Turning point in Greece

Syriza, the Left, and the struggle ahead

Greece over the past several years has been a laboratory of neoliberal austerity, class struggle, economic and political crisis, and, within this maelstrom, the reconstitution of the radical left around an anti-austerity program. It is rich in lessons, but it is by no means a finished chapter. By the time this article appears in print much will have changed in Greece regarding the status of Syriza, its various wings, the status of negotiations over Greece’s massive debt, and the ongoing struggle against austerity. Our purpose here is not to draw a complete balance sheet of events that continue to unfold at a rapid pace—an impossible task—but to draw some provisional lessons regarding the strategy of Syriza, its electoral successes and failures, and the role of the left within it. We will evaluate, in addition, some of the criticisms leveled against Syriza’s left wing, as well as uncritical defenses of the Syriza leadership’s surrender to the dictates of the European lenders. —August 5, 2015

On July 22, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, facing what a Guardian headline called “mental waterboarding” from the European negotiators, won his parliament’s approval for a new round of stiff austerity laws demanded by the European creditors as a condition for continuing negotiations with Greece’s government over its debt. Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left), had come to power only six months earlier on the basis of its staunch opposition to the harsh austerity memoranda imposed on Greece in 2010 and 2012. These measures had led to a 25 percent collapse of Greece’s economy and a sharp rise in unemployment and poverty. 

Now Tsipras was signaling his readiness to accept a new memorandum as bad, if not worse, than the previous two. The new agreement stipulates among other things that Greece must raise taxes on goods, massively cut pensions (Greece’s social security system), sell off state property worth 50 billion euros to recapitalize Greek banks, accept automatic spending cuts to social services, and end collective bargaining. The agreement demands that the Greek government “consult and agree with the institutions on all draft legislation in relevant areas with adequate time before submitting it for public consultation or to parliament.” In short, it surrenders Greek sovereignty to European creditors.

This capitulation was all the more startling in that it came just weeks after 61.3 percent of the Greek people voted “OXI” (NO) in a hastily called referendum to the drastic new austerity measures demanded by the European blackmailers. 

The Greek working class clearly gave Tsipras a mandate to fight their domestic and international rulers. But Tsipras overrode their wishes, turning their “no” into a “yes.” In the end, he won the parliamentary vote approving the austerity measures, but not without facing a rebellion from members of parliament from the left wing of his own party. Before the vote, a majority of Syriza’s central committee (109 of its 201 members) signed a statement opposing the deal and demanding a central committee meeting, which Tsipras’s had until then avoided calling. Forty Syriza MPs voted against the deal. Regional bodies of Syriza passed resolutions in opposition to Tsipras’ agreement on the basis that it abandoned not only the party’s program adopted at its founding conference, but the more modest promises made by Tsipras during the January campaign (known as the Thessalonika program). Syriza youth issued a statement condemning the deal.1

Such was the opposition from within his own party that in order to secure the deal Tsipras had to collaborate with the old discredited pro-austerity parties in order to secure their votes. On the day after the referendum he held a joint meeting with Syriza, New Democracy, PASOK, Potami, and other parties and afterward issued a joint communiqué of political leaders. 

Inside Syriza, the Left Platform spearheaded opposition to Tsipras’s capitulation. There are two main forces working in the Left Platform. One is the Left Current, the left wing of Synaspismos, the largest component of Syriza that Tsipras leads. The other component is the Red Network, which consists of several smaller left groupings led by the socialist organization Internationalist Workers Left (DEA).

Facing mounting rebellion within his party’s ranks, Tsipras started disciplining left-wing leaders. He began removing ministers from his cabinet who stood against his surrender, including Panagiotis Lafazanis, the best-known leader of the Left Platform who was forced out of his position as energy and development minister, and replacing them with loyalists.

From victory to capitulation
The January 25, 2015 victory of Syriza in the Greek parliamentary elections represented a historic victory for the Left in Greece and internationally. This was arguably the most important advance of the Left since the mid-1970s, and the first time in many years that a left party standing openly on an anti-austerity platform has won governmental power in Europe. Taking 36.3 percent of the vote and beating out the incumbent center-right party, New Democracy (ND)—which won 29.7 percent—and gaining 149 of 300 parliamentary seats, Syriza was just two seats shy of being able to form its own government. 

Since 1981 and until recently Greece was dominated by two main political parties, ND and PASOK (PanHellenic Socialist Movement), the center-left social democrats. Already reeling from its 12.3 percent result in the previous election, PASOK’s vote plummeted to 4.7 percent this time, leading some to speculate that the party might disappear.

Syriza’s rapid rise and victory reflected the growing anger among Greek workers, the poor, and whole sections of the middle class toward the deep austerity measures—known as the memorandum, or “stability pact”—imposed on Greece between 2010 and 2012 by international lenders and signed by PASOK Prime Minister Papandreau as a condition for a €240 billion in loans aimed at “rescuing” the Greek government from defaulting on its debt. But the election victory was also the result of the mass demonstrations, protests, occupations, general strikes, and decisive sectorial and local struggles that had broken out between 2010 and 2012 against the austerity measures.

Formed a decade ago as a coalition of four left parties, Syriza’s votes just five years ago weren’t sufficient to win any parliamentary seats. Basing itself solidly in the anti-austerity strikes and mass social struggles of the 2009–12 period and presenting a consistent opposition to the memorandum, its vote shot up to 16.8 percent in the indecisive May 2012 elections, and then to 26.9 percent in the June elections, making it the second largest party after New Democracy.

