Greek crisis: SYRIZA’s dead-end

Art by Matt Kenyon

Art by Matt Kenyon

By Daphne Lawless (Fightback Aotearoa/ New Zealand), August 21 2015

Greece’s sovereign debt crisis – in effect, the country’s bankruptcy at the hands of the European Central Bank and the German-led power bloc in the European Union – turned that country’s politics upside down. The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) rocketed from 5% of the vote in 2012 to forming a government in the elections of January this year. As recently as June, a whopping 61% of voters in a referendum rejected the demands of the “troika” (EU and International Monetary Fund lenders) for massive cuts in spending and tax rises to pay the Greek debt. Many foreign leftists saw this as reason for hope – that it was possible for an angry popular movement to take on the forces of neoliberalism, and win.

And yet, all that optimism seems to have evaporated. SYRIZA’s Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras resigned on August 20th and called for new elections, after signing an agreement for a bailot with the troika in some ways worse than what the referendum rejected. His popular former Finance Minister, Yannis Varoufakis, is one of many SYRIZA MPs who broke ranks with the Government in the Greek Parliament, depriving it of a majority.

The amazing thing is – as Dick Nichols reports in Green Left Weekly – that this barely put a dent in the SYRIZA-led government’s popularity, meaning it may be re-elected:

The July 24 Bridging Europe poll put support for SYRIZA at 41.2%, up from the 36.3% it won in January 25. The July 24 Metron Analysis poll reported the same result, while a July 18 Palmos poll put support for the radical coalition at 42.5%.

All three polls had support for the conservative opposition New Democracy (ND) falling by between 4.7% and 6.3% to the low 20s.i

How to explain this contradiction? It helps to look back at what kind of party SYRIZA actually is, and how and why it won the January election.


SYRIZA emerged from a split in the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) in the 1960s. The “KKE-Interior”, as its name suggests, was led by those Communist leaders who stayed in Greece during the fascist military regime of 1967-1974, rather than fleeing to exile. They saw themselves as part of what was known as the “Eurocommunist” movement. Led by the biggest Western communist parties in France, Spain and Italy, the Eurocommunists refused to pledge allegiance to the Soviet or Chinese power blocs, or to promote the idea of revolution or “dictatorship of the proletariat” (workers’ power). Instead, they promoted the idea of working within the structures of Western-style democracy to achieve communist goals of equality and justice. Crucially, the Eurocommunists were in favour of the idea of European unity, although critical of the structures which became the EU.

For decades, the KKE-Interior remained about the same size as the “traditionally” Communist KKE, on about 5% of the vote. This didn’t change after the KKE-Interior founded Synapsimos (the Coalition of the Left, Movements and Ecology) in 1993; or after Synapsimos became the largest part of a newer coalition, SYRIZA, in 2004. SYRIZA, as a broad formation of the left, was pulled in two directions; some sections favoured co-operating with PASOK, the traditional Greek “Labour Party”, while others were more interested in work with the Greek social movements which came out of anti-war, anti-spending cuts and anti-capitalist demonstrations. All the while, the KKE were bitterly hostile to the “splitters”.

While the traditional trade union and workers’ movement in Greece maintained its allegiance to the traditional Left parties – PASOK and KKE – SYRIZA grew by attracting newer layers. British journalist Paul Mason explains:

The party … captured the allegiance of many young people, whose lives revolve around precarious and low-skill work, and reaching the magical subsitence figure of €400 a month.

[Leader Alexis] Tsipras crafted Syriza from a loose alliance into a party that is the quintessential expression of the values of this broad-left section of the Greek electorate. All it took was for their natural party, Pasok, to destroy itself. ii

Crisis and cuts

And when the sovereign debt crisis hit in 2010, PASOK did indeed destroy itself. A PASOK-led government joined forces with the conservative New Democracy party in viciously cutting government spending and workers’ wages to pay for this crisis caused by government and banker greed.

Stuart Monckton in Green Left Weekly describes the process:

Greece’s national debt was largely run-up by corrupt, unrepresentative governments in a context where the rich pay little-to-no taxes. For instance, Greece’s shipping oligarchs, who control about 16% of the global shipping industry, infamously pay no tax at all.

