Syriza in London: Tsipras and his reformist alternative
With sections of the left looking to Greece for an example of the kind of organisation we need, Callum Williamson went to hear what the Syriza leader had to say
Alexis Tsipras’s talk in London on Friday March 15 should serve as a warning to those in Britain that urged Syriza forward and into government, and seek to emulate the Greek left coalition here.
Tsipras began with an assessment of the current political and economic situation in Greece and Europe as a whole, stating what seems more obvious every day: that the capitalist class has no plan to extricate itself from the crisis. The strategy of austerity pursued by governments across Europe is about subjecting all of society to the “discipline of capital”; indeed “if the debt did not exist, the neoliberals would have to invent it”. Tsipras described the “catastrophic path” down which the Greek economy is headed as a result - the constant violations of democratic rights and violent repression of dissent. The left in Greece and Europe is engaged in a desperate fight for “justice, equality and freedom”.
Reacting to liberal and rightwing critics, Tsipras insisted that he was no demagogue. Whereas under the current Greek administration “all of our ‘nos’ are followed by a divisive ‘yes’”, a Syriza government would halt austerity and begin “renegotiating the loan agreements with our creditors”. He suggested that the way forward for Greece and for all southern Europe would be to “follow the model of the 1953 London Debt Agreement, which gave the post-war German economy a kick start”. Its main components were “debt reduction, a huge investment drive through the Marshall Plan and financial terms linked to export and growth performance”.
This seems an unlikely scenario, to say the least, given that Greece is not needed by its creditors as a buffer against ‘Soviet socialism’ and the US is hardly in a position to conjure up a repeat of the Marshall Plan. In any case, the European working class is no longer considered a threat to the ruling class, and such a massive cash injection would only be contemplated if it was thought the capitalist social order was in serious danger.
In all likelihood the London Debt Agreement was raised as a dig at Europe’s principal creditor today, who in that case was the debtor. Nonetheless, the view that it will be possible to reason with capital and find a route out of the crisis through mutually acceptable compromise demonstrates a fundamentally reformist outlook. Tsipras articulates a particularly unrealistic version of the kind of politics of nostalgia for the period of social democratic consensus that occurred in the countries of the imperialist core.
Expanding slightly on the policy of a hypothetical Syriza government, Tsipras said it would restore the minimum wage to its pre-memorandum level; halt cuts to wages and conditions in the public sector; tax the rich and all capital removed from the country; fight corruption; and put banks “at the service of society” (no answer was given when he was later asked whether this meant their nationalisation).
The speech provoked many questions amongst the audience of assorted lefts - whilst some heaped praise on Tsipras, comparing him to the late Hugo Chávez, others demanded some clarity from the Syriza leader. In response to questions around the threat of military intervention and the rise of the far-right Golden Dawn, Tsipras likened the present situation in Greece to that under the Weimar republic in the 1930s. He accused the Greek centre-right of aiding the rise of Golden Dawn by attempting to shift the focus of public debate onto the issue of immigration, an issue over which the right believes it can win (in view of the capitulation on this question by liberals and social democrats, it is difficult to argue with that contention).
When asked if a Syriza government would ban Golden Dawn, he replied that a such a move would be counterproductive. He argued that the left should “fight fascism by fighting austerity” and convince people of the need for a left alternative to neoliberalism. He is quite right to say that state moves against the far right should be opposed and that we need to defeat it by winning the argument for an alternative - pity about the nature of the one on offer though.
On the question of Greek membership of the euro zone, Tsipras is insistent that Greece must remain inside so as not to lose bargaining power with the country’s creditors. He maintained that the Greek crisis stands as a warning of the systemic danger to European capitalism - though how big a threat a Greek exit and default would really be is debatable, given the measures that have been taken to insulate European creditors from the consequences of such a scenario. Tsipras appeared confident though that negotiations with the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund could yield favourable results for the Greek people, reminding those present that the troika has yet to come up against serious opposition from any of the governments of southern Europe.
More than once the crucial question was put to Tsipras: will a Syriza government build socialism and overthrow capitalism in Greece? One speaker from the floor, in pressing for an answer, put it to Tsipras that the choice was between capitalism and socialism, to which Tsipras simply said he agreed. When asked what would be the character of a Syriza government and whether it would “break with capitalism”, Tsipras responded that no-one will “wake up to socialism”, nor will there exist an “island of socialism” in a capitalist Europe. However, he claimed that Greece could offer an example to the rest of Europe, and implied that a Syriza government could point the way forward to the people of Spain, Portugal and Italy. But an example of what exactly? Furthermore, a sobering question facing revolutionaries is whether, considering the present weakness of the left in Italy, for example, Syriza can expect to be followed into power by other working class governments in Europe. It seems very unlikely, to put it mildly.
Communists are clear that the working class cannot implement a programme for socialism either through the capitalist state or within one country. There can be no excuse then for calling for a Syriza-type government: history has demonstrated that attempts by the left to manage capitalism are inevitably followed by crushing defeat and demoralisation. Tsipras seems to be presenting himself as the Chávez of Europe (not that there has been much antagonism between himself and the US) and there were numerous references to the social gains made under Chávez that evening. But Chávismo does not amount to socialism and it could not be replicated in Greece in any case - Greece has no equivalent of Venezuela’s oil.
I will finish, for those still in doubt over the depth of Tsipras’s reformism, with a quote from his talk at the London School of Economics the previous day. The Labour Party, he said, is “one of the few parties so close to power in Europe with whom we share a lot of positions and with whom we can be in constant communication”.
By your friends shall ye be known .