The election victory of Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece has galvanised the radical left internationally. With parliamentary elections due in the Spanish state later this year, the prospect of a left front against austerity in Europe has opened up. But the hopes Syriza’s victory evoked were badly jolted by the agreement that the new Greek government under Alexis Tsipras made with the Eurogroup (the eurozone finance ministers) on 20 February. Under its terms, not only was Greece’s debt burden not reduced, but the bail-out under the supervision of the hated Troika (the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund), renamed the “Institutions”, which Syriza promised to scrap, continues.
The advances of Syriza in Greece and of Podemos in Spain have also revived longer-standing debates about socialist strategy. International Socialism is playing an active part in these debates, organising a forum in central London in which Stathis Kouvelakis of Syriza and Alex Callinicos of the Socialist Workers Party discussed the significance of Syriza’s victory.1 Panos Garganas of the Greek Socialist Workers Party (SEK) continues the debate in this interview.
What is the significance of Syriza’s election victory on 25 January and of the formation of a government led by Syriza?
There are two important points that come out of this result. The first is the failure of austerity politics to solve the crisis in the Greek case, and the second is the extent of the swing to the left. I think that both these developments are obviously significant in the Greek case, but they have wider implications across Europe.
To take up the first point, throughout 2014 the then Greek government (a coalition of the main centre-right and centre-left parties, respectively New Democracy and Pasok, under Antonis Samaras) had a perspective that, if they achieved a large enough budget surplus, that would be the end of the crisis—it would convince the markets that the Greek debt is sustainable, the spreads would come down, and Greece would be back to normal.2 And that was used very, very strongly as government propaganda. It collapsed in the autumn, when there was a day of panic in the financial markets, with a movement away from risky placements towards safe havens. And that meant that the spreads on Greek bonds went through the roof. It was obvious to everybody that that was a new failure for the umpteenth time in the past five years. So this is one aspect that’s particularly important because it poses the question of an alternative, of which way it would be possible to break out of this cycle of austerity that doesn’t solve the problems and repeats itself in a vicious circle.
Despite the failure of austerity the Samaras government waged a very strong fight to survive in office. They tried to create a presidential majority to avoid an election (if parliament fails to elect the president of the republic, a general election has to take place). The election of a new president was coming up, and they tried very hard to rally all political forces against the left on the basis of electing a president to avoid an election and in this way save Greece from a victory of the left. This was a particularly vicious campaign—they tried to bribe MPs, they put huge pressure on different smaller parties and so on, but they failed. They failed, first, because all the parties had realised that the politics of austerity had come to an impasse, and, secondly, they were at the same time under huge pressure from the mood inside the population. The shift to the left was visible and palpable: it was a factor in preventing Samaras from getting a presidential majority and avoiding the election.
So once the election came about the swing to the left was massive. In Greece there’s never been this kind of situation where the left can have a majority and, particularly in working class areas, that was an absolute majority, the total share of the vote for parties of the left was above 50 percent. Another indication of how massive the radicalisation has been was that in working class areas the Communist Party (KKE) had a bigger share of the vote than the fascists of Golden Dawn.
This again is an indication of what has been happening in the previous period. Golden Dawn had risen to prominence, entering parliament, in 2012, and there was nothing automatic about what would happen between 2012 and 2015. The danger that the pain of austerity might lead people to look to the far-right was quite real. But that’s not how things turned out. The swing was to the left, and that’s seen obviously by the victory of Syriza, but also by the fact that Golden Dawn was held back. That was the result of a continuing wave of radicalisation.
This is something that stands out in the Greek experience. That was quite obvious in the first period, from 2010 to 2012, when there was a wave of general strikes opposing the bail-out and the conditions of austerity imposed by the bail-out. This wave continued in the next two years, from 2012 right up to this election, and if anything people became more radicalised. That can be seen by the rise of the anti-fascist movement—there were huge demonstrations after Pavlos Fyssas was murdered by the neo-Nazis in September 2013. And it’s also seen in the activities of groups of workers that continued the fightback, like the workers at ERT, the Greek broadcasting company, which was shut down in June 2013. The response of the media workers was to occupy ERT and keep it open until the police moved in to shut the place down. So we have a combination of both factors—the severity of the crisis and a massive wave of radicalisation. This is the basis of the election result that brought Syriza to government.
So we have this process of radicalisation that begins in 2010 and that finds expression in the election result. Of course, this means that the expectations in Syriza were absolutely massive. We’re now in the middle of March, about six weeks after the government was formed. So what’s your assessment of the performance of the government so far, particularly in the light of the agreement with the Eurogroup in Brussels on 20 February?
