The ‘erratic Marxism’ of Mr. Varoufakis
Written and translated from the Greek by Gori
Blog: Revolutionary Vigilance
The Greek Finance Minister was very clear in his ‘famous BBC interview’, but our petty-bourgeois commentators were too busy commenting on his style and the absence of a tie. He said that the current crisis has so far been dealt with as a liquidity crisis, which it is not. He said that it is instead an insolvency crisis. What he did not say is that this is a capitalist crisis. That the recession was caused by the inherent contradictions of capitalism, and more specifically by the anarchy of production, and by the gap and necessary breakdown between production and consumption, which produces all sorts of distortions the more the productive force of capitalism develops. What he did not say is that Varoufakis-Syriza’s neo-Keynesian proposal is a proposal to deal merely with the results and the symptoms of the problem (i.e. capitalist crisis), and not to eradicate the problem at its roots (i.e. the capitalist mode of production itself).
Nevertheless, Mr. Varoufakis is presented, especially outside Greece, as a Marxist. Of course after Syriza won the elections, petty-bourgeois frenzy has led to statements that range from the inaccurate to the completely ridiculous. For instance, we read that Syriza’s win signifies the beginning of the process of the withering away of the state. We also heard a post-modern enthusiast of the concept of ‘contingency’ claiming that Synaspismos (the biggest component of Syriza) was, at the beginning of the 1990s, ‘the kind of party that could have voted for the Maastricht Treaty’ because it ultimately remains ‘contingent’, ‘uncertain’ and ‘undetermined’ whether they voted for it or not... Elsewhere an ‘argument’ was made that Syriza’s coalition with the Independent Greeks is reminiscent of the Freudian myth of the parricidal brothers who coalesced to kill the troika. The public sphere is inundated with pseudo-intellectual nonsense posing as key analyses of the Syriza phenomenon.
But let us return to Mr. Varoufakis and his characterisation as a Marxist. Interestingly enough, he is the one who characterised himself as a Marxist, in one of his articles entitled ‘Confessions of an erratic Marxist in the midst of a repugnant European crisis’. This article is the processed form of a speech presented by Mr. Varoufakis at the Zagreb Subversive Festival on May 2013, with keynote speakers including Alexis Tsipras and Slavoj Zizek. Let us then focus on the main theses of Mr. Varoufakis’s ‘erratic Marxism’ in order to prove that he can be counted among those who purposefully distort Marxism.
This article is structured around the main question: ‘what should a radical/Marxist/leftist do today?’ Mr. Varoufakis says:
Should we use this once-in-a-century capitalist crisis as an opportunity to campaign for the dismantling of the European Union, given the latter’s enthusiastic acquiescence to the neoliberal policies and creed? Or should we accept that the Left is not ready for radical change and campaign instead for stabilising European capitalism?
Straight from the beginning, Mr. Varoufakis puts forth his ‘Marxist’ thesis that ‘it is the Left’s historical duty, at this particular juncture, to stabilise capitalism; to save European capitalism from itself and from the inane handlers of the Eurozone’s inevitable crisis’. His answer echoes the ‘dialectical’ ‘reasoning’ of his fellow speaker at the Zagreb Festival, Mr. Zizek. Let’s follow this ‘Marxist’ reasoning.
Europe’s present crisis is not merely a threat for workers, for the dispossessed, for the bankers [...]. No, Europe’s current posture poses a threat to civilisation as we know it. [The European crisis] is not just another cyclical slump  soon to be overcome as the rate of profit picks up following the inevitable wage squeeze.
Hence the great dilemma for every radical subject: ‘Should we welcome the crisis of European capitalism as an opportunity to replace capitalism with a better system? Or should we be so worried about it as to embark upon a campaign for stabilising European capitalism?’ Even though it seems impossible to understand how this dilemma can be an actual dilemma for any radical anywhere in the world (granted, our definition of a radical-communist is not at all the same as Mr. Varoufakis’s), let’s see how he manages to reach this ‘radical’ conclusion to fight for European capitalism.
