Syriza’s electoral victory on 25 January 2015 was historic. It was the first time a party with its roots in the Communist tradition had succeeded in coming to office. It was a victory for the working class movement, which had fought with great determination and courage against the austerity programme that the Pasok government had signed up to in 2010 and that the technocratic Papademos and New Democracy governments had continued to implement. The great hope was that the new left government would cancel the Memorandum of Understanding imposing austerity and lift the crippling burden of debt.
One hundred days on, and what is the picture? The government has, of course, been under tremendous pressure from the international bodies it negotiates with not to break with the politics of austerity. But the government’s record has been one of unnecessary retreat and compromise—a long drawn out process of surrender to the demands of the creditors punctuated by assertions of resistance and threats of default (this is the overall picture at the time of writing at the end of May). Fighting and losing is one thing—but conceding before any real struggle is another. And force majeure cannot excuse the retreat elsewhere, in foreign policy, for example. Nothing compelled Alexis Tsipras to establish friendly relations with the reactionary Egyptian regime and shake hands with the butcher of the revolution Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi as he did at a counter-terrorism summit in April this year.
This article will locate the reason for retreat in the logic of the strategy adopted by the Syriza leadership. They gambled that a “compromise with capital” would enable them to deliver on their promises.1 But the compromise has led them in the opposite direction. Only an alternative strategy can put a stop to that.
But where is that alternative to be rooted? Is it a matter primarily of who wins inside Syriza, the leadership or the left? Or is it a matter of rooting an alternative strategy in the movement that brought Syriza to victory? The answer depends, in part, on how one assesses the current state of the movement: does it show a capacity to develop forms of struggle that can break the limitations of the leadership strategy? In other words, is a politics independent of Syriza, with real clout in the movement, possible? This article argues yes to both.
Climb-down in Brussels
Within days of taking office Syriza was quickly disabused of the idea that the Eurogroup—the eurozone finance ministers—might be persuaded to drop the neoliberal “solution” to the debt crisis. It patently didn’t work (the more austerity was imposed to ensure Greece would pay its debt, the more the ratio of debt to GDP rose, instead of falling, as it was meant to do). The argument was not about “rational” economic solutions. It was about “politics”. No precedent of debt forgiveness was to be set that might encourage other debt-laden countries to vote the wrong way.
Given that Syriza was committed to solving the debt problem only within the framework of negotiations with its European “partners”, the negotiating team had its hands tied behind its back. All finance minister Yanis Varoufakis could do was spin out the talks before accepting a deal four weeks into the new government. It was a retreat—and a major one at that, despite attempts by the leadership to depict it as a comparatively minor setback in an ongoing war. The deal recognised the legitimacy of the debt (and so Greece’s “responsibility” to pay up) and committed the government not to take measures that would affect the budget or financial stability, unless these were approved. This was a continuation of the Memorandum by the back door, including supervision by the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund), coyly rebranded as the “Institutions”. The effect was to cast doubt on whether the new government could implement the limited—but welcome—measures to tackle the “humanitarian crisis” it had announced almost immediately on taking office: raising the minimum wage, lowering the income tax burden for the poorest and ending the property taxes that threatened people with homelessness.
The deal provoked enormous anger inside Syriza. You cannot, thundered veteran anti-fascist and Syriza MEP Manolis Glezos (using a Greek expression), baptise meat as fish by rebranding the Troika: “There can be no compromise” between oppressor and oppressed.2 Tsipras did not dare use parliament to obtain ratification for fear of exposing the divisions inside his party and having to rely for support on opposition MPs, such was the scale of the revolt. When Syriza’s central committee met, 41 percent, led by veteran left winger and minister Panayiotis Lafazanis, rejected both the agreement and the list of neoliberal “reforms” that came with it.3
Nevertheless, the deal stood and the process of negotiation continued, driven by pressure to settle before the money to pay off the creditors ran out. The government still managed to find funds despite declining tax receipts. One involved the ingenious solution of taking money from an emergency IMF account—“Athens in effect borrowed IMF assets to repay the Fund”.4 A second way involved something altogether riskier, politically speaking. The government ordered local authorities (and some other public institutions) to transfer their reserves to the central bank in what it called an “internal loan”. This gave ammunition to the pro-austerity parties and the right, who retain their bastions in local government, to present Syriza as playing fast and loose with precious local resources.
The moment of truth could not, it seemed, be put off much longer. A deal that would involve paying off all the debt appeared inevitable. Varoufakis, the man who would save capitalism from itself, could say in early May: “Of course we want to pay the IMF. We intend to pay every creditor”.5 Yet the government continued to hold out, insisting that it would not sign a deal that crossed red lines protecting labour, wages and pensions. And to the intense irritation of the creditors, the government promised to rehire some 30,000 public sector employees, victims of the Memorandum, and to re-establish a state broadcasting system (ERT), which had been sacrificed on the altar of privatisation. Again this reflected the pressure of the movement—as shown, in particular, by the long lasting and determined campaigns by women cleaners of the Ministry of Finance’s tax offices, by school guards protesting against job losses, by the occupying ERT workers and by many others.
The government’s red lines might not have been crossed but it showed its readiness to compromise elsewhere. Euclid Tsakalotos, effectively replacing Varoufakis in the negotiations with the Eurogroup, signalled that “while Athens will not cross ‘red lines’ it has laid down in talks, it was still ready to be flexible elsewhere. When you have a political plan, you can find solutions and make some compromises”.6 This involved abandoning the promise to stop privatisation. Initially Syriza had halted the takeover of the port of Piraeus by the Chinese company Cosco. Now it will let privatisation go ahead. Since inevitably this will involve an assault on wages and conditions, inevitably the “red lines” will be breached. Only resistance by the workers themselves—and the port workers have taken action—will stop that.
Compromise is at work elsewhere. The rise in the minimum wage to €751 and raising the tax threshold to €12,000 have been postponed. Abolishing the property tax has been deferred. Such measures put pressure on wages, whatever the government says about “red lines”.
