What if Syriza wins?
Is the left obliged to spread illusions in a Syriza government? No, quite the opposite, argues Eddie Ford
Greece is preparing itself for a general election on January 25 after Antonis Samaras, prime minister and New Democracy leader, failed to get his candidate chosen as president by the 300-seat parliament. Samaras’s gamble was always a long shot, leading some to believe that he wanted to trigger a snap general election. The more conspiratorially minded have suggested that Samaras was quite happy to let a government led by Alexis Tsipras of Syriza be stuck with the burdensome task of continued talks with the European Commission-European Central Bank-International Monetary Fund troika over the exact terms of the bailout programme - and take the blame when it all goes wrong. At the moment, Greece needs to repay IMF loans worth about €2.8 billion by the end of March.
Anyhow, opinion polls show that Syriza is still ahead of New Democracy. For instance, E-Voice on January 3 has Syriza on 34.1%, ND on 30.1% and Pasok on a humiliating 4.3% - trailing behind the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and even the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.1 Other polls have Syriza leading ND by as much as 10% and at the very least, it seems, Syriza will finish ahead of ND by about a 3%-4% margin.
However, matters have been complicated - or made easier, depending on how you look at it - by the fact that on January 2 George Papandreou, former prime minister and ex-Pasok leader, suddenly announced the formation of a new party, the Movement for Change/Movement of Democratic Socialists (Kidiso). Pasok officials immediately denounced the move as an “unethical and irrational political act” - and you can see why. Five Pasok MPs are expected to join the new party, including the former minister, Filippos Sachinidis, and the former parliamentary speaker, Filippos Petsalnikos. Kidiso has issued a 16-page founding declaration attacking the failure of the current system of nation-states to “humanise” globalisation and international capital, criticising the “conservative majority” in the European Union that fails to acknowledge the “imperfections” of the euro. Instead, Kidiso calls for a “progressive, socialist, ecological Europe” - trying to place itself well to the left of Pasok, but to the right of Syriza: the sensible, progressive option.
Fairly obviously, Kidiso is going to take far more votes from Pasok than from Syriza. First opinion polls suggest that Papandreou’s new party will get around 4% to 6% of the vote (it has to reach the 3% threshold to enter parliament), meaning that Pasok - the party that has dominated Greek politics since the overthrow of the colonels in 1974 - faces potential wipe-out. How the mighty fall. As with Samaras’s presidential gamble, you have to ask what end game Papandreou has in mind - surely he must know that he is going to split the Pasok vote, not to mention the centre-left vote in general. One possible explanation is that he sees himself as a potential governmental partner for Tsipras, using his extensive political connections and experience to act as a ‘moderating’ influence upon the supposed firebrand - constantly whispering sensible advice in his ear.
One thing is certain though. Even with the anti-democratic 50-seat top-up for the leading party in a general election, Syriza will struggle to form an outright majority - the forecasting group, Oxford Economics, calculates that you need at least 36% of the final vote to stand a chance of securing a workable majority (although a few of the very latest polls do actually have Syriza on 40%).2 Therefore in all probability Syriza will be looking from day one to do deals to its right, such as with Kidiso and/or Democratic Left - however, support for the latter has collapsed spectacularly and it is barely registering in recent polls. Then there is always Potami (The River), a party which was formed less than a year ago by TV presenter Stavros Theodorakis on the basis of “tackling the recession and unemployment”. Whatever exactly happens, any Syriza-led government would come under immediate and immense pressure (both domestically and internationally) to water down those policies perceived to be beyond the pale - “worse than communism”, as one investment manager recently put it.
In reality, of course - verbiage aside - Syriza’s programme does not amount to much more than run-of-the-mill Keynesianism, and indeed has moved significantly to the right in recent times. For instance, it has abandoned nationalisation of the banks.3 It is not even clear if a Syriza government would leave Nato, rather than hope it “breaks up on its own”.4 Indeed, Tsipras’s pledge to “tame the oligarchs” who dominate much of the economy, sometimes at the expense of foreign competitors, has actually been cautiously welcomed. The FT reckons that the idea of a “crackdown” on the oligarchs would get a “sympathetic hearing” from the EU and the IMF.5
Some sections of the left are saying that we are at an historic moment, or juncture - the first time since 1936 (in France and Spain) that a “workers’ government” has been elected, as comrade Andrew Burgin wrote on the Left Unity website.6 OK, let us go along for now with this historic analogy, leaving aside that there is no Soviet Union, fascist governments or a build-up to generalised war. What would we expect a government led by Alexis Tsipras to deliver?
