The Guardian has published (18 February) a talk from 2013 by Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis in which he declared himself an “erratic Marxist”.
Varoufakis praises Marx’s account of how capital both develops labour’s creativity and energy, and simultaneously cramps it within rigid, quantifying limits. But, he says, he himself seeks “a modest agenda” to “save European capitalism from itself”.
He learned to avoid more radical aims, he says, when a student in England in the early years of the Thatcher government. At first he thought the “short, sharp shock” of Thatcher’s attacks would bring about “a new political revolution”. In fact the working class’s defats by Thatcher “permanently destroyed the very possibility of radical, progressive politics”.
Varoufakis claims that Lenin declared: “Things have to get worse before they get better”. Not to my knowledge he didn’t. Trotsky argued the opposite. He wrote that capitalist economic downturn, following setbacks for the working class, brings worse (though not “permanent”) setbacks.
In hist first preface to Capital, Marx wrote: “In England the process of social disintegration is palpable... It will take a form more brutal or more humane, according to the degree of development of the working class itself”.
The long-term interests of the capitalists themselves, he argued, called on them to allow space for the free political and cultural development of the working class. Nothing could bypass “the obstacles offered by the successive phases of development”; but it could “shorten and lessen the birth-pangs”.
In Britain we, the working class, had not developed sufficiently to beat Thatcher. And so the “disintegration” took more brutal form.
There is always, or almost always, some softer way out for capitalism which could be devised by an authority above the contending classes. But revolutions, or brutal regressions, happen when the class conflicts have made such detached policies impossible.
The Greek working class put Syriza in office and Varoufakis in the finance ministry because it is not yet ready for revolution. It wants to try for relief through negotiations.
But by committing himself to the role of the modest adviser to save capitalism, Varoufakis shackles himself to the capitalist leaders who would have to take his advice. Scared and embittered by the crisis, they have no time for the “humane” forms. He risks ending up as an enforcer, with mild amendments, of “Europe’s current posture”, which as he writes “poses a threat to civilisation as we know it”.
Our answer, as Marxists, is not to invoke revolution as the instant, off-the-cuff answer. It is to propose policies and paths of struggle, at every point, which maximise the independent political and cultural development of the working class.
After the Russian revolution, workers’ real wages went down for several years — in 1921, to only 32% of what they had been in 1913 — before rising in 1926-7 to 60% above the 1913 level (and then, as the Stalinist counter-revolution triumphed, crashing in 1932-3 to only a fifth of what they had been in 1926-7). Thirteen years after the French Revolution of 1789, visitors were dismayed to see long grass growing between the stones of the once-busy quays of Bordeaux.
Revolution is not a short-cut to economic improvements. It is just the only means — more costly or less costly depending on the degree of development of the working class, and the ferocity of capitalist resistance — to open the road to a new society.
It will take many further stages for the Greek workers to reach that conclusion. One of those stages will be the one in which they learn that Varoufakis’s “modest agenda” of advice to capital is unworkable.
The job of socialists is to help workers learn that lesson in a way that takes them on to more realistic aims, not backwards to despair.