Well, first of all let’s talk about the expectations. The election result strengthened the expectations. Because the fightback by the previous government was so tough there were lots of people who were not sure that the left might win. After the election, when it was proven that the old parties had collapsed, there’s been a continuation of the move to the left, so opinion polls show that Syriza now leads the Tories by over 20 points—New Democracy is under 20 percent and Syriza is over 40 percent. So this is one aspect that shows that people were expecting a sign of hope. That came on 25 January. If anything, the election result has moved the radicalisation forward.
The other way we saw the expectations coming to the fore was by the demonstrations in the squares when the government was formed and when the negotiations with the Eurogroup started. People came out in the demonstrations in a show of support for the Syriza government and also as a way of expressing their hope that it would not compromise. This is the crucial aspect of what’s been happening over the past few weeks. The government has compromised, and it has compromised badly. The agreement that has been reached traps the new government in a new cycle of austerity. They have to repay parts of the debt that mature over the next six months and there’s no financial help from the European Central Bank (ECB) or any other European institution. They have to raise the money by imposing cuts. That is a terrible prospect.
It doesn’t mean that people have become disappointed as a result of the agreement. No, I don’t think there are signs of that. There’s lots of fighting spirit. This is shown by the fact that groups of workers and the trade unions are insisting that their demands shall be met. For example, the ERT workers are expecting to get their jobs back. In fact one of the first bills in parliament will be a reopening of ERT. The terms of reopening are not what the ERT workers expected and are demanding. But still it’s a sign that the government is under pressure not only from the eurozone authorities but also from the expectations of people inside Greece.
The way the government is trying to explain what it has done is to argue that this is a temporary arrangement for four months, and then things will improve; then there will be some leeway to change the terms of the Greek debt, and that will improve the situation. In reality, one of the big concessions that the government has made was to drop the demand for a cancellation of the debt. Syriza was not in favour of cancelling the debt full stop. The position was that they would demand and negotiate a partial cancellation of the debt. But even that was dropped under pressure. So that means that what will follow after the four months of this agreement will be more of the same. The Greek debt is not sustainable by any means. So even if the terms are ameliorated, it will mean that a Syriza government will have to produce surpluses in the Greek budget to keep servicing the debt, and that of course means more cuts and privatisations.
This has happened very, very quickly, very, very suddenly; it’s a U-turn that’s very abrupt. The consequences are only now beginning to be felt. And what is at stake, of course, is whether opposition to this deal will continue to the left or people will start getting disappointed. At this stage the prospect of a fightback against the deal is quite open. This is the mood that’s prevailing, and it’s also a question of who does the running. The reactions to the deal have come from the left. The right is so weakened it has resorted to a policy of: “Well, we told you so. Syriza is coming to terms with reality. This is welcome; let’s put some more pressure, and it will compromise even more”.
But that’s not the main theme right now. The main theme is reaction from the left. When the resistance hero Manolis Glezos made the statement that you cannot present the deal in good terms, it’s like presenting meat as fish (he was using a Greek expression), he caught the mood of everybody: “This is a compromise, it’s a step back, and it’s no use trying to gloss it over.” Another person who summed up the mood brilliantly is Panayotis Kalfayianis, the leader of POSPERT, the union of ERT media workers. He said that this means “the left does not govern; it is governed”.
Just specifically on the debate about the deal, of course there is an argument that this was a compromise, but it’s a way of buying time for the government. It doesn’t mean that it’s abandoning its reform programme. This is an argument that’s been put quite strongly outside Greece by, for example, Étienne Balibar.3 You don’t think this is a credible argument?
No. There are two reasons for that. One is that the concessions for buying time are huge—dropping the demand for even a partial cancellation of the debt, and insisting that any solution has to be found within the confines of the eurozone. These are huge restrictions on the government. These restrictions won’t go away in four months time or in six months time. There’s a second point. The broader context is not improving. Part of the government’s argument is that the whole of Europe will shift away from austerity because the ECB is launching into a programme of quantitative easing. But this has no real basis. There’s no prospect on the horizon that the economic situation will move towards a strong recovery and therefore Syriza will have more leeway.
In reality, who is buying time? It’s not Syriza who’s buying time. The German government is buying time. They know they’re facing a year with elections in Spain, in Ireland, in many places, and they face the prospect that a revolt to the left against austerity could spread across Europe. So forcing Syriza into a humiliating compromise gives them time to stave off this wave of rebellion against austerity. This is how, I think, we should read the situation. It is not Syriza who has bought time. The compromise has given more leeway to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, to play their political games.
