Syriza: Process of accommodation

Greece gave the world democracy, but will Syriza give us socialism? Not in the opinion of Mike Copestake

Alexis Tsipras: colours of nation and socialism

Syriza is inextricably bound up in the eyes of leftwing observers with the struggles of the Greek people itself. Its rise - seemingly from nowhere - is attributed to its unique ability as a ‘broad party’ of the left to get it right on the key political issue of austerity, and thus be propelled rapidly to the very cusp of power.

What is more, it appears as a member of the new family of ‘broad left’ parties, such as Die Linke, Podemos and so on, which are to be emulated by us in Britain, representing as they do the breaking out, at last, of the political impasse that socialists everywhere have experienced since at least the collapse of the Soviet Union. For many on the left, including many who call themselves Marxists, this is quite enough to convince them that Syriza, etc represent the future for socialism, as opposed to all those outdated Marxist ‘prejudices’. They are heading for a massive disappointment.

Of course, the previous flavour of the month, Die Linke, has lost some of its popularity in comparison with Syriza. Such is the mania for ‘broad parties’ however, that even now - when Die Linke is introducing cuts programmes alongside coalition partners in local government, heading towards support for imperialist ‘humanitarian intervention’ overseas and softening its line on every question imaginable as a prelude to a full national coalition government with the Social Democratic Party - the publishing of critical articles by Communist Platform writers on the Left Unity website pointing these things out is met with bilious outrage and the complaints, in essence, that the CP (which is small) ought to stop being nasty about Die Linke (because it is big) and ‘think happy thoughts along with the rest of us’.1

If anything, Syriza-mania is far worse. What plays well for the far-away audience in allowing them to overestimate its radicalism is not simply distance and the feverishness of their own illusions and fantasies, but also the fact that Syriza has so far, unlike Die Linke, avoided taking positions of responsibility in local government and has not yet had to face its ‘moment of truth’ on the national stage either.

That moment of truth could actually come quite soon. Though technically there need not be new elections until June 2016, we are likely to see them much earlier - potentially as early as February of 2015. The current president, Karolos Papoulias, is soon to retire and it will take the votes of 180 parliamentary representatives to elect a replacement, but the present coalition government can only summon 153 such votes at present. This could trigger an early general election, which Syriza has not only been calling for since the May Euro elections, but has attempted to provoke with an attempted vote of no confidence in the government, which it narrowly survived. This too contributes to its aura in foreign eyes.

Realities

Obtaining 26.5% in the Euro elections and presently at least four percentage points ahead of New Democracy in the polls, this ‘broad party’ - bringing together small Marxist groups with a large Eurocommunist organisation, plus ecologists, feminists and so on - appears as the model to follow. But will Syriza usher in socialism? Of course not. This momentary, superficial success masks a variety of ills that we should not wish to imitate at all - and which derive directly from that ‘broad party’ nature itself.

It is worthwhile examining the recent direction of Syriza, especially since its transformation from a coalition into a party in 2012, and its congress in 2013.2 Ever since, the slide to the right, as the moment approaches when Syriza will have to concretise its rhetoric and programme, has been continuous and pronounced. Key figures in the party have begun to speak the language, not of world socialism - which they never have done - but of ‘national salvation’, a classic refrain of all opportunist tendencies which seek to base themselves on the working class, but wish even more to propel themselves into government and to disarm the struggle of the masses.

Such language is only to be expected from Syriza, given that its main component is the Eurocommunist Synaspismos, from which Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras hails, and has always spoken in these terms. We may say therefore that talk of a government of national salvation is not a betrayal of principles, but fully in accord with them.

The parallels with the Eurocommunism of old are extraordinary, and one can find any number of compelling historical examples. Le Monde Diplomatique reported that “Tsipras has said since March that he wants a government of national unity, with Syriza and the left at its core”.3 An almost exact parallel with Enrico Berlinguer, general secretary of the Italian Communist Party in the 1970s, who proposed very much the same, when he appealed for a government “which will involve all the democratic and popular forces”.4

And this government of national salvation, or even an exclusively Syriza government, is not to be an administration planning to default on its debt or renounce Greece’s commitment to the 2012 austerity ‘memorandum’ imposed by the International Monetary Fund. Despite the central role that opposition to the conditions attached to the IMF bailout played in building up Syriza’s present level of support, the rhetoric surrounding this has undergone considerable slippage.

As early as April 2013 Tsipras faced a storm of protest when, in a “slip of the tongue” he spoke only of “suspending” the memorandum, instead of annulling it, and was forced to clarify himself on the point in line with the original party position.5 However, by January 2014 Tsipras was denying that Syriza planned a Greek default. In its place has come a commitment to €11 billion of spending, to be financed by closing tax loopholes, fighting corruption and so on. That would require substantial extra borrowing from the bond markets, and obviously rules out repudiation of state debts. But even this relatively modest Keynesian spending proposal looks like pie in the sky, let alone the utterly fantastical spending outlined in the official Syriza programme.

This month Tsipras has also promised that, if elected, his party will not substantially change Greece’s defence policy - although it may still cut the military budget in line with “the difficult economic reality”.6 On October 14 he met with the leader of the Independent Greeks - a rightwing Eurosceptic grouping - with whom he has broached the possibility of participation in a coalition government.

