The appeal of Syriza
The left continues to squabble over the merits of the Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece - but, argues Paul Demarty, both sides miss the point
The European left, on the whole, has gone Syriza-crazy. It is not especially hard to see why. When even a middling soft-left like François Hollande can set the world alight with excitement, a self-proclaimed radical left coalition-cum-party achieving genuinely mass votes in a country on the sharp end of the European austerity nightmare is nothing to sniff at.
This excitement, of course, is not unanimous; everywhere, Syrizaphiles face off against Syrizaphobes. Many Trotskyist groups in Britain have their own horses in the chaotic race of Greek politics; and a good clutch of them are gathered in the rival Antarsya coalition. This presents certain problems for some: the Socialist Workers Party has had to sell its sister-organisation’s decision to persist with Antarsya on the grounds that Syriza is ‘reformist’ - as if even the most watered-down versions of its politics were significantly to the right of the SWP’s positions in Ireland, Britain and, well, everywhere else.
For the Mandelite Fourth International, the problem is even more acute. It seems a rift has opened up between the international centre and the Greek section, the Organisation of Communist Internationalists of Greece (Spartacus) (OKDE). There are whispers that a pro-Syriza article by Alan Thornett was implied, by the editors of the Mandelites’ International Viewpoint, to be the international’s official position, rudely gazumping their own comrades on the ground. Comrade Thornett - an opportunist even by the FI’s elastic standards - called Antarsya’s anti-Syriza stance “an object lesson in the role of ultra-left sectarianism, when real opportunities open up for the workers’ movement.” A Syriza-led government would be a “workers’ government in Marxist parlance”.1
The OKDE has hit back with a piece strongly critical of Syriza. It “desperately tried to articulate a political programme of neo-Keynesianism”, which amounts to a “modernisation” of the “bourgeois system” without rejecting the “dominant mechanisms” at work - the European Union and the “hard euro”. More significantly, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras (apparently) does not base himself on the mass popular movement.2
The debate in the FI neatly summarises the pattern by which opinions on Syriza, and politics in Greece more generally, are polarised on the far left. Typically, both positions are false.
The pro-Syriza position is false, in the first instance, because a left government - or a left government that, by the terminological laziness of an Alan Thornett, equals a workers’ government - will not save Greece from disaster. The workers’ government slogan was raised by the Comintern on the basis that, in the context of the early 1920s, such a government would be an immediate prelude to revolution across Europe.
Such a gamble cannot seriously be entertained in the current situation, for the same reason that Syriza-mania has such traction - elsewhere in Europe, the left is nowhere, and the revolutionary left less significant still. In Italy, which had the largest electoral base for ‘official communism’ down to the 1980s, the left is now reduced to a state even more parlous than it is in this country (readers will appreciate what a dire state of affairs that is). This, remember, is the country to which the anti-austerity fever is supposed to jump, post-haste, from Greece. Jean-Luc Mélenchon received a respectable vote in France, but the Front de Gauche is a long way from taking power. Die Linke looks to be dead on its feet. Who, pray, will follow Syriza?
If nobody follows Syriza - and this question may be posed very soon again, given the dilemmas the new Greek government will face in the coming months - then the latter will face an unpalatable choice. Either negotiate with Merkel and the troika - and take responsibility for whatever share of economic collective punishment is, from their point of view, non-negotiable - or pull out, causing the scenario so cheerfully called ‘drachmageddon’ by various financial hacks: the replacement of the euro by a Greek currency doomed, as Oedipus was to parricide and incest, to overnight collapse. Syriza will remain an attractive model for the international left until the moment it is put to the test of government; at that point, its success will prove just as fleeting as, say, Rifondazione’s in Italy.
Syriza, one would expect, would take the first course rather than the second. This is the second reason the Tsipras-philes are wrong - Syriza’s political character is, if not reformist, best characterised as centrist. It is a melange of different forces, but its main component - Synaspismos - is a fragment (of which many exist) of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) historically associated with Eurocommunism. Syriza’s leaders are happy to talk big about mass action and popular protest; but in the end their politics are precisely the kind of fantasy-land neo-Keynesianism that the OKDE criticises (and that the likes of Thornett typically advocate in their dismal political interventions).
The third reason has to do with the sort of lessons we are to take from the sudden and spectacular success of Syriza in Greek politics. It is implied that what we need are, to paraphrase Che Guevara, ‘two, three, many Syrizas’. But there is only one precisely because of the specific historical circumstances pertaining to Greece, which saw the KKE and other ‘official communist’ fragments survive, almost uniquely in Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent period of political reaction more or less intact.
The KKE is routinely lambasted for its sectarian dogmatism. This is no doubt a fair enough charge. But it retains a very significant penetration into the Greek workers’ movement. As for the Eurocommunists, whereas in Britain they became Blairites in short order, and in Italy divided into the Democratic Party and Rifondazione (which in turn drove itself to destruction in the last Prodi government), in Greece they have retained some life as a serious and distinctive trend. It is this factor - the existence of serious organisations of the class and of the left - that produced Syriza’s vote.
On the contrary, it is plain that the likes of comrade Thornett - and dissidents against the anti-Syriza line in the Socialist Workers Party - imagine that Syriza’s success can unproblematically be replicated elsewhere. It cannot, without the serious development of radical, mass workers’ organisations that - however deformed those organisations are in Greece - made that success possible.
On the other hand, the major problem for those who oppose Syriza is that their critique centres on its unwillingness to break from the EU and somehow ‘go it alone’. This is posed as a dividing line between reformists and revolutionaries - but the true distinguishing feature of reformism is that it seeks to work through the existing constitutional order, as opposed to a commitment to its overthrow and replacement.
Syriza, it is true, is at best ambiguous on this point - but so is the anti-EU dogmatism posed against it. There is nothing revolutionary about choosing the bosses’ club of the Greek state over the bosses’ club of the EU. If anything, it is the other way round - the existence of supranational organisations for the administration of capitalism is simply an imperfect reflection of the fact that production is thoroughly internationalised by this system. The answer is not to abolish such transnational institutions, but transform them through the mass, collective political action of workers across the EU. That Tsipras and co, however politically compromised they are, blow hot air in favour of such action is a strength rather than a weakness.
The ‘alternative’ posed by such comrades - perfectly clear in the OKDE statement - is more mass action, more occupations, strikes, demonstrations and whatever else. But all the mass action in the world will not change the fact that Greece has not been self-sufficient in the production of food for two and a half thousand years, and is unlikely to be in the near future.
Mass actionism, moreover, is the reverse side of the pro-Syriza electoralist coin. The latter, as noted, is a dodge from taking on the serious tasks of building the revolutionary workers’ organisations that can truly make a difference to the political situation - equally, the idea that ‘mass action’ in itself is capable of solving the political problems we face is an idea which descends to us from Bakunin, through the Second International left to the post-1968 ‘new left’. In all cases, it has failed quite as miserably to substitute for conscious political work as naive electoralism.
Above all, the back and forth over Syriza testifies to the fact that the left is utterly disoriented in this, the period when humanity most needs a revolutionary alternative. Syrizaphiles look to Tsipras as a messianic saviour figure; their ‘left’ opponents look to the more pantheistic god that is ‘the struggle’. Neither will confront the burning necessities of the day - the need for revolutionary mass parties, and common workers’ action across borders, in this most global of crises.
1 . www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2654.
2 . www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2688.