The logic of reformism
The core problem is not individual betrayal but the logic of Syriza’s strategy. Change is not to be brought about through workers’ self-activity. Rather, trust is placed in what “their” party can do to carry out reform through holding office (so workers play, at most, a secondary, supporting role). But the orientation on parliament entails anticipating the limits that this mode of operation imposes—and adapting to it. It is the built-in contradiction in this process that explains what has gone wrong.
This is clear from the Thessaloniki programme Syriza adopted in September 2014. “Dropping the debt” was translated into demanding the “write-off [of] the greater part of public debt’s nominal value so that it becomes sustainable in the context of a ‘European Debt Conference’”, and through letting the economy grow so as “to pay off the remaining debt from the creation of new wealth and not from primary surpluses, which deprive society of income”.7 Repudiation of the debt, on the grounds that the popular classes were not responsible for the crisis impoverishing their lives and so not responsible for repaying the debt, became instead acceptance that debt repayment was legitimate and the Greek people would have to pay much of it.
The adaptation to accepting partial responsibility for the debt was related to Tsipras’s commitment that there would be no challenge to capitalism as such, only to its neoliberal version. “Balancing the government’s budget”, he declared, “does not automatically require austerity. A Syriza government will respect Greece’s obligation, as a eurozone member, to maintain a balanced budget, and will commit to quantitative targets.” Nor, he went on, is austerity “part of the European treaties; democracy and the principle of popular sovereignty are. If the Greek people entrust us with their votes, implementing our economic programme will not be a ‘unilateral’ act, but a democratic obligation”.8 He thus indicated in the commitment to Europe, to the euro, and to a “balanced budget” (wrapped up in an appeal to “democracy”) that Syriza would not stray beyond the limits of the system.
The gamble was that the new government, armed with a popular mandate, could negotiate its way out of austerity. Once, however, the Eurogroup made it clear that there was no alternative to neoliberal austerity, whatever the wishes of the Greek people, the government was hamstrung by its commitment to sticking by the system. Sweet reason proved impotent. Only a break with its strategy would have avoided the retreat.
The alternative was and remains unilateral action of the sort Tsipras had ruled out in advance. But if “saving our economic programme” cannot be achieved without defaulting on the debt, then default it would have to be, and all that that implies about breaking with the euro. But, inevitably, this option raised (and continues to raise) the question of whether there is an alternative way to fight austerity. Reliance on beating the other side through negotiations does not require the masses to intervene on their own behalf; beating the other side independently of negotiations is a different matter.
The Syriza leadership has argued that it has no popular mandate for “unilateral” action and therefore must continue to negotiate for the best deal it can get. The opinion polls appear to confirm this. Reuters reported on 29 April 2015:
The survey by pollster GPO for Mega TV showed that 75.6 percent believe the government, elected after promising to challenge budget cuts, must strike a deal at any cost with its eurozone partners and the International Monetary Fund to stay in the euro. Only 22.8 percent disagreed. The poll showed that 58.3 percent supported the strategy followed by prime minister Alexis Tsipras in negotiations with lenders while 39.8 percent disapproved.9
A poll in mid-May painted a similar picture with 65.9 percent wanting the government to come to an agreement with international creditors and 30.7 percent wanting a rift with the lenders. But this second poll showed that a shift away from support for the government strategy had been taking place: “Trust of Greeks in the way the government handles negotiations is waning, with 54.2 percent saying that the Syriza government follows the right strategy when the percentage in February was 81.5. Also, 43.3 percent believe that the negotiation strategy is wrong.” However, the poll also indicated that it would be wrong to read this waning trust as a shift to the right. On the contrary, it indicated a growing mood among the majority for more determined resistance: “56.7 percent answered that the government should stick to the ‘red lines’ (13th pension [instalment at the end of the year], minimum wage increase, collective bargaining, etc) and not back down, even if that was a deal breaker.” Only a minority (admittedly a big minority—39.3 percent) “said that the government must cross the red lines if that would secure an agreement”.10
A poll in Kathimerini (10 May) suggested that while overall a majority wanted to stick with the euro, the minority of those willing to return to the drachma was greater among Syriza supporters than in the population at large—39 percent as against 27 percent. When asked to choose between a new memorandum with the euro and economic independence with the drachma, a majority of Syriza supporters (58 percent) were in favour, as opposed to 35 percent in the general population.11 Polling at the end of May confirmed that trend: “58 percent of Syriza supporters would prefer to return to the drachma rather than continue implementing Troika austerity measures”.12
What does this tell us? First and foremost, the fact that the workers’ movement continues to identify with Syriza is more a vote of confidence in itself than any blanket endorsement for the government’s strategy. If anything, there is a shift to the left. That can only mean that the direction of the movement is not towards acceptance (reluctant or otherwise) of a deal but towards a fight against making further sacrifices. That is good news for the left. But how the left responds is the big test. It is clear, as we have seen, that the left inside Syriza is fighting hard to stop the retreat by the leadership, which is only to be welcomed. But the struggle to stop austerity cannot rest on whether there is a change of direction by Syriza. The question is whether the left as a whole has a strategy to build a united fight that does not depend on what happens inside Syriza but looks to workers’ struggle irrespective of whether or not a deal is signed. The polls suggest there are shifts going on in workers’ consciousness that make this a real possibility.
Options for Grexit
Before turning to the state of the struggle on the ground we need to see how such considerations bear on “Grexit”—Greek departure from the eurozone. There are different forms of Grexit and different ways in which it might happen—by accident or intentionally. The question here for us is how it might be seen from a class viewpoint.