Syriza’s 2014 Thessaloniki Program—though more moderate than its positions at its founding—committed a Syriza government to implement, among other things, a write off of “the greater part” of Greece’s public debt, and called for a grace period for the paying off of the remaining debt—a majority of which is held by German banks. The remaining debt would be paid from future growth rather than social cuts or tax hikes on the working class. The program also outlined a series of immediate actions that included “confronting the humanitarian crisis,” rebalancing the tax system to fall more heavily on the wealthy who have systematically evaded payment, and debt relief for ordinary people. Its plans to address the humanitarian crisis included offering free electricity and meal subsidies to 300,000 poor people, rent subsidies for thousands, free medical care for the uninsured unemployed, and restoring the minimum wage to its pre-memorandum level.2 

The difference between being in government and being in power came starkly into focus as soon as Syriza won the election. In order to quickly form a new government Syriza’s top leader and new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, brought in the Independent Greeks (ANEL), a small right-wing anti-austerity and anti-immigration populist party that won 4.8 percent of the vote and thirteen seats, as a governing coalition partner. The left-wing organization DEA opposed bringing ANEL into the government, pointing out in a statement issued after the decision, that Tsipras could have governed alone by asking parliament for a “vote of tolerance” based on Syriza’s Thessaloniki program. Instead, he chose to reverse Syriza’s “longstanding rejection of searching for political alliances with the center-left,” a position that clearly also “applies . . . to alliances with the center-right.”3

Then on February 17, Tsipras won parliamentary approval to make Prokopis Pavlopoulos, a New Democracy leader who was minister of the interior between 2004 and 2009, Greece’s new president. Though the role is largely ceremonial, it was the inability of the prior New Democracy government to get sufficient votes for its candidate for the presidency that forced the January 25 elections to be called. But choosing a member of Greece’s main right-wing party that has supported and helped impose the austerity regime—a move protested by Syriza ministers from the party’s substantial left wing—was symbolic of the moderate direction the government was taking.

From the outset, Tsipras’s strategy was based on a commitment of securing a better deal with the EU, which he expected to get on the basis of having secured a majority in Greece, but also based on the possibility of an election victory of Podemos in Spain. At no time was he willing to consider the possibility of an exit from the Eurozone. The Thessaloniki program committed Syriza to finding a “secure and socially viable solution to Greece’s debt problem so that our country is able to pay off the remaining debt.” That commitment to stay in the Eurozone at any cost left Syriza leaders with little leverage when they began negotiations with the troika in February. 

Tsipras entered negotiations in a difficult situation, with a new government in need of immediate cash and the troika unwilling to budge. As Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis—the maverick economist who served as his minister of finance—prepared in February to enter negotiations over Greece’s debt with European leaders, news sources reported a serious depletion of savings from Greece’s largest commercial banks after substantial capital flight in the run-up to the January election. As one commentator noted, “Syriza essentially entered into the negotiations with inadequate leverage, seeking financing to ease imminent liquidity fears and enact basic redistributive measures, but unwilling to play the ‘Grexit’ card.”4 

The result was an agreement on February 20 that represented a steep climb down on the part of the new government. According to the text of the agreement, “the Greek authorities reiterate their unequivocal commitment to honor their financial obligations to all their creditors fully and timely.”5 The text explicitly prevents Greece from unilaterally implementing any domestic reforms that contradict the interests of its creditors. The statement concludes, “We remain committed to provide adequate support to Greece until it has regained full market access as long as it honors its commitments within the agreed framework.”6 What Tsipras and Varoufakis signed off on was essentially a continuation of the memorandum regime by another name. Tsipras was able to sell the deal as a breathing space that would allow them to negotiate a better deal. But they remained committed at all cost to staying in the Eurozone, and resisted any demand by Syriza’s left wing that Greece must maintain its stance against austerity even if it meant an exit from the Eurozone. 

If there were any doubts that Greece would abide by the February 20 agreement, they were quickly dispelled. Varoufakis noted that until an agreement is reached, Syriza’s domestic reforms would be “on hold.7 The government reaffirmed its commitments by making all scheduled payments.

But the more the Greek government signaled its willingness to make concessions, the more the European negotiators dug in and refused to budge. Despite Syriza’s gestures of “goodwill” toward Greece’s creditors—it has successfully scrambled to make every payment due since the February 20 agreement—the European institutions continue to withhold €7.2 billion in rescue funds, let alone agree to consider debt forgiveness.

The European ruling class wanted their pound of flesh. Syriza was at all costs to be prevented from setting any sort of political example that it was possible to resist the neoliberal dictates of Germany and the EU. The issue was not about the viability of the debt regime imposed on Greece—no one with a straight face could argue that it was having anything but a disastrous impact on Greece’s economy, making debt repayment more and more impossible as it dragged the economy further and further down. The issue was a political one: Greece must not set an example that there is an alternative to austerity. Europe’s rulers feared that if they conceded an inch to Syriza, it would set a precedent for other peripheral countries like Spain, where Podemos seemed cresting to win elections and challenge the EU’s imposition of austerity there.

But before we come back to current questions, some background is necessary to briefly explain the conditions in Greece that gave rise to Syriza’s electoral victory.

The impact of the crisis and austerity
Like other states, Greece had experienced relatively high rates of growth in the period of the neoliberal boom leading up to the 2007 financial meltdown. In the prior twelve years its GDP grew by 61 percent, compared to Germany’s 19.5 percent and France’s 30.8 percent. Only Ireland experienced higher growth rates. A significant increase in demand and production was fueled by the availability of cheap credit, which stimulated not only private demand, but also state investment in public works. The result was a rising stock market, a boom in real estate, as well as an expansion of tourism, services, construction, and shipping. Athen’s famed Syntagma Square, for example, was redeveloped three times between 1990 and 2004. The boom led to a deteriorating trade balance and increased private and public debt.8 High levels of corruption also marked the period. For example, the Greek government paid €100 million to the German engineering giant Siemens to build a high tech “anti-terrorist” security system during the 2004 Athens Olympics that never worked. Greece’s bloated military also purchased two state-of-the-art high-tech submarines from Siemens that are too unstable to operate.9 A Siemens manager told prosecutors that the company set aside 10 percent of its revenue in Greece for government bribes.10