Of course Mr. Varoufakis wishes his ‘campaigning were of a different ilk’. He would ‘much rather be promoting a radical agenda whose raison d’ être is about replacing European capitalism with a different, more rational, system -rather than merely campaigning to stabilise a European capitalism’. However, the Left (and obviously the working-people) is not ready for such radical agenda. It is funny that this political estimation comes out of the mouths of those accusing the Greek Communist Party (KKE) of economism and of placing all hope on ‘the Second Coming’. What is more, there is an additional danger:
Europe’s crisis is pregnant not with a progressive alternative but with radically regressive forces that have the capacity to cause a humanitarian bloodbath while extinguishing the hope for any progressive moves for generations to come.
Later on we will return to the ‘capitalism or fascism’ dilemma put forth by Mr. Varoufakis (a dilemma he has recently repeated in an ominous -one could say extortionate- way). But first let us assess Mr. Varoufakis’s relation with Marxism, as he recounts it.
To begin with, Mr. Varoufakis admits to have taught in his academic career only ‘the type of economic theory that left no room for Marx’. He admits further that in the late 1980s he was ‘hired by the University of Sydney Economics Department so as to keep out a left-wing candidate’. Even after his return to Greece as an advisor of George Papandreou (yes, the former Greek PM, the ‘man of the memorandum’), he admits that his interventions in the public debate on Greece and Europe (e.g. the Modest Proposal for Resolving the Euro Crisis, that I co-authored and have been campaigning in favour of) does not have a whiff of Marxism in it.
Furthermore, much like any other bourgeois intellectual who wants to be someone, Mr. Varoufakis does not like hetero-definitions: Marxist, Hegelian, Keynesian, Humean. He sees himself more like Francis Bacon’s bee: ‘a creature that samples the nectar of a million flowers and turns it, in its gut, into something new, something of one’s own, something that owes much to every single bloom but is defined by no single flower’. He seems to have read some of Marx’s work. However, it is a completely different question whether he has understood Marx. As well as whether he intentionally tries to distort Marx’s writings -- which we believe is the case with his ‘erratic Marxism’. This article joins a huge list of (post-modern, post-structuralist, post-Marxist) attempts of distorting the Marxist worldview. This list is full of intellectuals (such as Mr. Varoufakis’s fellow speaker in Zagreb, Mr. Zizek) from the current of which Mr. Varoufakis is now a member, and which attracts opportunist bees like honey.
Let’s see why this is the case. Mr. Varoufakis, ‘an unapologetic Marxist’, tries to show the importance of resisting Marx passionately in a variety of ways, i.e. of being ‘erratic in one’s Marxism’. Following his fellow speaker’s (yes, we are referring to Mr. Zizek) tactics --of bypassing the substance of an argument through irrelevant blabbering-- he fills his text with references to films (such as ‘the Matrix’ and the ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’) as well as to Marx’s literary mastery, albeit without caring so much for the accurate meaning of Marx’s writings and their practical implications. Let us look at one of the lessons that Mr. Varoufakis learned from Marx’s theory.
[Marx showed that] wealth is collectively produced and then privately appropriated through social relations of production and property rights that rely, for their reproduction, almost exclusively on false consciousness.
So far so good. The problem for Mr. Varoufakis begins with the way leftist parties appropriated Marx’s theory. It seems that the 11th Thesis on Feuerbach on the unity of theory and praxis is not among the principles of Marxist theory accepted by Mr. Varoufakis’s ‘erratic Marxism’. He may not be sparing in his praise of the literary virtues of the Communist Manifesto, but he seems rather uncomfortable with its practical function as a manifesto of communist parties. Let us see where exactly, according to Mr. Varoufakis, the problem in the leftist parties’ ideology is identified:
Instead of embracing liberty and rationality as their rallying cries and organising concepts, they opted for equality and justice, bequeathing freedom to the neoliberals. [...] The problem with capitalism is not that it is unfair but that it is irrational. [...] Having failed to couch a critique of capitalism in terms of freedom and rationality, as Marx thought essential, social democracy and the Left in general allowed the neoliberals to usurp the mantle of freedom and to win a spectacular triumph in the contest of faculties and ideologies.