The first thing to note is that bourgeois commentators do not rule out Grexit as incompatible with the continuing health of the capitalist system. Some even see it as helping the system to recover. Austerity has patently failed, they argue, to grow the Greek economy. So, instead of hoping that a repeat of the same policy will work (the definition of madness), let the government repudiate the debt, exit the euro and rebuild its economy. Thus Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times:
For Greece, leaving the euro would open up new economic and political possibilities. It would allow the country to default on some of its gigantic debts (or further restructure them, if you want to be polite about it). It would also enable Greece to devalue its currency and escape the fixed-exchange rate system that has helped to devastate Greek competitiveness.
Of course, there would also be ugly short-term economic effects. The experience of countries such as Argentina suggests there would be bank-runs and the imposition of capital controls, for a while. The prices of key imports, such as food and energy, would also go up.13
Wolfgang Münchau, also of the Financial Times, has long made a similar case.14
What about Grexit from the viewpoint of the working class? The left inside Syriza has linked the break with the euro to the need to take anti-capitalist measures. Thus, in mid-May rebels, including members of the political bureau and central committee, and Yiannis Milios, former economic adviser to the prime minister, issued a public challenge to the leadership:
We have to choose between signing what is obviously an austerity agreement and making a break with lenders… Syriza can’t become a party of austerity and this government cannot implement a memorandum… Our only choice is a rupture with the creditors—suspending loan repayments, [imposing] measures to restrict free movement of capital, putting banks under state control, taxing capital and the wealthy to finance measures to support ordinary people…and even a break with the euro.15
Another leading left economist and Syriza MP, Costas Lapavitsas, has forcefully and consistently argued for Grexit. He was reported (in mid-May) as saying: “If it comes to the crunch, Greece must default and go its way. There is no point raiding pension funds to buy time. We just exhaust ourselves for no purpose”.16 In an interview at the end of April he put forward a more detailed case for what a left government should do. Assuming a “negotiated, consensual, orderly exit”, there would be a “recovery of domestic demand” based on reactivating small and medium enterprises (a huge untapped resource) but, since domestic demand could not in itself bring sustainable growth, Greece would need a long-term industrial policy to “restructure its productive base, to integrate itself in the world economy on a different basis”.17 Greece could become competitive through devaluation and wages could then gradually rise again (the implication being that they could not do so before then).
The Marxist economist Michael Roberts has objected to Lapavitsas’s contention that Keynesianism is of more immediate practical use for solving the Greek crisis than is Marxism, which has to do with the transition from capitalism to socialism. Roberts asks:
So Keynes is realistic and relevant to policy and Marxist economics is not? Now is this right? Is Marxist economics just an analytical tool or a long-term strategy for socialism but irrelevant or at least less relevant to the immediate tasks of government trying to repair a broken economy than the Keynesian categories of devaluation, public spending and monetary policy?
I find that surprising coming from a Marxist. The Syriza government now has the opportunity to campaign among the Greek people and implement socialist measures to replace Greek “big capital” with a domestic economy controlled by the common weal. Instead, it seems both the wings of Syriza want to adopt Keynesian solutions (only); except one wing wants to do it within the euro (Tsipras/Varoufakis), while the other says that is impossible and wants to do it outside the euro (Left Platform).
Now I’m not opposed to using Keynesian prescriptions as part of any socialist measures for Greece: eg progressive taxation, government spending, labour rights, minimum wage (not sure the latter are even Keynesian). But such measures must be part of a programme to replace capitalism, not try to make it work—in or out of the euro.18
Roberts surely has a point here. The ambiguity in Lapavitsas’s position is its assumption that a solution for the Greek economy can be one that, at least temporarily, suspends class conflict (for example, wage demands would have to yield to the need to keep a post-Euro Greece competitive). Keynesianism in the here and now, and relegating Marxism to the future is a way of saying that the working class must wait its turn. Yet unless the working class can actively shape Grexit there is no guarantee that it will be able to bring about the socialist future Lapavitsas desires. Hence the significance of the demand (by the anti-capitalist left) that the banks should not only be put under state control but that they should be under workers’ control. To emphasise working class self-activity as the agent of change is to make Marxism actual in the debate about Grexit.19 A challenge, even a partial one, to the priorities of the system, like a left government nationalising the banks to restrict the flows of capital, will only be effective if there is control from below that can ensure that Grexit is ultimately in the interests of the working class, rather than the Greek ruling class.
The Keynesian form of Grexit we see here ducks the question of conflict between classes and looks to a solution via the existing nation state. The danger here is of nation trumping class—a real problem when we take into account the role played by the Independent Greeks (Anel) and other “independents” in shaping the politics of the coalition government (particularly around the inter-related issues of foreign policy, immigration, racism and fascism.
Why did a party of the radical left form a coalition with Anel? Anel is a right wing split from New Democracy. Its leader, Panos Kammenos, is “a nationalistic, right wing, archconservative, with strong anti-immigrant views and a deep antipathy to Germany”; he “doesn’t accept the separation of church and state in Greece and opposes civil unions for homosexual couples”. Kammenos also “opposes giving Greek citizenship to non-Greeks—including children born on Greek soil—and wants to see taxes on the rich lowered as a way to stimulate investment”.20
The justification given for the coalition was that, in the absence of an outright parliamentary majority, Syriza had no option but to form an alliance with the one anti-austerity party that would support it (the Communist Party—KKE—had ruled itself out). But parliamentary arithmetic doesn’t explain why Tsipras offered a New Democracy politician the post of presidency of the republic—nor why he offered important ministerial posts to non-party “independents”, almost entirely on the right, some of them not even MPs. As Panos Garganas explained in the previous issue of International Socialism, by putting Kammenos in charge of defence, Nikos Kotzias (an “independent”) in charge of foreign policy, and Yiannis Panousis (another “independent”) in charge of the police (“citizen protection”), Tsipras was sending a message that Syriza would not interfere in key areas of the state. This is part of the strategy of “compromise with capital”.21
The consequences of this have become clear. At the end of January Kammenos sought to ramp up nationalism by flying a helicopter over uninhabited islands contested between Greece and Turkey—“to show his patriotism and to honour those who died there”, an Anel spokesperson said.22 He even threatened in early March: “If Europe leaves us in the crisis, we will flood it with migrants, and it will be even worse for Berlin if in that wave of millions of economic migrants there will be some jihadists of the Islamic State too”.23
This sinister buffoonery was repudiated by the government but Kammenos, by pushing for the establishment of a new NATO base on Karpathos, on the edge of the Aegean sea, and purchasing new long-range missiles to support its aged (Russian-built) anti-aircraft system,24 has led the way for Tsipras to prove he can be trusted in matters of foreign policy. Tsipras’s aforementioned handshake with el-Sisi came at the conclusion of a political and economic deal with Cyprus and Egypt, designed to show that Greece could play a major role in the imperialist set-up in the region.
