Honeymoon or hangover?
Initial euphoria on the left at the electoral victory of Syriza has given way to mixed feelings, notes Paul Demarty - but little sign of rethinking
Sunday night’s election results in Greece must be one of the only bright spots in what has been a dreadful few years for any and all forces left of social democracy in Europe. A party that, three years ago, was merely a motley band of left groups emerged clearly victorious.
It is a party that speaks, in some measure, our language: even its leaders can drop into Marxisant jargon when the occasion requires. It is there in the name: radical left. Alexis Tsipras cuts a nice David to Angela Merkel’s Goliath. We all know well the sadistic economic violence inflicted upon the Greek masses; we have rooted for the general strikes and the protestors in Syntagma Square, and fretted at the rise of Golden Dawn’s neo-Nazi barbarism.
Even those who had been actively antagonistic to Syriza over the last few years found themselves swooning in those heady final days and hours. There they were, cruising to a victory first conceded by a Greek minister barely half an hour after polls closed. (Yes, even I - in spite of everything written in these pages on the subject, including by me, and a lifetime’s worth of precocious cynicism - devoured every exit poll with rapt attention, and retired to bed with a grin on my face.)
It would be fair to say that many are still in a good mood. Left Unity proceeded immediately to dispatch one of its famously thin press releases: “Finally Europe is set to have a government that will stand up against austerity. We send our warmest congratulations to our sister party and the people of Greece,” gushed Salman Shaheen. “Later this year we could see Podemos come to office in Spain. This is just the beginning.”1
The point is made still more concisely in a rather bizarre promotional video, done in the form of an uncanny-valley movie trailer: “Every great movement starts small. Syriza was only formed a decade ago. Look at them now.”2 It escapes the comrades’ attention that Syriza was formed in part out of historically significant components of the Greek workers’ movement; most notably the Communist Party of Greece (Interior) and the Greek Communist Organisation of Youth.
Similarly effusive is Liam Mac Uaid of the rightward-galloping Socialist Resistance: “Syriza’s victory has the potential to change the balance of class forces across Europe,” he writes. “It is committed to radical, pro-working class measures that immediately put it in conflict with European capitalism.” It “has operated as a party for 11 years engaging with the mass movements and strikes which have been the Greek working class response to austerity. The party allowed them to give these struggles a governmental expression.”
There is no time for “carping from the sidelines about this or that tactical mistake” (whatever could he mean?) Instead we should offer solidarity, and take heart: “If ever socialists doubted that a broad, radical, socialist party was attractive to working people, the triumph in Greece has settled the question.”3
It is comrades of the Resisting Socialism type who will be most buoyant this week; Syriza’s triumph, while there is still any sheen on it, shall seem a vindication of this ‘broad party’ strategy (despite their own unaccountable failure to implement it successfully over several attempts).
On the other hand, we in the CPGB have - throughout the years of political crisis in Greece - argued that Syriza should not form a government. This has been, to put it mildly, a lonely road; we trudge along it because we do not see great prospects for a leftwing government isolated in a small corner of Europe; we worry at the despair that follows from unfulfilled euphoria, as awkward decisions have to be made.
For some, disappointment has set in quickly. The reason, of course, is precisely the matter comrade Mac Uaid cannot mention directly: Syriza’s new coalition partner, the Independent Greeks (Anel); best described as rightwing populist (and quite far to the right, at that), a close enough analogue would be the operative ideology of the Putin regime - an authoritarian traditionalism, big on the Orthodox church and not so keen on homosexuals or migrants. Many of those who urged Syriza to form a government do not feel, once they see the actual shape of that government, that ‘hope has arrived’.
Representative of this stratum, after a fashion, is the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty; though this organisation recognised the possibility in advance - “the most immediate threat to a Syriza government is the probability that it will be converted into a ‘government of national salvation’”, reads an AWL national committee resolution - it still faces the problem of having bigged up the prospects of a ‘workers’ government’ for years, only now (presumably) to tell people to oppose the same government it appeared they wanted.4
There are those, of course, who have snubbed Syriza all along - mostly organisations who backed another horse on the Greek left. Those also-rans themselves have had things to say, though all (barring the incorrigible KKE) have seen fit to praise Syriza’s victory to some extent.
