Reflections on our experience with Syriza

Antonis Davanellos, a leading member of the Greek socialist organization International Workers’ Left (DEA), was also a leading member of Syriza, and is today involved in building Popular Unity (UP), made up of forces that split with Syriza after it capitulated to a new austerity memorandum last summer. This article was originally published in the DEA journal Kokkino and translated in two parts on the French Web site It was originally written for a Greek audience, and therefore has some references that will not be familiar with readers outside Greece. For more background, please read the interview with Antonis Davanellos, “The Left after Syriza,” in ISR 99, and Paul D’Amato, “Turning point in Greece” (ISR 98). This article was translated from French by Tom Gagne

The largest bourgeois newspapers in Greece have not hidden their shameless joy with the profound transformation that Syriza has undergone. The party they ardently fought—because in the eyes of the popular majority, it had represented a radical opposition to austerity and supported every resistance of the masses, even resistance deemed too “extra-parliamentary”—no longer exists. In its place we see the formation of a party with one leader—Alexis Tsipras. This party has swung in the direction of rabid anti-worker and anti-social policies, imposing the Third Memorandum (the first two dating from May 2010 and February 2012), justified in the name of a continued participation within the Eurozone.

The joy among the press is also shared by a part of the sectarian left (mainly the KKE-PC and a fraction within the Antarsya coalition),1 which, in the midst of Tsipras’s current political orientation, has been all too quick to declare that the “project of Syriza was corrupted from the beginning; its end was preordained—proving that the possibility of building a united radical Left never existed within it.” From that conclusion, that the only remaining possibility now open rests in the slow and patient work of “organization” and denunciation, and an effort towards a “gathering of the forces”—which by definition, or quite nearly, postpones the decisive battles towards an entirely unspecified and undecided future. (This is the case for the KKE; other forces haven’t stopped presenting, quite erroneously, that we’re living in a prerevolutionary or even revolutionary sociopolitical moment, and that this, therefore, justifies their essentialist and static characterization of Syriza.)

But what should we do if and when society places those decisive battles before us in the here and now, and they are not postponed until “tomorrow”? Should we not commit to that if and when a real party of the left is finally ready in political and organizational terms? This question was laid before us in an imperative way from the very moment when the crisis in Greece exploded violently in 2008, erupted in an even more pronounced way in 2010, and it has followed us during a large portion of our engagement with Syriza. The responses that we have collectively taken in response to this question have resulted in important political success, but also in great defeats.

These sectarian opinions also underestimate another factor that the international left was better fit to see even at a distance: the alacrity and weight of the reaction of the “left wing” of Syriza when confronted with Tsipras’s sellout. (Tsipras accepted the decisions of the Eurogroup and the EU Commission on July 13; this was followed a few days later with the cementing of a parliamentary majority consisting of Syriza, PASOK, Potami, and New Democracy behind the new austerity deal, while an incredible demonstration against it took place on the steps of Parliament and Syntagma Square.)

The wave of resignations from Syriza of directors, middle cadre, its activist base, and even local organizations was widespread and immediate. The Left Platform (which grouped together the Left Current of Panagiotis Lafazanis and the Red Network; and was brought to life by DEA as well as the independents) took the initiative in creating a new coalition party, Popular Unity (UP), with an additional contribution from the fraction of the “53” (a centrist current within Syriza) and the Syriza Youth, and among some of those who choose to remain within Syriza who fear the current direction of the party and the government under Tsipras.

The UP was defeated in the elections held on September 20, 2015. (Its 2.84 percent failed to reach the 3 percent threshold for parliamentary representation.) Having only twenty days to organize, the UP was unable to develop and disseminate a political and electoral response to the abrupt turn of events effective enough to challenge the Tsipras leadership group, which received the backing of both the Greek and international ruling parties and economic elites. Though predictable politically speaking, the precise timing of Tsipras’s capitulation could not have been precisely determined. But the UP has retained an important rallying base among its activist core and has above all created an organization that accepts Marxism and socialist strategy as its reference point.

All these activists, including the forces within the “other left” (the organizations still within Antarsya and the activist “base” of the KKE, among others) can play a crucial role in the fight against the Third Memorandum. It is only when we know the outcome of this struggle in the months ahead that we will be in a position to draw more definitive conclusions concerning the assessment both of Syriza and of the independent revolutionary and radical forces that have challenged the positions taken by Tsipras since the first agreement of February 20, 2015. Today we are in a moment of crisis after a major political defeat, but we have the struggles to come. They will decide the outcome of the war.

What we’ve done so far is to regroup our forces in order to continue to be present, within certain limits, on the battlefield, and to not give up on the possibility of victory—which can only be achieved with mass support, and which will be linked in its possibilities and forms to developments in different European countries. The terrain of class struggle in Greece shows that major policy reversals were and remain within the realm of possibility. With the spirit of this approach, and firmly fixed on a counter-perspective at every step toward the application of the Third Memorandum, we formulate here some initial reflections on our journey within Syriza between 2005 and 2015.

The prehistory

Some of the more arrogant members of Syriza still insist that Syriza was an uninterrupted continuation of the renewed left current, that is to say the Greek version of Eurocommunism. They try to show that the weight and the audience of Syriza and its political victory in January 2015—when it achieved 36.4 percent of the vote and gained 149 seats, forming a majority through an alliance with a small right wing party, ANEL—are proof that this coalition will exist “for a long time” in Greece.