Greece was hit hard by the 2007–08 financial crisis, to which it responded, again like other states, with a government bailout of the banking system. This represented in essence the socialization of the losses incurred during the financial bubble, reviving the collapsing private financial system with public funds (drawn largely from taxes on the working class), then utilizing the ballooning public debt to justify cutbacks in government spending on the “social wage.” The result was the transfer of the debt crisis onto the Greek state. The public deficit, until the onset of the crisis in 2007, had been on a downward trend, and had been hovering at around 100 percent of GDP before the crisis. It ballooned to 127 percent in 2009, reaching 175 percent in 2013.11

The official story is that Greece was laid low by inefficient labor, high wages, and runaway government spending. The truth is different. Between 1995 and 2008 labor productivity rose by more than 40 percent, higher than every other European country except Ireland. During the same period, though wages grew by 18.5 percent, average worker net earnings remained significantly lower in Greece than other European countries—one of the contributing factors to the popularity of investments in Greece during this period. Indeed, according to one study, at 40 percent average profit margins in Greece were substantially higher then the rest of Europe, where profits ranged from 10–35 percent.12 Greek workers worked an average of roughly 500 more hours per year than the average German worker and took seven fewer days of vacation per year.13

State spending as a percentage of GDP in Greece between 1995 and 1912 was almost identical to the rest of Europe, even though Greece spent much more than its European counterparts on its military and, in the last several years, on interest payments; and spent less on social welfare such as health, education, pensions, and unemployment benefits. A key factor in deepening the Greek crisis was its already low levels of taxation and lax tax-collection system. The difference in Greece from other European countries was that Greece took in considerably less in tax revenue—5.8 percent less on average.14 Tax avoidance and special exemptions for the wealthy and Greek companies resulted in a decline in public revenues from 43 percent of GDP in 2000 to 37.3 percent in 2007.15 High-income earners are responsible for eighty percent of the tax debt owned to the Greek government.16 The extent of non-payment of taxes in Greece can be illustrated by the fact that though satellite images revealed that there were 16,974 private swimming pools in Athens in 2009, only 364 people declared on their tax return that they had one.17

Facing bankruptcy, the state sought financial assistance to prevent a default. This led to a series of loans starting in April of 2010 from the Eurozone and to a lesser extent the IMF adding up to a total of about €264 billion. The loan conditions—which are known collectively as the “memorandum of understanding,” or memorandum—required Greece to implement a series of austerity measures more severe than the structural adjustment programs imposed by the IMF in countries outside of Europe over the past several decades. These involved steep cuts to social spending, including the gutting of the health-care system; job, wage, and pension cuts; and substantial regressive tax hikes, privatization, market deregulation, and the liquidation of labor and bargaining rights. The official explanation was that recklessly high government spending on services combined with high wages and low competitiveness caused Greece’s predicament. The theory was that “wage and pension reductions, public sector downsizing, and privatizations would increase competitiveness and attract investors.”18 But far from bringing Greece out of the 2008 financial crisis, the memorandum set off a downward spiral for Greece’s economy of recession, unemployment, poverty, and disinvestment, impacting Greek workers and the poor most severely. The austerity package, moreover, failed to reduce Greece’s massive debt; interest payment on the debt alone in 2012 stood at around €16 billion.19

Austerity precipitates humanitarian crisis
Greece’s economy collapsed by 25 percent between 2011 and 2013.20 A quarter of the workforce is now jobless, and youth unemployment stands at around 60 percent.21 Payments to pensioners have been reduced by as much as 25 percent, and wages between 2008 and 2013 have declined by 19 percent. Since 2008, the minimum wage has fallen by 14 percent. By 2012, more than one in three Greeks had fallen below the official poverty line, with 40 percent of children below the poverty line. Between 2010 and 2011, suicide rates in Greece increased by 26.5 percent, and by 104 percent for women. The homeless population since 2009 has also risen by 25 percent.22

Labor conditions are more precarious, and payment less frequent; tens of thousands of small businesses—and Greece has relatively high numbers of self-employed and small businesses compared to the rest of Europe—have collapsed; and young people are migrating out of the country. Health care has been particularly hard hit. Health expenditure decreased by 19.5 percent annually between 2009 and 2011, leading to hospital closures, dramatic cuts in hospital staff, and shortages of medical supplies; these measures have led not only to a decline in the quality of health care, but also its availability, especially to unemployed workers who are uninsured.23 In 2013 the government announced plans to close fifty of Greece’s 132 remaining hospitals.24 All but three of Greece’s psychiatric hospitals have been closed, and those are also slated for closing. Because of the austerity conditions, millions of people who formerly got their medicines free now have to pay a significant portion of the cost.

According to a report commissioned by the German Institute for Macroeconomic Research (IMK) that examined Greek tax returns, between 2008 and 2013 Greek household income declined by one quarter on average, but that the poorest households lost 86 percent of income, while the richest lost between 18 and 25 percent.25 “You can now see sights long unimaginable in most of Europe,” reported one observer, “bread lines, women picking through trash for food, children turning up at clinics malnourished.”26

Class struggle
Greece has experienced a comparatively high level of social and class struggle since 2010, including many large protests and street battles, as well 32 twenty-four or forty-eight hour general strikes.27 Struggles had already begun to emerge during the crisis, but accelerated in response to the memorandum’s austerity measures. In December 2008 the police killing of fifteen-year-old high school student Alexis Grigoropoulos in Athens triggered a wave of angry youth protests and clashes with police that included the burning of many banks. According to one analysis, “Feeding the revolt was a collective sense of hopelessness, a long experience of police repression, and dissatisfaction with a political project that had spent billions of euros on the urban development of Athens while poverty and hardship were increasing.”28 