Greece’s debt became an issue in 2009 in the context of the global financial crisis caused by the greed of large banks and financial institutions, leading to the collapse of major US banks and causing global panic.

To shore up Greece’s ability to pay its creditors, the Troika offered Greece’s government hundreds of billions in bail-out programs — but at the cost of extreme austerity measures to make Greece’s poor and working people bear the brunt of cost-saving measures.

Unsurprisingly, extreme spending cuts drove Greece’s economy further into recession, while creating mass suffering on a scale not seen in a First World nation since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate now exceeds 30% (50% for youth) and 20% of those with jobs live under the poverty line. … child malnutrition rates reached levels not seen since World War II. iii

It is worth emphasising, though, that this is not a question of Greece “going broke” and being foreclosed on by private lenders. Greece’s private creditors – the big international bankers – had most of their debt bought out by the EU and the International Monetary Fund. The only thing which stops the EU states writing those debts off, and saving Greece a lot of pain, is that it would set a bad example for the other heavily indebted periphery countries – particularly ones like Spain or Ireland, where radical left parties are threatening in upcoming elections. The defeat and humiliation of Greece is bad for Greece, and bad for economic stability in the Eurozone generally – but it is essential for the political stability of the neoliberal EU project.

PASOK was punished for its treachery by being reduced from one of the two major parties to a mere 6% of the vote. Meanwhile, the KKE – convinced that they and they alone could successfully lead the movement – offered no alternative to the new forces mobilised by the crisis. In contrast, SYRIZA’s appeal to new, unorganised layers had great appeal at a time when the Greek working-class was becoming increasingly disorganised itself. Bue Rübner Hansen in Jacobin explains:

Given the high rate of unemployment, the livelihood of many Greeks is extremely contingent and the population is one of the most “disorganized” in Europe. The daily order of wage labor and familiar habits have been destabilized by the crisis. This has both lead to a rise in illegal and irregular activities and economies, and to new forms of self-organization.… Well-known examples are the campaigns of auto-reduction, where people refused to pay the electricity bills through which the government levied a direct tax imposed by the troika; the occupation and workers’ self-management of the factory; and the many solidarity health clinics. iv

Paul Mason describes SYRIZA activists organising food banks called “Solidarity Clubs” in villages hardest hit by the cuts. He quotes one SYRIZA member: “We go out and help people. When they tell us something, we listen. When they ask for help, we are here. You never see Pasok or New Democracy.”

SYRIZA’s programme

The programme adopted by SYRIZA in the Greek city of Thessaloniki in 2013 called for such modest reforms as increase the tax-free threshold to 12,000 euros, a large real estate property tax, reinstating the Christmas bonus for pensioners receiving less that 700 euros a month, raising the minimum wage and the unemployment benefit. Nathan Bolton commented on the British website

Even before the election it was noted by some commentators that despite the epithet “far-left” so often attributed to Syriza, these policies were not radical, let alone revolutionary… However as has been widely reported, Syriza repeated its intention to remain in the monetary union and avoid political unilateral decisions. It saw its salvation occurring within the EU, so not only saving itself but the political ideal of European integration with it. v

This commitment to “Europeanism” should not have surprised anyone who understood the largest bloc in SYRIZA and its origins in the Eurocommunist movement, rather than a commitment to revolutionary rupture. However, a more radical programme was offered at the time from the Left Platform, which held 30% of the seats on SYRIZA’s central committee. Left Platform leader Antonis Davanellos argued:

First, the political project of SYRIZA must be supported with a grassroots mobilization of the working class and the popular masses. Second, the radical character of the SYRIZA program should be assured by emphasizing cancellation of most of the debt, nationalization of the banks and reversing the privatization of state enterprises. Finally, the only political alliances for SYRIZA must be found on the left. vi

This last point became important following the January 2015 election when, finding itself just short of an overall majority in Parliament, SYRIZA formed a coalition with the Independent Greeks, a right-wing but anti-austerity party. This coalition made it clear that Tspiras’ new government saw itself as governing on behalf of “the nation” as a whole, rather than for the working classes or from the Left. Again, this was foreshadowed by the practice of the Western Eurocommunist parties of the past, including the French Communists participating in a coalition government from 1981-4.