These assertions are not accurate. At the beginning of the first decade of the twenty-first century, all of the opinion polls showed that Synaspismos (SYN) was dangerously close to the limit of electoral viability at around 3 percent. Everyone knew that a second period outside of parliament (following its defeat with 2.94 percent of the vote during the elections of October 1993) would probably spell failure.

The reason for this appraisal was the tragic situation inside the party. It is true that the Eurocommunist orientation (the orientation of the Italian Communist Party during the 1970s, sometimes called the social democratization of the PCI as it distanced itself from the Soviet Union and adopted a more traditional reformist politics) was dominant within SYN. Yet the majority of its cadre and its members came from the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). This contradiction became more intense since the ideas of the “center-left” were widespread in the party. The glamour of the social-liberal “modernization” under Costas Simitis (member of the Pan-Hellenic socialist movement PASOK, and prime minister from 1996 to 2004) had not won just a layer of leading cadre; these ideas were also widespread throughout a number of intermediary cadre and organizations of the party. 

In November 2001, Leonidas Kyrkos (who had a popularity rating of 36 percent just behind Papandreou) and known as the “Nestor,” in reference to the Greek hero of the Eurocommunist tradition, had proposed a “federation” between PASOK and SYN. This position was supported by the most diverse and versatile groups within PASOK, including Kostas Laliotis (member of the Papandreaou government from October 1993 to January 1996), who witnessed the expansion of social-democracy towards SYN as a counterweight to the erosion sustained by PASOK under Simitis.

At the top of this unstable pyramid of SYN was its president Nikos Konstantopoulos, who did not come from the communist tradition but from the tradition of modernization, and Stergios Pitsiorlas, coordinator of the Central Political Committee, and former cadre member of the KKE. Today, after a long absence during the rise of Syriza, he is president of the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund (TAIPED), an organization founded in July 2011 with a mission to manage privatizations dictated under the memorandums.

The “space for dialogue and united action of the left,” which was an essential precursor of what was coming, was created under these conditions. In the “Space,” a part of the left-wing of SYN participated (the Left Current and the Red and Green Network, which formed a group of its own); AKOA (a renewed Eco-communist Left), KEDA (Movement for Unity in Action of the Left); the Active Citizens of Manolis Glezos (heros of the fascist resistance); and an important layer of unorganized activists. From the radical Left were DEA (International Workers’ Left), KOE (Maoist Communist in origin), the Network, Xekinima (International Socialist Organization), at the beginning, SEK (Socialist Workers Party, connected to the British Socialist Workers Party), and DHKKI (Democratic Socialist Movement) participated as “observers.”

The Space attempted to organize an initial set of discussions on the difficult situation facing the Greek left, but also to explore the possibility for united actions (for example on social security or demonstrations against the war). It was, however, founded as a response to deeper “signals”: the first events of the international antiglobalization movement (European mobilizations, Seattle, and Prague) and the promising initial success of Rifondazione (Communist Refoundation Party), founded in Italy in 1993. The new gathering responded to the need for a generalized criticism in the direction of the “center-left,” after the collapse of the “plural left” in France, to a vague call for a recomposition of the left which seemed to come from multiple sides (including European sections of the Fourth International).

The Space laid down a clear line of demarcation from the center-left strategy and tried to open up a serious discussion on how to better meet the challenges posed by the crisis within the Communist parties during a difficult period of time in the 1990s, but also by the crisis and stagnation of the organizations of the revolutionary left in Europe, thirty years after May 1968.

During this period, the leadership of SYN had attempted electoral alliances with some organizations that participated in the Space, such as AKOA, KEDA, and M. Glezos. But the results were weak. The guillotine of the 3 percent threshold always remained threatening. It was clear that for an undertaking of this broad scope, the precondition was political radicalization and help from “outside” of SYN.

Product of radicalization

The foundation of Syriza was facilitated in a decisive way by a tide of radicalization within Greece and internationally. A gigantic strike and massive demonstrations across the entire country against the demolition of social security under Tasos Giannitsis (member of PASOK as well as a member of the OECD’s Economic Committee and head minister under the Simitis presidency from 1994 to 2000) had deepened the rift between the Left and social-liberalism. Within the ranks of SYN, this development helped the Left to take on the responsibility of starting a battle against those who still had illusions in PASOK, and to begin making the case that a refusal of the center-left strategy was a prerequisite to left reformation.

The international movement against capitalist and neoliberal globalization provided the biggest impetus in promoting this process. In the 2001 antiglobalization protests in Genoa those participating in the Space formed a large block (Greek Committee for the International Demonstration in Genoa), which participated in a disciplined way in the confrontational hotspots provoked by the police. This experience encouraged the whole cadre engaged in this debate towards the left.

For example in Genoa, the Synaspismos Youth (which then had Alexis Tsipras as its secretary) chanted the slogan, “You’ve drowned the Balkans in blood, fuck off comrade D’Alema!.” D’Alema was the former editor of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) daily L’Unita from 1988 to 1990, chairman of the parliamentary group of the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS)—a social-democratic party evolved from the PCI—until the self-dissolution of the PCI in 1991, and would later become the head of the Italian government between 1998 and 2000. The slogan expressed Synaspismos Youth’s disgust towards those who were respected spokespeople of their party until then.