Let us begin by saying that Mr. Varoufakis’s claim is completely inaccurate, at least so far as true communist parties are concerned (such as the KKE). The Marxist-Leninist critique of capitalism, on the principles of which the activity (scientific and political) of communist parties is based, is focused on the irrational character of the capitalist relations of production, rather than on the unjust character of the relations of distribution, the latter being determined in the last instance by the relations of production, as Marx shows in the ‘Introduction on the Critique of Political Economy’. This is evident in other classic Marxist texts, such as Engels’s article on ‘fair wage’ and the ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, in which the critique of capitalist relations of production focuses not so much on the principle of justice (‘justice’ and ‘right’ carrying within them elements of bourgeois society and ideology) as on the irrational character of these relations. Additionally, as far as the principle of freedom is concerned, it suffices to say that Mr. Varoufakis’s critique is in full harmony with the post-modern invective on "totalitarianism", as we shall shortly see.
Moving on to the main part of the argument: Why ‘erratic Marxism’? Mr. Varoufakis remains angry against Marx, due to the two significant errors of the latter; one by omission, the other by commission. Marx’s two errors leave a Marxist like Mr. Varoufakis no choice but to develop ‘his own’ ‘erratic Marxism’. The first of Marx’s errors, the one by omission, was that Marx ‘was insufficiently dialectical, insufficiently reflexive’.
He failed to give sufficient thought, and kept a judicious silence, over the impact of his own theorising on the world that he was theorising about. [...] How come he showed no concern that his disciples, people with a better grasp of these powerful ideas than the average worker, might use the power bestowed upon them, in order to abuse other comrades, to build their own power base, to gain positions of influence, to bed impressionable students etc.?
This is followed by a second example of Marx’s ‘insufficiently dialectical’ thought:
The success of the Russian Revolution caused capitalism, in due course, strategically to recoil and to concede pension schemes and national health services, even the idea of forcing the rich to pay for masses of poor students to attend purpose-built liberal colleges and universities. [...] Marx never saw this dialectical process coming. He just did not consider the possibility that the creation of a workers’ state would force capitalism to become more civilised while the workers’ state would be infected with the virus of totalitarianism as the hostility of the rest of the (capitalist) world towards it grew and grew.
So, Marx’s mistake, according to Mr. Varoufakis, was that he could not act like a prophet. He could not foresee --maybe because he did not get to live in the circumstances of the imperialistic stage of capitalism-- the capitalist world’s reaction to the victories of the working-class movement; and this is an unforgivable mistake for Mr. Varoufakis. As if Marx was not the one who gave us the precise scientific tools to analyse the rise of the welfare state, through the concept of class struggle and his analysis of the development of capital. Now, we hope that Mr. Varoufakis would forgive our doubting whether Marx would ever agree in saying that ‘capitalism became civilised’. This sounds more like something one of the other heroes of Mr. Varoufakis would say .. Keynes, Thatcher, George Papandreou?
As far as the post-modern accusations for totalitarianism (‘... the workers’ state would be infected with the virus of totalitarianism ...’) are concerned, these are to be found behind Mr. Varoufakis’s second critique against Marx. Marx’s second error, by commission this time, was that he assumed ‘that truth about capitalism could be discovered in the mathematics of his models’:
How could Marx be so deluded? Why did he not recognise that no truth about capitalism can ever spring out of any mathematical model however brilliant the modeller may be?
Mr. Varoufakis is quick to respond. ‘The reason for his error is a little more sinister’: Marx coveted the power that mathematical ‘proof’ afforded him, albeit he knew that ‘the rules of the undetermined are themselves undetermined’. And, since capitalism is an undetermined system, no one can identify and prove its laws using rational premises and mathematical equations. There were times when Marx, according to Mr. Varoufakis ‘realised, and confessed, to having erred on the side of determinism’.
