A comment on Greece and Syriza

Issue: 136
Posted: 9 October 12

Richard Seymour

The “strategic perplexity” of the left confronted with the gravest crisis of capitalism in generations has been hard to miss.1 Social democracy continues down the road of social liberalism. The far left has struggled to take advantage of ruling class disarray. Radical left formations have tended to stagnate at best. Two exceptions to this pattern are the Front de Gauche in France and Syriza in Greece. While the Front de Gauche did not do as well as many hoped, it did channel a large vote for the radical left in the presidential elections won by Hollande. Meanwhile, Syriza is potentially a governing party in waiting.

In Alex Callinicos’s piece for the last International Socialism, he offered a complex analysis of these developments.2 At the most general level, he argued that the capitulation of social democracy to neoliberalism in combination with the capitalist crisis is opening up a space to its left. He suggested that the reason why Syriza and the Front de Gauche had succeeded was that they were dominated by “left reformists”. They speak the language of an older reformist tradition with deep roots in the working class and are thus far better placed to capitalise on workers’ discontent than revolutionaries.

This analysis is a rebuke to the notion that there is nothing between the far left and social democracy. That diagnosis may have been appropriate in the period of revolutionary growth beginning in 1968.3 This period, marked by the long-term decomposition of once dominant social democratic parties, is quite different. A typical feature of emerging radical left parties and coalitions is the involvement of a left breakaway from the old reformist parties, as well as a realignment of some of the Communist parties associated with them. There is a structural gap between what such forces represent on the ground and what they can project in elections, which makes any success extremely fragile. Nonetheless, today there are quite serious forces between us and social democracy. And in the circumstances, this is no bad thing.

Syriza and “left reformism”

On the face of it, the characterisation of “left reformism” is a reasonable depiction of the rough balance of forces-provided national specificities are not lost in such generalities. Unfortunately, I think some of the discussion of Greece and Syriza in particular glosses over some important details.

First of all, Syriza’s specificity as a “left reformist” organisation isn’t persuasively dealt with by Alex. Acknowledging the existence of a revolutionary pole inside Syriza, he suggests that its only function is to “allow [Syriza] to project a very radical image when it suits”, although “these organisations have little influence on the determination of policy”. This hardly does the subject justice. It implies that the coalition is simply an integument for Synaspismos, the dominant ex-Eurocommunists.

The decision by Synaspismos to launch Syriza was part of a general turn to the left under the influence of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements. For example, while in 1992 Synaspismos supported the Maastricht Treaty, by the time Syriza was formed it had repudiated this stance. It later campaigned against the European Constitutional Treaty, and joined the Greek Social Forum in 2006. It was the only parliamentary party to support the student rebellions in 2009, and played an important role alongside Antarsya in the “movement of the squares”. Synaspismos’s traditional openness to the social movements played an important role.

The revolutionary left, a minority in Syriza, is by no means negligible. The Maoist group, the Communist Organisation of Greece (KOE), is the second largest organisation in the coalition. Alongside it are smaller Trotskyist and communist groups such as the International Workers’ Left (DEA). In addition, Synaspismos possesses its own internal differentiations, a corollary of its effort to act as a broad canopy of left forces, and the result is that the revolutionary left inside it is not completely lacking in influence. It has representation in the national bodies and leadership and is able to work with the left inside Synaspismos to achieve its goals.4

Ecumenicism

Whatever Syriza’s limits, it has been open to forces to its left and has been willing to work with them in a democratic way. In this light, a surprising omission in Alex Callinicos’s detailed analysis of Syriza’s rise is the role of the slogan calling for a united left government to block austerity measures. Alex points out that for a time before Syriza’s ascendance the more moderate Democratic Left was ahead in the polls. But he concludes from this only that Syriza’s “political ambiguity” allows people to believe “what they want to believe”. This misses the far more salient point that the balance shifted to Syriza as the crisis radicalised, and Syriza’s advantage crystallised after Alexis Tsipras’s call for a left government to resist austerity measures.

The slogan of a united left government was consistent with Syriza’s general ecumenicism towards the left, combined with its opposition to an alliance with pro-austerity forces.5 This contrasted it with its two main electoral rivals, the Democratic Left and the Greek Communist Party. The result was that both rivals lost ground significantly to Syriza in both May and June elections.

As a part of this approach, Syriza met with Antarsya following the 6 May elections, to discuss the prospects for an electoral united front. Syriza guaranteed Antarsya visibility in the campaign and its political independence. Antarsya declined, as was its right. It decided instead to stand separately, arguing that it could raise a more coherent programme for resistance to austerity. However, Antarsya was in no position to capitalise on its basis in industrial struggles through electoral intervention and was always destined to get a tiny proportion of the vote. At best, it would use the election to raise propaganda but make zero impact on polling day, and would be in no position to relate positively to the popular call for a government of the left.6

The fact that the call for left unity pivoted on the question of governmental power may be difficult for revolutionaries. But in the absence of soviet power or any equivalent, this demand resonated with Greek workers. The same call is likely to reverberate in other situations, where austerity combines with the breakdown of social democracy. Finding a way to respond to it constructively is extremely important. This is the problem with the analysis hinging on the typology of “left reformism”. It isn’t fundamentally incorrect; it’s just that insofar as it allows one to explain the success of certain types of formation without referring concretely to what they are saying and doing, it leads one to overlook vital details.

“Fundamental contradiction”

Central to the critique of Syriza’s programme is its incoherent position with regard to the EU. Syriza promises to combat austerity measures within the framework of the eurozone, which is hardwired for neoliberalism. I agree that this “fundamental contradiction”, as Alex Callinicos describes it, is a real limitation in Syriza’s approach. However, matters are not so simple.