The negotiations with Russia provoked speculation that Greece was breaking from the West (due to a shared heritage, communist or religious, with Russia). The more likely explanation (apart from having to buy the missiles from Russia) is that a show of national independence would be a useful bargaining chip in the negotiations with the Eurogroup.25
As with foreign policy, so with domestic affairs, particularly around issues of violence, terrorism and immigration. Panousis has used his position as alternate minister of citizen protection to push a reactionary agenda. His reaction to the awful case of a Bulgarian man accused of killing, mutilating and cooking his daughter was to say that the prison code would ensure the man would soon “die” in prison (in other words, that he would rightly expect a death penalty that no longer exists in Greece).26 His reaction to direct action (including an invasion of the courtyard of parliament) by anarchists in support of hunger strikers was to lash out at government critics. “A left-wing government”, he wrote in the newspaper Ta Nea, “does not mean that the country and the cities should be left defenceless.” He also criticised the minister of justice for wanting to enter discussions with protesters and “hooded youths”: “Democracy does not speak with those who have no face”.27 Though none of this went unchallenged inside Syriza, Panoussis remains minister.
On immigration the progressive line the government initially took has slipped. In February, the alternate minister for immigration policy, Tasia Christodoulopoulou, a lawyer and activist very much respected on the left, promised immediate closure of the immigrant detention centres. She was genuinely shocked at the horrific conditions in which migrants were living (“These camps are incompatible with humanitarianism, the rule of law, and any sense of reason”28). But since then the government has retreated under pressure from the right wing argument that releasing immigrants would increase crime. “Two months into the new government only 500 detainees have been released—barely 10 percent of the total”.29 Panoussis said that police sweeps for illegal immigrants would restart in the centre of Athens. As Antarsya councillor Petros Constantinou says: “Those who don’t have papers will be arrested—and no migrants have been given papers for years”.30
Respecting parliamentary niceties
The strategy of compromise hopes that by letting the government’s junior partners run sensitive ministries the bourgeois state’s hostility to radical demands can be “contained”. The bargain Syriza proposes is that, in exchange for abiding by parliamentary norms, the other side will too—everyone will respect “democracy”. But far from protecting a government of the left from its enemies, such respect can be a noose around its neck. Nowhere is this clearer than with the deadliest enemy of the workers’ movement, the fascist Golden Dawn. Its reactionary ideology may not be unique, but what distinguishes it from the parliamentary right is its systematic use of often murderous violence for political ends (control of neighbourhoods, terrorising of minorities and the left). It seeks thereby to convince the ruling class that if respect for “democracy” can no longer safeguard the rule of capital, there exists a force that has already proved it can physically liquidate any resistance. That is why Golden Dawn is not just a party like any other (if much nastier) and why it cannot be allowed “democratic” space like any other.
Yet parliamentary speaker and Syriza MP Zoi Konstantopoulou chose to do precisely that. On 24 February she created uproar when she postponed a vote on lifting the immunity of New Democracy MP Adonis Georgiades on the grounds that imprisoned Golden Dawn MPs had been prevented from attending the vote. On 5 March she argued that parliament had been operating illegally over the previous few months because the imprisoned MPs were absent. On the same day she was reported as telling ERT Open in an interview that criminal behaviour by some did not mean that “Golden Dawn is politically an unacceptable party. That there are indications of Nazi ideas doesn’t mean we can impose discounts on democracy”.31
Konstantopoulou is a human rights lawyer, who favours suspending repayment of the debt for a year. Her hostility to racism and fascism is not in doubt. So the line she has taken towards Golden Dawn MPs can only be described as a surrender to the illusion that the rules of “democracy” have to be respected even with deadly opponents. The dangerous consequence has been a breach in the cordon sanitaire around the fascists that others have since widened. Included in the invitation to participate in a National Council of Foreign Policy meeting, on Greek-Turkish relations and the Cyprus issue, was Golden Dawn—who have publicly called on the Greek army to invade Istanbul!32 Kotzias, who chaired the meeting, justified the presence of Golden Dawn on the grounds that he was following the practice laid down by the parliamentary president, Zoi Konstantopoulou.
As the anti-racist and anti-fascist organisation, Keerfa, noted, in condemning this challenge to our collective freedoms: “the invitation is a mighty stab in the back of the anti-fascist movement battling to put the criminal Nazi organisation on trial and sentence the murderers of the assault battalions of the Golden Dawn”.33
The anti-capitalist left
This is where the strategy of the Syriza leadership can go. The revolt by the left started, as we noted, in February and has gained momentum as the retreat has worsened. At the central committee meeting on 24 May the Left Platform, which claims to constitute a third of the party’s membership, put forward a text calling for default, which only narrowly lost (by 75 to 95).34 The Left Platform has between 25 and 32 MPs and several ministers, the most important of whom is its leader, Panayiotis Lafazanis. This gives the Left Platform real influence. Given that a significant number of other MPs may prove reluctant to vote for an unacceptable deal, the chances of Tsipras, with his narrow parliamentary majority, avoiding a crisis are uncertain.35 What this might mean for the future of the government and the party (fresh elections, a split in Syriza?) is equally uncertain—though there is much speculation.36
This revolt poses an immense challenge for the Syriza left. Lafazanis has argued that the left can succeed but that, if it cannot, staying true to principle is more important than staying in office: “There is nothing more repulsive or alien to me than the idea of power for power’s sake… If we cannot succeed, the best thing we can do is hand over the baton. But we can, and will, succeed by showing determination, courage and dedication to our principles”.37 This recognition of the limits of electoralism is important. But it raises even more acutely the question of whether the left should confine itself to struggling for dominance within a party that has proved to be shaped by electoralism. This is where the politics of the anti-capitalist left, outside Syriza, deserves something other than dismissal as marginal.
