Syriza and the left

We need a real working class strategy, says Daniel Harvey

Six months ago, Syriza ‘won’ the Greek election brought on by the collapse of the New Democracy and Samaras-led coalition government. We have to put ‘won’ in scare quotes, because it only managed to get 36% of the vote and 149 of the 300 MPs (aided by the undemocratic 50-seat top-up awarded to the largest party). Choosing to form a coalition with the rightwing Independent Greeks (Anel), Syriza managed to form a government which was committed to some form of confrontation with the troika.

The Syriza leadership had done almost everything it could by that point to try and demonstrate that it was a ‘responsible’ party of government that was sincerely looking for an agreement with its creditors. The programme that it put to Greek voters in 2015 was massively watered down from what was on offer in 2010 and then 2012. There would be no immediate default, no tearing up of the memorandum, and no unilateral nationalisation of the banks. What was put forward was a limited programme of basic reforms to give relief to the Greek population suffering from 25% unemployment and hugely reduced incomes. This meant some pension relief and an increase in the minimum wage.

Alexis Tsipras had worked quite hard in the years up to the 2015 election to rein in the Left Platform in Syriza, ensuring a number of anti-democratic measures designed to restrict its influence were passed. There was in particular a limit on voting for party lists, designed to make opposition platforms invisible. Later there were calls in the Greek media for Tsipras to start “cutting off some heads” to make Syriza credible. One of those heads was Manolis Glezos, the hero of the anti-Nazi struggle who had raised the Greek flag over parliament after the end of German occupation. But now he spoke of Syriza becoming a “party of applauders”.

The change in Syriza’s status from a coalition to a party was also largely about preparing it for office - and qualifying for that 50-seat top-up.


When this right-moving, left-populist formation took office, Syriza’s sister party, Left Unity, sent a delegation over to Greece, which duly sent back some breathless reports about what a step forward it was. Simon Hardy was to the fore, saying: “We’re going to Greece because if a Syriza government is elected then it could be the beginning of a wave of resistance across Europe.” He continued:

This is the return of hope! This is a new dawn for the radical left in Europe. The future path is uncertain and all manner of challenges lie ahead - but for now we can finally say that we won. We won a victory and we can start to turn the tide.1

Andrew Burgin concurred: this was “the spark that sets the field of socialism alight. This is our time.” He even called the Tsipras administration a “workers’ government”, no less - this in spite of Syriza’s opportunistic alliance with Anel, roughly analogous to the UK Independence Party in this country, and in spite of Left Unity’s commitment not to “compromise our principles by participating in coalitions with capitalist parties”.

The criticism was perfunctory at best. All that mattered was gaining office and putting Greece on a collision course with the European powers as quickly as possible. Both comrades implied there were risks involved in this strategy, but the outcome was not predetermined. Simon Hardy said there was a possibility that Syriza might be driven to “radically alter the nature of the Greek economy”.2 The implication was that Syriza would be forced out of the euro and might implement some form of ‘socialism in one country’.

Ultimately this was based on a premise of deception. Syriza, having been elected on a platform which ruled out an exit from the euro zone, was going to play a clever game, which prepared the ground for leaving. There was quite lot of naive talk along these lines. None other than Slavoj Žižek has put an absurd spin on the eventual capitulation, saying: “Tsipras and Syriza outmanoeuvred Angela Merkel and the Eurocrats.” In fact they are “playing a long game” and “waging a patient guerrilla war against financial occupation”.3 “Playing a long game” by forcing austerity through the Greek parliament with the help of New Democracy and the other pro-capitalist parties, presumably.

Greece has now become a debt colony. The fact that it has no economic sovereignty has been confirmed, with the institutions managing to convince Tsipras in a final 17-hour negotiation session in Brussels, likened to “waterboarding” by one participant, to accept that there will be €50 billion-worth of privatisations, with Greece not even being in direct control of the resulting funds. The requirement for a primary surplus has been hardened. The emergency measures on pensions, the minimum wage and trade union rights have been scrapped. All that has survived is the measure allowing children of migrants born in Greece to be eligible for Greek citizenship. Not an unworthy measure, but not exactly matching up to the hype.

Apologists for Tsipras, like Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, have been saying, with some merit, that a disorderly exit from the euro was not an option. The social turmoil that would have resulted would have been horrific for ordinary Greeks and there was no mandate for it. The referendum that was put to the Greeks in the final moments of the “negotiations” was explicit about not being a vote on whether to leave the euro, despite what Merkel said.

“Negotiations” is actually a prettified term for what was going on. It is obvious that Syriza was naked from the start. It was as former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said: “You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on, to make sure it’s logically coherent, and you’re just faced with blank stares. It is as if you haven’t spoken.”

In reality, Syriza was always looking to implement some form of austerity, even before it took power. The opening position was surrender in that sense. Its inevitable defeat has naturally had ramifications for the rest of the left in Europe. Far from being an inspiring example for others to follow, Syriza has ended up as an example of where defiance will lead. Following the Brussels deal, support for Podemos in Spain has nearly halved, compared to its high point last year. Pablo Iglesias in his typically shifty way has tried to distance himself from the outcome by saying, “Spain is not Greece”. This is true in the sense that a small degree of recovery is visible in Spain, and that, together with the example of Greece, has produced increased support for the centre-left and rightwing parties.

