The EU once again faces its darkest hour with the upcoming Brexit referendum. Leaders of the EU had just barely recovered their nerves from the Grexit threat just one year ago, and now they are faced again with the prospect of a country, with a far greater economic and political clout than Greece, leaving the Union. The fate of the EU – that capitalist union that has been teetering on the edge – will be decided by the June 23rd referendum.
Politicians, economists, and anyone whose opinion seems to matter are all singing in a harmonious concert that Britain must remain in the EU or else the consequences will be fatal. Meanwhile, the other wing of the ruling classes, Nigel Farage and his continental Europe counterparts like Le Pen, see in the breakup of the EU a better future for them. But for the workers and youth their future will be one of endless austerity regardless of the fate of the EU. The only real difference between the “Remain” and “Leave” wings of the ruling classes is the manner in which they want to serve the unpalatable austerity dish to the workers.
Joining the “Remain” chorus is a familiar face and voice, our rebel super-star economist Yanis Varoufakis. He recently penned an op-ed for The Guardian with a title that doesn’t leave much for the imagination as to the intention of the author: Why we must save the EU. For those who have read Varoufakis’ solemn confessions, his penchant for saving many things should not come as a surprise. He has vowed to embark on a historical task to “save European capitalism from itself”, and we have admonished him with a severe penance for that foolishness (read Varoufakis’ mission “to save European capitalism from itself”).
Now that the EU is on another brink of disintegration, Varoufakis hurries himself again to the fore to propose a plan to help the EU avoid an implosion that could, in his words, “create a vortex that will consume us all – a postmodern replay of the 1930s [read rise of fascism].” Aside from the obvious advice that the workers and youth of Britain should vote to remain in the EU lest they want to “suffer the consequences of a pan-European nightmare”, this latest piece by Varoufakis is a delightful read for anyone who wants to understand how a hopeless reformist thinks. While we are not in the least interested in psychoanalyzing the complex labyrinth of the mind of a reformist, in which he often finds himself lost, it is important to expose it for what it is before the workers.
Varoufakis’ article begins quite innocently with a story of his childhood in the 1960s when the military junta ruled in Greece. Little Yanis was huddling with his mum and dad under a red blanket, secretly listening to a German international radio station, Deutsche Welle. The German broadcast was for Yanis the voice of reason and democracy during those dark years of military dictatorship, a window looking out to democratic Europe. These red blanket days were an “enduring memory” for him as Varoufakis admitted himself.
It is quite instructive that Varoufakis reminisced about this particular episode in his life and made a point to share it with his readers before arguing why the EU and European capitalism need to be saved at whatever cost. He strived to highlight that the Europe of the 60s, and in particular the Germany of the 60s, was a good Europe, a good Germany, democratic and rational, “a dear friend, a land of democrats” he wrote. But fifty years later, when he went to Berlin as Greek finance minister with a hope to strike a reasonable agreement with the Troika and only to be snuffed by Wolfgang Schäuble, he lamented that “the half-century that had passed since my red blanket days … had changed Europe to no end.”
Indeed Europe has changed. The golden era of capitalism in the 50s-70s that little Yanis was so fond of had ended. For Varoufakis to lament this fact, as do many other reformists like himself, betrays the state of mind of a reformist, one that is frozen in time. The postwar boom was an exceptional period that came about due to a unique combination of factors that could never repeat themselves anymore: the complete destruction of Europe that laid to waste excess means of productions and consequently solved temporarily the capitalist contradiction of overproduction; the strengthening of reformism and Stalinism that bound the workers hand and foot; and the unprecedented expansion of world trade. A booming capitalism could grant not only economic concessions but also political concessions that give an appearance of a polite and democratic society.
However as capitalism on a world scale enters into crisis, and steps out of this transient golden era into a more “normal” functioning of capitalism, the reformists who had felt much like home in the past suddenly lose their bearing. They cannot make heads or tails of the new situations. This was clearly demonstrated by how disappointed Varoufakis was of what he considered to be the anti-democratic nature of his negotiation with the troika. He was aghast when European leaders would not listen to him, as he shared in his article: “Coming into the highest level of European decision-making from the academic world, where argument and reason are the norm, the most striking realisation was the absence of any meaningful debate. … When I began speaking about them [my economic plans], they would look at me as if I were singing the Swedish national anthem.”
