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Hegemony – two tactics and strategy from Kevin Ovenden in Greece

Kevin Ovenden reports from Greece.

“Hegemony” comes from a classical Greek word meaning to lead. Hegemony is another word for leadership. It doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with you on everything or has joined your political force or movement in society.

It means that the majority is prepared to follow your lead on the vital questions, or some of them, of the day. The No camp, anchored on the radical left and in the working class of Greece, is hegemonic across the country.

Every single area, including the political equivalent of Tunbridge Wells and the Tory Home Counties in Britain, voted No by a majority. The overall vote is 61 percent. The government was elected in January with 36 percent for Syriza.

For at least 40 years there has been a debate on the radical left about how you get to this position, which as you can see from the reaction to the vote among European elites is a very desirable place to be.

Indispensible, if you want to carry through the really radical changes they are sworn to resist. There’s also been a false debate.

That dead end conversation has been based on a fallacy. That on the one hand there are militant anti-capitalists who don’t care about winning hegemony and who just want to go for the most radical action and measures all the time, even relishing being a minority.

On the other, winning hegemony has been associated with moderation in this false debate. That you win hegemony by seeking strategic compromises and seeking to win the middle ground in the society by changing what you say, do and ultimately your goals in order not to alienate people to the right of you.

These politics ended up very far from the radical left in the 1990s with the Clinton-Blair policy of triangulation. That did not lead to the centre-left hegemonising the middle ground. It destroyed the political platform of the old centre-left.

The actual serious debate on the radical left has been about how to get wider following or acceptance of the left’s positions – what cultural references to use, how to be seen as the national voice without succumbing to nationalism or to chauvinism, how to be both radical, but also to win popular support.

I go through this debate more thoroughly in the book which is coming out in the autumn. But putting it simply: one tactic has been to form blocs with other political forces, representing social groups or classes. This was the idea behind bringing the right wing but anti-memorandum party ANEL into the Syriza-led government in January.

It was more than just a stop-gap measure because Syriza was two seats short of an absolute majority. This tactic also means imagery and language which tends not to talk of the working class, but of the people. Populist language.

And it has often meant a policy of limited, “tactical” *triangulation*, with an emphasis on the steady build up of a majority rather than on rapid shifts in a crisis, which may allow you suddenly to find that you are leading wider forces – albeit over a specific set of issues.

The other tactic, also very simply, has laid the emphasis on the confrontation by the working class with the capitalists, by the radical left with the open political face of the elites, the Tories, New Democracy in the case of Greece. Through that the aim is not only to win some things against them, but by showing in the society that one force is rising and another falling to lead the middle ground towards coming behind the stronger force.

It also involves tactics of taking up issues in a way which answers the concerns of the middle – both the political middle and the social middle, the middle classes. But crucially that is done not through adopting the policies or language of the middle, but through your own, distinct policies based upon a very sharp conflict with the right.

For five months the government sought compromise to the extent that on Wednesday of last week it was prepared to accept the substance of the deal which 61 percent of Greece has now decisively rejected. (People have rejected in their minds much more than that.)Angela Merkel and the Troika forced a confrontation. A very sharp one aimed at crushing the Syriza government and resistance here and getting a new coalition government.

To meet that confrontation, the government had to move towards the second tactic of winning hegemony. The enormous rally on Friday night in the centre of Athens felt like a rally of the left. It played music which was popular in the radical 1970s.

All the old revolutionaries, and younger too, knew the words. We sing those songs. I first heard those songs in the mid-1980s at rallies of the radical left and of the then governing party, Pasok, when it was in government also with a left reforming programme.

The content of Alexis Tsipras’s speech was straight from the first tactic of how to win hegemony. The style, staging, and brilliant combativity was from the second. It declared a clash with the right and with Merkel & Co. It was a rally, a military term for stopping a retreat and re-energising your forces.

It did that. So both the tactics are playing out.

What of the strategy? “Strategy” also comes from ancient Greek, from the word for general. Successful generals combine tactics flexibly to win.

I’ll return to that. The main point I wanted to make here is that in order to win the limited aim (the aim was limited, so the victory yesterday was both huge and partial) of winning the No vote, the government – which has been characterised by tactical improvisation without a clear strategy – had to adopt the tactics which the most radical of the left prioritise.

Lastly, in classical Athens and beginning in 501 BC, the 10 generals – oi strategoi – were elected in a democracy which had many exclusions (all women, slaves and non-citizens) but which in its levels of participation was much more extensive than even the referendum held yesterday.



Comment from Lycaon
Time July 7, 2015 at 5:51 am

Monday, July 06, 2015
1.Others, not myself of course, might regard the comments, prognostications, predictions, assertions, of the pro-Syriza “leftists” of the international internet brigade with more seriousness if they bothered to learn the English transliteraton for the name of Greece’s current prime minister.

Τσίπρας becomes T-S-I-P-R-A-S. TSIPRAS, not TSIRPAS. That’s how he spells it on his webpage.

2. Meanwhile, the Gang that Can’t Spell Straight is happily proclaiming that “Greek workers vote NO to austerity.” Technically not. They voted ‘no’ to the terms as last proposed by the EU finance ministers, and backed up of course by the EU primer ministers, the ECB, etc. etc. They voted in support of T-S-I-P-R-A-S’ claim that two days after the ‘no’ vote, he will have secured a better deal.