The Left in Greece—with the honorable exception of the SEK—underestimated the international antiglobalization movement. The hesitant approach of the KKE and also the NAR (New Left Current) had left a huge gap in the Space to take political leads. The antiwar movement was a first test. After September 11, the reaction from Synaspismos had been one of seeing political equivalence between imperialism and “acts of terrorism,” which had to be placed specifically within the context of the imperialist war in Iraq. This position was unacceptable to other forces involved, and a series of necessary debates broke out in order to assert a clear enough line that was antiwar and anti-imperialist.

At the same time, it was becoming more evident that an organizational vehicle permitting everyone to participate in the political struggle in a more systematic and permanent way should be found quickly. Inside Synaspismos, a commitment to making a political alliance between the forces of  the Space and the European Forum, as an attempt at left reconstitution by way of reference to “the movement,” had firmly established itself. In contrast, the forces that placed their hopes on an alliance with PASOK were losing ground. The foundations for the creation of Syriza were, therefore, laid.

A product of constant political conflict

In late 2003 AKOA, Active Citizens, DEA, KEDA, KOE, SYN and a number of unaffiliated activists signed the Constituent Political Statement declaring the formation of the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), which was presented to the public on December 3, 2003 by G. Mpanias, Mr. Glezos, G. Theonas, N. Galanis, S. Pitsiorlas, Christodoulopoulou T., and A. Ntavanellos. It provoked strong reactions among the conservative “renewing wing” of SYN, which criticized the party for being involved in such a coalition that was not only electoral but also political in a more general sense and came with unpredictable consequences for SYN.

The Statement was accompanied by an agreement that declared: 1) Syriza is a political front of organizations and activists who will retain their respective independence and the right to the free expression of their opinions; 2) Syriza works by consensus and recognizes every reasonable right to “veto” by its component organizations/individuals; 3) representation in parliament will be pluralistic (that is, elected deputies would not be bound to a “party line”); 4) the name of the front will include the word “Synaspismos” and the chair of its parliamentary group will be the chair of SYN.

On this basis, Syriza (minus the participation of KOE, which up to this point had been part of the “Space”) participated in the elections of March 2004 with moderate success, obtaining 3.26 percent of the vote.

During these elections, the agreement on pluralist representation was not met. Manipulation by Nikos Konstantopoulos (SYN chief since 1993, lawyer, and father of Zoe Konstantopoulos, the Syriza speaker of parliament from January to September 2015), and Anna Filini did not help in compensating for this low blow after the elections. The criticisms of noncompliance to the pluralist rule came from the left-wing of SYN and other formations. This breach caused the first crisis within the secretariat of Syriza. Within SYN, it combined with an internal crisis regarding the existence or nonexistence of an actual perspective regarding Syriza in general.

This crisis was exacerbated by differences concerning the Annan Plan (named after Kofi Annan, secretary general of the UN, regarding a referendum on the fate of the Greek and Turkish sections of Cyprus). The “renewing wing” of Synaspismos systematically undermined the political project of Syriza, seeking to cancel the unified undertaking on the basis of a danger in shifting towards “leftist” positions. During the European elections of June 2004, SYN participated as an independent organization. It won 4.16 percent of the vote, while in 1999 it won 5.25 percent.

The existence and future of Syriza was now linked clearly to the question of the radicalization, or lack thereof, of SYN, and the political association could not be resumed without significant steps in that direction. These steps were taken at the Fourth Congress of Synaspismos (December 9–12, 2004), which became known as the “Left Turn Congress.” Here, Synaspismos changed its president, replacing Alekos Alavanos with Konstantopoulos. It was also the first Congress in SYN history when the “left current,” at that time united, had called for and taken responsibility for party leadership.

At the level of SYN’s leadership, the “left turn” victory was more difficult than the Congress made it seem. As J. Mpalafas (author of a “chronicle” on the twenty years of SYN) observed: “The ‘Left Wing’ text proposed by Panagiotis Lafazanis argued that Syriza was putting forward a strategic choice that the party should support. It accused SYN of having suspended the function of the front, and it criticized the ‘second text’ for having left open the possibility for cooperation with PASOK.” The “second text,” the text of “the Intervention,” and the “Innovative Assembly” presented by Lykoudis, “offered a critical assessment of Syriza and noted its positive as well as negative sides.” Within the SYN Central Political Committee, the text of Lafazanis was approved with 51 votes, with 48 votes against, 7 blank votes, 3 abstentions, and one voting present (Konstantopoulos).

