was the "French turn" - Trotsky's proposal that the French Trotskyists join the French Socialist Party as a faction. I asked about that. OKDE comrades did not respond; but doesn't the episode raise questions about the Syriza issue today? It does not answer those questions. We can't cut-and-paste tactics from different eras for today. But it raises questions.
When we first met OKDE in 2010, we read a document from May 2007 which they had translated into English. That was from before the eruption of the current capitalist crisis, and at a time when Greece's economy was still growing tidily (its GDP grew nearly 50% in 1997-2007, twice the EU average). Yet the document talked of the "world capitalist system... unable to get out of its 35-year-old crisis", and with no prospects but "the worsening of its crisis as well as of the crisis of the international bourgeois leadership".
We argued that it is a misuse of the word "crisis" to apply it to conditions persisting for 35 years and more, and that in fact from the mid-1980s global capital had much improved its profit rates and expanded into new areas. This all came together with attacks on the working class, but it is not only in crisis that capital attacks the working class.
Since then Greece has been plunged into depression and pauperisation which, on all foreseeable capitalist options, will continue for long. We have not argued with OKDE about their descriptions of the economic crisis: it seems churlish and pedantic to complain about inexactness or exaggeration in such times.
However, the report we had from the comrade from L'Etincelle at the summer camp of his meeting on behalf of his group with OKDE (Iraklios, Stavros, and Stefanos) suggests that we should have argued.
The OKDE comrades told him that all the countries of Europe, France for sure but also Germany, are ineluctably headed towards a plight like Greece's. The next step after that is world war, in which humanity will be destroyed by nuclear weapons.
No qualifications, no references to countervailing tendencies or other possibilities, were entertained.
The summer-camp session the morning after the L'Etincelle-OKDE discussion was about the struggle against fascism and war. Much of it was general and historical. One comrade from the floor pointed out that Stalinist regimes had been similar to fascism, and sometimes worse: why? An argument was made despite the dangerous rise of Golden Dawn, the conditions do not exist now in Greece for fascism.
After a speech by Sofronis, Tom asked: "Did Sofronis really say that the US is turning towards fascism?"
My attention had been slack - my written notes had only: "The main danger today is the US bourgeoisie". We asked Maria, our translator. She thought Sofronis had said that the US was the country most likely to go fascist. She wasn't sure, so she checked, and came back to tell that Sofronis had really said that if the US goes fascist, it will destroy the world.
The vast over-armament of the US state is a threat to human survival even without a fascist coup, and a reminder to us that the choices may not be even socialism or barbarism, but rather socialism or annihilation. Yet in order to win socialism we need assessments which discern the ups as well as the downs of capitalist economy, the favourable tendencies as well as the unfavourable.
On all four points - exit from EU, indefinite political general strike, separation from Syriza, proclamation of ever-worsening crisis - contingent and limited political constructs are cathected so as to give them the same fixity and emotional charge as the idea of the socialist revolution itself. That syndrome existed in pathological form in the Healy tendency; and in other forms among many others who would not question the basic ideas of the "orthodox" Trotskyism shaped by Mandel and others in the 1940s and early 50s, but wanted somehow to stiffen the inevitably mushy, speculative, naively-hopeful bias of a world-view centred on discerning strands of socialist-revolutionary advance in distant upheavals led by maybe-not-quite-orthodoxly-Stalinist forces. It was "screeching Trotskyism".
Our introduction to the session on the "Third Camp"
The Third Camp tradition in Trotskyism is a tradition different from the one which OKDE follows.
We in Workers' Liberty used to follow a tradition similar to the one which OKDE follows.
Between the 1960s and the 1980s we became more and more critical of that tradition.
In the mid 1980s we decided that we could learn more from the Third Camp tradition.
We believe the last 25 years' evidence have confirmed that view again and again. I will explain why.
The term Third Camp was invented by Trotsky. He used it to describe the idea of the working class organising itself in conflicts between two sections of the ruling classes to be an independent force opposed to both alternatives.
The idea became more important and more controversial among Trotskyists when Stalinistrule in Russia became stabilised and consolidated.
The Third Camp Trotskyists said workers should form a Third Camp against both Stalinism and western capitalism.
Other Trotskyists said workers should criticise Stalinism but side with the USSR against the West.
I will discuss five points.
One: the course of history.
Marxism is different from other socialist theories.
Like other socialists we argue that socialism is a good idea.
Unlike other socialists we argue that socialism is also a logical next step in history.
We develop an understanding of where we are in history, how things have developed, why and how they can be different in future.
For some time after Marx's death the Marxist view of history was simple.
Industry was increasing. Units in industry were becoming bigger.