On the face of it, however, this assessment of the anti-capitalist left grouped in Antarsya (the Front of the Anticapitalist Left) seems the obvious one. Antarsya won 0.64 percent of the vote in the January national election, proof, apparently, that an independent left is doomed, like the truly sectarian Communist Party (with 5.5 percent of the vote), to passive denunciation of Syriza from the sidelines.38 It would, of course, be extremely foolish to ignore electoral reality (or pretend that the danger of sectarianism does not exist). But this does not tell anything like the whole story. Even on the difficult terrain of electoral politics Antarsya has had some success on the local and regional level (25 local councillors and nine regional councillors—very small numbers, of course, compared with Syriza). Closer examination of the January national vote shows something else. In the “B Athens” district, which includes working class areas, Antarsya got 0.88 percent of the vote and the left as a whole around 45 percent of the vote (with Syriza on 37.09 percent and the KKE on 6.93 percent).39 In the Peristeri working class area of “B Athens”, Antarsya got 1.17 percent and the left won an absolute majority (with Syriza on 43.37 percent and the KKE on 8.81 percent).40 The point is not to big up the vote for the anti-capitalist left. What these better than average results for the revolutionary left do suggest, however, is that a minority of workers who might otherwise have voted for Syriza (as the best way to beat the right) opted for the anti-capitalist left.
On the terrain of struggle itself the picture is much more favourable to the anti-capitalist left. On the executive committee of the confederation of public sector unions (ADEDY), which includes teachers, nurses and municipal workers, Antarsya has two seats out of a total of 17—ie roughly 12 percent.41 And on the ground, among such workers, the influence of Antarsya is widely recognised. Thus Antarsya’s social weight is much greater than its electoral score indicates. As far as students are concerned, here again the anti-capitalist left shows its strength. In the student union elections in early May, when 65,000 students voted across Greece in one day, EAAK (the United Independent Left Movement—supported by Antarsya) got 13.7 percent of the vote.42 In other words, there is not a wall between the anti-capitalist left and those who, in one way or another, look to Syriza.
It is also worth noting in passing that to dismiss the KKE just because of its sectarianism would be foolish. It retains real influence in key struggles (like the Coca Cola strike and boycott), among dockers and in the private sector, as well as the public sector.
The second justification for those who say that the only real home for the left is Syriza is based on an assessment of the political capacity of the workers’ movement. The argument here is that in 2012 workers realised that purely economic action (strikes, demonstrations, etc) could not stop the implementation of austerity and that a political solution was now needed. The decline in the number of general strikes was, it is sometimes said, a reflection of the turn of the struggle from the economic to the political, and a turn by the movement to support for Syriza as the party that, through taking governmental power, would implement what the movement, despite sustained and heroic struggle, had not been able to deliver for itself—that is, to cancel the debt.
But though most workers will have drawn the political conclusion that the road out of austerity ran through electing Syriza, it is a mistake, as we have seen from an analysis of the polls, that majority consciousness is fixed and stable. Struggle can shift it forward—and the state of the movement since 2012 is very far from being one of overall “exhaustion” or “pause”. To see the workers’ movement in these terms can serve as cover for the strategy of compromise—there is no alternative to a deal, much as one might like to hold out—which is to blame the workers for one’s own backsliding. It can also serve as justification for seeing the terrain of political struggle as largely confined to what happens inside Syriza—with the fight for an alternative strategy being something that is done on behalf of a movement with little voice of its own.
The state of the workers’ movement
So what has been the state of the movement since 2012 and what political conclusions might be drawn?
The first thing to note is that the workers’ movement remains mobilised ever since destroying the parties that formed the political backbone of parliamentary rule (Pasok and New Democracy). These parties have enjoyed no political recovery despite Syriza’s move to the right. This represents a truly significant achievement by the movement when we consider what happened under François Mitterrand in France after 1981, when disillusion with the Socialist Party government’s austerity measures resulted in a growth of right wing forces, including an electoral breakthrough by the fascist Front National. This is how we should interpret Syriza’s continuing popularity in the polls—as a vote of confidence by the movement in itself.
Concretely, we see this continued mobilisation in the way in which the struggles that took off between 2012 and 2014 have remained strong and determined. One striking case has been that of the women cleaners, who kept their protest camp outside the Ministry of Finance even after Syriza was elected. They did not, in other words, demobilise because they trusted in Syriza to give them their jobs back. They kept up the pressure to ensure that Syriza would. The same determination is true of the school guards and of the ERT occupation, and the associated networks of solidarity.
This mobilisation has not simply been an “economic” one (against the Memorandum) as workplaces rallied in support of the international day of action against racism on 21 March showed. And (even more importantly) the public sector trade union confederation, ADEDY, called for a four-hour stoppage on the day the Golden Dawn trial opened on 20 April. Support for immigrants, demands for the closure of the “concentration camp” for migrants on the Greek island of Amygdaleza, and resistance to racism and fascism show the workers’ movement taking seriously its role as tribune of the oppressed.
The wave of radicalisation to the left has brought to the fore new forces as the composition of the working class has changed. Women’s participation in the struggle has markedly increased (the most visible symbol of this being the cleaners). Migrants, far from being marginal victims, have joined the movement through their own self-organisation. For example, the Manolada strawberry pickers in Peloponnese responded to the bosses’ horrific violence by forming their own union. Other immigrant workers have done the same.