Yet the “left turn” created the necessary conditions for relaunching Syriza. The coalition-party could now enter united into a critical period in a battle against the right wing represented by Kostas Karamanlis (leader of the center-right New Democracy and prime minister of Greece from March 2004 to October 2009). But this didn’t mean that conflicts within Syriza had ended. On the contrary, these conflicts sometimes reached existential proportions. The best known conflict concerned the candidacy of Giannis Panousis (who would become a minister under Tsipras) during the regional elections in Attica in 2006, but there were others: The problems of representation during the European elections of 2009; the conflict between Alavanos (secretary of Syriza since 2004), and Tsipras who succeeded him in 2008; and the support by the majority of the SYN for the nomination of Alexis Mitropoulos again in the regional elections of Attica, in 2010. (Mitropoulos is a professor of labor law; he was elected in January 2015 as an MP for Attica, the largest constituency in Greece.) There were also huge debates surrounding our program, as well as specific problems concerning political line and tactics. These problems culminated after Syriza’s electoral success during the May elections of 2012 (where Syriza took 16.8 percent of the vote and fifty-two parliamentary seats2). And they took an explosive character following the victory of January 25, 2015.

These conflicts occurred on two fronts: On the one side, between the Secretariat of Syriza and SYN; on the other side, within SYN itself between those who supported the continuation of Syriza—which became synonymous with the “radicalization” of SYN—and the “innovative” right wing that constantly sought to distance itself from Syriza.

A number of comrades outside of Syriza, like some comrades on the international left, thought erroneously that the decision to found Syriza, a choice to act through a unified political project of the radical Left, meant a sort of general “reconciliation” with SYN, or that the internal political relations established a type of “honeymoon” atmosphere. These assumptions have nothing to do with the reality of the troubled trail that we traveled. This reality created the demand for the development of “tools” in order for the Left to be involved in this political battle within this front—a battle that often had major consequences. 

From Alavanos to Tsipras

The period of leadership under Alékos Alavanos was important for SYN as well as Syriza. For starters, Alavanos saw the importance of the restoration of a relationship between SYN and the secretariat of Syriza, while at the same time highlighting that he thought Syriza was a final choice. In fact, towards the end of his term he would show a tendency to “cut himself off” from Syriza in order to defend it against his own party.

The main role of Alavanos was revealed at the political level. He broke with a certain tradition established by the “innovators” and had gotten himself quickly and forcefully into a conflict with the New Democracy of Karamanlis. Once again, he called on the “anti-right reflexes” of the Left, which had lost its credibility and had degenerated under PASOK (under the government of Kostas Simitis, from February 1999 to February 2004). He restored faith, at the time, to the possibility that the youth movement would win a victory against the privatization of education (Article 16 of the constitution prohibits the privatization of higher education), and he tried to identify his role within that possibility. Thus, he broke with the tradition of the “innovators” who had hesitated to stop the privatizations. He argued for unconventional and risky tactics—as a candidate in Heraklion (Crete), where he was elected at the last moment, or his proposal to nominate Tsipras for the municipality of Athens—which gave him a radical profile in Syriza. With these choices, Syriza secured a momentum in electoral polls that was the initial indication of the explosion of its popularity in 2012.

Equally important was the position Alavanos took during the rebellion of December 2008, when the police murdered a fifteen-year-old student in Athens and caused an eruption of mass protests and pitched battles with police. Despite enormous pressure from the system (Council of Political Directors), despite pressure from the KKE (“you’re caressing the ears of the hooded anarchists”), and despite the vehement reactions from inside the SYN who asked for a “condemnation of the violence from all sides”—in other words from both the police and the autonomists—Alavanos was able to maintain Syriza’s basic position of “continue the demonstrations!” The effect of this position on Syriza’s electoral polls was negative, and Syriza’s influence seemed to suffer because of it. However, the political effect was quite the opposite: Syriza stood out among the traditional parties, and built the foundations of its political and electoral victory in the next period.

An exceptional aspect of Alavanos’s leadership was the position he took on the tasks of the left when the crisis hit in 2008: 1) an understanding that Greece was the weakest link of European capitalism; 2) an encouragement to break with “Europeanism” (meaning the pro-EU stance) which dominated SYN, in other words, ending the acceptance of the 1993 Maastricht Treaty; 3) an understanding concerning the “Worker’s December” to come (a reference to the student uprising of December); 4) the slogan of a “government of the left”; and 5) The proposal to transform Syriza into a unified party.

However, a major weakness of Alavanos’s was being against “the existence of independent organizations” inside Syriza. This was confirmed by his unexpected resignation from the party leadership, and its attempt to establish a “diarchy” (two powers with equal position): one person with political leadership, and the other controlling the mechanisms of operation, or control “over” the party apparatus. The acerbic remarks made by Dimitrios Papadimoulis (European deputy of Syriza) were correct: “Alavanos did not simply propose that Tsipras take party leadership, in fact he has imposed it.”

During this tumultuous period, DEA initially supported the policies of Avalanos as a continuation of the “left turn” of SYN, and as a necessary step in the continuation of Syriza. We followed him into the Solidarity and Change Front (FSR) against the vote of the majority of SYN concerning the candidacy of A. Mitropoulos in the regional elections of Attica, a vote that we had considered indicative of more general “openings” toward the social democrats. We tried—with others in the Secretariat of Syriza—to prevent a conflict between Alavanos and Tsipras that would have had catastrophic consequences, and to find a way for them to “coexist,” and to counter the scenarios of a definitive break within Syriza.

When these proposals from the majority of the Secretariat of Syriza were rejected (by SYN as well as Alavanos) we accepted (with the large majority of those who were committed in the struggle for the regional elections in Attica with the FSR) to revive Syriza in the run-up to the regional elections of November 2010.