But so committed was he to his own monopoly over the truth that he steamrolled over the problem, dazzlingly but too bluntly, imposing by fiat the axiom which would, in the end, vindicate his original ‘proof’.
‘This determination to have the ‘complete’, ‘closed’ story, or model, the ‘final word’, is something I cannot forgive Marx for’, says Mr. Varoufakis. ‘It proved, after all, responsible for a great deal of error and, more significantly, of authoritarianism’; an authoritarianism which stigmatised the Left, as he argues, and brought it to its current state of impotence. Alas, we found the reason for the Left’s plight, according to Mr. Varoufakis. It is the ‘pseudo-scientific character’ of Marxism.
At this point we admit that we fail to see how Mr. Varoufakis’s accusation of the non-scientific character of Marxism is any different than those accusations based on the epistemological premises of postmodern and post-structuralist intellectuals. On the other hand, we argue that only the scientific character of Marxism can provide us with the necessary tools to analyse the reasons behind the retreat of the working-class movement. And part of what is to blame is the bourgeois ideological constructions to which Mr. Varoufakis apparently subscribes.
Enter the scene the true hero of Mr. Varoufakis, Mr. Keynes and his radical idea. Mr. Varoufakis admits that Keynes was ‘an enemy of the Left, who liked the class system that spawned him, and worked hard and cleverly in order to come up with ideas that would allow capitalism to survive against its own propensity for, potentially, deadly spasms’. Nevertheless, Mr. Keynes living through the Great Depression was able to discern capitalism’s radically undetermined nature, something that Marx had failed to do, according to Mr. Varoufakis. The Great Depression was not like the cyclical redemptive crises, of the sort that Marx had explained so well:
In Capital Vol. 1 Marx told the story of redemptive recessions occurring due to the twin nature of labour and giving rise to periods of growth that are pregnant with the next downturn which, in turn, begets the next recovery, and so on.
Mr Keynes observed that there was nothing cyclical or redemptive about the Great Depression: ‘The 1930s slump was just that: a slump that behaved very much like a static equilibrium -a state of the economy that seemed perfectly capable of perpetuating itself’.
Of course Marx was not alive to see capitalism reaching the imperialistic stage of its development, but this does not mean that the crisis of 1930s is not an external limit to his theory. On the contrary, the Great Depression is evidence of the indissoluble contradictions of capitalism which Marx so aptly analysed. Far from being an external limit to Marx’s theory, the Great Depression provides proof which confirms the validity of it. Let’s not forget that the crisis of the 1930s is situated in between two imperialist wars, which were the necessary condition for the recovery of the monopolies’ rate of profit.
So, according to Mr. Varoufakis, Keynes’ gem of a ‘discovery’ about capitalism was twofold.
a) capitalism was an inherently indeterminate system, featuring what economists might refer to today as an infinity of multiple equilibria, some of which were consistent with permanent mass unemployment, andb) it could fall into one of these terrible equilibria at the drop of a hat, unpredictably, without rhyme or reason, just because a significant portion of capitalists feared that it may do so.
As a result, Mr. Varoufakis discovered through Keynes the unpredictable, indeterminate nature of capitalism, something that Marx had failed to discover. And this discovery was confirmed in the eyes of Mr. Varoufakis through his empirical observation of the Thatcherite government of Great Britain. For in the beginning Mr. Varoufakis developed a false hope and expectation that ‘Mrs Thatcher’s victory would be a good thing, delivering to Britain’s working and middle classes the short, sharp, shock necessary to reinvigorate progressive politics’.
Even as unemployment doubled and then trebled, under Mrs Thatcher’s radical neoliberal ‘interventions’, I continued to harbour hope that Lenin was right: ‘Things have to get worse before they get better’.
