Syriza in the spotlight

For a long time it was almost unknown outside Greece - but now the world's eyes are on Syriza. Paul Demarty examines the new thorn in the troika's side

Nobody was surprised to see a strong showing in Greece’s recent parliamentary elections for parties to the left (and to the right) of the mainstream, in a poll understandably considered by many to be a referendum on submission to the programme of social devastation demanded by Brussels and Berlin.

The main beneficiary of this, however, turned out to be a group with a relatively low international profile - the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) took 17% of the vote and a narrow second place overall. Its leader, Alexis Tsipras, has become the face of anti-austerity politics in Greece. The political history and make-up of this odd coalition, then, has suddenly assumed something like global importance.

Syriza is not a party, but, as its name suggests, a coalition of different left organisations. These include the Internationalist Workers Left, a split from the Socialist Workers Party’s Greek section, as well as Maoists and social democratic splits from Pasok. The largest and most influential currents, however, have their roots in the Greek ‘official communist’ movement. Syriza’s history is tortuously complicated and allegiances are fluid; yet it is crucial to understanding what is going on in Greece today.


The roots of this odd formation lie ultimately in a split in the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), which took place in 1968, at the sharp end of the regime of the colonels. Despite the ‘exceptional’ circumstances pertaining at that time, the split followed an international pattern, squaring off a Moscow-loyal majority with an increasingly anti-Soviet minority, which came to identify closely with Eurocommunism. The minority regrouped as the Communist Party of Greece (Interior), or KKE(E), the implication being that the Moscow loyalists were taking their political lead from the ‘exterior’.

In the mid-1980s, the KKE(E) split again on basically left-right lines. Here, the picture starts to get complicated. The rightwing faction - Greek Left (EAP) - comprised the most ‘hardened’ Eurocommunists, while the remainder (which has operated since under variations of the name, ‘Renewing Left’) retained the KKE(E)’s flirtation with the new left. In 1989, Pasok was hit by an enormous corruption scandal, and the subsequent election resulted in a ‘grand coalition’ of the rightwing New Democracy party, the KKE and EAP (these two ‘official communist’ strands had ironically come together in an alliance with other, trivial, left forces, called Synaspismós).

Predictably, this coalition ended in disaster, as did a subsequent one with Pasok on board too. Synaspismós collapsed immediately, with the rump around EAP carrying on with the name. The KKE, meanwhile, was thrown into crisis. Its ‘hard-line’ faction purged its competitors ruthlessly, and some of its best and brightest members opted in any case to stay with Synaspismós. One such individual was Alexis Tsipras.

In the subsequent decade, the KKE - while retaining considerable influence in the labour movement - politically ossified, rediscovering the virtues of Joseph Stalin and deepening its Greek chauvinism in the process. Synaspismós, meanwhile, travelled in the opposite direction, becoming a somewhat diffuse regroupment of various far-left platforms and the rightward-drifting former Eurocommunists, as well as disaffected social democrats. It later launched the Syriza alliance, before splitting again - with the old EAP hard core leaving to form Democratic Left.

Syriza, then, is something like those rock bands from an earlier era who continue to tour with no original members in the line-up. Unlike such bands, it has come to its most spectacular level of success in this condition, with a real chance of coming first in the next election outright. The picture is somewhat complicated by the 50-MP ‘top-up’ rule, which it turns out is only available to parties rather than coalitions. Syriza must therefore turn itself into at least the Greek state’s definition of a party in double-quick time. Surely none of Synaspismós’s coalition partners would be stupid enough to turn that offer down.


Of course, exactly what politics Syriza represents at this time is hard to tell. Partly this is ‘good news’ - the departure of the Democratic Left has removed the most intransigent faction of the right of the coalition. The dynamic at this moment is to the left; and the reigning tendency in Synaspismós itself comprises various platforms which at least consciously identify themselves as Marxist and of the radical left.

Yet these are, after all, offshoots of ‘official communism’. Syriza is happy to peddle illusions in the prospect of a Keynesian stimulus policy, and many look to Hugo Chávez for inspiration (not much of a model, unless somebody discovers vast oil reserves off the coast of the Peloponnese). On top of that, there are somewhat significant forces on board at present who will not be happy with Marxist politics at all, a motley collection of left-populist initiatives and splits from Pasok - and it is clear that the ‘Marxists’ will not do without them.

Far-left critics are keen to point out this slipperiness on the question of reform and revolution, but in a sense that is not the point. An explicit commitment to revolutionary socialism does not stop the British SWP from touting exactly the same sub-Keynesian silliness in Britain, for instance.

In fact, on some matters Tsipras is better than the far left: the latter uniformly demand unilateral withdrawal from the EU with callous disregard for the consequences of such a move, and indeed internationalist principle. Tsipras’s tough talk on the memorandum is combined with an appeal for common action against austerity throughout Europe - though the sub-Keynesianism he promotes is a radically inadequate programme for such action, it would hardly be a bad thing if his appeal were heeded in Frankfurt or Paris (or, for that matter, London).

Cometh the hour ...?

The question that is most likely to bring Syriza to grief is the question of government. Here, Tsipras and the far left are basically united - all about us, we hear the demand for a ‘workers’ government’ in Greece to face down the troika. The bitter, intransigent hostility of the KKE to Syriza has thus far kept it off the table, but no doubt pressure is building on the former to start playing ball, on the basis that to do otherwise would be to abdicate responsibility in the Greek masses’ hour of need.

The reasoning is seductive. One refutation among many comes from these formations’ own history - the disastrous coalitions with New Democracy et al of 1989-90. No sensible analysis of this history can call the entry of Synaspismós into government as anything other than a severe setback.

A left government in Greece, and Greece alone, will be unable to solve the problems put before it to anyone’s satisfaction. It will end up carrying the can for the consequences - exactly what those consequences are will depend on the outcome of a pretty chaotic situation among the international bourgeois establishment. Syriza’s vote will drop right down to single figures almost as quickly as it shot up in recent months.

There is an element of brinkmanship in Tsipras’s attitude to Germany and the troika. He senses, not unreasonably, cracks in the austerity consensus. The message he would like the Greeks to send Merkel and co is simple: ‘We will not put up with this, whether or not you kick us out of the euro.’ This message may be enough to get the EU back to the negotiating table - after all, a disorderly Greek exit would cause all kinds of problems, trite talk of ‘firewalls’ notwithstanding.

Expecting much more than that is probably fanciful. Merkel cannot simply cave in - that would be political suicide. Should Tsipras be propelled to power, the choice will be between a Greek exit and whatever the troika is prepared to concede: which is unlikely to be much. Either way, the left will have to preside over grinding poverty and social devastation. That would hardly be a great advertisement for socialism.

In truth, it would be better by far simply to render the bourgeoisie unable to rule. Such an outcome would cause the same kind of headaches for the troika as a left government, without forcing the left into administering austerity. The Marxist position is clear - we ought not to take power unless we can implement our minimum programme - disbanding the standing army and giving power to the masses through extreme democracy (including, of course, abolishing the absurd 50-MP top-up). We should take responsibility for our programme, not anyone else’s. That means building a working class movement across Europe - a goal that seems tantalisingly close at the moment, but still beyond the reach of a left poisoned by nationalism.

Syriza does not share this view - unfortunately, that will leave it at the mercy of a historical process which has not been kind to either the left or to Greeks in recent decades.