Syriza: a precarious victory for the left

Syriza: a precarious victory for the left

“A train which is due to leave at eight will normally leave at any time between nine and ten, but perhaps once a week, thanks to some private whim of the engine-driver, it leaves at half past seven.” George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, 1938

Like many on the left I was counting down the days until the Greek election which Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) won. Their win was a political earthquake because for the first time since the popular fronts in Spain and France won legislative elections in 1936 there is a government of the left in Europe. Syriza won 36.3% of the vote, giving them 149 seats in the 300-member parliament. For Greek workers Syriza offers a lifeline against the humanitarian disaster and social catastrophe inflicted on Greece by the Troika. Wages have been slashed by 23% for public sector workers with the minimum wage cut by 22% and 32% for young workers. Unemployment stands at 25.8% overall but for women it is 30.5% and for young workers 57.5%. [1] On top of this social services and health care have been decimated leading to mass emigration, poverty and increasing suicide rates. But of course if you are a capitalist looking for cheap workers in southern Europe then Greece is the place to go.

In this catastrophe the only parties to offer programmes against austerity and in defence of the working class are those of the left. Out of these Syriza is electorally dominant but there is also the Coalition of the Greek Anticapitalist Left (Antarsya) – not represented in parliament –  and the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), which holds 15 seats in parliament. Both are to Syriza’s left and have criticised its moves to moderate its anti-capitalist and anti-war positions. Debts are to be paid but re-negotiated, NATO membership is to be kept (regardless of its growing body count) and capitalist property will be protected. Syriza has struck a coalition deal with an anti-austerity nationalist party, the Independent Greeks (ANEL).This has caused outrage with its left factions and dismay among much of the left outside of Greece who held illusions in Syriza. On the flip side Syriza is offering, among other social democratic promises, free electricity for the poorest, the reinstatement of the minimum wage to pre-crisis levels and the rebuilding of the health service that will be available to all.

The Syriza victory will electrify the movement in Greece, southern Europe and all those fighting austerity. It offers a challenge to austerity in Europe that Merkel, Hollande and Cameron have been hoping to avoid. Despite the hard words coming out of northern European capitals, cracks are already emerging in the capitalist consensus on how to deal with Greek debt with the New York Times, Financial Times [2], Bloomberg, Deutsche Welle and others carrying pieces supporting debt forgiveness or lowering the burden on Greece through other measures. Instead of impoverishment and discipline, some sections of the capitalists want to see growth stimulating measures. This might include steps that aim towards the ending of corruption and nepotism between politicians and Greek private enterprises but continuing with some of the neo-liberal ‘reforms’. If Syriza’s new prime minister Alexis Tsipras can get a handle on the oligarchs and put an end to widespread corruption then he will have more money to play with and will have leveled the playing field for foreign investors to compete with Greek capitalists.

Partying in Greece

During 1989 to 1991, as Stalinism collapsed in the East through popular mobilisations, the political settlement that had maintained and demarcated the left parties in Europe fell away. The official communists saw their parties fall to ruin, liquidate into social democracy or end up as notalgia societies. Trotskyists and other dissident Marxist currents also became victims of the collapse as the possibility of socialism seemed to be impossible. Social Democracy, devoid of a strong external left, moved further to capture the centre ground and ceded any remaining commitments to engineering an economy that worked for the working class and not just the rich. Movements came and went, we had fad politics about changing the world without taking power, the disabling horizontalism of the social forums and the idea that the party form is past its sell by date.

All of this posed deep questions for communists. Could the communist left adapt to the new political terrain, could it think through the crimes and errors and build something different and politically credible? Syriza, Podemos in Spain, Die Linke in Germany and others are attempts at answering these questions and moving the left forward. They are only partial answers but they offer us a space for reflection and struggle. Syriza was until recently a coalition of different left currents that began standing in elections together in 2004. It brought together the Eurocommunist Synapsimos, the Maoist Communist Organisation of Greece and small Trotskyist groups. Through the crisis and austerity it has emerged as a vehicle for mass discontent coming second in the 2012 elections and strengthening its position since.

The traditional social democratic party PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement) has seen its base flood to Syriza as it worked hand in hand with the centre-right party (New Democracy) to implement the most savage austerity regime in Europe. PASOK is not just a harbinger of what can happen to other European social democratic parties but also a warning to Syriza. In 1981 PASOK came to power in the general election on a left-wing programme claiming to represent the interests of the masses. With the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact states still standing there was fear in Washington, Paris and London that Greece could walk out of NATO. Instead PASOK immediately moderated its stance, keeping Greece in NATO and holding fast to the 1957 Treaty of Rome which locked Greece into the European Economic Community (the precursor to the supranational body of the European Union). But more significantly than this, the wage increases, nationalisations and healthcare reforms brought in by the PASOK governments following 1981 were only temporary as the capitalists were able to seize on corruption and then the crisis to justify rolling back these gains. The state, with its army, riot police and secret services, remained intact and as strikers and demonstrators have found out over the last few years, were capable of going to great lengths to undermine the movement. Syriza does not seem poised to deal with this threat.