Six months in government

The outcome of six months of SYRIZA-led government, however, has been disappointing to say the least. The European Central Bank more or less held the Greek government hostage by refusing to provide “liquidity” – that is, cash for everyday spending purposes. This led to tight control on bank withdrawals, to the point where public transport in Athens became free because no-one had any small change. More seriously, vital supplies of medicines which could only be paid for in euros were running out.

As explained above, the deal struck between the Tspiras government and the Troika to accomplish this has been labelled a “capitulation” by most on the Left, including SYRIZA’s own Left Platform. Paul Mason mentioned in February that “many people who voted for SYRIZA are privately up in arms over the scale of the retreat”, but also argued that most of them “blame Germany first, Europe second and their own government a long, long third,” arguing that Tspiras and Varoufakis had done everything that they could. Hence SYRIZA’s continued good showing in opinion polls.

Did the Tspiras government do everything that it could? Yes – within the bounds of remaining within the Euro and remaining within the European Union, which is essential to the political project of the SYRIZA majority. While Varoufakis now claims to have had a “Plan B” up his sleeve to start printing Greece’s own money as a last resort vii, that was never something that Tspiras was going to allow – or that, according to repeated opinion polls, most Greeks wanted.

But Grexit from the Euro is a clear demand of SYRIZA’s Left Platform, which has begun the process of splitting from the government. Dick Nichols reports:

Left Platform leader Panagiotis Lafazanis publicly called on August 13 for the creation of a new movement to satisfy “the people’s desire for democracy and social justice”.

In a statement called “No to the new bailout — A call for struggle and popular mobilisation throughout the country”, Lafazanis and 13 other [SYRIZA MP] signatories called for the “political and social formation of a broad, Panhellenic movement” and “the creation of struggle committees against the new bail-out, austerity and the county’s tutelage.” viii

Left Platform leader Costas Lapavistas told Der Tagesspiegel in Germany that “the only real opposition in Greece against this ludicrous bail-out is coming from within Syriza” ix. However, according to another Left Platform member, Stathis Kouvelakis, several leaders of radical left groups who are not part of SYRIZA have also signed up to the appeal by Lafazanis and the Left Platform MPs. SYRIZA, he says, is “disintegrating with record speed” x.

Traditionally, a Greek government cannot survive if it gets less than 120 votes out of 300 on any bill, and only 118 SYRIZA MPs supported the most recent Parliamentary vote on the bailout xi. Thus, the Left Platform’s rebellion has forced Tspiras to call new elections – calling their bluff on whether they will actually stand against the SYRIZA majority. If Tspiras once again leads the largest party after the election, he may form a new government with centre-right parties to exclude the left-wing rebels.

Governments and movements

The dead-end faced by SYRIZA in government is something that all radical leftists have to understand. Governments are only powerful in that they can command the State machinery to do various jobs – but there are thousands of other forces in society, internal or external, who can put pressure on that machinery to do otherwise. SYRIZA negotiators seem to have believed that their strong democratic mandate would mean something compared to the determination of Germany, the EU institutions, the IMF and many of their allies among Greek capitalism that it would be Greek workers and beneficiaries who would pay for the crisis. They were wrong.

When it comes to this kind of “brute force” politics, direct action by social forces – whether mass demonstrations in the street, workers striking or seizing control of the workplaces, even mutinies in the armies and police – play a much more vital role than all the government policy statements and democratic rhetoric. However, the massive Greek upsurges of 2012 had died down by the time SYRIZA came to be elected. In fact, it could be argued that it was the very defeat of the mass movement which was channelled into the ballot box as the “next best thing”.

We might draw parallels with Venezuela, where a left-wing government has co-existed for 17 years with a deeply hostile capitalist classs. Although Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, kept winning election after election, a government elected through capitalist democracy and pledged to follow its “rules” cannot create a social revolution. At best, it can “make space” for worker activism and popular uprisings to create one. But in the final analysis, economic power or even brute force decides, not elections. This is why workers and the oppressed need to build their own institutions of counter-power, as well as challenging in the formal sphere of elections.

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