So, it came as a shock to him to realise -by observing the Thatcher government- that things could get worse in perpetuity. And this shock shook his faith in the determinism, which he called Marxism. For Mr. Varoufakis’s ‘erratic Marxism’ is a deterministic Marxism. In his ‘erratic Marxism’ there is no place for the category of class struggle. As a result, in his ‘erratic Marxism’ the development of history is not spiral but cyclical.
How can this cyclical system that Mr. Varoufakis understood account for the indissoluble contradictions of the capitalist system? How can a Marxist believe that the true meaning of Lenin’s words (‘Things have to get worse before they get better’) -in which Mr. Varoufakis invested with blind faith, only to become terribly disappointed by this ‘dogmatism’- could preclude the possibility of things (for the working class) getting worse in perpetuity?
And why, Mr. Varoufakis, should things not get worse in perpetuity for the English working class? Which was the situation of the British working-class movement at the time? Was the Communist Party of Great Britain ever autonomous, or did it constantly oscillate and choose to be the ‘tail’ of the Labour Party? More importantly, is the fact that ‘things did not get better for the British working class’ a sufficient argument against Marxism’s scientific nature? Is it a sufficient argument to convince us to abandon scientific communism in favour of Mr. Varoufakis’s ‘erratic Marxism’?
On the contrary, it is precisely the ideological victory of the bourgeois Eurocommunist ideas, to which the Greek Finance Minister subscribes, of the famous ‘British-democratic way to socialism’, which is intrinsically connected with the phenomenon of labour aristocracy which Lenin analysed in relation to the British imperialist social formation. What is more, the analogy between Thatcherite England and Greece of the Memorandum, albeit not without a logical basis, is an unforgivably mistaken application of dialectics (Britain’s place in the imperialist pyramid as well as the absence of autonomous working-class movement in Britain renders any such comparison very problematic).
To conclude, we have to refer to the lesson that Mrs Thatcher taught Mr. Varoufakis ‘regarding the capacity of a long lasting recession to undermine progressive politics and to entrench misanthropy into the fibre of society’. This lesson is one that he carry with him into today’s European crisis, and it is the reason why he chooses to save European banks and capitalism and ‘not to propose radical political programs that seek to exploit the Euro Crisis as an opportunity to overthrow European capitalism, to dismantle the awful Eurozone, and to undermine the European Union of the cartels and the bankrupt bankers’.
Yes, I would love to put forward such a radical agenda. But, no, I am not prepared to commit the same error twice. What good did we achieve in Britain in the early 1980s by promoting an agenda of socialist change that British society scorned while falling headlong into Mrs Thatcher’s neoliberal trap? Precisely none.
Of course, Mr. Varoufakis does not refer to the concrete reasons that led to the defeat of the working-class struggle in Thatcherite Britain. How was this socialist agenda promoted? Who was the revolutionary subject and what were the actions of its vanguard? Did it act autonomously? Which were the concrete circumstances that enabled the deception of the British people? For this was the bourgeois counter-attack, made possible precisely due to the decline of the working-class movement, through the infiltration of Eurocommunist ideas and reformist lines throughout Europe.
And since nothing good came out of promoting a socialist agenda in Britain in the early ’80s, how can anything good come from such practices in today’s capitalist crisis in Europe? According to Mr. Varoufakis, an exit from the Eurozone ‘will soon develop into a fragmentation of European capitalism, yielding a seriously recessionary surplus region east of the Rhine and north of the Alps while the rest of Europe is in the clasps of vicious stagflation’.
Who do you think will benefit from this development? A progressive Left that will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of Europe’s public institutions? Or the Golden Dawn Nazis, the assorted neo-fascists, the xenophobes?