The first mass protests against the Pasok government’s signing the austerity agreement came in 2010 with a one-day general strike and a protest of hundreds of thousands in Athens and involving confrontations with the police, the first of several actions called by the PASOK-dominated unions but involving wide swaths of the population. Also in 2011, the “movement of the squares” exploded in Athens in late May, drawing inspiration from the Indignados movement in Spain and the occupation of Tahrir Square in Egypt—inaugurating the erection of tents and days of protests in Syntagma Square. “General Strikes on June 15 and June 28–29 were the high points of this social movement,” writes one commentator, “with thousands concentrated at the square and clashing with the police in their effort to protest against the new austerity measures introduced during those days by the parliament, located on Syntagma.”29 

In these struggles, Syriza and other forces on the left initiated the creation of popular assemblies. In the fall of 2011, the two main union federations called a two-day general strike against a new round of austerity that brought out 300,000 protesters in Athens. As protesters clashed with riot police equipped with tear gas, stun grenades, and more, members of Prime Minister George Papandreou’s ruling party passed the austerity legislation. In February 2012, upwards of half a million rallied against a new round of austerity measures being voted on by the government. In June of 2013 a fresh wave of protests broke out over the closing of Greece’s state television network, ERT.

And yet, as Syriza moved toward election success in 2015 and eventual victory and governmental office, the level of class struggle died down and remained relatively low. This could in part be explained by the fact that many months of strikes and mass protests had not been able to reverse the harsh austerity measures. After Syriza’s election, moreover, the Greek people developed a “wait and see” attitude toward the government, that is, a posture of hopeful expectation toward the new government’s negotiations with the European institutions. This was a somewhat paradoxical situation, in that the most favorable conditions for success in the struggle against austerity would have been to combine electoral success with mass mobilization from below in the streets, schools, and workplaces. But no force on the left was in a position to simply flip a switch and turn on the struggle. Greece’s masses were waiting and hoping for Syriza to be able to deliver.

Political impasse and the rise of Syriza
The crisis, austerity, and resistance led to growing political instability and the end of the traditional political configuration of parties in Greece, marked by the decline of some parties, the substantial growth of others, as well as the proliferation of new parties. The collapse of two-party dominance over Greek politics reflects the crisis of confidence by masses of Greek people in the traditional political parties of the center right and left. This has opened up the field for the rise of new left forces, but it has also opened up the field for the far right. The openly fascist Golden Dawn party has been able to grow based on an anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant platform. Its vote shot up from 0.3 percent in the 2009 election to 7 percent in the June 2012 election. Even after scandals surrounding the role of Golden Dawn members in the murder of antifascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in 2013, it still managed to get 6.3 percent of the vote in the last election.

Formed in 1974 after the fall of the six-year rule of the military junta, Pasok’s initial verbal radicalism in the late 1970s quickly gave way to the adoption of politics similar to the British Labour Party’s “third way.” Pasok had been able to secure, after wining office in 1981, an average of about 40 percent of the national vote until its recent spectacular decline. New Democracy, whose voting base is centered in more conservative rural areas and among the small business petty-bourgeoisie, held up much better, and is now Greece’s second largest party behind Syriza.30 PASOK ruled Greece from 1981 until 2004, and again, after five years of rule under ND Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis from 2004 to 2009. It is here, after the austerity agreement that Greece’s relatively orderly political process began to break down. PASOK resumed power under George Papandreou from 2009 to 2011. Papandreou stepped down on November 4 after proposing, and then withdrawing under intense pressure, a proposal to hold a referendum on the Eurozone bailout. This led to the installation of a former ECB vice president and Bank of Greece president, Lucas Papademos, as head of a new government of “national accord” in 2011. With no party able to secure a majority, new elections in May 2012 brought to power a PASOK-ND government of “national unity” under Panagiotis Pikrammenos. New elections quickly followed in June 2012, leading to a coalition government of pro-austerity parties comprising ND, PASOK, and a small social-democratic split off from Syriza, Democratic Left, under the presidency of ND leader Antonis Samaras, which held power until the most recent Syriza upset.

Syriza is a result of “a relatively complex recomposition of the radical left” in Greece.31 Founded as an electoral alliance in 2004, it was the product of a dialogue on the left that emerged out of the European anti-globalization movement in 2000, and was able to strengthen itself through its role in the Greek Social Forum in 2006, as well as involvement in social and labor struggles. Its largest component by far is Synaspismos (Coalition of the left and Progress until 2003, and Coalition of the Left, of Movements, and Ecology after 2003), an organization that has its origins in a 1968 Eurocommunist split from the Greek Communist Party (KKE) over Russia’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. 

But it also includes revolutionary organizations of the far left, such as the Trotskyist DEA, the Maoist-inspired KOE (Communist Organization of Greece), as well as organizations coming out of splits from the communist left, such as AKOA (Renewing Communist Ecological Left) and KEDA (Movement for the United in Action Left). It has also attracted a large layer of unaffiliated radicals. A turning point for Syriza came in 2007 when Synaspismos took a left turn under the leadership of former KKE member and leader of its parliamentary group Alekos Alevanos, committing the organization to opposing neoliberalism and the US war in Iraq. Alevanos “crafted a strategy to make Syriza the unifying agent for a broad ‘new left’” that rejected both the pro-austerity conformity of PASOK and the narrow sectarianism of the Greek Communist Party (KKE).32 Syriza’s electoral success far outstrips its size, however, in the past couple of years its membership has doubled to about 36,000 with strong connections to the social movements.

