No left turn

Those who think the surrender of Alexis Tsipras will push Syriza further to the left are deluding themselves, says Daniel Harvey

In the wake of the almost inevitable defeat of the left-populist Syriza party by the ‘institutions’, the majority of the left have been placing their hopes on a new leftwing movement against Alexis Tsipras emerging to capitalise on the anger of the Greek working class. The enormous Oxi vote in the referendum is cited as evidence of this, showing that people are willing to fight. At the moment there are some in Syriza, loosely tied to the shattered Left Platform, who have been trying to bring this about by pushing for a future exit from the euro zone.

Token opposition

To that end, both Stathis Kouvelakis and Costas Lapavitsas, two leftwing academics and members of the Hellenic parliament, have been trying to give form to this perspective - Kouvelakis has called it “turning ‘no’ into a political front”. Both point to what they call “left Europeanism”, which they blame for Tsipras’s capitulation. They say that Tsipras was not willing to entertain the notion of an EU exit under any circumstance and that this is what led him ultimately to have no bargaining power against the Germans - in particular Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister. Professing to be “good European citizens” gained them nothing, because the euro zone, as presently constituted, is an “iron cage” for the peripheral economies to the advantage of core economies like Germany.

Of course, the devastation that would have been wrought against Greece in the event of a disorderly default in the last few months is almost incalculable. One bank did try to put a figure on it a couple of years ago: UBS calculated it might mean the immediate loss of as much as 25% of GDP, possibly followed by much more, as basic supplies of food and medicine would have become difficult to import. The stranglehold placed on Greek society by the cutting off of credit lines to Greek banks was just a taste of what could have followed. Savings would be wiped out, and a good deal of the Greek debt still held in euros would have increased enormously in value against a rapidly deflating Greek currency. The firewalls put in place against this since 2012 would have left the European side relatively unscathed, except for the losses to creditors through default.

However, we need to look concretely at what the Left Platform in Syriza has actually been doing to see why it has so little clout in Greece. Tsipras made a concerted effort, starting in 2012, to constrain left opposition in the party, reducing its influence through constitutional changes, and later watered down the party’s opposition to austerity. The Thessoloniki programme, which Tsipras ludicrously called “non-negotiable”, made serious concessions to the European powers, dropping Syriza’s policies in favour of default, bank nationalisation and enhanced workers’ rights. But the Left Platform still accounted for about 30% support in the party.

On taking office, Syriza made further huge concessions. In February it negotiated away most of the remaining parts its programme, accepting the principle of budget surpluses, the raising of VAT, putting off the rise in the minimum wage and abandoning increased pensions and property taxes, as well as the cancellation of debt. When the changes were put to the Syriza parliamentary group, most of the 30 Left Platform representatives simply abstained. To their shame, when the deal was put before the German parliament, most of the Die Linke parliamentary group did the same.

The fact that any settlement with the institutions would be based on continued austerity was not opposed seriously by anyone, so the LP hardly has political grounds to complain, now that Tsipras has made the deal he has. The only difference being that Angela Merkel made sure it was so humiliating that it would be impossible to try to hoodwink ordinary Greeks into believing that it was anything other than a total surrender.

When this was eventually rammed through the Greek parliament with the help of New Democracy and the other pro-austerity centre-left parties like Pasok and To Potami, only two LP representatives voted against the deal. These were the comrades from the Trotskyist Red Network, Ioanna Gaitani and Elena Psarea. Everyone else either abstained or stayed away on the day - apart from 15 members, including two cabinet ministers, who voted in favour. This latter group put out a statement saying they did not want to precipitate the fall of the government by depriving it of a majority. According to Kouvelakis, the LP wanted “to show that their intention was not to somehow overthrow the government”.1


Since then, Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister who was not a member of the Left Platform but opposed the deal, has been hounded by legal proceedings pursued against him by rightwingers for his role in trying to organise an alternative currency through a closed group. There was also some sort of forlorn attempt made to woo the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in search of financial assistance.

Although it fell through, the attempt to prosecute Varoufakis is part of a concerted attempt to drive him and his supporters out of the political arena. He has seconded himself to a sort of internal exile in his home on a Greek island. The New Democracy MP, Anna Asimakopoulou, said, “I would not want to be in Varoufakis’s shoes” and went on: “I think that it is highly likely he will end up in a courtroom.”2 The Syriza leaders have been silent about this, not even deigning to save their own ex-finance minister from what is clearly a politically motivated witch-hunt. It is likely that there will be a purge of leftwing MPs when Tsipras goes for another election later this year.

What all of this indicates is that the Syriza leadership is planning to solidify and make permanent the party’s pro-austerity position, becoming a copy of Pasok in its old form, and probably in some sort of alliance with the other pro-austerity parties. In all likelihood Syriza will be able to maintain its lead in a future poll despite the sell-out because Greek voters have little else to turn to. The Stalinist KKE has not made any significant progress and is still not seen as credible beyond its bloc of about five percent of the electorate. 

Mendaciously, Alex Callinicos had the cheek to say “I told you so” to Stathis Kouvalakis at the Marxism event put on by the SWP last month. Of course, this is not really true. What Callinicos actually said was: “Revolutionary socialists should celebrate the new government’s victory and support the progressive measures it takes.”3 This was a “victory” based on getting 36% of the vote and not on a programme that could in any way be described as socialist.