Yes, true, in 1936 a Popular Front government in France - led by the Socialist Party and Communist Party - resulted in substantial gains for the working class. Having said that, there was a gap between the government getting elected and then actually coming to power (as per the constitution) and this was filled by a huge wave of strikes, occupations, demonstrations, etc. As Trotsky famously pointed out, the masses were delivering what they imagined the programme of the PF government to be: putting it into practice on the ground. In Spain, on the other hand, general Franco brought his troops over from Morocco and began the counterrevolution that drowned the government in blood - as for France, the PF government collapsed after a year. We in the CPGB most certainly do not want to see a repeat of either scenario.
Andrew Burgin of Left Unity asks whether we are in solidarity with a Syriza government. No, we are not in solidarity with a Syriza government, but, of course, we would oppose the many and varied threats that will inevitably come from the troika, orthodox church, army generals, Golden Dawn, Nato, etc. Every revolutionary socialist or communist worthy of the name would do the same - it would be treachery to do otherwise. But revolutionary socialists and communists should simultaneously criticise a Syriza government that has ‘matured’ and ‘grown up’ - one that, instead of calling for the repudiation of the debt, which is massive in Greek terms, seeks to ‘renegotiate’ it: ie, change the terms of austerity.
Our duty is to warn about the danger of Syriza being a 21st century version of the popular front governments of the 1930s ... and express solidarity with the working class and people in Greece who have had their living conditions savaged by the troika, leading to a situation where wide sections are surviving on food parcels and other forms of charity. A situation where one in four of its people are out of work and poverty has surged from 23% before the crash to 40.5%. A situation in hospitals where the sick cannot afford the price of vital drugs. Where pensions have been slashed. Where the unemployed get their meagre benefits cuts off after 12 months - what are they supposed to live on then? Where young people are not even entitled to any unemployment benefit - having never paid national insurance contributions, because they have never had a job. Today the unemployment rate for those under 30 stands at around 50%. Yet, amidst this catastrophe, the troika is insisting on further austerity in order to balance the books. So, if Syriza proves to be a ‘responsible’ party, as the Financial Times and others hope, communists will not be in solidarity with the continued imposition of austerity.
The unfolding situation in Greece further reinforces the orthodox, classical Marxist view that the working class should not seek to come to power prematurely - and by that we mean not just in one country. Rather, we mean that the working class must have a reasonable chance of coming to power on something like a continent-wide basis and thus a realistic chance of implementing the minimum programme - that is our bottom-line perspective. If not, you are doomed to either carry out the programme of another class - carry out its historical mission - or become an agent of capital. Communists should therefore constitute themselves as a party of extreme opposition to austerity, not the instrument of austerity. And, unfortunately, as things stand at the present, there is no prospect whatsoever of, say, the Italian working class coming to the rescue of Greece - let alone France, Germany, Britain, etc. Hence we repeat our call for Syriza not to ‘take the power’.
And, make no mistake, the chances are that the troika will not retreat. Hardly surprisingly, there are those like some writers in the FT who are questioning the wisdom of burdening Greece with a debt it cannot possibly ever pay back - the country has lost a third of its GDP. Why not just kick the can way down the road and have some sort of debt programme stretching over 50 or 60 years, similar to the US approach towards Britain after World War II? The latter, after all, only paid off the last instalment in December 2006.7 From the standpoint of the Euro-bureaucracy that would be all well and good, if Greece was a purely isolated case. Then you could either force it out of the euro zone or just shrug your shoulders and write off its debt - at the end of the day it only amounts to around 1.5% of total euro zone GDP, hardly a fiscal disaster (more like an accounting detail).