The KKE, and to a certain extent a smaller anticapitalist far-left coalition, Antarsya, refused to join Syriza. The KKE was for many decades the most important organization on the Greek left, closely associated with the central role of the anti-Nazi resistance and the Greek Civil War. After the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia the Greek Communist Party split in two, with one section retaining a hard Stalinist pro-Russia line (KKE) and the other turning in a Eurocommunist direction (KKE-Interior), of which Synaspismos is a direct descendant. After a period in the 1980s where the KKE attempted to form alliances with PASOK, it returned to its hard Stalinism, combining reformist practice with strict isolationist sectarianism toward other forces on the left, which it justified with leftist rhetoric. It adopted this stance toward the new social movements, struggles, and organizations that have emerged after the 2007 financial crisis. As one author writes, “The KKE…chose to fortify itself against initiatives it could not control, and kept itself apart from the social movement. . . . This strategy of fortification sometimes became ridiculously sectarian as the KKE/PAME avoided mobilizing with, or even marching alongside, protesters who are not in their ranks.”33

The difference between the reaction of Syriza and the KKE to the 2008 youth protests is instructive in this regard. Whereas Syriza supported the mobilizations and defended the demonstrators, the KKE denounced the demonstrations as “black bloc” provocations. Likewise, the KKE denounced the Syntagma Square occupation in 2011 as a “so-called movement” that was “supported, encouraged—if not even planned—by mechanisms of the ruling class, with the aim manipulating, preventing radicalism.” It also argued that both Golden Dawn and Syriza are byproducts of the movement’s “confusion.”34 These politics have had an impact on its electoral fortunes. In the May 2012 elections it got 18.5 percent of the vote, its best result in two decades, but in the following June election its vote dropped to 4.5 percent. The reality is that the KKE’s as well as Antarsya’s abstentionism has rendered until now their political role in Greek politics to almost nil.

There is, however, a difference between the KKE and Antarsya. Though it maintained a posture of refusal to cooperate with the left inside Syriza, it campaigned for a No vote in the referendum, while the KKE called essentially for spoiling the ballots. Whereas the KKE continues a policy of noncooperation, Tsipras’ capitulation has opened up the possibility of cooperation between Antarsya and the left inside Syriza.

Charting a way forward
The surrender of Tsipras opens up a new chapter for the Left and for the struggle against austerity in Greece. Antonis Davanellos, a member of DEA, a member of Syriza’s Red Network inside the Left Platform, and also a member of the party’s central committee, summarized the dilemma faced by Tsipras not long before the July 22 surrender to the creditors. There was, on the one hand, a sincere commitment to resisting austerity. However, there was the utopian belief that “this could happen smoothly…within the framework of the Eurozone.” Davanellos concluded that any further retreat by Tsipras “will inevitably, in more or less short order, pave the way toward a government of national unity in some form. This would be the definitive defeat of the political project, put forward at the founding congress of Syriza, of establishing a ‘government of the left.’”35

In an extremely short period of time, Syriza has morphed from a party linked to mass movements and committed to resisting austerity to a party that is either on the verge of a split, collapse or, what amounts to the same thing, a left party in name only. The questions that have now arisen on the left regarding Syriza’s rise and fall run along two main lines. 

On one side is the argument that Tsipras must be defended for acting in the only way he possibly could. With a gun to his head, he had to give in and accept defeat, if only at some future date to be able to resist in some other way the dictates of Europe. The opposite argument is that Tsipras’ capitulation is proof that it was a mistake for the left to enter, participate in, and build Syriza—it was bound, as a reformist party, to do what it did, and being in it has only lent these failed politics legitimacy they don’t deserve. There are serious problems with both of these positions. The third position is the one laid-out by DEA—in which it was necessary to work within Syriza, and through it to build the Left on a stronger and more united footing, but also maintain and defend an independent line.

The first argument (“neoliberalism made them do it”) has been put forward, for example, by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, who wrote in a Jacobin article,

The charges of betrayal being levied against the Syriza leadership today are based on its signing off on the latest very harsh memorandum. But insofar as this memorandum was imposed on the basis of the threat of expelling Greece from the Eurozone and leaving its banking system without support, the claim that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras “capitulated” implies that there was a viable alternative centered on an immediate Eurozone exit (“Grexit”) that the government could have undertaken.36

And yet, it is clear now that though he never envisioned a scenario in which he would lead Greece out of the Eurozone, and it is not clear how far the process went, Tsipras acknowledged that he had initiated a “plan B” in preparation for a possible “Grexit”—including Varoufakis hiring a specialist to hack into the Greek tax commissioner’s data to “get information needed to set up a parallel payment system.”37

Panitch and Gindin offer as an analogy a scenario where a newly elected leadership at a local union that has promised the rank and file to strike for a better bargain with the bosses, are then faced with plant closure and therefore, in order to save jobs, cavein to the employer’s demands. In Greece, by this analogy, Tsipras and his allies represent the new union leadership that, through conditions beyond their control, is forced to capitulate to the European creditors without a fight. The problem with this analogy is that it accepts entirely the flawed logic that Tsipras was operating on from the beginning—that all he needed to do was point out to the Germans that he had the backing of the Greek people and they would be amenable to renegotiating the debt on less onerous terms. Capitulation doesn’t save any jobs. What Tsipras agreed was to further entrench the very processes of neoliberal austerity imposed by the earlier memorandums that have been devastating the Greek working class—including jobs—since 2010. If anything, the only job Tsipras saved (for now) was his own—and he did it by selling out his supporters without even a whiff of a fight.

Panitch and Gindin’s argument accepts the limitations that Tsipras and the reformists inside Syriza put forth. They operated on the assumption that gaining office was the primary and sufficient condition for resisting austerity. Tsipras and Co. capitulated because they accepted a priori a condition that boxed them into a corner. The refusal of forty Syriza MPs to accept the deal is itself proof that capitulation was not the only option—it was merely an option not on the negotiating table, which was the only table that Tsipras and Co. were willing to stand on.