Plan B

The people who have been most belligerent in their condemnation of Alexis Tsipras have been promoting a plan concocted by Varoufakis, along with the Left Platform, which came to light this week. Apparently in a clandestine way Varoufakis had been using the data of Greek taxpayers under the control of the troika representatives in order to prepare the ground for an alternative currency to replace the euro at short notice. He says that he had been told to do this before the election in January by Tsipras in case it was ever needed. Not only that: to make this strategy work, representatives of the Left Platform had been making trips to see Vladimir Putin in Moscow to try and get his support in the event that Greece broke with the EU.

The fact that this could be seen as a viable plan by much of the left shows the extent to which it has lost touch with reality. In the first place, Putin could not be less interested in bailing out Greece, given that Russia has plenty of its own problems to deal with, economically and politically. You only have to look at what happened in Cyprus, where a significant amount of Russian capital was at risk when the country went bankrupt, to understand this. Russia advanced a tiny bridging loan and then left Cyprus to crash. Nothing was going to persuade Russia to get more heavily involved. In any case, there is no way that Russia could ever fill the void left by the EU.

In the end, this plan B amounted simply to a last-resort move to save Greek capitalism from collapse. It was not in any sense of the word a ‘strategy’ for working class power - despite reports about the “heady revolutionary atmosphere” in the supposedly secret meetings where these plans were hatched. The comrades might have thought they could be compared to the Bolsheviks planning the October revolution, but I am afraid such a comparison just does not work. The Bolsheviks aimed to lead the working class to power; Syriza aimed to prop up a decrepit banking system. When it actually came to the surrender deal going through the Greek parliament, only two Left Platform representatives actually voted against. All the rest either abstained or decided to absent themselves. This was not in any sense a disciplined platform putting forward a serious alternative approach.

But in Britain we have had a whole axis of leftwingers, from Richard Seymour, through Workers Power, to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, who have advocated some variation of this approach. For all of them, the point where Syriza failed was where it failed to make use of the Oxi vote to break from Europe, to default and to initiate a new currency. Comrade Seymour wrote:

If we didn’t know that a Syriza-led government would be “in perpetual crisis”, a “spotlit enclave, under constant assault from capital and the media”, we shouldn’t be in this game. If we didn’t guess that Berlin would want to “make an example of Greece one way or another”, and that any concessions offered would probably “be deliberately insulting”, we really weren’t paying attention.4

Nevertheless, he said: “Next week, there will be a rally in Syntagma Square, with the slogan, ‘We’re not afraid of Grexit’.” Those who warned from the beginning what Syriza was about and that the left should not see the Syriza administration as in any way an advance for the working class were dismissed as “the broken-clock left”.

For Sacha Ismail of the AWL it was enough to quote Trotsky from 1935: “What is our task? To help the workers to turn the wheels, into which the opportunist leaders have been forced to thrust their hands”.5 But what does “turning the wheels” mean in this case, where the Marxist left is an insignificant player? However, the most delusional rhetoric of all comes from Workers Power, for whom KD Tait thundered after the Oxi referendum vote:

The time has come for the Greek working class to seize the initiative, to take its destiny into its own hands, to prepare for a fight to the finish. Every conscious worker and youth in Europe will come to their aid.

We say the struggle of the Greek working class is our struggle, too. Their victory will be a victory for the European working class.

We must carry the fervour and fighting spirit of Syntagma into the Plaza del Sol, the Place de la République, into the squares and streets of every capital in Europe.

The choice is not between reform or revolution, but between revolution or counterrevolution. The failure to seize the hour will see the initiative pass into the hands of our enemies.5

What observers need to understand is that when the Bolsheviks developed their tactics after 1917, they were part of a strategy based on a Europe where (a) there had been a communist revolution in Russia and (b) every major country in Europe had a sizeable Marxist party, while the working class movement was by an order of magnitude much more politicised and organised than today. They were part of a strategy for arousing Europe when it was pregnant with the possibility for workers’ revolutions against capitalism.

Today we have Podemos, Die Linke and Left Unity to spread the spark ignited by Syriza. In fact we are a million miles from that situation today, so talk about Greece committing seppuku in order to spark the European revolution is crazy. If you were an ordinary soldier in the trenches, and you had officers like these offering this kind of suicidal leadership, telling you to charge over the top to certain death, you would be well advised to turn your guns on them. It is this kind of advice that more aptly describes today’s “broken-clock left”.

We live in a period that demands revolutionary patience. That means warning against taking office prematurely and exposing the opportunism of those who claim that left populism represents any kind of progress for our movement. The experience of Syriza has materially damaged the prospects for the left in that country. It may not be popular to say so, and it may leave people feeling impotent in the face of the austerity being imposed on them, but that just reflects the hole that we have collectively dug ourselves into.

Surely making people realise that there are no easy fixes is the first step to getting out of that hole.


1. http://leftunity.org/why-we-must-support-a-syriza-government-in-greece.

2. http://internationalsocialistnetwork.org/index.php/ideas-and-arguments/organisation/left-unity/528-towards-a-strategy-for-left-unity-lessons-from-the-european-left-pamphlet.

3. http://inthesetimes.com/article/18229/slavoj-zizek-syriza-tsipras-merkel.

4. www.leninology.co.uk/2015/02/syrizas-mauling-at-eu-negotiations.html.

5. www.workersliberty.org/greece-trotsky.

6. www.workerspower.co.uk/2015/07/greece-referendum-oxi-no-syriza (my emphasis).