As for the LP’s ‘alternative’, it has substantially imbibed the logic of the Syriza majority in putting forward ‘moderate’ demands that it thinks have mass appeal. Kouvelakis supports this, under the cover of the usual Gramscian terminology, along the lines of fighting a “war of position” and framing opposition in a “national” and “patriotic” framework - as well as a reading of Trotsky’s Transitional programme that we are familiar with from the pseudo-Trotskyist left. He states:

The idea of the transitional programme is that we do not content ourselves with abstract, propagandistic, anti-capitalist discourse that is applicable in every situation and simply reiterates the strategic objective of socialism and revolutionary overthrow.

The tried and tested dividing lines, those that enable the offensive against the class enemy to be activated effectively and the overall balance of forces to be overturned, must be defined anew for every specific occasion.4

What this means in practice is presenting a programme which is almost identical to the modest reformist one that Syriza was putting forward prior to 2014: eg, ‘socialising’ parts of the banking system in order to give credit to small and medium-sized businesses, and rejecting the running of a budget surplus - but with the bonus of exit from the euro thrown in.


True to this ‘national’ approach, most Left Platform representatives also did not object when Syriza made its completely unprincipled alliance with the rightwing nationalist Independent Greeks (Anel), calling them an “anti-austerity force”. Panagiotis Lafazanis, the minister for the environment and a member of the LP, said: “We will work with forces which will responsibly be able to follow policy against the memoranda, policy in a progressive direction. This is the basis of our cooperation.”5 Anel voted for all the new austerity measures when they were pushed through parliament.

Having given credibility to the nationalist right in the first place and accepted the principle of a nationalistic popular front against the institutions, Syriza has opened itself up to a much more severe reaction from that quarter. The fascist Golden Dawn is once again visible on the streets, where before it had not been showing its face and was weighed down with court cases brought against its members for various acts of violence, including a murder.

Golden Dawn has been denouncing Syriza as “traitors to the nation”. Its own support has grown from about six percent in 2012 to just over nine percent in the 2015 election, and some say that up to half of all police officers have some sympathy with Golden Dawn - sympathy that extends to sections of the military. In an act of madness meant to reassure the generals, Syriza gave control over the ministry of defence to a member of Anel in the coalition agreement. It is not hard to imagine Golden Dawn making gains in the light of the latest memorandum.

Kouvalakis says that “this is where the challenges begin” and goes on:

The anti-fascist sentiment of a strong majority of society currently fails to find expression within political institutions or bodies. On the one hand, it should be found within the left, particularly within Syriza, but there are no public statements condemning Golden Dawn for its criminal acts.6

The fact that Syriza has been soft on nationalism, while no section of the party has acted in good faith politically, has potentially fatally weakened its ability to offer a strong challenge to the fascists, who say that they are the only force able to save Greece from its external enemies. That narrative is a strong one for a small, but nevertheless real, section of the population. And there is no reason why the left should expect to retain its support in view of its headlong retreat.

Syriza has consistently misled its supporters as to what it could achieve. In this sense, the crime of Syriza is not that it has imposed austerity as such: it lies in the fact that it made totally unrealistic claims about what was possible within a single country on the periphery. Even a communist government, were it to be elected with an absolute majority, would still have to oversee privation in current circumstances. That would be true in or out of the EU. The fact is that without powerful allies, especially in the heartlands of Europe, a working class government in Greece would have to oversee some sort of siege economy. The key difference, however, is that a genuine working class party would tell the truth - there would be continued suffering and deprivation.

It would also try to implement those parts of its programme that were possible under the circumstances. That would mean radically changing the constitution, getting rid of the repressive apparatus of the state, putting the economy under democratic control, and sweeping away all laws aimed at limiting the power of workers to organise. All along the way, the key aim would to maintain trust and credibility. In those circumstances people could accept the suffering being inflicted on them because it would clearly be imposed from outside. To an extent, Syriza has managed to deflect blame onto the Germans, and effected a minor split between them and other European Union countries, as well as the United States. But the whole argument has been presented in bad faith.

It is possible that German intransigence could lead in due course to a collapse of the euro, and even the breakdown of the European project as a whole. The outcome of that would almost certainly not be a leftwing breakthrough across the continent, but a victory for the right. It would mean the growth of the National Front in France for instance. The evidence is that populist leftwing parties are going into reverse in light of the Greek example. Podemos has lost half of its support since last year.

On top of this, it is obvious there are no national solutions to the problem of austerity. It is not possible to simply exit from global capitalism. So any serious socialist opposition to austerity has got to make a pan-European response its primary task. It must reject coalitions that are, in Pablo Iglesias’s words, “neither left nor right”.

For the left, the Greek surrender should act as a powerful wake-up call. A genuine socialist programme means avoiding like the plague left-populist short cuts in the name of not wanting to “just sit and wait” or of “doing something”. As the left both inside and outside Greece is discovering, there is no inherently radicalising momentum in defeat.


1. www.jacobinmag.com/2015/07/tsipras-varoufakis-kouvelakis-syriza-euro-debt.

2. www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/29/yanis-varoufakis-may-face-criminal-charges-over-greek-currency-plan.

3. http://socialistworker.co.uk/art/39884/Syriza+and+the+state.

4. www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/tsipras-debt-germany-greece-euro.

5. www.eugreeka.com/lafazanis-cooperation-only-with-anel-we-will-cancel-memorandum-and-privatisations.

6. http://socialistworker.org/2015/07/22/the-fight-against-the-fascists-isnt-over.

* Correction: Originally this article mentioned a poll showing Antarsya going up to 8or 9 percent in polls in Greece.  This turned out to be inaccurate. The title was changed in editorial in response to this, and now it has been reverted to the original.