In the parliamentary elections of 2009—just after this open crisis—Syriza won 315,000 votes (4.16 percent). Alexis Tsipras was elected president of the parliamentary group by nine Syriza deputies.

A party of its members

Alavanos’s proposals to transform Syriza’s “coalition of currents” into a “party of its members” struck a chord with an internal tendency inside Syriza. It reflected a genuine demand for democratization of the party and a more cohesive functioning of its apparatus. This tendency was composed of members from PASA, AKOA, Group Rosa, Kokino, APO, and others. The proposal included an immediate transition to unified organizations—organizations based in neighborhoods and by sectors (education, healthcare, factories), and the adoption of a “one member-one vote” rule with decisions by majority rule.

Our objections to this proposal concerned the lack of a political precedent and the absence of necessary relationships based on trust to truly ensure such a unification. Our answer was no.

First, the proposal was rejected by the vast majority of SYN: the left current (whose central figure was Lafazanis) remained skeptical; the “innovators” (the Eurocommunists turning towards social democracy) spoke of casus belli, and a group of cadre around Tsipras formulated ideas which indicated that a premature unification could lead us directly into the creation of a party leader under the pretext of introducing “direct democracy” (“one member-one vote” compared to a formation having currents and organizations). This danger of Syriza transforming into a “greater Synaspismos” was our main concern in this discussion of critical importance.

These questions were put forward in the third National Conference of Syriza (November 27–28, 2009). In this conference we worked towards a “compromise to make progress,” which took up organizational tasks and settled the question of the transformation of Syriza into a “party of its members” within the framework of a more specific procedure and in stages.

The slogan of this conference was “Syriza everywhere!,” a slogan that defined our work in building local organizations within neighborhoods, in small cities, and towns. Their assemblies should become the epicenter of their activity. They should establish a single record of members (including members organized within “currents,” as well as the unorganized or “non-card carrying” within an organization). These members were to receive a membership card and elect local leadership tasked with the coordination of activity. At the secretariat level, we maintained the “currents” and made decisions by consensus. The “one member-one vote” rule and decisions made by majority were to be deferred to the following conference, the fourth one, to be settled within a year. In other words, these decisions were postponed to a conference that was supposed to be composed of delegates elected by the members of local organizations following the form described above.

This decision provoked the anger of the right-wing of SYN. L. Kyrkos publicly stated that the “Innovative” wing should “make the decision to fight this battle without compromise,” and that if it was in the minority position “it should form a new political entity.” A. Nefeloudis (the current secretary general of the Ministry of Labor) made an appeal—in the columns of Avgi, the daily newspaper of Syriza, or more accurately SYN—that his comrades finish with Syriza, “this ahistorical-leftist-obscure-splinter group.”

The decision at the Third Conference was met with the same violent reaction by those seeking “democratic sensibility” in Syriza—many of these comrades having the best of intentions. Subsequently, when Tsipras used our so-called “direct democracy” unchecked (for example during incredibly large assemblies where he asked for votes, and unexpectedly came up as a candidate assuming to be equal to other participants—it was astounding), they thought Alexis “is destroying our mechanisms.” They were too late in reacting, and remained paralyzed and entangled in Tsipras’s oscillations. Fortunately, they didn’t follow him during the decisive days of 2015.

In the larger groups, the relationship between internal democracy—the rights and duties of members—and the general political maturity of the group was a difficult exercise in sincerity, seriousness, and responsibility. Today, in the case of Podemos, where its leader Pablo Iglesias is using a virtual “direct democracy” in order to destroy the democratic rights of its members, we have at our disposal an even clearer example.

After the Third Conference, many of us in Syriza worked to complete the transition towards a “party of members.” The conditions of democracy and discipline, the principle of “one-member-one vote,” and decision by majority rule, were presented in articles and finally adopted during the founding conference of Syriza, yet systematically and cruelly violated thereafter. In this context, we in DEA refused to dissolve and kept our press, our publications, and our own activity, while maintaining loyalty to the project participating in its debates and struggles.

A government of the left

The greatest test of Syriza, as for all the left in Greece, came during the onset of the crisis. It was a period of tumultuous and prolonged struggle centered in the strikes and the streets (2010–2012); a phase of mobilization that far exceeded the previous level of class struggle in Greece, and in Europe during those years. A time when the working class, as a backbone of a wider mobilization of popular forces, clashed several times with the naked force of the state.

Syriza entered this period with smaller organized forces than the KKE (those openly claiming Stalinism of a sectarian Third Period type), but we were quantitatively more important than Antarsya. (In the legislative elections of October 2009, within Athens and Attica, Syriza won a much higher percentage of the vote.) In 2012, it was clear that Syriza was dominant at the electoral level. Already before 2012, it won the political battle by winning the support of the most important workers and popular forces in a period of direct action, despite its internal problems of cohesion and ideological stability.

This phenomenon requires explanation. The first part of the answer lies in Syriza’s call for unity in action, in the “popular front” character of its politics and program—beyond the problems—that was in harmony with the feeling and mood of larger segments of the population. But that wouldn’t be enough and was not enough. Syriza won the political struggle over this period because it took the responsibility to propose solutions and perspectives to the problem of governmental power that corresponded to a situation of political and social crisis that we did not characterize as “revolutionary” or even “pre-revolutionary.” The basis of its success was the slogan “a government of the left.”

