The rise and fall of Syriza


Inside the Labyrinth

Kevin Ovenden’s new book, Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth, provides an invaluable introduction for a broad English-speaking audience to Greece’s social and political struggle against neoliberal austerity. Ovenden draws lessons for the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of activists who are engaged in similar fights throughout the world. Yet in seeking to address a wider audience than that of the traditional Left, Ovenden at times unnecessarily elides, or takes up only in passing, strategic debates critical to that Left, and to the future of our movements.

Since the Great Recession, Greece’s working class has engaged in some of the most intense class struggle against austerity anywhere in the world. This movement backed the radical left party, Syriza, and voted it into power in January 2015. People believed that there was, in fact, an alternative to neoliberal capitalism. While the book is built around the first period of Syriza in government, Ovenden offers something much more than a blow-by-blow, seven-month history lesson. In fact, two full chapters provide a history of the rise of Syriza from 2004 through 2015. It also provides a history of the struggles from the national uprising in 2008 to the general strikes beginning in May 2010, the occupation of the squares, environmental struggles, and the epic and ongoing battle over the privatization of the public broadcaster ERT.

The book skillfully weaves three narrative strands that are inseparable to understanding the significance of these events and the experience of the Syriza government. First, Ovenden situates Syriza in modern Greek political history since World War II. Greece emerged from fascist occupation, endured a civil war in which the British and the Americans intervened as bulwarks of reaction and helped defeat the left insurgency, and then experienced a mass movement that helped topple a dictatorship in 1974 that had ruled for seven years. 

With the return of democracy, the reformist party PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement) dominated electoral politics and traded power occasionally with its openly capitalist opponent, New Democracy, but each progressively adopted severe neoliberal economic policies. After the 2008 economic crisis, they both imposed austerity through two memoranda with the so-called Troika—the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the IMF. 

Ovenden argues that Greece and its political struggles must be understood as part of a Europe-wide process. He contends that this struggle cannot be understood as merely a national one of an oppressed Greece against the Troika. Instead, he shows that sections of Greek capital have greatly benefited and shepherded neoliberal austerity programs through to their tragic results. In other words, he shows the Greek struggle to be part of international class struggle.

Inside the Labyrinth is particularly attentive in this history to the threat of the far right, specifically the fascist party Golden Dawn. The book is dedicated to two victims murdered by Golden Dawn—Pakistani retail worker Shahzad Luqman and antiracist rapper and performer Pavlos Fyssas. Golden Dawn and fascist politics more generally have thrived in the shadow of the mainstream Right, and Ovendon situates the Greek far right within the Europe context as a whole. “The reconfiguring of the Right in Greece is a hothouse microcosm,” he writes, “part of a Europe-wide phenomenon. The singular pole of Christian Democracy is fragmenting, allowing a variety of right-wing forces—from anti-European nationalists to outright fascists—to re-emerge in their own party formations.” At the same time, he points out, the Greek left, which is the alternative to the Right’s reactionary solution to the crisis, is an outgrowth not only of domestic developments but also Europe’s global justice, antiwar, social, and labor movements. 

In his second narrative, Ovenden examines Syriza, its leader Alexis Tsipras’s tendency to accommodate to forces on his right, and its consequent capitulation to austerity. He summarizes the evolution of Syriza’s strategy from its call in 2012 for a government of the left and its slogan “not one sacrifice for the euro,” both abandoned by 2014, to its electoral platform for its 2015 triumph, the Thessalonika Program. 

Ovenden shows how Tsipras betrayed all of this in power and quickly abandoned the Thessalonika Program. He formed a government not with the left, but with the xenophobic right-wing nationalists of ANEL, granting them three key ministries—foreign affairs, defense, and police. He then cut a concessionary compromise with the Troika on February 20, 2015. 

Throughout this process of increasingly severe compromises, he overrode Syriza’s democratic process and ignored the majority of its membership, central committee, and Politburo. Finally, after the overwhelming vote in the referendum to reject the Troika’s demand for more austerity, Tsipras overrode the will of the Greek people, agreeing on July 12 to the Third Memorandum, which includes the worst austerity measures so far. 

Ovenden’s third narrative strand attempts to explain the reasons for this capitulation. Ovenden stresses that Syriza’s space for winning reforms was not determined by the rationality or irrationality of its proposed economic policies. As Yanis Varoufakis noted after his ouster as finance minister, “There was a point blank refusal [by the euro-group] to engage in economic arguments. Point blank. You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on to make sure it’s logically coherent, and you’re faced with blank stares. . . . You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem—you’d have got the same reply.” 

Neither was Tsipras’s capitulation about some hidden perfidy or bad intent. In fact, Ovenden insists “whatever the limitations of its ‘good euro strategy,’ and despite sticking to it in the face of evident defeat, there was no intention or desire within the government to capitulate.” Yet, capitulate it did. Its eventual surrender was the result, argues Oven den, of trying to find a solution within the current setup of the euro-zone. Accepting that framework, Tsipras came up against the implacable will of what Ovenden terms the “Anti-Democratic Twins”—the Troika and the Greek ruling class. They were both absolutely committed to defeating Syriza and its program of reform. They wanted to prove to all of Europe that there was no alternative at the ballot box to austerity. 

Ovenden has provided us with an invaluable history of Syriza’s rise and fall. Yet, the book is relatively silent on important related debates on the Greek left inside and outside Syriza. Some sections of the left, such as the anticapitalist coalition Antarsya, as well as the Greek Communist Party, abstained and even opposed Syriza, weakening the hand of the left inside the party and its ability to combat Tsipras’ slide toward capitulation. But all of this is not examined in the book. This history of the struggle within the left is important for drawing lessons for the reconfiguration of the Greek left today and in the future.  

The book does, however, address one of the key debates on the left over the alternative economic program to Tsipras determination to stay inside the Eurozone at all costs. Ovenden provides a useful overview of the competing plans put forward by figures like Yanis Varoufakis, Euclid Tsakalatos, and Costas Lapavitsas. But Inside the Labyrinth remains silent on the underlying debates about these “Plan Bs.” 

There is a real debate about these proposals. Do the alternatives amount merely to trying to manage capitalism in Greece with the assistance of Russia and China? Or is the intent a future government of the left, something more far-reaching, in seeking “rupture” from capitalism? These are not just historical questions but live debates, which will shape different left strategies. 

Ovenden has much to say on these issues, but his book explicitly tries to “avoid foregrounding points of debate and criticism” over concerns for “danger of sowing demoralization and cynicism.” Thus, while it may appear unfair to offer criticisms for what a book consciously chooses not to address, so much of this excellent history begs an answer to these and other current strategic questions. Ultimately, Ovenden has greatly succeeded in his stated goals. 

At the end, he offers a hopeful perspective for the Greek left and working class:

That social resistance, unmatched anywhere else in Europe, might not have succeeded in halting the formal passing by parliament of the austerity policies demanded under the memorandums negotiated with the Troika of Greece’s creditors. But it had maintained and developed a level of popular organization. It had blunted and slowed the pace of attack. And it had brought down one government after another. People hoped that the new government would be different. But it was not that desperate hope which comes paradoxically from abject despair. There was both a widespread understanding of the scale of the crisis facing the incoming government, and, consequently, the realization among the network of trade unionists, social movement campaigners, and activists of the left—notably in the base of Syriza—that the period of intense mobilization had not ended with the election victory. Rather, there would be fresh battles to come. Despite the enormous suffering, the morale of the working-class of Greece was not broken.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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