Andreas Artzekis, of the OKDE-Spartakos (the Greek section of the Fourth International), is more or less typical in this regard: “yes, it is possible that, groggy from the austerity policies of the last five years, the population can turn from Socialist Parties to the left. This is excellent news for France: the flight to the right or worse is not preordained!”
His attitude is, however, not entirely sunny. Comrade Artzekis identifies some less encouraging trends in the psephology - some widely noted (Golden Dawn’s good showing), others oddly overlooked, like “the very high abstention, the second highest since 1974 … a sign both of the impact of the crisis on confidence in political solutions and the fact that Syriza did not manage to convince a whole section of the [masses]”.5
His prescription - after coyly acknowledging the derisory vote attracted by his Antarsya coalition - is mobilisation, mobilisation, mobilisation! Strikes and protests against the far right, for “taking back all that was stolen”, and so forth. In this, he is not alone; other forces in Antarsya, in particular, have much the same perspective.
These forces include the SEK, the Greek sister organisation of Britain’s Socialist Workers Party. An “Antarsya candidate” (read: SEK member) quoted in Socialist Worker gives us a familiar litany: “We will campaign to cancel the debt, nationalise the banks under workers’ control and leave the euro. We need to overthrow the troika, not negotiate with it … The anti-racist demonstration on March 21 will be very important”, and so on. Familiar, that is, from the pages of Socialist Worker, week in week out; so perfunctory is the adaptation of SWP politics to Greek conditions, the whole interview is beyond parody.6
It is hardly a surprise that the main article on the subject is in a very similar vein:
Austerity will not be reversed without refusing to pay any of the debt, taking over the banks under democratic ownership and encouraging workers’ control in key parts of the economy. This is what Greek workers must fight for. And they should use the same methods that have brought them to this success - strikes, mass mobilisations, occupations and democracy from below that can go further than Syriza offers.
This is simply risible. The bulk of Greece’s 32 general strikes to date took place more than two years ago. In the period of Syriza’s unstoppable rise, direct class struggle has been on the ebb, although admittedly still insurrectionary by British standards. It is not an ever-escalating scale of action that has brought Syriza to power, but awareness of the limitations of strikes and demonstrations, in the context of historic and substantial parties of the left.
Those whose prescriptions are syndicalist in character - the KKE and Antarsya, not to say smaller Trotskyist groups - have been squeezed, because syndicalism is a dead end, especially in circumstances where it is plain that the troika is pretty blasé about disruption to the Greek economy.
Results and prospects
Many share this belief in what you might call the alchemy of action - the idea that sufficiently dogged, head-banging activism is enough to overcome the stubborn, material realities on the ground. Some entertain a related belief, that - in the words of a Trotskyist Syriza MP interviewed by the AWL - “a Syriza victory could encourage the workers to fight”.7 It is an imperative, in fact, shared among all our three ‘factions’ - left cheerleaders, critics and opponents of Syriza are united in their conviction that the key to their objectives is in the streets.
The historical evidence for this is somewhat shaky. Workers’ parties who choose to administer capitalism can indeed usher in sharp social struggles, but the subsequent destabilisation of those governments tends to lead to victories of the right. In Britain, we have many such examples of Labour governments giving way, under pressure from industrial militancy, to more and more rightwing Tory governments (the 1970s, from Wilson to Heath to Wilson/Callaghan to Thatcher, is a clear example).
In Greece, the options are merely more ominous - not only Golden Dawn, but an army which has a track record of bloody and brutal internal oppression, and a far-right tradition as strong as the country’s far left (of which part is now in government). When those on the left speak of encouraging workers to fight, they tend to skip delicately over the question of winning.
Even now, it looks like Tsipras and co are making a show of taking a soft line. Eg, no separation of the Orthodox church from the Greek state, a commitment not to default on the country’s debt, appointing Panos Kammenuos, Anel’s leader, as defence minister, in order to reassure the army and police.
6. Socialist Worker January 27.
7. Solidarity January 21.