Those who were engaged in various struggles understood that in order to save themselves and save their class from the consequences of austerity, they needed to overthrow the government memoranda—the post-crisis EU-imposed austerity packages. They succeeded against George Papandreou (PASOK’s leader, who resigned November 11, 2011); they were successful against Loukas Papademos (former governor of the Central Bank of Greece, former ECB vice president, technocratic prime minister from November 2011, who called new elections in June 2012); and they found themselves opposed to Antonis Samaras (New Democracy, June 2012 to January 26, 2015) with the CRS riot police, tear gas, and the requisitioning of striking workers (a military-type mobilization of employees, for example in the subway, to return to work).

Successfully overthrowing Samaras using street tactics and direct action presupposed a semi-revolutionary situation, presupposed a working-class strength greater than there was at our disposal. When the popular majority arrived at this conclusion following certain “attempts,” people turned towards a perspective of putting themselves on the road towards using elections as a means to combat austerity. It didn’t signal a massive “shift to the right.” Despite the tireless efforts of the mainstream media—controlled by an oligarchy, which the American embassy described quite accurately—it was impossible to continue to string along many of the voters behind the big bourgeois parties (PASOK and New Democracy).

This shifting mass sentiment was emphasized for the first time in a public discussion by Alavanos in 2008–2009—as noted above—and this was before the crisis was set in motion, and before the big struggles of 2010–2012. During that period, we had rejected the argument that the only way to achieve something like this concretely, in this political sequence, would be to bend towards parliamentarism, or towards collaboration with the leading segments of social democracy, that is, with PASOK.

The discussion changed qualitatively after 2010–2011. Now there was a certain accumulation of conditions and of forces that vividly recalled the discussion, with certain historical limits to the analogy, of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922: A deep economic crisis; a radical confrontation within society; a vertical rise in class struggle that, however, did not create, or had not yet created, a pre-revolutionary situation; and an ardent desire of the working class to change the situation that had not yet created a moment to “tear down the capitalist wall.” This was combined with a deep crisis of the bourgeois parties that weren’t able to provide a minimal political solution for the system.

We tried to defend a position on the government of the left, which was part of the tradition of the Communist International and the decisions taken at its Fourth Congress; that is, “a government of the left” as a slogan necessary in conditions of deep, but not yet pre-revolutionary crisis; a government of the left, with a program seeking to meet the needs of the working class and the masses, and not starting from a denial of class, such as the concept of the “development of the national economy.” The Left, we argued, can represent a transitional government perspective in this climate, in this highest point of the class struggle; a slogan consistently registered, in propaganda and in practice, based on the socialist emancipation of society not as the “final” point of a national reformist effort—on the false hope that all classes can be united in a policy drawing Greece out of crisis based on the “reconstruction of the national economy.” With this position, we were in agreement with the most radical members within Syriza. They considered—as a minimal point of agreement—the left government as an integral part of a project of imposing a program of “non-collaboration of classes.”

If we judge it by the results, this camp experienced defeat. This defeat needs to be explained.

  • A major contributing factor was the decline of mass struggle, which occurred gradually after 2012, and at a faster rate after 2013. The actual realization of the project of a “government of the left” presupposes a significantly higher participation of constituents of a political leadership. This finding should not be understood as a transfer of responsibility to this leadership. Rather, this finding is a form of self-criticism relating to the attention of the radical left within Syriza toward the amount of effort put into rallying around the mass movement in a much more organic way, and how to take into account more of this factor in the formulation of political tactics.
  • Unless we make a “counterfactual” history, we’re never going to know if the fledgling project of a “government of the left” experienced defeat in Greece for objective reasons, due to the balance of power—since this project was abandoned by the leadership of Syriza, in truth just after the elections in June 2012 and openly after the victory of January 2015, and was replaced by a project of a “government of national salvation.” 

We can mark similar turning points—even before coming to power—in the politics of the Left Block in Portugal and in the projects of Iglesias concerning the future of Podemos in Spain.

This is proof that within broad parties of the radical left (or a significant part of the radical left), we cannot think that the classical strategic dilemma of “reform or revolution” is over; a dilemma that, contrary to the belief of many of the newer politicized layers and leaderships, concerns only the historic past or a distant and remote future. This problematic—expressed here in a form beyond dispute—defines, in fact, broader tactics even during periods requiring reform in the present climate of structural crisis. It becomes even more crucial during periods of widespread political upheaval.

Our insistence on this approach explains our refusal to dissolve DEA, despite the pressure we received during the inaugural conference of Syriza. It also explains the weight that we put behind the effort to build a broader oppositional left (the Left Platform and beyond) against the “current” Tsipras; it explains our active participation in this platform (with the Left Current) and DEA’s initiative to found the Red Network. The founding of the Left Platform (during the days of the Syriza constituent conference in 2013) was also a difficult decision to make. It provoked the wrath of the leadership around Alexis Tsipras, who noted that with the creation of the Left Platform, Tsipras now had a strong opposition in his own party (approximately 33 percent of delegates at the conference). The Left Platform, having systematically taken on the role of confrontation, and above all insisting on the class orientation of Syriza, encouraged the radicalization of each critical voice within Ssyriza. It is for these reasons that we suffered the systematic “pressure” from the leadership (using a “carrot and the stick” policy) to break our political agreement with the comrades of the Left Current and therefore put the very existence of the Left Platform into question.