Varoufakis was expecting a democratic and rational debate where all sides could come to an agreement. After all, didn’t he go there with the purpose of rendering assistance to Merkel and Schäuble to save capitalism? Didn’t he also have in his hand the democratic mandate of the Greek people? But he was brutally reminded by Schäuble: “Elections cannot be allowed to change an economic programme of a member state.” This categorical and frank statement from Schäuble shattered the illusion of a polite and democratic society, of Germany as “a land of democrats” that Varoufakis held so dearly.
Varoufakis complained bitterly, “How could my host [Schäuble] even begin to imagine that I had arrived in his city with my head full of childhood memories in which Germany featured as my security blanket?” This confession – and we are ever so glad that Varoufakis doesn’t shy away from sharing his most intimate feeling – says everything about the state of mind of a reformist. On one hand, it is simply a crime for Varoufakis to go to the Troika negotiation table to represent the fate of millions of Greeks, armed with a naivety of a six-year-old little boy. Despite all his claims that he brought with him to the negotiation table brilliant, sophisticated economic plans to save not only Greece but also European capitalism, at the end of the day his strategy was propped by a feeble childhood memory of his blanket days that he hoped could move and inspire the cold and calculating hearts of EU leaders and bureaucrats. But reality was harsh and the old wise Schäuble ripped the red blanket from the hand of unsuspecting little Yanis and told him to grow up.
On the other hand, this highlights the recurring theme of the attempts of reformists to turn back the clock, a feat many physicists today have deemed to be impossible lest we venture into the realm of science fiction. Armed with “childhood memories in which Germany featured as my security blanket”, Varoufakis pleaded to Schäuble and Merkel to return to that Germany of the 60s, just like all reformists with a pigheaded stubbornness plead to the powers to be to return to the good old days when reforms were aplenty and abundant. But time marches ever forward with even greater stubbornness.
Every reformist has their own version of red blanket days that they look to longingly, which inspire warm feelings of the good old days. It is fine for us if they wish to live in the past as they rightfully belong in the dustbin of history. But they also wish to anchor the whole working class in this past and impede its march to the future. Thus, implicit in reformism is betrayal. Whether it is a conscious or an unconscious betrayal is immaterial for the outcome.
The historical argument between reformists on one side and revolutionary Marxists on the other, which has existed since the days of Eduard Bernstein, can always be reduced to this: is the working class ready to take power? The question takes many different forms and expresses itself in many different contexts but it is always fundamentally the same. For a reformist, the working class is never ready to fulfill its historical task and thus socialism is an ever moving goalpost that is always out of reach. Consequently we will be hard pressed to find in history an instance when a reformist heroically proclaims the readiness of the working class to seize power. The Basle Manifesto was probably the last of such a heroic act on the part of reformism before it cowered and voted for war credits.
In the case of Varoufakis, he argues that not only is the working class weak but also that capitalism is in such a poor state of disrepair, that it has to be saved first from itself before the workers can dream of socialism. The task of the Left is therefore to be the responsible manager of capitalism, a task that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has openly embraced. Say whatever you want about Tsipras, but he has the courage to take the logic of reformism to its conclusion, by playing that much hated role of managing capitalism. Meanwhile Varoufakis, who starts from the same argument as Tsipras that workers are not ready to change the society, refuses to accept all the consequences from that argument. Varoufakis wants to save capitalism but is afraid of getting his hands dirty, for the only way to save capitalism today is to oversee the largest attacks on the living standards of workers.
On the other side are revolutionary Marxists with their unshakeable faith in the working class and its capacity to radically transform society. It is not that the working class is always ready to wage a revolution, with full armour and arms in hand, just waiting to be summoned at a moment’s notice by a war horn. This would be an infantile ultra-left mistake. Marxists invest in their faith in the working class a persistent and principled effort of building the leadership, that general staff of revolution, which would be prepared to lead the working class to the battlefield and claim victory. Marxists fight for reforms not to save capitalism from itself but to train the working class during the course of the struggle so that it can see and understand its historical task of ending capitalism. Varoufakis and his counterparts all over the world look to the past with a hope to return to it. Marxists look to the past in order to prepare the way to the future.