Syriza has to avoid the pitfalls of accommodating to the status-quo and leaving the capitalist state intact. For example it is estimated that between 40-50% of Greek police officers voted for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. Such a situation is pregnant with the possibility of sabotage, political violence and a campaign to de-stabilise the Syriza-led government. It will face an uphill battle to deliver on its reform programme and renegotiate Greece’s debts. A Syriza government will be an isolated left government surrounded by hostile states and lacking the political and social weight that Merkel, Hollande and Cameron will be drawing upon. Like Orwell waiting around for late trains and then seeing one leave early the European left is facing the prospect of governmental power in a state that is worth just 1.4% of European Union GDP – a far from ideal situation by any stretch. With Syriza left isolated, the core EU powers will be free to inflict economic terror on the Greek population for voting the wrong way. Capital flight, withholding of bailout funds and cutting off sources of credit will exacerbate the crisis in Greece.

A left and nationalist government? Well that’s awkward

The deal between Syriza and ANEL raises many questions. Whilst it has proven to be a shock to EU officials that Syriza are intent on facing them down over the debt what does it mean for social policies on immigration for example? Will Syriza be able to carry out its programme? Will there be new elections once the negotiations with the Troika have been concluded?

Syriza is a workers party with a relatively modest social democratic programme and a parliamentary strategy. It has cut a deal with those it thought it had to in order to get into office and begin an assault on austerity. Such a coalition amplifies the danger faced by a Syriza government in a hostile state, surrounded by hostile states. Syriza is not a communist party but – lets be clear – it is a question of principle whether left parties cut deals for government with parties of the right or not. In the government now there is a nationalist party backed by a section of oligarchs that split with New Democracy over the bailout and austerity but is much further to the right on social issues and displays a penchant for conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism at every level. This deal not only poses dangers down the line but also handicaps the Syriza government on democratic questions such as LGBT equality and the separation of the church and state.

Some have likened the party to the UK Independence Party but such a comparison fails to understand the way the oligarchs have controlled Greek politics over the last 40 years. ANEL represents the nationalist faction of Greek capital that couldn’t stomach the Troika humiliation and, more importantly, their demands to end rampant corruption and tax evasion. By cutting a deal with the enemy Syriza will have to contend with the danger of having to rely on those with who have hostile class interests.

We could go on and cite Marx, Lenin and others who warned about taking power in isolation and the limits that will be placed on a workers’ party that does not win an absolute majority in society. We could also point to the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile and the crushing of the second Spanish republic but in this moment the crucial question facing the European left is: can we catch Syriza up? If we can’t threaten our own governments and their austerity agendas then Syriza will fall and the left will be discredited. The Greek working class can’t break austerity on their own and we need Syriza to be the spark that lights the prairie fire that roars north. Already the left across Europe is preparing to build solidarity actions when the EU, the IMF and Greek capitalists attack a new Syriza government. The problem is that we are not equipped to offer the support that is needed. Yes,  Podemos, a workers’ party in formation, shows great promise. Yes, Die Linke in Germany, the Socialist Party in the Netherlands, Vänsterpartiet (Left Party) in Sweden and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia in the Czech Republic are relatively powerful political forces but when we look to Paris, London, Rome, Warsaw or Brussels, the left is marginal, in disarray and nowhere do we command the programme or social majority necessary for systemic change.

In Britain, our obligations are obvious. We must work to ensure that Syriza is not left isolated. That means no more games, no more messing around and jostling for position by this or that sect. No more acting out Waiting for Godot with a trade union leadership that won’t and can’t deliver a new socialist party. We have to get serious because regardless of how many and how big our meetings are in support of Syriza the weapon we must forge to make our own capitalists think twice about punishing the Greek working class is a party. Those left leaders who put this question on the back burner or kick it into the long grass in the name of action or keeping things broad are false friends to the Greek working class. We need a shift away from movementism towards partyism just like those Indignants who filled the squares in Spain who are now constructing their party. Those Podemos members I have met and discussed with all tell a similar story, that they were there with thousands in the streets and squares of Spain against austerity but austerity continued because those assemblies did not pose a big enough challenge to the power of capital and the state. It was only when they began constructing their party that the traditional parties and the capitalists began to get scared.  If we want capital to run scared of Syriza and the working class then we need to strike fear into them across the continent, and for that we need a party.



1.  All figures from the International Monetary Fund as quoted in: Tony Barber, ‘Economic suffering saps support for EU Membership’, Financial Times, January 26, 2014, pg 8, Final edition

2. Reza Moghadam, ‘Halve the debt and keep the Eurozone together’, Financial Times, January 27, 2014, pg 11, Final edition

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