As one Australian socialist and eyewitness reporting from Greece has written, “The arguments are now between those who view a government of the left as one part of a strategy to end austerity, and those who view it as an end in its own right. The latter appeals for pragmatism.” If the choice was between implementing the Syriza program or staying in the Eurozone, then the party must choose the former or risk “a party split and loss of office.” She concludes:

The problem with such pragmatism is that it is about preserving the current balance of class forces, rather than calculating how working class forces can be augmented and the forces of reaction resisted. The forces of those in power will always be greater until the moment of the latter’s imminent overthrow. This kind of pragmatism always ends in a shabby compromise—in this case, transforming the anti-austerity soul of Syriza into the best manager of the crisis.38

But what of the argument that Syriza, since it was bound to “sellout,” was a project that from the start the Far Left should have shunned? Of course, all revolutionaries understand the need for the creation of an independent revolutionary party rooted in the working class. The question of the necessity of the independent organization of revolutionaries so that they can coherently influence the struggle is elementary. However, the question of tactics—how revolutionaries relate to and build the broader left—is not answered by simply repeating this obvious truth.

Alex Callinicos, a leader in the International Socialist Tendency whose section in Greece, SEK (Socialist Workers Party), is one of the parties in Antarsya that has stood outside of Syriza, was no doubt right to argue that, “the entire Greek radical left will be judged by how successfully they promote working people’s self-organization, confidence, and combativity.”39 This is indisputable. What is in dispute was how to promote these attributes. According to Callinicos, the calculation of the left forces around Antarsya was that working inside Syriza would “greatly restrict their capacity for independent action.” 40 This, apparently, is the difference that leads the International Socialist Tendency’s group in Germany to work inside Die Linke (the Left Party) but not inside Syriza. 

Furthermore, one has only to look at the experience of DEA and the other groups in the Red Network to see that the they have had freedom of action inside Syriza, including the right to meet separately, publish their own newspapers and statements, and take up their own positions within the party, and that those efforts have had a great impact on Syriza. The Left was able in 2013 to successfully thwart efforts by Tsipras and the party moderates to change the party rules in order to push revolutionary groups in Syriza to “self-dissolve.” The process of DEA fighting for its right to a distinct presence within Syriza helped to raise its political profile. Moreover, the Left has been instrumental in organizing efforts to exercise democratic control by the membership and to try to block Tsipras from capitulating to the European creditors.

SEK’s policy is, in effect, a policy of passive isolation based on the dubious premise that with the inevitable fallout from Syriza’s turn toward accommodation the masses would have to turn toward those who stood by unsullied by the process. But one must be able to go through the experience of the struggle—electorally and in the streets—with the masses that want change, to work and argue along side them in order to have any influence on them. 

The class struggle has yet to revive on any significant level. The fight for the original program of Syriza, at this stage, has therefore taken place within Syriza and in reference to Syriza—not outside of it. Those left forces that chose to stay outside this process remained incapable of exercising any real influence over the debates that took place. That Antarsya won only .64 percent in the last election is proof of this reality. In reference to this meager vote, Gareth Jenkins and Despina Karayianni in the International Socialism Journal try to ridicule the idea that it is “proof, apparently, that an independent left is doomed.”41 Of course, it is not proof that an independent left is doomed. However, it is proof that an independent revolutionary left that stays outside the main channels of the class struggle is doomed to isolation.

The presence of these organizations would have strengthened the Red Network, and consequently, the Left as a whole. Instead, they mistook formal organizational separation from Syriza with the independence of the revolutionary left—that is, confusing tactics and principles—and forgetting the admonition of Engels toward the German socialists in the United States in the 1880s: “I think all our practice has shown that it is possible to work along with the general movement of the working class at every one of its stages without giving up or hiding our own distinct position and even organization.”42 The movement in the US, Engels argued, should be “revolutionized from within” rather than “poo-poohed from without.”43 It is now important for the left organizations that stood apart from Syriza to reconsider their position and find ways to join forces with Syriza’s left wing.

The approach by the Red Network, and groups like DEA at its center, was that one had to work and operate where left oppositional forces were growing and strongest, and to be part of the formation of a new broad left political party against austerity—to push from within it a program for the creation of a government of the left. Their strategy all along was to act inside Syriza as an independent detachment in order to push the process as far as it could go, while at the same time exposing and warning against the weaknesses, pitfalls, and potential betrayals as they arose; always explaining that the power to shift the balance of power lay ultimately with the mass mobilization of the working class in Greece. 

Drawing from the experience of the early period of the Communist International, and in particular the debate around the idea of a “workers’ government,” the left in Syriza, and in particular DEA, promoted the demand for a “government of the left” in Greece. Their analysis was premised on the fact that the imposition of harsh austerity had produced mass resistance among workers and the oppressed in Greece—resistance that was not organized and systematic enough to push austerity back, but reflective of a mass desire for political change that had created a political vacuum in which the traditional parties had lost all credibility. In these conditions, the demand for a government consisting only of left parties opposed to austerity was a logical next step. Writes Davanellos,

In the decisive struggles that followed, the demand to overthrow the government, the demand “to get rid of them now”—and, as a result, the issue of governmental power—were posed as a precondition for the defense of workers and social rights. What else could be the meaning of the gigantic general strikes, demonstrations, and the successive sieges of the parliamentary building by hundreds of thousands of protestors?

The only thing that held this situation back from becoming an immediate revolutionary situation was the low level of strength of working-class organizations and the hesitation of the masses of workers when they faced the naked violence of the state deployed in the streets. In this situation, Syriza—despite starting from a lower starting position than the Communist Party in terms of strength, replied by raising the slogan: “For a left-wing government!”44

DEA was clear that a call for a left-wing government was not tantamount to calling for a new workers’ state—that is, a new state based upon the democratic self-organization of the class. The level of political organization and consciousness of the class was not at that level yet. Rather, they saw a left government as the basis for a potential transition toward more direct forms of struggle for workers’ power, provided certain conditions were in place. In their call for a left government, DEA put forward important criteria:

The criteria for its program must be bound—mostly or exclusively—to the needs of the working class and the popular classes and not to some cross-class vague concepts such as “the country” or the “productive reconstruction of the economy.”