OK: so what we’ve seen, as you’ve said, very quickly is the exposure of the central contradiction in Syriza’s programme, which was that we can break with austerity on a negotiated basis within the framework of the eurozone and the EU. But, of course, this has been challenged from the left, most clearly and systematically by Antarsya (the Front of the Anticapitalist Left) with its programme of a break with the euro and nationalising the banks, an offensive programme of reforms that is willing to confront the core centres of European capitalism.
But there is also within Syriza the Left Platform, which has had a broadly comparable approach. We’ve heard quite a lot about opposition to the Brussels deal from within Syriza, within the Central Committee, among MPs. So it would be interesting to know what the response to the deal has been within the left, broadly understood—Syriza, Antarsya, and so on—but also within the workers’ movement more generally. To what extent is the deal leading to the crystallisation of some sort of left alternative to the policies of Tsipras and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis?
Now this is an open possibility. There was widespread reaction to the deal inside Syriza. The parliamentary group had a session where there was a presentation on the deal by Tsipras and at the end of the meeting he asked MPs to indicate whether they would vote to support the deal or not. The result was very bad for Tspiras. Syriza has 149 MPs—38 were absent, 70 voted for Tsipras, and 30 to 40 either voted against or abstained. Effectively in that meeting he got the support of just under half of the parliamentary group. This is a sign of how widespread opposition to the deal is.
After that discussion in the parliamentary group the government decided that the deal will not be ratified by the Greek parliament. Legally they’ve found a way where it’s not necessary for the Greek parliament to vote on the deal. But politically it means that they realise that if the deal came to parliament there would be Syriza MPs who would join with the Communist Party in voting against it. The deal would go through because the other parties, ie the right wing parties, would vote for the deal. But still the government would have been faced with a humiliating rebellion. The same trend was visible in the Central Committee, where there was a debate, and in the final resolution the Left Platform introduced an amendment. They lost the amendment, but the share of the vote they got was higher than the share the Left Platform usually commands in the Central Committee. It means that people who used to be in Tsipras’s camp expressed their disagreement with the deal.
This, of course, is not a one-way street. There are efforts to defuse this rebellion. One way of doing this is by persisting with presenting the advantages of the deal, but that’s not getting anywhere because the interpretation of the deal by the Eurogroup authorities is tougher than what was initially presented. There is no “creative ambiguity”, as Varoufakis put it—all the ambiguities are being interpreted towards stiffer terms.
The other way of dealing with this inside the government has been for anti-German politics to come to the fore. The government includes the Independent Greeks (ANEL), who are a breakaway from the Tories. Panos Kammenos, who is the leader of the Independent Greeks and now holds the ministry of defence, made a statement that, if the German government does not soften its stance, we have ways of responding; for example, we’ll start ignoring the restrictions and we’ll start allowing immigrants and refugees to go to Berlin. That statement was echoed by the foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, who said: if they keep on putting the pressure on Greece and it collapses, that will open the door for the jihadi threat to reach Central Europe.
This kind of political manoeuvring is trying to deflect the agenda. It’s a very dangerous move, and it’s creating lots of problems. Syriza had an anti-racist agenda. Syriza had the prospect of abolishing the concentration camps for illegal immigrants that were set up by the previous government. Now this agenda is being pushed back because of this kind of nationalist politicking. One way that the left has to respond is not just on opposition to austerity, opposition to the deal on the basis that it imposes austerity, but also by raising anti-racist politics. The mobilisation for the international anti-racist day of action on 21 March is an important step in this direction.
There is a debate opening up inside the left on why Syriza is behaving like that. This started when the government was formed and the Independent Greeks were invited to join the government. At first people were saying that Tsipras was two MPs short of a majority so he had to find an ally and the Independent Greeks were the only thing available. But then gradually this argument receded, because it became more and more clear that it was not a matter of finding a few more MPs to have a parliamentary majority. It was a strategic decision on the part of Alexis Tsipras about what sort of support he’s seeking.
To clarify this—he not only invited Kammenos into the government; he invited Yiannis Panousis, who is the minister responsible for the police. Now Panousis doesn’t add anything to the parliamentary majority; he’s not an MP. His background is somewhere between the Democratic Left (a right wing breakaway from Syriza) and Pasok. In reality, it was an appointment in the same spirit as the appointment of Kammenos in the ministry of defence: keep the generals quiet; they have their own trusted ministers at the head of the ministry that’s responsible for the army, the ministry that’s responsible for the police. And the same applies to giving the foreign office to Nikos Kotzias. He’s not a person of the left. He’s closer to Kammenos and the Independent Greeks. So we have a government where three crucial ministries, the ones that have to do with the deep state—let’s put it that way—are in the hands of people that send the message that a Syriza government will not touch these areas of the state; you can be relaxed about that.