But, of course, the real world is not like that. If the EU climbed down over Greece, then, as sure as night follows day, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Cyprus etc would all want a similar deal - never mind all the eastern European countries. Then there is Italy - which does matter in terms of GDP. Matteo Renzi is bound to ask why he has to suffer the unpopularity of imposing austerity and suffer protest general strikes - give me the Greek treatment. What is the answer supposed to be? Greece is different because it has elected Syriza? Imagine what sort of message that would send out to the other euro-zone countries - rebel and you will be rewarded. Sinn Féin and Podemos too would be emboldened and demanding an end to the austerity regime.
For this very reason, to avoid the nightmare scenario, there are loud voices within Angela Merkel’s government that insist no softness should be shown towards Greece - no concessions, no exceptionalism.
The most likely outcome of the January 25 election is that Syriza wins, but is unable to come to a deal with the other parties, or if it can then Tsipras finds he cannot do a deal with the ECB - which in turn means another election and continued instability. But even if this happens, or Syriza does not actually win the election, it is now a serious player in Greek politics - its support is projected to go up by around 8% from the last election in June 2012. Not that long ago, of course, Syriza was a fringe party barely able to get 5% in the polls - quite a journey.
Which brings us to the Socialist Workers Party’s sister organisation in Greece, the SEK - which is part of the Front of the Greek Anticapitalist Left (Antarsya). Some Weekly Worker readers might recall that in 2001 there was a split within the SEK, a minority forming the Internationalist Workers Left (DEA) - that went on to enter into a sisterly relationship with the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in the United States. With wonderful irony, the International Socialist Tendency central command in London vociferously denounced the DEA faction for paying too much attention to the ‘old left’, as opposed to the ‘new social movements’ - they were the future. Now DEA is part of Syriza, which could muster over 30% of the vote in a few weeks, whilst the SEK is an insignificant part of the insignificant Antarsya - in the last general election it got 0.33% of the vote and might do even worse this time.
The very latest issue of Socialist Worker features a relatively lengthy article by Panos Garganos, editor of the SEK’s Workers Solidarity, bearing the anxious headline - “Another government falls, but will Syriza break with austerity?” (January 6). Of course, says the comrade, we in Antarsya “stand with Syriza against government attacks on workers”, but argues that “the signs are” that Syriza’s approach “will be appeasement” - its leadership wants to support candidates with “openings to the right”, such as the Democratic Left. Yes, we agree with comrade Garganos that if in government the Syriza leadership could easily buckle to the right and impose a new version of austerity. But what political answers does the SEK have? Precious little: just keep on fighting the cuts, going on strike, and so on (leave the EU?). But Greece has had 32 general strikes so far, and yet austerity remains. In other words, the SEK - just like the SWP - is fatally disarmed by its economism.
On the other hand, we have Owen Jones taking to the pages of The Guardian to actively peddle illusions in Syriza - writing that it could “kill off” austerity in the EU in “alliance” with forces such as the “surging” Podemos by demanding that the bloc abandon crippling austerity policies in favour of “quantitative easing” and a “growth-led recovery” (December 22). He takes comfort from the fact that Die Linke in Germany “could be given a boost” by a Syriza victory, not to mention the possibility that it could “strengthen those who wish Labour to offer a genuine alternative” or even lead at some stage to “Britain’s own Syriza-style party”.
Then there is Kate Hudson, LU’s national secretary. On January 1 she wrote an open letter to Syriza offering solidarity greetings to its congress, saying the party had been a “great inspiration” to the founding of LU “in its policies and principles”.8 Unfortunately, it is absolutely true that LU was founded on the basis of left Keynesianism. We also remember those who originally wanted to call LU the Left Party - à la Die Linke - regardless of the latter’s position on austerity, Israel, governmental coalitions, etc.
If Syriza forms a government after the January 25 general election and subsequently capitulates (or worse), we want LU members to remember comrade Hudson’s words. Even more, we want them to remember the disastrous legacy of popular-front governments - something to be avoided, not emulated.
5 Financial Times January 6 2015.