Such ‘moderation’ has met with a mixed reaction. Much of the radicalised youth Syriza previously attracted seems to have deserted it - the average age of members is now in the 50s7. Naturally the left wing of the party is unhappy, but, short of an intransigent proletarian and internationalist orientation, the whole political and economic logic - as well the ideological heritage of Eurocommunism - will continue to push the party to the right. After all, with the whole left (the ‘official communist’ KKE excepted) behind Syriza, what use is there in posing leftwards? The ‘converted’ can be largely ignored, while the leadership orients more to people ‘out there’: that is, people who support parties to its right.

Electorally speaking, this is very sensible. Syriza is highly unlikely to obtain an absolute majority, hovering as it is at around 29% in the polls, and every other major party opposes any default. But here the party leadership has been saved by the vague wording of its programme, whose virtue, we must remember, is that it is acceptable to revolutionaries and reformists - the party would not be ‘broad’ otherwise, would it? Yes, it is only the “odious” part of the government debt which is to be written off or renegotiated. In any case, a trustworthy Syriza ‘auditing’ team will tell us exactly how much of the debt should be renounced. But, given that leading Syriza economics spokesperson Giorgos Stathakis has already publicly announced that this amounts to only 5% of the total, this proposed process - time consuming and unpredictable - appears unnecessary.

Economically, it is unsurprising that Syriza has recoiled from plunging Greece into Drachmageddon, hyperinflation, even higher unemployment, the bankruptcy of many debt-laden private companies and so on, and is seeking government office on terms more acceptable to capital. After all, Syriza’s supporters expect it to do something. If you are not willing or able to stand on a programme of working class power, then you must be prepared to manage austerity. And ‘Their austerity or ours’ is rather less than inspiring.

Far from representing the future, it is almost as though Syriza has stepped out of a time capsule. If Eurocommunism is Stalinism in “the process of social democratisation” (Ernest Mandel), then perhaps we can suppose that this is what is finally, belatedly, happening in Greece. We can even attribute the success of Syriza to many of the same causes. Part of the appeal of the Eurocommunist parties was that “in the eyes of the masses they seem to present a credible political strategy”, presenting “a possible way out of a political stalemate which has lasted for years”.8 Back then there were promises of new ‘historic compromises’ with capital, of bringing ‘socialist values’ into a coalition government, sometimes backed by mass action. It was vague enough to sound radical, but did not constitute the slightest threat to the capitalist state apparatus - the main and bloodiest threat to the working class movement, about which the Eurocommunists, just like Syriza, had nothing to say.

Even the revolutionary groups within Syriza9 appear only to behave as left Eurocommunists, or left social democrats, demanding the nationalisation of X number of industries instead of Y number of industries, demanding ‘Drachmageddon’ in place of lingering austerity, in the belief that this makes them revolutionary and the leadership reformist. They fail to deal with the question of the state and the urgent need for an internationalist approach. Neither the leadership nor their left critics have anything approaching a programme for Europe. Tsipras has called for a European debt conference10, but that is as far as it goes. The ‘Marxists’ appear to have even less to say.

This process of accommodation demands that the party doing the accommodating - be it Eurocommunist, social democratic or ‘broad’ - must inevitably strike at the bases of its own success. This can either be done after the fact, in seeking to demobilise the masses following the election of a left government (Germany 1918), demobilising mass strike actions and occupations (France 1968) or removing elements which are ‘too leftwing’ ahead of time, seeing them as an obstruction to reaching the masses presently to the right of the party. Such arguments have already been levelled against the likes of Communist Platform in Left Unity, whose comrades are ‘dogmatic’ and out of date, as opposed to the Eurocommunist-style ‘new way of doing politics’ à la Syriza, Die Linke or whatever party is the flavour of the month.

Given that any solution in Greece is contingent on a solution in Europe - which itself is contingent upon either the victory of the working class or else another round of crisis so devastating, so deflationary, that capital accumulation can be sufficiently restored, along with the rate of profit - it is not surprising that Syriza has reached an impasse and is choosing to accommodate.

Notes

1. See the comments sections for both http://leftunity.org/die-linke-courtship-with-an-eye-on-2017 and http://leftunity.org/die-linke-rotten-politics-and-rotten-terms.

2. For an account of the conference from a Greek comrade see www.socialistworker.org/2013/07/30/the-battle-for-syriza-goes-on.

3. Le Monde Diplomatique July 2013 (English edition).

4. E Mandel From Stalinism to Eurocommunism London 1978, p134.

5. Le Monde Diplomatique July 2013 (English edition).

6. See www.greece.greekreporter.com/2014/10/22/tsipras-promises-to-sustain-defense-policy-if-elected.

7. See www.marxist.com/syriza-leaders-preparing-for-government-what-is-the-next-step.htm.

8. E Mandel From Stalinism to Eurocommunism London 1978, p55.

9. Material in English is lacking, but the groups are often offshoots of their British counterparts, and have much the same economistic programmes.

10. See http://links.org.au/node/3726.