Now this is an indication of the sort of fight the left has to face—inside Syriza, first of all. The disagreements with the deal have to be generalised. The Syriza left faces a fight. The Syriza leadership is controlled by Tsipras, and it’s not just a temporary compromise. His strategic orientation is towards compromise with capital, and therefore that opens up a whole area for people inside Syriza to confront.
Let me then ask you about the forces independent of Syriza on the left. There’s, of course, the Communist Party, which saw its vote rise in the election. But from our point of view more important is Antarsya and SEK as part of Antarsya. SEK and Antarsya were attacked a lot at the time of the 2012 elections for taking a stance independent of Syriza, but one might argue now that that stance is beginning to be vindicated.
This is the starting point. The debate about what sort of party Syriza is has been going on for a long time, both inside Greece and outside Greece. The voices that were warning that this is a party of left reformism were attacked—you know this very well. Now, of course, it turns out that it’s very important to have a correct assessment of where Syriza is heading. And the latest moves by Alexis Tsipras are confirming this.
That, of course, is not the end of the story. That gives you a strategic orientation, but it doesn’t solve the difficulties of how you create a left opposition in this situation. That is not easily solved. For example, the Communist Party presents itself as a left opposition, but it spends most of its time just denouncing Syriza. It is so sectarian that it denounces everyone on the left. The standard denunciation for Antarsya is that it is tailing Syriza, quite to the contrary to the main impression of Antarsya, which is that it is a left opposition to Syriza. This is creating a big problem. You cannot support the groups of workers and the rank and file of Syriza in opposing the compromise with the Eurogroup by just denouncing day in and day out. It means that the Communist Party, despite its quite impressive size, is not an effective force for creating a left opposition that could force the Syriza government to abandon the compromises and start delivering on its promises.
This is something that Antarsya is trying to do. Despite the small size of the forces of Antarsya, it is well placed for that—above all because it has not been sectarian. We have been in common struggle with the Syriza rank and file again and again on many occasions—during the strikes, during the occupations of the square, during the anti-fascist demonstrations, again and again. So there are many links, many bridges, between the Syriza rank and file and Antarsya. This was even visible in the election: if you look at the election results, it’s easy to see that there are at least 100,000 people who voted tactically—sometimes for Antarsya, sometimes for Syriza. If you leave the parliamentary field and take a broader look, the number is obviously much bigger.
So if Antarsya pursues a policy of united front with a Syriza rank and file that is finding it hard to swallow the deal, there is the prospect of a fightback. There is the prospect of resisting, not just what will happen in the next four months, but what will come after that. The question of a third Greek bail-out has been raised, and a new bail-out means that a new memorandum will be imposed on the Syriza government that will restrict it, not just for four months, but for a longer period. Now defeating this prospect is the project that is opening up.
Antarsya is taking this orientation. There are difficulties in this. I’m not trying to paint an easy picture. There are difficulties about how you operate in a united front. On the Greek left the dominant tradition has been the popular front, not the united front, and therefore ideologically there are many currents that confuse the two. Moreover, the associated idea that what is needed is a “national-popular” alliance against the external forces dominating Greece has a resonance not just in Syriza, but in forces further to the left. So there are weaknesses that need to be overcome. This is why SEK is important as a component of Antarsya: we stand for the classical Marxist tradition, which combines firm revolutionary principle and organisation with tactical flexibility and a commitment to the politics of the united front. This approach is crucial in facing the challenges of today. And this is what we’ve been trying to do.4
We’re involved in common activity in many areas. The 21 March is the obvious example—fighting for an end to concentration camps, for the legalisation of immigrants, and for the trial of Golden Dawn to take place is a very important area. Again this does not automatically attract all sections of Syriza. For example, the speaker of parliament, Zoi Konstantopoulou, has taken quite a wrong stance on the question of Golden Dawn, challenging the courts because they don’t allow Golden Dawn MPs who are in jail to attend sessions of parliament. That was a huge opening towards the far right. Opposing this is part of the challenge that we face to present a left alternative. But I think we will be making progress.
The Greek example is already proving an inspiration to people wanting to fight austerity across Europe. This is an important dynamic. Sustaining it is the main task of revolutionaries right now and it means organising support for workers fighting to get their immediate demands satisfied despite the restrictions imposed by the Eurogroup deal. It also means raising the demands of the anti-capitalist transitional programme: cancelling the debt, breaking with the euro, nationalising the banks and heading for workers’ control.