The criteria on its alliances must be confined to workers’ parties and organizations, and not extend to broad alliances that sacrifice the clear sociopolitical orientation for the sake of parliamentary efficiency.

The criteria on the prospects of a left-wing government must be understood as a transitional step towards socialist rupture and not as a final destination that will “save the country.”45

At the same time, DEA was clear that such a project had the potential, without struggle and organization from below, and if Greece’s gesture against austerity remained isolated, to move in a different direction. As they wrote in an October 2013 political resolution:

In the context of this political deadlock and extreme polarization between the main social classes, the left-wing government in Greece cannot be a peaceful repetition of past center-left governmental experiences in Europe over the last twenty years (the government of the “plural Left” in France, the government of Romano Prodi in Italy). And it cannot enjoy the viability of older left-wing governments in Latin America, like the durable hold on power of the Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil, with the tolerance of the bourgeoisie. Whoever inside Syriza thinks about the repetition of such patterns, is thinking about totally utopian scenarios. 

The left-wing government, in the midst of the deep crisis in Greece today, will be an adventure. Either it will be forced to betray almost immediately the workers’ popular anticipations and this will lead to its tragic or comic collapse, or it will be forced to apply policies that overturn crucial political choices of the ruling class, thus calling “on stage” the social movements, and paving the way for radical changes that go way beyond a simple parliamentary conquest of governmental power. 46

It based its position not on counterpoising the euro or the Greek drachma, but on maintaining a position of consistent opposition—whether in or out of the Eurozone—against austerity. The reality is that Greek workers will suffer under either currency so long as capitalist interests drive Greece. This is especially important, as it is possible that the outcome of the July 22 vote will not be a new memorandum, but a failure of the latest round of negotiations and the forced exit of Greece from the Eurozone. As Antonis Davanellos writes,

Our main task is the overthrow of the politics of austerity. Through this struggle, we have to amass the forces—both in mass social movements and in the building of a political left—that can put forward in real terms the question of the overthrow of capitalism and the fight for socialism.

In this effort, we should have nothing to do with any policy that would force workers—after enduring the harsh measures of an “internal devaluation” under the euro—to pay the costs of a capitalist reconstruction under the drachma.

Many comrades on the left point out that the euro is not a neutral symbol anymore, and I totally agree—the euro represents the neoliberal politics that have dominated the EU over the last 25 years. But the drachma likewise is not a neutral symbol. What a currency “represents” at any point in time depends on who controls the economy and political power in society.

In the Syriza alliance, we are trying to organize around the slogan: “Not a single sacrifice for the euro, no illusions in the drachma.”

Our goal is a left-wing policy that confronts the vulgar “Europeanism” which legitimizes austerity policies today, but without taking responsibility for raising a call for an immediate return to the drachma.47

The struggle in Greece has reached a new stage and the Left no doubt faces difficult challenges ahead. But the process of rebuilding a radical left that can discuss, debate, and act around a common set of agreements would not have been possible without the experience of Syriza—this is a lasting accomplishment that cannot be undone by Tsipras’s betrayal. Those forces will be at the heart of a new process of reconstitution of a left that can carry on the fight against austerity. 

Speaking to a meeting of 2,500 in Athens at the end of July, Antonis Davanellos noted that the strategy put forward by Tsipras and the Syriza moderates based on negotiations with the European creditors within the euro is dead. The key task, he argued, is for the Left to regroup its forces around “a radical program of short- and medium-term demands—most obviously cancellation of debt, nationalization of the banks, and heavy taxation of capital and the wealth of the rich. It is now clear that this program can only be pursued when combined with a willingness and readiness for conflicts, both with the local ruling class and the EU, the eurozone and the euro project.” And he concluded:

This program provided and still provides the basis for the slogan of achieving a government of the left—one that is accountable to the workers and that determines its policies based on the needs of the people, not by detaching itself and operating autonomously from them.

Inside Syriza there was a section of its leaders and members that found the strength to say “no” to the third Memorandum. It was in the grassroots organizations of the party, in its leading bodies and among Syriza’s representatives in parliament.

This “no” sends a message with an important political significance. It is a basis to rebuild the forces of the radical left inside Syriza, but also in the wider, non-sectarian left. Our “no” places new tasks before us—tasks related to Syriza itself, but also more generally to the prospect of a new start, which obviously stands urgently before us now.48