We have reached the crux of the matter. What should the Marxists do? The new Minister’s anti-communism is more than evident here and his analysis extends to prophetic dimensions. First of all, we must by all means avoid a Soviet style solution. The Soviet Union is referred to as ‘the industrial feudalism to which we condemned millions of people for decades, in the name of… progressive politics’. More specifically, the EU is not worse than Soviet Union, but they both share some common characteristics. ‘Both Soviet and EU apparatchiks share a Christian sects’ determination to acknowledge facts only if they are congruent with prophesy and their sacred texts’. This statement was repeated last week by Mr. Varoufakis, when he told Italian State Television Rai 3 that ‘in recent years Europe is covered by a cloud of fear that threatens to make it worse than the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’.
Thus, the main idea behind Mr. Varoufakis’s position (as expressed here, in his Modest Proposal, or in his new position as Minister of Finance) is ‘to forge strategic alliances even with right-wingers with whom we share a simple interest: an interest to end the negative feedback loop between austerity and crisis’. The main idea is for everyone (Marxist or right-wing, worker or capitalist) to unite our powers in order to save European capitalism, otherwise the fascists are coming. It is evident that the main idea behind the Syriza-Varoufakis programme is the worst kind of class-collaborationism. Syriza, through the words of his new Finance Minister, reveals itself as the valuable tool of the capitalist class that it is. The latter is evident in the speeches of Syriza ministers who speak of a government of ‘national salvation’, and call the former indignados to go out on the street to support the new bourgeois government which restored the ‘national dignity and pride’. In this context, it is perhaps time to revisit the relations between fascism and social-democracy (and opportunism/Eurocommunism), the two ‘brother forces’ of the bourgeois state, in the concept of social-fascism.
Is it, then, the duty of Marxists to fight in order to save capitalism, because otherwise the fascists will come? Let us attempt to give an answer through the prism of class struggle. Of course it is in the interest of the bourgeoisie to join forces around Syriza and Mr. Varoufakis, in order to divide and disorient the working-class movement. If this move of class-collaborationism does not work, then, yes, the fascists are coming. Or rather they are already here, waiting to do the job which Syriza and Mr. Varoufakis will have failed to do: to eliminate (albeit using different means) the working-class movement. The fascists will not come because the Marxists will have failed to save European capitalism, as Mr. Varoufakis puts it. The fascists will come if the working people fail to take power in their own hands and overthrow capitalism. And it is the duty of every communist to help in every possible way the working people achieve this state of consciousness.
We reach the conclusion that Mr. Varoufakis not only has not grasped the meaning of Marxism (and Marxism-Leninism, i.e. the concrete analysis of the concrete situation, always through the prism of class struggle, the driving force of history), but that he intentionally distorts Marx’s fundamental principles. As a result, Mr. Varoufakis, much like his fellow bourgeois intellectuals who reject class analysis, creates a false dilemma: either support of capitalism or fascism. We should support Syriza, or else Golden Dawn is waiting for us in the corner. Yes, this is a real dilemma; but not for the whole society. It exists merely for the bourgeois class. The bourgeoisie knows too well that if Syriza fails in its mission of disorienting and emasculating the working-class movement, it will have to resort to its openly fascist repression.
This dilemma is non-existent for the working-class and its allies (the Popular Alliance). The working-class would never choose the saving of European capitalism over the overthrow of this inhumane system of exploitation, except as a result of this ideologico-political extortion which has lately been expressed openly and widely by the new political force, representative of the bourgeois interests, Syriza. And the ‘erratic Marxism’ of Mr. Varoufakis is evidence of the bourgeois struggle to distort Marxist revolutionary principles and disorient the working people, within the framework of this ideologico-political extortion. A conscious working-class, organised around its vanguard party, would never choose to save capitalism rather than overthrow it. And it is the duty of every communist to help in every possible way the working people achieve this state of consciousness.
 Mr. Varoufakis will refer to this ‘cyclical nature’ of Marx’s ‘redemptive’ crises as one of the inadequacies of Marx’s theory, which found every capitalist crisis as cyclical. What Mr. Varoufakis fails to explain is the place within this ‘cyclical nature’ of the insoluble contradictions of capitalism.