These developments are a challenge to prevailing ideas of sexism and racism. Thus the cleaners and the school guards were at the forefront of celebrating International Women’s Day on 8 March and welcoming the Pride demonstration against homophobia. Shifts like this in political consciousness, broadening the workers’ movement against the Memorandum to take on oppression, are immensely important in resisting the ruling class attempts to divide and weaken the class.43
The continuing level of mobilisation has seen not only a continuation of strikes and struggles that started in the period before Syriza’s victory (at Coca Cola, for example) but a new wave of industrial action since. Workers in the mobile telephone industry (Wind, Vodafone and Forthnet) have fought for a new collective agreement; a metro workers’ strike over conditions took place on 19 March; dockers have fought privatisation; civil aviation staff have taken action; and, crucially, hospital workers have gone on strike over the staffing crisis caused by austerity. ADEDY has called a demonstration demanding that the debt be cancelled.
The health workers’ strike is the biggest so far under Syriza. It shows that workers are prepared to take action for themselves to fight austerity, rather than wait. But, disturbingly, the Syriza health trade union, META, has argued that the strike is being driven by trade unionists hostile to Syriza in order to legitimate pro-Memorandum political interests.44 This shows where the logic of compromise with capital can lead—to workers in struggle being attacked by their “own” party, effectively on the grounds that “excessive” action will only suit the class enemy. At the moment, however, this doesn’t seem to be holding back those sections of the movement who want to continue the fight against austerity from below.
The development of the ERT occupation movement is a good example of action from below and workers’ control versus that of the bosses. The state broadcasting network ERT was closed without warning by the Tory government of Antonis Samaras in 2013 in a move designed to show its determination to implement the Troika-demanded privatisation programme, which had not at that point enjoyed overwhelming success in opening up the Greek economy to neoliberalism. Targeting the state broadcaster was, therefore, of enormous political significance—intended, at the same time, as a decisive blow against resistance to authority. But the closure backfired spectacularly. Far from being cowed, the workers moved into occupation and used their occupation as a rallying call to the rest of the movement to resist. Though the police managed to evict the workers in the Athens ERT, the occupation continued, most notably in Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki. Though prevented from broadcasting in the old way, the new workers’ TV station continued with an online service.
This occupation45 was highly political. It was not just about saving jobs; it was about saving a public service and running it in the interests of the working class as a whole. To the politics of neoliberalism the occupation opposed a politics of workers’ power—a new way in which society could run its affairs. They recreated public broadcasting as a genuine community service, open to working class and popular interests (and a lot livelier than its rather dull forebear). The occupation acted as a centre of struggle and solidarity for disputes like those of the women cleaners and school guards, as well as the long-running environmental campaign, involving whole communities, to end gold mining at Skouries in Halkidiki in northern Greece. What started as resistance to the old government has become, with Syriza’s victory, a demand that re-establishing a state broadcaster (as the government has promised) must not be an occasion to re-establish old management structures.
The Syriza victory did not mean an end to the occupation. Rather it used Syriza’s promise to re-establish a state broadcaster to insist that a new ERT would not be managed in the old way. The workers had tasted freedom from the bosses and were not going to sacrifice that freedom. Stelios Nikitopoulos, one of the leading figures in the Thessaloniki occupation, interviewed in early April, spoke of the political significance of this:
What we won during this struggle we must maintain in the future. When ERT is relaunched, it must have as its principles, freedom of expression, self-regulation, be a voice for the weak and be a voice for the movement fighting for a better life.
The proposed legislation does not include self-regulation, which sustained us the whole time we’ve been occupying and running ERT. In addition it left out all the staff that were in fixed term contracts; it included only permanent staff. Further, there is the issue of the volunteers who offered us solidarity and worked ensuring we ran the programmes. For example, here at ERT 3 in Thessaloniki, these volunteers are responsible for half the workload producing the programmes we ran.
We expect a more radical change for us, to reflect the political change in Greece. We want to become a counter-voice… ERT is no longer simply a broadcasting organisation; we are a movement together with other movements united with those out fighting. We united with those fighting to get their jobs back, school caretakers, finance ministry women cleaners; with the strikers at the Coca Cola factory and the workers of the cement factory in Halkida, fighting for their factories to reopen; with workers at the Viome factory abandoned by management and operating for the last two years with just the workers running it. We united with the residents of Halkidiki fighting against proposed mining for gold that would destroy their land, fighting for clean air and water, health and freedom. These are the people who after the closure of ERT, while on a demonstration in Thessaloniki, changed the route of the demo and came here at ERT 3, with the slogan “From Skouries to ERT 3, struggle for land and freedom”.46
This gives us a magnificent sense of how workers’ power and solidarity have developed and continue to develop.
It has, inevitably, meant conflict with the government over the way a reconstituted public broadcasting service should be run. The government has honoured its pledge to re-open ERT (which is entirely to be welcomed). But its strategy of compromise continues at this level too. The new CEO appointed by the government, Lambis Tagmatarchis, is a former top manager of ERT, very much part of the media establishment, who served as director under the Pasok government.47 This led to protests within Syriza and opposition from the unions, whose president is being pointedly excluded from the new board, on which he previously sat. Furthermore, the employees who chose to work for the slimmed-down replacement set up by Samaras after closing down ERT (a scab operation, effectively) will also get their jobs back.48 So the plan is for a return to business as usual, with the position of management reinforced.