Finally what we’re seeing with the advances of the radical left in different parts of Europe, particularly in Greece but also in the Spanish state, is a return to the strategic arguments that were particularly vigorous in the 1970s but that have been a bit in cold storage since then. So Stathis Kouvelakis, one of the leading figures on the left of Syriza, has invoked the importance of Antonio Gramsci and Nikos Poulantzas for understanding the kind of strategy that Syriza has pursued.5 The leaders of Podemos are apparently very influenced by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. There’s a sudden revival of more theoretical reference points for left strategy. Do you have any thoughts about what revolutionary Marxists would say about these debates?
Well, that’s a very important development. As you’ve just said, these sorts of debates had receded into the background for a long time. They’re now coming to the fore, and this is obviously welcome. Unless we clarify the strategic approach that can answer these debates, then, no matter how many tactical victories we can achieve, we won’t be making headway. In terms of the content of the debate, the question of the state is very central. The experience of the first weeks of a Syriza government raises these questions.
The idea that you can approach the state with a strategy of partial reforms that can be supported by popular movements outside the state, but that essentially the strategy is that of a gradual reform of the state from within is a central fault in Syriza’s approach. This is hitting people in the face in Greece. I was saying before about the choices of Tsipras in leaving these important ministries in the hands of right wingers. This is not something new. This was the policy of Salvador Allende in Chile. He had made a deal that a government of the left would not touch the press, would not touch the army, and so on. It led nowhere. In Greece we are in danger of repeating the same mistakes, if we keep pursuing this approach.
So the question of an alternative, the question of building a movement that can challenge the state, even its hard core, is something that’s returning to the agenda. And it’s important, particularly if the Greek example is repeated in Spain and in other places. It is quite possible that we will see this in the coming months. So the debate will become more urgent if we have European-wide revolt against austerity and a swing to the left. Then whether this should be contained within a strategy of reforms to the state or widen its horizons towards a revolutionary overthrow of the state is something that we will have to debate again and again.
And the debate has started. We will see more episodes in the coming months. Inside Greece the strategic debate is tied again to the characterisation of Syriza. People inside Syriza are suddenly realising that they are not all the same, that portraying the peaceful coexistence of different currents, reformist and revolutionary and movementist, inside Syriza as a positive thing is very misleading. Now people are realising that the Tsipras leadership is a right reformist leadership and that is bringing up the question of shifting away from a strategy that is trying to blur these differences. This is the disadvantage actually of the Poulantzas strategy—it blurs the difference not just between revolution and reform, but also between left reformism and right reformism. These differences are now coming forcefully to the fore so we need to address all these issues quite urgently.
1: www.youtube.com/watch?v=FV2jCTBjlpQ—see also the extracts in Kouvelakis, 2015, and Callinicos, 2015. A full transcript of the main speeches is available online at http://isj.org.uk/syriza-and-socialist-strategy/
2: The spreads here are the difference between the interest rates on Greek and German government debt. The wider the spreads the higher interest the Greek government must pay and the lower the confidence in Greece’s financial position.
3: Balibar and Mezzadra, 2015.
4: For a comparison of the approaches of Varoufakis, Syriza MP Costas Lapavitsas and Antarsya see Garganas, 2014.
5: Budgen and Kouvelakis, 2015. The key theoretical reference point here is Poulantzas, 1978, criticised in Barker, 1979.
Balibar, Étienne, and Sandro Mezzadra, 2015, “Syriza Wins Space and Time” (23 February), www.versobooks.com/blogs/1885-syriza-wins-time-and-space-by-etienne-balibar-and-sandro-mezzadra
Barker, Colin, 1979, “A ‘New’ Reformism? A Critique of the Political Theory of Nicos Poulantzas”, International Socialism 4 (spring), www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/barker-c/1979/xx/poulantzas.htm
Budgen, Sebastian, and Stathis Kouvelakis, 2015, “Greece: Phase One”, Jacobin (22 January), www.jacobinmag.com/2015/01/phase-one/
Callinicos, Alex, 2015, “Syriza and Socialist Strategy—part two”, Socialist Worker (21 March), http://socialistworker.co.uk/art/40129/Syriza+and+socialist+strategy%E2%80%94part+two
Garganas, Panos, 2014, “Moderate, Radical or Anticapitalist Proposal from the Left?”, Socialism from Below (13 November), http://socialismfrombelow.gr/article.php?id=518 (in Greek).
Kouvelakis, Stathis, 2015, “Syriza and Socialist Strategy—part one”, Socialist Worker (14 March), http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art/40099/Syriza+and++socialist++strategy+-+part+one