  1. “Communiqué of Syriza Youth on the agreement-memorandum and the future of Syriza,” July 23, 2015, http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/sp....
  2. Syriza—The Thessaloniki Program, September 2014, http://www.syriza.gr/article/Syriza—-THE-THESSALONIKI-PROGRAMME.html#.VSKwikaGr_V.
  3. DEA, “The tasks for the left after Syriza’s victory,” Socialist Worker, January 28, 2015, http://socialistworker.org/2015/01/28/th....
  4. Nile Bowie, “Greece Debt Default: German Intransigence Raises Spectre for ‘Grexit,’” Global Research, April 5, 2015.
  5. “Eurogroup statement on Greece,” Council of the European Union, February 20, 2015, http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/....
  6. Ibid.
  7. Chris Morris, “Eurozone: Six Days for Greece to Offer New Reforms,” BBC News, April 9, 2015.
  8. John G. Milios, “Neoliberal Europe in Crisis: Syriza’s Alternative,” Studies in Political Economy 91, Spring 2013; Maria Markantonatou, “Diagnosis, Treatment, and Effects of the Crisis in Greece: A ‘Special Case’ or a ‘Test Case’?” Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies Discussion Paper, 2013, 12; Dimitris Dalakoglou, “The Crisis Before “the Crisis”: Violence and Urban Neoliberalism in Athens,” Social Justice vol. 39, no. 1, (2011): 28.
  9. Antonis Davanellos, “Crisis, Austerity, and Class Struggle in Greece,” International Socialist Review 73, May 2013, http://isreview.org/issue/73/crisis-aust....
  10. “Siemens Bribed Greek Officials for Olympic Contract,” Economic Times (India), December 4, 2006, http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes....
  11. “General Government Gross Debt,” Eurostat, http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/tgm/table.d....
  12. Ibid., 13.
  13. Lionel Reynolds, “The Greek Economic Crisis: The Social Impacts of Austerity. Debunking the Myths,” Global Research, February 13, 2015; http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-greek-e....
  14. Thanasis Maniatis, “The Fiscal Crisis in Greece: Whose Fault?” in Greek Capitalism in Crisis (London: Routledge, 2015), 33–49.
  15. Markantonatou, “Diagnosis, Treatment, and Effects of the Crisis in Greece,” 15.
  16. Gopal, “What Austerity Looks Like Inside Greece,” The New Yorker, March 31, 2015.
  17. Aristidis Hatzis, “Greece as a Precautionary Tale of the Welfare State,” in Tom G. Palmer, ed., After the Welfare State (Ottawa, Ontario: Jameson Books, 2012), 25.
  18. Maria Markantonatou, “Diagnosis, Treatment, and Effects of the crisis in Greece,” 1–2.
  19. Antonis Davanellos, “From Crisis to Resistance in Greece,” Socialist Worker, July 5, 2012, http://socialistworker.org/2012/07/05/cr....
  20. “Greek Economy’s Numbers Still Worrying,” DW.com, February 13, 2015, http://www.dw.com/en/greek-economys-numb....
  21. Paul Mason, “Greece Shows What can Happen When the Young Revolt Against Corporate Elites,” Guardian, January 25, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree....
  22. “The True Cost of Austerity and Inequality: Greece Case Study,” Oxfam case study, September 2013; Elsa Buchanan, “Why Greece is the only EU Country Where the Minimum Wage has Decreased since 2008,” International Business Times, February 26, 2015; “Shocking Austerity: Greece’s Poor Lost 86 Percent of Income, but Rich only 17-20 Percent,” Keep Talking, Greece, March 20, 2015, http://www.keeptalkinggreece.com/2015/03/20/shocking-austerity-greeces-poor-lost-86-of-income-but-rich-only-17-20/; Anand Gopal, “What Austerity Looks Like Inside Greece,” The New Yorker, March 31, 2015.
  23. Effie Simou and Eleni Koutsogeorgou, “Effects of the Economic Crisis on Healthcare in Greece in Literature form 2009 to 2013,” Health Policy 115 (2014), 111–119
  24. “Nearly 40% of Hospitals in Greece will be Closed,” GR Reporter, July 24, 2013; http://www.grreporter.info/en/nearly_40_....
  25. “Shocking austerity,” Keep Talking, Greece.
  26. Gopal, “What Austerity Looks Like Inside Greece.”
  27. “Greece paralyzed by first general strike for months,” BBC News, November 27, 2014.
  28. Dimitris Dalakoglou, “The Crisis Before ‘the Crisis,’” 33.
  29. Dimitris Dalakoglou, “The Movement and the ‘Movement’ of Syntagma Square,” Cultural Anthropology, February 14, 2013, http://www.culanth.org/fieldsights/70-th....
  30. Stathis Kouvelakis, “The Greek Cauldron,” New Left Review 72, November–December 2011: 28.
  31. Stathis Kouvelakis interviewed by Sebastian Budgen, “Greece, Phase I: Syriza is the Left’s Best Chance at Success in a Generation,”Jacobin, January 22, 2015, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/01/phase....
  32. Michael Spourdalakis, “Left Strategy in the Greek Cauldron: Explaining Syriza’s Success,” in Leo Panitch, Greg Albo, and Vivek Chibber, eds., Socialist Register 2013: The Question of Strategy (Pontypool, Wales: Merlin Press, 2012), 102.
  33. Ibid., 103.
  34. Nikos Lountos, “Understanding the Greek Communists,” Jacobin, January 21, 2015, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/01/under....
  35. Antonis Davanellos, “Where are We Going After the Agreement?” Socialist Worker, March 10, 2015, http://socialistworker.org/2015/03/10/wh....
  36. Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch, “The Syriza Dilemma,” Jacobin, July 27, 2015, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/07/tsipr....
  37. “Greece’s Tsipras Called for Euro-exit Contingency Plan,” Wall Street Journal, July 31, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/greeces-tsip....
  38. Colleen Bolger, “Turning Resignation into Resistance,” Socialist Worker, July 28, 2015, http://socialistworker.org/2015/07/28/re....
  39. Alex Callinicos, “Syriza and the State,”Socialist Worker (UK), February 3, 2015, http://socialistworker.co.uk/art/39884/S....
  40. Alex Callinicos, “The Second Coming of the Radical Left,” International Socialism Journal 135, June 28, 2012, http://isj.org.uk/the-second-coming-of-t....
  41. Gareth Jenkins and Despina Karayianni, “Manoevers from Above, Resistance from Below: Greece under Tsipras,” ISJ 147, July 6, 2015; http://isj.org.uk/manoeuvres-from-above/
  42. Engels to Florence Kelley-Wischnewetzky, Marx and Engels on the United States, 317.
  43. Engels to Florence Kelley-Wischnewetzky, Collected Works, Vol. 27, 541—542.
  44. Antonis Davanellos, “The Fourth Comintern Congress: A Way to Claim Victory,” International Socialist Review 25, January 2010, http://isreview.org/issue/95/fourth-comi....
  45. Ibid.
  46. “The Deepening Crisis and Prospects for the Left in Greece,” International Socialist Review 91 (Winter 2013–14): 110.
  47. Antonis Davanellos, “The Euro or the Drachma”? Socialist Worker, January 11, 2012, http://socialistworker.org/2012/01/11/th....
  48. Antonis Davanellos, “Our New Tasks in the Struggle Against Austerity,” Socialist Worker, July 30, 2015.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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