Whatever the outcome, a leading group of workers are not prepared to accept re-establishment of the state broadcaster on terms that reflect the priorities of capital. Many of these workers undoubtedly define themselves as Syriza supporters. But, through their own struggles, they are finding their way to a different kind of politics from electoral politics, one based on the potentiality of workers to run society for themselves and on their own self-managed forms of organisation. It is this that the left inside Syriza should look to in its struggle against the leadership. If it fails to understand that the workers’ movement has not halted it will find itself disarmed and at a disadvantage in respect of the leadership.49
It should be noted that the right has attempted to find a point of entry into the workers’ movement. It “supported” a demonstration mounted by the gold miners’ union against the campaign to stop gold mining in Halkidiki on the grounds that its members’ jobs were threatened—as if lining up behind the company was not an even bigger threat to the livelihoods of everyone in the area.50
Confronting the fascists
It is not just the ERT occupation that was politically important in this period of apparent “lull”. Of equal importance was the breakthrough by the anti-racist and anti-fascist struggle under the leadership of Keerfa, following the murder of rapper Pavlos Fyssas in September 2013. Already the demonstration in January of that year had seen a major shift when thousands of protesters, headed by Pakistani migrants and led by Javed Aslam, president of the Pakistani community of Greece, gathered to mourn the brutal murder of a young Pakistani worker, Shehzad Luqman. The march symbolised the real possibility of unity between “native” and “immigrant”—a unity that would inspire immigrants to see themselves as organising alongside Greek workers and that could begin to break down divisions. Though Syriza members attended, they largely did so as individuals. It was the anti-capitalist left that had taken the lead and gave the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement real strength—in particular to sink roots the better to challenge Golden Dawn in every locality. The necessity of this was only too evident given the offensive by the New Democracy government and the police (in cahoots with the fascists) to intimidate migrants, trade unionists and the left.
The explosion of anger triggered by Fyssas’s murder later that year forced the government to reverse course and start arresting leading fascist MPs. It’s difficult to believe they would have done so if they had not (rightly) realised the danger of the mass anti-racist and anti-fascist movement fusing with the struggle against austerity. Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers walked out on strike. On 26 September, a week after the murder, 50,000 demonstrators filled central Athens. As Katerina Thoidou of Keerfa put it: “People didn’t just want to dissolve the Golden Dawn, but to bring down the government. They are so angry at the government, the courts and the police that spent so long trying not to notice the Golden Dawn and all its attacks”.51 The authority won by the anti-capitalist left was shown by the fact that only around 1,000 people stayed behind for the concert organised by Syriza. The vast majority of the demonstration marched with Keerfa to the headquarters of Golden Dawn. The politics of mass, direct action proved to have more appeal. Syriza was, one can assume, keen not to take responsibility for a clash with the forces of law and order that might question its commitment to “democratic” forms of protest—the same commitment that led Zoi Konstantopoulou to allow the fascist MPs parliamentary rights.
The mobilisation around the Golden Dawn trial is about more than ensuring that a few fascist criminals are imprisoned. It has a broader remit. Kevin Ovenden has well explained what is at stake:
Three major criminal cases are themselves a core part of the wider proceedings. They are the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, the near fatal attack on a group of Egyptian fishermen in the Perama area of Piraeus, the port of Athens, and a similarly ferocious attack in the same area on Communist-organised trade unionists of the PAME inter-union front.
In addition to reaching verdicts on these three crimes, the court will hear evidence about others where there have already been convictions. The prosecution will then seek to show that all of these crimes, committed by Golden Dawn members, are not incidental to their perpetrators’ membership of the organisation, but in fact flow from it.
The gist of the fascists’ defence is that the organisation cannot be held responsible for the criminal activity of its members. But Golden Dawn (GD) is not a chess club, where it would be unreasonable to hold the secretary responsible for the driving offences of one of its players.
The anti-fascist case is that the actual organisation of GD, its core around which all the trappings of a political party are merely a carapace, is a hierarchical, violent gang with a command structure organised on the national-socialist fuehrerprinzip—ie strongman rule from top to bottom.52
The KKE’s involvement in the case has led it, if not to unity with the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement, into a cautious alignment with it. The final point to make here is the obvious one, that the process of justice through the bourgeois law courts will not be sufficient to end the threat from Golden Dawn. The fascist defendants have many more resources, in lawyers alone, than the prosecuting team and its legal supporters can muster—except in the one resource that can really do for the fascists, a mobilised anti-fascist movement. This is vital if the struggle to end austerity is not able to destroy a force that will stick at nothing to divide and demoralise those fighting back.
There exists, then, a strategy for beating austerity rooted in the way the working class movement has developed, whatever the outcome of the negotiations. The reason for stressing this is to counter the danger of believing that once a deal is signed all possibilities of resistance will be exhausted. This is the flip side of identifying the political hopes of the movement as identical to what Syriza stands for—and so seeing the battle over an alternative strategy as defined by the battle between the leadership and the left inside Syriza. Optimism is replaced by pessimism. No doubt signing the deal will have a negative effect on people’s hopes in Syriza. But that should not determine the strategy of the left.
The point of this article is not simply to condemn Syriza and all its works. Denunciation (of the contemplative sort) carries its own dangers of passivity. The point is to welcome the Syriza left’s condemnation of the leadership’s backslidings but to ask the question, what is to be done? And a sign of the shortcomings of the left inside Syriza is that it is very weak in this respect. This should come as no surprise as it tends to concentrate its efforts on whether it can command a majority in the party to force the leadership to change. But here the Syriza left faces an overwhelming obstacle. For all its claims to be a different kind of party, Syriza is locked into an electoralist strategy and this is what gives the leadership, under Tsipras, the whip hand. Even assuming that the left could overturn Tsipras (or, indeed, would be united enough to carry its opposition to such lengths, let alone succeed in forcing the dismissal of right wing, reactionary ministers), what would it then do? It would face the same dilemma and would be in charge of a party not equipped, because of its fundamental orientation towards working within the state, to resolve the dilemma in the interests of the working class.
