Alexis Tsipras: running out of options

A tale of two Alexes

The Greek government is slowly retreating in the face of euro zone intransigence. But it may not be enough to stave off ‘Grexit’, argues Paul Demarty - not that that bothers some on the left

Among the virtues of Alexis Tsipras, there is his talent for a confrontational press conference.

Taking the podium with his nemesis, Angela Merkel, after yet more frustrating ‘negotiations’ with the German chancellor, he made sure to renew his appeal for war reparations over the Nazi occupation of his country. Talking about corruption, he named only one example of a company guilty of ripping off the Greek state: Siemens.

We note the reappearance of these themes, first trailed shortly after Syriza’s emergence at the head of the new Greek government, and must admit that they sound a little different now. First time around, it looked like defiance: no matter how desperate the situation was, no matter how slender the odds on a Greek triumph in the face-off to follow, Tsipras’s government had the romance of the plucky underdog.

Two months have passed since those heady first days, however, and those two months have unmistakably seen Tsipras’s government slowly retreat. His ministers hoped, in the early days, that allies might have been found in the troubled euro zone; but it was precisely those governments in similar peril who were most opposed to any special terms for Greece. Guarded sympathy for the Greek cause from the United States and its proxies (including, to an extent, Britain) was not quite the same thing; words did not translate into action.

Inevitably, given the urgent timetable of Greek debt, initial intransigence on the issue of accepting a new bailout gave way, after a lot of stonewalling from the euro zone powers, to an acceptance in principle of a new package. From there, it has been a matter of haggling over details - but with Merkel’s bloc on the front foot.

Inch by agonising inch, Syriza’s red lines have been crossed - albeit still only ‘in principle’. His negotiations with Merkel this week led to vague concessions that new privatisations would be on the agenda, along with tax rises. The former will be a bitter pill to swallow, given the heated exchanges over the fate of the port of Piraeus.

We still have no details, though - in place of that, we have Tsipras’s hard talk at that press conference. And thus we still have uncertainty, rising by the day, over Greece’s future within the currency union - or out of it. Two months ago, the war-reparations rhetoric, the condemnation of the undoubtedly foul behaviour of Siemens, sounded like a brave - if lonely - cry of No pasaran! atop a barricade. Now it sounds merely desperate.

We imagine that Greece’s European ‘partners’ are suffering from frustrations of their own. From their point of view, it is plain that Tsipras’s government is extraordinarily reluctant to leave the euro zone: surely he must just take the terms or leave them. Given that he is happy enough to retreat, must it really be done at a pace that risks ‘Grexit’ in any case?

Such is no doubt the frustration of the Financial Times:

Since the radical leftwing party Syriza ascended to power, the obstreperous behaviour of its leaders has led to increasing talk of Greece leaving the euro … After governments of every hue failed convincingly to reform the economy, Greek voters in January elected a party that vowed to undo what progress had been made (March 17).

Here we must point out first of all that the Greek government is not Syriza, and indeed that Syriza is not Tsipras. Greek negotiators have faced a recurring problem, whereby it is practically difficult to make concessions: it is one thing for a negotiator to give up the port of Piraeus, but quite another to stop the relevant government minister back in Athens from declaring that no such thing is on the table.

Negotiators are stuck in a difficult position: to be sure, Merkel and co are more threatening opponents, but any ground they give to them will have to be implemented by those back home. Neither the Syriza left - which has long been, as Peter Mandelson might say, ‘intensely relaxed’ about leaving the euro - nor the fiercely nationalistic Independent Greeks (Anel) are keen on these humiliations.

The resulting paralysis leads to greater uncertainty, and - as the FT points out - a greater willingness on the part of the core European powers to countenance the departure of Greece from the euro zone. “Financial exposure to Greece is much less than in 2012,” the editors point out. “Anyone holding Greek debts will have written them down a long way. There are now thick firewalls against the failure of one state cascading into the others.” Still, the path is fraught with dangers:

Exit from the single currency constitutes the sort of “unknown unknown” against which neither markets nor politicians can adequately prepare. The European project would suffer its first serious setback since the 1950s. No matter how small Greece is or how frustrating its leaders, it is far better for Europe to keep Athens in the fold.

So much for the bourgeoisie’s point of view: what about ours? We alight on a debate between Alex Callinicos, intellectual leader of the Socialist Workers Party, and Stathis Kouvelakis, a Syriza central committee member and leading figure on its left. Kouvelakis defends the broad thrust of Syriza’s political strategy in left-Eurocommunist terms, derived from the Greek social theorist, Nicos Poulantzas: electoral victories come from mass mobilisation of spontaneous social movements; a high pitch of mobilisation can drive representatives to avoid the compromises of power.

Still, Syriza has made a mistake: “Syriza’s belief that it can transform the European institutions from within is an illusion,” Kouvelakis says. “A strategic alternative is possible. This means breaking with the euro zone, or at the very least using that as a threat.” He does not explain why (Socialist Worker March 10).

Callinicos’s reply (March 17) is confused, and makes of him once again a great exemplar of the strategic incompetence of the far left. He first of all demonstrates the rather mechanistic character of many r-r-revolutionary arguments against electoralism; against the (admittedly ambiguous) Poulantzian view of the state as a contradictory, contested terrain, he quotes Henri Weber - former member of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire turned Parti Socialiste grandee:

[Weber] agreed that there are contradictions in the state, and that we need to organise workers it employs - such as teachers and civil servants. But “the core of the state apparatus will polarise to the right” in any great moment of crisis, and there will have to be a “test of strength” against it.

This idea - that revolution inevitably means a head-on military confrontation with the state - is typically used as a justification for ‘military discipline’ in ‘the party’. We read it here primarily as an implicit riposte to Kouvelakis’s defence of the eclectic character of Syriza’s organisational base, and his criticism of the schema whereby “the reformists will fail and the revolutionary vanguard is waiting in the wings to lead the masses to victory”.

But it is straightforwardly false: the sharp polarisation of the armed forces in 1917 enabled Bolshevik victory, and examples abound elsewhere. A good thing too - no revolutionary party on its own can hope to survive a direct showdown with the tanks, fighter aircraft and nuclear weapons in the arsenal of the capitalists without breaking the discipline of the army.

The most striking passage, if you’ll forgive the pun, comes later:

In Greece there was a significant falling off in mass struggles from early 2012. It reflected people saying we need a political solution. Just going on strike isn’t enough, so we should get Syriza into office then see what happens. It’s true there was a need to shift from the social to the political.

It is encouraging to see an SWP leader admit that strikes alone do not solve things. A pity, then, that he cannot keep that thought in his head even for one more sentence:

But it’s not just that 32 general strikes didn’t work. In a crisis of that severity one-day general strikes aren’t enough. It was necessary to move to a higher level of struggle, with open-ended general strikes. This would have produced a very different dynamic.

This is truly extraordinary logic. Alex proposes, firstly, that strikes dropped off because a political solution was needed; secondly, that Syriza rose in prominence because it tried to offer such a solution; and, thirdly, that a better political (political!) solution would have been … more strikes, only longer. Insanity, as the old cliché has it, is doing the same thing again and again, but expecting different results.

Ultimately, the two Alexes - Tsipras and Callinicos - suffer from a common illusion: it is possible for Greece to obtain a reprieve from the collective economic punishment inflicted on it with its own resources. For Tsipras, the vehicle is an isolated government; for Callinicos, endless strike action. Both are likely to be disappointed.