First of all, there is a real dilemma for leftist forces operating in the “peripheral” countries of the eurozone. As the Irish Socialist Workers Party argued:

Support for the EU is often fairly high in peripheral countries like Greece and Ireland. This is because the euro and the membership the EU symbolises arise out of an underdeveloped status. Many workers fear that an exit will represent a return to poverty and lower living standards.

This does not mean the revolutionary left should capitulate to such fears. Rather it should “defend working class interests-no matter what the EU thinks”.7 Tactically, then, it makes sense for the left to axe its slogans not on the question of eurozone membership, but rather on the immediate issue of resistance to austerity measures which press against the limits of what the eurozone rulers can tolerate. In which case, the logic of running a no-hope electoral campaign that differentiates primarily on the question of a voluntary exit from the eurozone is all the more mysterious. The only detailed programme for a “Grexit” that we as a party or tendency have identified with is that outlined by Costas Lapavitsas and others.8 Formally, this is a left-populist agenda for rescuing Greek capitalism by resituating it on a national path of redevelopment outside the eurozone. However, Alex Callinicos has identified it as potentially a “transitional programme”, as its demands imply a confrontation with capitalism. But as Grace Lally has suggested, it depends on the context and by whom such demands are raised.9 Greece is not in a revolutionary situation, and revolutionaries are not in a position to take the leadership of the working class. Nor is the “Grexit” agenda a likely basis for united front action or a government programme. The question, then, is what is concretely gained by making such an agenda a point of division on the left?

This is not to say that Syriza’s position should not be criticised. Within Syriza itself there is growing support for more critical policies towards the EU-both among revolutionaries and on the Synaspismos left. The most pro-EU forces actually split with Fotis Kouvelis to form the Democratic Left. Prior to the elections Syriza had settled on the formulation “Not one sacrifice for the euro”. In practice, leading Syriza politicians tended to adopt a more conciliatory stance during the elections. But even then they held to commitments such as repealing the memorandum which implied a confrontation with the EU’s leaders. I think the revolutionary left ought to have taken Syriza up on its promises and struggled to make that confrontation a reality-first, by supporting Syriza’s call for the election of a left government.

Conclusion

The key problem posed by this conjuncture is how we can, as Stathis Kouvelakis put it, articulate a series of “workable intermediate objectives” between reformist minimum programmes and revolutionary maximalism. This journal’s debate on “transitional programmes” represents one possible attempt to square the circle. However, no one on the left has as yet alighted on a coherent solution. In practice, we are all pursuing “left reformist” agendas, in the hope that the ensuing class struggles and crises will provide the means (popular self-organisation, workers’ rebellion) to turn them into tools for transition. Until such a time as institutions of popular power develop which are capable of posing a threat to capitalism, the question will recur, and it will focus mainly on the question of governmental power.

In this context, I think that Syriza’s attempt to answer the question by proposing a united government of the left is a valuable step in a pedagogical process. It is a step that I think revolutionaries ought to have supported wholeheartedly.


Notes

1: Kouvelakis, 2011.

2: Callinicos, 2012.

3: Such a political vacuum was part of Chris Harman’s explanation for the growth of the revolutionary left after 1968. See Harman, 1979.

4: For background on Syriza, see Marlière, 2012; Davanellos, 2008; 2012; and MacFhearraigh 2012.

5: See Alexis Tsipras’s comments in Gilson, 2011.

6: Worse than this, the logic of some of Antarsya’s supporters was ridiculously sectarian. Thus Syriza represents “a rather right reformism” and is “the last chance of the national as well as the international system…to save the situation with something akin to ‘normal’ methods”. See Kloke, 2012.

7: SWP Ireland, 2012.

8: See Lapavitsas and others, 2012.

9: Callinicos, 2010; Lally, 2011.


References

Callinicos, Alex, 2010, “Austerity Politics”, International Socialism 128 (autumn), www.isj.org.uk/?id=678

Callinicos, Alex, 2012, “The Second Coming of the Radical Left”, International Socialism 135 (summer), www.isj.org.uk/?id=819

Davanellos, Antonis, 2008, “Greek workers move left”, International Socialist Review, 59 (May-June), www.isreview.org/issues/59/rep-greece.shtml

Davanellos, Antonis, 2012, “Where did Syriza come from?”, Socialist Worker (US) (17 May), http://socialistworker.org/2012/05/17/where-did-syriza-come-from

Gilson, George, 2011, “Warding Off a ‘Social Catastrophe’”, Athens News (2 October), http://www.athensnews.gr/issue/13463/48402

Harman, Chris, 1979, “Crisis of the Revolutionary Left”, International Socialism 4 (spring), www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1979/xx/eurevleft.html

Kloke, Andreas, 2012, “Answer to the statement of the FI on Greece” (1 June), http://4thinternational.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/andreas-kloke-answer-to-statement-of-fi.html

Kouvelakis, Stathis, 2011, “Facing the Crisis: the Strategic Perplexity of the Left”, International Socialism 130 (spring), www.isj.org.uk/?id=727

Lally, Grace, 2011, “Discussing the Alternatives”, International Socialism 129 (winter), www.isj.org.uk/?id=708

Lapavitsas, Costas, and others, 2012, Crisis in the Eurozone (Verso).

MacFhearraigh, Donal, 2012, “SYRIZA and the Rise of Radical Left-Reformism in Europe”, Irish Marxist Review, volume 1, number 2, http://irishmarxistreview.net/index.php/imr/article/view/21

Marlière, Philippe, 2012, “Syriza est l’expression d’une nouvelle radicalité à gauche”, interview with Stathis Kouvélakis, Le blog de Philippe Marlière (6 June), www.blogs.mediapart.fr/blog/philippe-marliere

SWP Ireland, 2012, “Greece and the advance of the left” (21 May), www.swp.ie/content/greece-and-advance-left