But that does not mean that the divisions within Syriza are unimportant. The left may not have the power it thinks it has (indeed, such power as it has to contest the leadership is derivative of the power of the movement) but many of those fighting the bosses, fighting the state and fighting racism or fascism, support the Syriza left. The revolutionary left’s capacity to grow depends, first and foremost, on its political independence. But that independence is sterile unless it finds ways to work with much broader forces. If, of course, it fails (in a kind of mirror image to the illusions of the Syriza left) to understand the contradictory consciousness of the working class (a consciousness pulled between hope in a left government and confidence in its own struggles, a consciousness that is uneven in individual heads and between sections of the class), then it cannot understand the centrality of the united front strategy. An example of where the united front works is with the anti-racist and anti-fascist struggle—and we saw the importance of pulling Syriza into this struggle in what happened in the mass demonstration that marched on the Golden Dawn headquarters.
Another example is that of the anti-capitalist left’s programme of demands. The anti-capitalist left is not, as it is sometimes accused of, “demanding revolution” (as a maximalist point of differentiation in order to prove that Syriza will always “betray” the cause). That is to misunderstand the meaning of revolutionary politics. To be a revolutionary is certainly to believe that only revolution can ultimately solve the crisis of the system. But that doesn’t just mean propagandising for revolution. It means putting forward partial demands, demands for reform, to mobilise the working class and make actual in the consciousness of workers the need for revolution. This is the basis of the anti-capitalist left’s programme: its demands “fit” the objective needs of the situation and begin to “fit” what workers feel they can fight for. In the process of realising these demands workers will lead a broader challenge to the system.
These demands—dropping the debt, exit from the euro and control over capital—relate to the objective needs of the situation and are, as we have seen, shared by the left more broadly. They also bring to the fore the question of agency—workers’ control, when it comes to the state taking over the banks, and working class unity, in the fight against racism and fascism and in defence of migrants, both of which are paramount in the struggle against capital. The point here is that the question of workers’ control and of workers’ unity is not one sucked out of the thumb of the anti-capitalist left—these demands are “realistic” because the workers’ movement as it exists has made steps towards their realisation (the ERT occupation and solidarity network, on the one hand, and the anti-racist and anti-fascist movements, on the other).
The Syriza left is at a crossroads. For all the belief that Syriza is a different kind of party, one that transcends the division between reform and revolution and therefore should be the home for the entire left, its left faces exactly the same problem as the reformist left in social democracy—the trap of impotence. This article is written in the spirit of offering an alternative, around which the left as a whole can unite.
1: Garganas, 2015, p20.
3: Kouvelakis, 2015a.
4: Hope, 2015a.
5: Spiegel, 2015.
6: Ekathimerini, 2015a.
8: Tsipras, 2015.
9: Reuters, 2015a.
10: Chrysopoulos, 2015, our emphasis.
11: Marantzidis and Siakis, 2015.
12: Khan, 2015.
13: Rachman, 2015.
14: See, for example, Münchau, 2015.
15: Hope, 2015b. Milios is not part of the Left Platform group within Syriza headed by Lafazanis, though in resigning from the Syriza Economic Policy Department in mid-March he was breaking with the leadership majority.
16: Evans-Pritchard, 2015.
17: Lapavitsas, 2015.
18: Roberts, 2015.
19: Lapavitsas attacks the revolutionary left for displaying what he calls a “profound fear of power” (Budgen and Lapavitsas, 2015). Revolutionaries are not afraid of power. They want to develop the one power that can challenge and overthrow capital: workers’ power. What they reject is the illusion of power that comes with holding parliamentary office. To deny the relevance of Marxism in the present is, in effect, to run the risk of repeating the mistake of Second International Marxism and separate socialism as a long-term goal from the day to day business of “practical” politics (ie reformism).
20: Bouras and Granitsas, 2015.
21: Garganas, 2015.
22: Reuters, 2015b.
23: Withnall, 2015.
24: Ekathimerini, 2015b.
25: The Eurosceptic Daily Telegraph writer Ambrose Evans-Pritchard suggests that Vladimir Putin may have offered Greece financial inducements over a gas pipeline that would have allowed Greece to meet IMF payments and then default. But he admits that this would not solve any of Greece’s problems. And it is unlikely that Russia, with enough difficulties of its own, would be willing to underwrite Greek debt-Evans-Pritchard, 2015.
26: Ekathimerini, 2015c.
27: Reported in To Vima, 2015.
28: Ekathimerini, 2015d.
29: Constantinou, 2015.
30: Constantinou, 2015.
31: In Defense of Greek Workers, 2015.
32: Human Rights First, 2015.
33: Zafiropoulos, 2015.
34: Kouvelakis, 2015b.
35: Crash magazine online, 2015.
36: Khan, 2015.
37: Zikakou, 2015.
38: Nationally Syriza won 36.3 percent of the vote.
39: See the official figures at http://ekloges.ypes.gr/current/v/public/index.html
40: See the official figures at http://ekloges.ypes.gr/current/v/public/index.html
42: I Avgi, 2015.
43: See Styllou, 2015.
44: Michaelides, 2015.
45: Not the first in the media: the newspaper Eleftherotypia had seen a long occupation by journalists starting in late 2011 when closed by its owners.
46: Interview by Despina Karayianni, 1 April 2015, at ERT occupation, Thessaloniki. (Thanks to Dimitris Hadjidimitriou for help in translation.)
47: Kouvelakis, 2015b.
48: Enikos.gr, 2015.
49: Stathis Kouvelakis, in an otherwise interesting discussion about the history, evolution and composition of Syriza, limits discussion of the movement to a throwaway comment about “an atmosphere of relative demoralisation and passivity-despite, of course, important sectoral struggles” since 2012, to which he revealingly adds that “the line of Syriza from that perspective is more one of an adaptation to the dominant trend”-Budgen and Kouvelakis, 2015. A leading Trotskyist inside Syriza, Antonis Ntavellanos, interviewed by the New Anticapitalist Party (in France), is astonishingly pessimistic: “We were hoping that the political victory of Syriza would lead to an explosion of struggles, of demands and claims. This was not the case. A state of passivity has settled in Greece today while people wait for the outcome of the negotiations”-NPA, 2015.
50: Dascalopoulos, 2015.
51: Sewell, 2013.
52: Ovenden, 2015.
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