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The Uncivil Servant: Syriza and the Occupy Movement

Mitchell Abidor
January 26, 2015

by Mitchell Abidor

syriza-5702SYRIZA, THE COALITION OF THE RADICAL LEFT has won the Greek elections and, though they are described as left-wing and “anti-austerity,” make no mistake about it: This is the first victory of a small “c” communist party in history. I have no Greek, and so can’t comment on the party’s Greek documents and website, but the websites in countries whose language I can read make this clear with homages to Lenin, the October Revolution, the communist resistance to the Nazis in Greece and elsewhere. The victory of the Greek people that Stalin and Churchill blocked in 1945 has finally occurred, despite the rise of the far right in Europe, which seemed to have found a way to mobilize people’s anger better than the left.

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 2.48.55 PMSyriza in Greece may be followed by Podemos in Spain, a party of the far left and an outgrowth of their version of Occupy Wall Street, Los Indignados. Podemos already has six Eurodeputies and the second largest enrollment in Spain, and, according to polls, would receive more votes than any other party if elections were held today. As an outgrowth of the frenzied democracy of the Indignados, even their programmatic statements are wikis, with members debating virtually every word and the debated words highlighted on their documents.

The success of these two movements is tied to specific features inapplicable to the U.S.: a parliamentary system that allows new parties to thrive, and a level of immiseration we didn’t see here even in 2008. Nevertheless, it underlines the utter failure of the Occupy movement in the U.S., which also grew out of spontaneous rage. Yes, income equality is now talked about, but the changes made since the movement have been relatively minimal. In fact, a rise in minimum wages in some states is pretty much it. Bill de Blasio would never have been elected had it not been for Occupy, whose critique he clearly endorsed — but America is a big country, and sadly, New York is not all of it. And in any case, though Occupy sensitized New Yorkers, the movement played no role in his victory.

THE EXPLANATION of this is simple, and is highlighted by Syriza and Podemos: Working in a country with a functioning political democracy, to which the people are attached, Occupy, in its search for purity, refused to engage in the political process, the only place that change is effected in a country like ours. Rather than compromise their principles with the business of electing candidates, they guarded their purity, waving their fingers in approbation at general assemblies, passing motions whose impact didn’t extend beyond a square in Lower Manhattan. Yes, demonstrations are effective, but they’re only effective if there’s someone in office to act on the demands.

I’d like to give a personal experience that exemplifies Occupy’s ultimate silliness: Around the time Bloomberg crushed the movement, I participated in a film of Brecht’s play, Days of the Commune. The cast was made up of activists, actors, and people like me, typecast to play the role of a Communard of a certain age because of my historical work on the Paris Commune. After a couple of weeks, the lead actor, an Occupy heavy, quit — because the film wasn’t being made democratically, he said, with shots and framing and blocking determined by the cast. This was a logical extension of the sterility of Occupy utopianism, insisting on living in a post-revolutionary world that existed only in their minds.

THERE HAVE BEEN other people angry about America’s direction, and they haven’t been shy about running and electing candidates and even using the classic works of Saul Alinsky: the Tea Party. The vileness of the U.S. Republican Party is largely owed to them, and because those angry on the left didn’t organize as the Tea Party did, didn’t pressure politicians, didn’t try to shape the political debate in the country, Bernie Saunders stands as their sole counterweight.

The lesson of Occupy — and of Syriza, and of Podemos — is that if change is to occur in this country, doctrinal purity should be left at the door and the electoral arena conquered. The Green Party, it must be faced, is a hopeless endeavor, existing to allow us to express our just rage by voting for them when we hate the Democrat too much to pull his or her lever. If the idea of working with Democrats repels anyone on the left, they should adopt the mindset of the Trostskyist “entryists,” who joined parties like Labour in the UK and the Socialist Party in France because that’s where the people with any sympathy for progressive ideas are. The alternative lesson, and the one Occupy followed, is that of Trotskyism in general, a movement that has been doctrinally pure and politically pointless since its founding.

None of us will live to see an American Alexis Tsipras in power. But maybe we can do better than having to swallow a Hillary Clinton and see that as a win.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to our magazine and website, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his forthcoming translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His Anarchists Never Surrender, an anthology of anarchist writings by Victor Serge, is about to be published.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.