But the creation of the Left Platform also caused a reaction within the more “radical” sections of Syriza (ANASA represented the left wing of the majority camp, and the vacillating center-left section of Syriza’s central committee known as the “Group of 53”). Comrades who did not see the importance of distancing themselves in a decisive manner from the leading majority saw, on the other hand, reasons to criticize (sometimes aggressively) the collaboration between a section of the anticapitalist and internationalist left (the “Trotskyists” of DEA) and the comrades from the Left Current who oriented around a tradition within the communist parties. During the difficult days of 2015, however, it was demonstrated that an insistence on an anti-austerity political practice, the orientation towards the working class, and on the insistence of effectively using Marxism, was the basis that allowed the PG to stay united within its ranks. And it honors the comrades of the Left Current—beyond our differences—that they maintained a commitment to their members, towards the “world” of Syriza, and the social movement, all the while having greater responsibilities than ours, including holding government posts during the first government of Syriza. DEA refused all proposals to integrate the government and was opposed to it from the beginning of the formation of the Syriza government to the nomination of a president from New Democracy, Prokopis Pavlopoulos.

We refer to this experience because in the period after September 20 (the elections that led to the current Tsipras government in alliance with ANEL), currents and organizations that clashed in the past were now forced to work together to build a common current for the radical left.

Coming up on the elections of January 2015, our last hope was that the victory of Syriza would lead to a new wave of demands from the masses, a wave expressing the needs and aspirations requiring immediate implementation, a wave of struggles from below. However, this did not happen. And we must say that, on this point, the “Syriza government and party” (the leadership of Syriza had shifted to the house of the prime minister), in the space between January 25 and July 12–13, 2015, that is, from Syriza’s electoral victory to its acceptance of the demands of the Eurogroup, ECB, and creditors, systematically cultivated the passivity of the masses and placed all hopes on the outcome of negotiations with creditors.

From reformism to neoliberalism

After the June 2012 electoral victory, a process of conformism within Syriza began, based on the sentiment that it would win power in government within the context of the elections to come—independently of the date of their development—instead of leading a radicalization in relationship to the masses and a political defense against the influence of the system. This led to what Yannis Dragasakis (a key figure in the Syriza-ANEL government pushing towards a political subordination to the creditors) defined as a “violent maturation;” that is to say, the development of relationships by Syriza’s leadership within the social-democratic circles, with the right of Karamanlis, and with factions of the ruling class. 

This shift in a class program towards the political search for an “exit from the crisis” went along with a change in the workings of the party, the empowerment of the leading group, and the limitation or reduction of members to the role of simple “supporters.” The leadership established themselves in leading majority circles, abandoning any radical tactics of intervention, and placed themselves predominantly in the role of “fishing for votes.”

The shift to the right was accelerated by the huge electoral and political victory in January 2015. The group of leaders around Tsipras managed the critical period following the elections around two main criteria:

One, avoiding a conflict with the Greek ruling class. So the “unilateral action” that Syriza had promised to implement (including a minimum wage increase, retirement benefits for low-income workers, the restoration of collective bargaining, and tax cuts for the working class) was put off indefinitely.

The Tsipras leadership was quickly discovering that even the most moderate reforms for workers in a period of deep crisis can not be imposed by being integrated into an anti-capitalist transitional program. Before this discovery, it was in a “quandary,” to use a euphemism, and it cancelled its entire reform program. This quandary reached its peak for the critical banking sector, where Yannis Dragasakis, instead of following nationalization policies (“under public, democratic, and worker’s control”) within the program of Syriza, simply (simply!) reinstated the best known of the social-liberal cadre of PASOK leader Kostas Simitis.

Second, avoiding—at all costs—a conflict with the EU and its magistrates. This policy began as an illusion expressed as part of the pre-election rhetoric (“Merkel will sign the agreement in broad daylight,” Tsipras said). The abandonment of Syriza’s policy of non-payment of debt interest (or a portion of the last one due), and the demand for a cancellation of the debt (in its majority), was quickly transformed within the course of negotiations with the creditors from an unconditional demand to arriving at a shameful agreement with the Euro-directors on February 20, 2015—an agreement that everyone could see was leading us to a new memorandum.

Tsipras’s attempt to break free from this deadly trap (or to at least give the impression that he wanted to), under threatening pressure of the majority of his party, led to the decision to hold the referendum on July 5, 2015: the last radical “spasm” of Syriza. The great intervention of workers and popular forces with a clear OXI! (No!) placed before the leadership within Syriza certain dilemmas: either emphasize a rejection of the austerity program imposed by the “institutions,” and by doing so commit to a total break with the creditors and finally leave the Eurozone, or submit to the new memorandum and “keep the country within the euro.” The leadership under Tsipras needed less than twenty-four hours (July 6) to shift permanently into the camp of the second “choice.” The reformism that tried to prevent a conflict with the ruling class in Greece, maintaining its international alliances and its votes, was obligated to commit itself to neoliberalism.