The state was more and more active economically. The working class was increasing in numbers and in strength.
The working class would soon be able to win socialism.
And the workers did win power, in Russia.
Then the workers elsewhere were defeated.
The isolated Russian workers' state became bureaucratised.
It changed into a form of society different from both the capitalist societies in other countries and the democratic workers' state.
So there was a new, unexpected form of society. Between 1943 and the 1970s that form was established in 15 countries, not just Russia.
Some Trotskyists defined that Stalinist form of society as post-capitalist, or as deformed and degenerated workers' states.
They said that history was moving forward to create post-capitalist societies.
Because of the political weakness of the workers' movement, the workers had not been able to create democratic workers' states.
Because of the decay of capitalism, capitalism has been unable to continue in many areas.
Because neither healthy workers' states nor continuing capitalist states had been possible, this new form of post-capitalist state had been created.
The new form would continue until the working class became politically strong enough to replace it by healthy workers' states.
That was a common view.
Two: the last 25 years
Things look different in the last 25 years.
If the old view about the Stalinist states being post-capitalist states was true, then history has been going backwards for the last 25 years.
Before, capitalism was so decayed that post-capitalist states emerged even where the working class was politically weak.
Now that same capitalism has become lively enough to replace all those post-capitalist states by capitalism - and sometimes by capitalism growing very fast.
Three: the Third Camp Trotskyists
The Third Camp Trotskyists were people like Hal Draper and Max Shachtman, before Shachtman became right wing in old age.
They argued a different view.
They argued that the Stalinist systems were not post-capitalist.
They were not more progressive than capitalism.
The most powerful Stalinist bureaucracies were imperialist in a different way from the Western capitalist states but just as bad.
Or if you called what Russia did in Eastern Europe a different name than imperialism, then that different thing was as bad as imperialism.
Four: the evidence
The Stalinist ruling groups were a new sort of group, created in at least 15 different countries across the world.
In Russia, the Stalinist ruling group came in part from renegades of the workers' movement who had linked up with middle class people from the old regime.
Everywhere they came from the middle classes.
Everywhere except in Russia they had an economic system which they had designed and imposed by force.
Those economic systems exploited wage workers.
They created privilege and wealth for the ruling groups.
Economic inequality of income was about as big as in Western capitalist societies.
The ruling groups sometimes had crises and purges. But in the long term they were as stable as the capitalist classes of the West, or more so.
They were as able as the capitalist classes of the West to pass on their privileges to their children.
These ruling groups have also in the last 25 years been able to convert themselves more or less into ordinary capitalist classes.
They have done that in China and Vietnam and to a large degree in other countries like Hungary.
For all those reasons we call these ruling groups classes.
Their economic system worked well, for the ruling classes at least, to carry through basic industrialisation in relative autarky by squeezing a large peasant population.
It worked badly for more developed industry within the world division of labour and for urbanised populations.
For all those reasons we should define their mode of production as a special variant within the capitalist era.
It was a backward variant because everywhere the Stalinist economic system deprived workers of even basic bourgeois rights.
It did not develop the forces of production specially well.
Industry grew fast in some Stalinist states in some periods.
But over the long term East Germany developed technology less than West Germany.
Russia less than Japan.
North Korea less than South Korea.
China less than Taiwan.
Bulgaria less than Greece.
The evidence tells us:
The Stalinist ruling groups were new exploiting classes.
They had their own special economic system.
You can call it a form of state capitalism; or you can say that the differences from ordinary capitalism were so big that it should be given another name, like bureaucratic collectivism.
But that is secondary.
Either way, they were exploiting systems within the capitalist era; and bad variants within the capitalist era.
So it was wrong for workers to side with the Stalinist states, our defend them, or call them post-capitalist, our think they were a lesser evil.
Workers needed to organise as a Third Camp against both western capitalism and Stalinism.
Five: conclusions for today
If we take a Third Camp view today, that gives us a more accurate view of history.
That is important.
It is important because Marxists are not only socialists, but also socialists who can explain accurately how history has developed and where we are in history.
It helps us to see that history is not going backwards.
It is going forwards.
The replacement of the old national statised economic forms is a replacement of old forms of capitalism by new forms, not return to older forms.
As capitalism creates those new forms, the working class becomes larger, more concentrated, more educated, and more cosmopolitan.
Politically, the workers' movement has had big defeats in the last 30 years.
But economically the potential strength of the workers' movement has grown.
Taking the Third Camp view also avoids us having to pretend that North Korea and Cuba are the best states for the working class in the world today.
They are not.
I finish here.
The evidence of the last 70 years, and even more the evidence of the last 25 years, shows that Marxists today should start from the Third Camp tradition.