Varoufakis accessorized his advice to the British working class to remain in the EU with a proposal that within EU we can “form a cross-border alliance of democrats … with a view of conjuring up a democratic surge across Europe.” But who are these democrats? Let us investigate this question. According to Varoufakis, these democrats are diverse people “ranging from radical activists to hedge fund managers”; they are not only the “thousands of anti-austerity demonstrators in Athens’ Syntagma Square”, “schoolchildren in deprived Greek and American suburbs”, and “Syriza activists in Thessaloniki”, but also “staff at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York”, “Bloomberg analysts in London and New York”, and “hedge funds in Manhattan and London’s City.” The list is as long as one’s willingness to imagine. This is because for Varoufakis the present crisis is not “merely a threat for workers” but also “for the bankers”. It transcends “social classes”. It is a crisis of the whole civilization. Therefore to save the civilization, and it can only be capitalist civilization, he is ready to “forge strategic alliances even with right-wingers”.
The Manifesto of Diem25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025), that “cross border alliance of democrats” that Varoufakis proposes to build, calls for a unity of people of all “political party affiliations”, “ideologies” and “faiths and conceptions of the good society”[!]. But curiously the rank of Diem25 – in which we can find figures such as Noam Chomsky, the darling of anarchists; Toni Negri, the neo-Kautskyite of super-imperialism; and Slavoj Zizek, the penultimate of academic Marxism – is severely lacking the right-wingers, hedge fund managers, bankers, and Bloomberg analysts that it seeks to make alliances with. Just like the Spanish Popular Front, Diem25 could find only the shadows of these “democrats” – or “patriotic bourgeoisie” as Zizek called them, who according to him “has some genuine interest in producing for the people” and the task of the Left is to “make life easier” for them (Read Slavoj Zizek: Apologist for the Social Democratic turn of SYRIZA). Despite Varoufakis’s and Zizek’s constant call for bankers and patriotic bourgeoisie to join them in this alliance of democrats, despite all their efforts to make their program as abstract and vague as possible and thus harmless, no one has yet to join them. And the bankers don’t feel the need to join this sad attempt at a popular front because without even participating in it the reformists there have already vowed to save capitalism.
The only cross-border alliance that we need to build is that of the proletariat, the very people who are bearing the brunt of the crisis of capitalism. If only Varoufakis spends as much time convincing the proletariat of the need for class independence and the revolutionary transformation of society as he does convincing EU politicians of his brilliant capitalism-saving economic scheme, he would have seen that the working class is ready to fight. But there are none so blind as those who will not see. The constant mass mobilizations of the Greek workers and youth, the emergence of Podemos in Spain, the millions who supported Bernie Sanders and his message of political revolution against the billionaire class, the radical transformation of the Labour Party with the election of Jeremy Corbyn, and the current strike movement of French workers against the hated El Khomri law that has paralyzed the whole nation; these are the things that Varoufakis and his contemporaries refuse to see and acknowledge. The working class is ready to fight to the end if it possesses the leadership who has unshakeable faith in it and armed with a socialist program. This kind of leadership can only be built and tempered through the heat of the struggle on the streets and on the factory floors, not under the cold breeze of air conditioning in a negotiation room in Brussels.
It is not the job of the Left to save the EU and capitalism. Varoufakis’ agenda of saving capitalism is “based on the assumption that the Left was, and remains, squarely defeated”, but he doesn’t explain that it is exactly because of the historical obsession of the Left – the social democrats and the Stalinists – to save capitalism that has left it to be squarely defeated even before it puts up a fight. The Bolsheviks were victorious because unlike the rest of the Left they never entertained even in the slightest the notion of saving capitalism from itself. The British workers do not need counsel from individuals like Varoufakis, who keep telling them that they are too weak to do anything about the dire circumstances they face under capitalism and therefore should settle for the status quo.
There is no future for the British people inside or outside of the EU on a capitalist basis. The coming referendum is a false choice put forward by the ruling classes, whereby both sides are permeated with reaction. The youth have instinctively rejected this referendum, with a recent poll showing that only a mere 52 per cent of young people say they will definitely turn up to vote. The British workers and youth do not need the counsel of little Yanis who clutches his red security blanket and dreams of returning to some form of democratic Europe of the past. We do not need leaders who cower under a red blanket. They should also avoid the counsel of the other Lefts who see in Brexit a salvation to the woes of the working class. This whole referendum should be rejected and counterposed with an independent class position: neither EU nor capitalist Britain! For a Socialist Britain as part of a Socialist United States of Europe! Only with these slogans can the workers save themselves from the horrors of capitalism.