The message of this capitulation was of great importance for the politicization inside the country, but also for the international left that was closely following the events in Greece: For the politics of antiausterity to be victorious it is necessary to oppose—without limit—the ruling class inside each country; it is also necessary to battle the Euro-directors and break the discipline of the former “agreements” which were imposed during the years of neoliberal domination—to dare to leave the Euro and its system. These are the minimum conditions, so that a left government is able to count on international solidarity and inspiration, which are an absolutely necessary condition of success.

In trying to work around these two critical choices, Tsipras was led, de facto, into accepting a new, third memorandum and into taking on the responsibility of imposing it by acting against the interests of workers and the popular classes that he was supposed to represent.

Initial conclusions

1.    In the current situation of the movement, but also for the Marxist international left, the choice to participate in large parties, the choice of the united front—with its specific forms in different countries—at the political level, the choice to cooperate systematically with segments of radical reformism or “centrism,” is often necessary. It is linked to the defensive character of workers’s struggles, to the obligation to concentrate capable forces and to win partial victories; and it is linked to the problems of “political reorganization” by all currents of a strong left. The politics of the united front, taking into account particular social and political configurations, remains a criterion for the distinction between decisive action that truly seeks to change the situation, and simple verbal references to Marxism, to the “revolution,” etc.

2.    This choice has important political conditions. The founding of Syriza had as a prerequisite the rejection of the center-left strategy. But the evolution of Syriza has demonstrated that the political, ideological, and organizational weaknesses of a unified undertaking of the left offer opportunities for the reconstitution of the center-left (Syriza post-July 2015, although having matured even before that), and can result in total social-liberal degeneration, as in the case of Tsipras.

The orientation of Iglesias in the case of Podemos (with the possible alliance of PSOE), as well as the change in direction of the Left Block in Portugal towards support—certainly conditional—for a social-democratic government, with tests to come, show that these phenomena are far from isolated.

3.    This means that the forces of a Marxist and anti-capitalist left, when (and where) they make the choice to participate in “broad parties,” must do so in a specific way: By maintaining their ideological and organizational autonomy, and maintaining their freedom and ability to criticize and distance themselves; by taking the time and energy to form a left wing; and by giving it a program orientated on the class struggle. All this must be done publicly in order to address all members of the party coalition, but also the vanguard of activists outside the party.

4.    The struggle of the “Syriza period” in Greece was not a Sisyphean task. The constitution at the time of the Left Platform and the formation of other “radical Marxist” oppositions inside Syriza (a section of the “53,” the youth) had an important part to play inside the party in reacting against its degeneration, and by taking the necessary and affirmed distance.

All of this left, along with fragments from ANTARSYA, and the base among the KKE (fragments which had other problems to resolve, as well as important problems concerning orientation, sectarianism, and an overweening interest in actions that only involved ideological self-affirmation) could form a strategic and important force in the new conditions created by the imposition of the Third Memorandum on Greece by the political leadership of Syriza and Tsipras

The reconstruction in Greece of a massive, radical, and anti-capitalist left in the twenty-first century will continue.

5.    That is the significance of our participation in Popular Unity (UP). UP represents the conjuncture of the most advanced part of the “opposition” within the Syriza left, the Left Platform, part of ANTARSYA (ARAN, ARAS), and unorganized activists who understood the need to resist, from the beginning, the political and electoral memorandist mutation of Syriza.

Its failure in the last election (it did not pass the 3 percent threshold, and was 7,000 votes shy of gaining parliamentary representation) was real. But it has at its disposal an organized grouping, the means to take political initiative, and the possibility of a signification expansion. Therefore, we do not consider the UP a “finished party,” but a “political front in the works.” If we also take into account the dynamics of other radical initiatives, we come to an interesting conclusion: These are the weapons of a “larger caliber” than those available to us when we started the undertaking of Syriza, that is, under conditions quite distant from 2003–2004.

  1. KKE—Greek Communist Party; Antarsya—Front of the Greek Anticapitalist Left. Both organizations refused to participate in Syriza. For more background information on the Greek crisis, Syriza, and the Greek left, see Paul D’Amato, “Turning point in Greece: Syriza, the Left, and the struggle ahead,” ISR 98, Fall 2015,
  2. On May 6, 2012 , early parliamentary elections were held. The results were: New Democracy: 18.85 percent, 108 deputies, Syriza : 16.78 percent, 52 seats; Pasok: 13.18 percent, 41 MPs ; ANEL: 10.61 percent, 33 seats; KKE: 8.48 percent, 26 MPs ; Golden Dawn: 6.97 percent, 21 MPs; Democratic Left (Dimar): 6.11 percent, 19 deputies.  In the June 2012 elections: ND: 29.66  percent, 129 MPs ; Syriza: 26.89 percent, 71 seats; Pasok: 12.28 percent, 33 seats; Independent Greeks: 7.51 percent, 20 deputies; Golden Dawn: 10.92 percent, 18 seats; Dimar: 6.26 percent, 17 MPs; KKE: 4.50 percent, 12 deputies.

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

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Critical Thinking