3.”A better deal” will be within the framework of concessions that T-S-I-P-R-A-S has already made, which as the Gang has so frequently pointed out, is the best Greece can do, and is so much better than actually rejecting austerity, which would involve certain dramatic actions made by new actors in this currently sorry play.

4. No “better deal” will be obtained without recapitalizing the Greek banks. The European Union will not recapitalize the Greek banks without T-S-I-P-R-A-S agreeing to some form of bail-in– that’s B-A-I-L I-N.

5. No matter how badly you may misspell T-S-I-P-R-A-S, it means the same thing it meant before the referendum: λιτότητα

July 6, 2015

Comment from John
Time July 8, 2015 at 1:21 pm

Thanks Lycaon. Your basic reformist line won’t save the Greek working class. Austerity won’t save the Greek working class. Even λιτότητα (threift) will not save the Greek working class. Tsipras won’t save the Greek working class. The Greek working class can save the Greek working class and that distant potentiality has come a step closer with the overwhelming No vote in the referendum.

Comment from Lycaon
Time July 8, 2015 at 8:03 pm

What is wrong with the thinking processes of people on the left today? Are you completely clouded by Cliffite-Anarchist Kool-Aid?
Having just posted a panegyric to Tripras and Syriza, which contains not one word of criticism of the political bankruptcy of this right wing party and its leadership, you label me reformist for quoting an article from the Wolf at The Door which points out exactly that whatever their public posturing, Tsipras and Syriza are seeking ways to accommodate the demands of the EU and impose austerity.
You absurdly claim that Syriza’s plebiscite and the no vote bring the Greek working class one step closer to saving itself. Could you or Kevin Ovenden explain concretely how this works? Has the Greek officer corps been disarmed by the result of the plebiscite? Have the working class disestablished Orthodox Church or rooted out the Golden Dawn from their positions in the state apparatus? Have they broken the hold of the bourgeoisie over the judiciary, or any other instruments of the state? After the “brilliant combativity” shown by the Greek Obama wannabe at the rallies in Athens the other day, does anyone actually have a plan to do any of the above?
On the other hand, in even claiming that the Greek working class has the miraculous potential “save itself” you have unconsciously betrayed yourself to be an adherent of the Stalin-Bukharin notion of “Socialism in one country”. Except that Stalin and Bukharin set about constructing an autarchy in a large country, well-endowed with natural resources whose majority consisted of a self-sufficient peasantry. You however, apparently believe that the working class of a peripheral and dependent region like Greece, that relies on food and pharmaceutical imports for its day to day existence can “save itself”, miraculously facing down the opposition of the EU, NATO, and its internal class enemies in the military, the police, the judiciary, the Orthodox Church etc?
The defeat of the European and specifically German revolution after WWI lead to the rise of Stalin and a bureaucracy that built and autarchic state justified ideologically by “Socialism in one country.” Where the Stalinist construction of autarchic barrack room socialism in Russia led to a historic tragedy, the notion advocated by you and Ovenden that the Greek working class can save itself from the depredations of capitalism in isolation is completely farcical.
A while ago, according to the British SWP, the ISO, Socialist Alternative and this blog, it was the Egyptian working class who were on the cusp of victory. Today we are told that the Greek working class, who are hegemonic for the first time since 1944. Either that or they are “a step closer to saving themselves”. Absurd.
In its valorisation of spontaneity and philistine rejection of thought the political education provided by the Cliffite sect is closer to anarchism and outraged liberalism than to Marxism. Unfortunately these characteristics of Cliffism are amply evident in the incoherence and ahistorical character of your and Kevin Ovenden’s political writing and thought.

Comment from John
Time July 8, 2015 at 9:41 pm

I never said it was on the cusp, either in Egypt or Greece. There is or was a potentiality. That is all I said. Of course the state hasn’t been disarmed. The working class has become more engaged in the debates, the discussions, the enthusiams, the mobilisation … It rejects austerity. There is hope.

Yes, I will plead guilty at the show trials to being a Stalinist/Bukharin agent. What bizarre WSWS world do you live in?

Comment from Lycaon
Time July 8, 2015 at 10:01 pm

There is hope? While Greece is running out of food and pharmaceuticals and is under a financial embargo from the capitalist powers? A failed state on the periphery of Europe with no financial system is the basis for hope? Are you mad?

No wonder people can’t and won’t the left seriously. A left that will do nothing but blather on about enthusiasm, engagement and hope – that product which should have been brought into disrepute by the Obama campaign – in a society which is threatened with imminent collapse has nothing to offer the working classes anywhere. It does not deserve to be taken seriously.

Comment from Lycaon
Time July 8, 2015 at 10:19 pm

“Yes, I will plead guilty at the show trials to being a Stalinist/Bukharin agent. What bizarre WSWS world do you live in?”

What I did was point to the historical antecedents and absurdity of your notion that the Greek working class can “save itself”. Apparently you do not think it is worth your while to either rethink or defend your position. Tellingly, you instead responded with a standard sectarian slander.

Given your inability or unwillingness to either critically assess your own thought or to defend your ideological position you would do well remove Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg from banner on your blog. I suggest you replace them with Mikhail Bakunin.

Comment from John
Time July 9, 2015 at 6:05 pm

Fruitcake. Stick with WSWS and their utlrasectarian nonsense pretending to be Marxism.