Why did Syriza fail?

Issue: 148

Panos Garganas

How has Syriza ended up this way? This is a question that is tormenting a big part of the left and that all the forces that situate themselves on the left must answer.1

The discussion had flared up even before the elections on 20 September were announced and the electoral dilemmas make it even more imperative today. However, it would be wrong to limit this discussion to one around elections. The consequences for the left that can be extracted from this discussion go way further than the horizon of the ballot box on 20 September.

First, we could say that there are two (opposing) views that both start by avoiding the question of Syriza’s failure. Syriza’s leadership insist that Syriza hasn’t changed: it is just trying to manage a difficult conjuncture. At the same time, but from the opposite side, the leadership of the Communist Party (KKE) are saying that Syriza was just another bourgeois party—roughly “nothing gained, nothing lost”.

It is quite obvious that these approaches lose touch with reality. We will come back to the KKE’s stance later but let’s start from what Alexis Tsipras’s leadership claims. The first undeniable element is the crisis that has erupted inside the party of the governing left. We are heading towards elections because the government has lost even the support of 120 MPs, the minimum necessary in order to maintain a minority government.

The first reaction of Syriza’s leadership was to denounce those MPs who disagreed as being responsible for the overthrow of the first government of the left. They then changed tack, deciding to push for elections on the basis that Tsipras is “a real democrat” and he wants a new mandate. But the electoral manoeuvres cannot undo the reality of the crisis that has burst out.

Besides, the crisis is not limited to the parliamentary group or to the departure of the Left Platform. Disagreements, resignations and departures have spread throughout all of the party’s structures, from local branch cadres to the general secretary and from the ex-“components” to the backbone of the former Synaspismos.2

If anyone doubts the extent and the intensity of the phenomenon and thinks that the problem can be suppressed under the pressure of the ballot box that can operate in a rallying manner (as the Syriza leadership apparently wishes) they have but to have a look at the turmoil internationally among those on the European left that had embraced Tsipras. The consequences can be seen in Spain or in France where Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Parti de Gauche is distancing himself from Tsipras. Everywhere the people of the left are experiencing this evolution as a crisis of Syriza.

The most indicative example though does not come from Mélenchon or Podemos, but from Stathis Kouvelakis, a member of Syriza’s central committee who is based in Paris and London. Kouvelakis likened the vote in the Greek parliament for the new memorandum with the vote in the German Reichstag on the war budget 100 years ago.3 Back then an international movement against the war had to face the treason of social democracy, which entered the war. Today the people who are fighting all around the world and had looked towards Syriza with hope must face Tsipras’s capitulation to the archbishops of austerity.

Obviously all these people want answers, at the international level but even more intensely and urgently in Greece. What went wrong? What caused Syriza to violate its declarations? What should change?

Among the forces to the left of Syriza there is a bewilderment about the role its reformist character played and continues to play. But without a clear analysis of Syriza’s features it is difficult to find answers. The word “mutation” is being used, but this word dodges the discussion about the causes.


It’s blatant that there is a huge contradiction between the declarations of 2012, or even the 2014 Thessaloniki programme (which was already watered down by comparison with 2012) and the cold-blooded measures signed up to and now implemented by Syriza as part of the new Loan Agreement (Economic Adjustment Programme). It is also clear that there has been a backward slide during the Syriza-Anel government. But when did this “mutation” occur and why weren’t there any warning symptoms of this sickness?

The declaration issued by Popular Unity (PU), whose core is the Left Platform that resigned from Syriza, is extremely silent on this matter.4 It speaks about politics and perspectives that it wants to adopt, sometimes by repeating positions once defended by Syriza and sometimes by somehow differentiating itself, but nowhere does it try to explain the failure of the project from which it originates.

For example, we read:

An essential ingredient of our alternative proposal is the radical transformation of the state, of justice and of public administration. The restoration and expansion of democratic liberties, from workplaces to the right to demonstrate, the dismantling of the riot police and more generally handling the apparatus that serves to repress the “enemy within”, the democratisation of the media, the decisive confrontation with corruption and the embrace of business interests, are the most urgent measures to be taken in this field.5

Comparable formulations existed in Syriza’s decisions and yet now we know that in reality we lived to see the right winger Yiannis Panousis as a police minister. In a few months we went from the symbolic dismantlement of the iron barriers in front of the monument of the Unknown Soldier (in front of parliament) to the riot police’s attacks on demonstrators who were protesting against the agreement with the “institutions”.

So what will prevent a repeat of this dolorous experience? Was there a problem with the strategy of “democratisation” of the existing state? Did the leading cadres of PU disagree with Tsipras’s declaration about state ­continuity when he was visiting the Tory minister Dimitris Avramopoulos in the ministry of defence before the January elections, and if yes, why didn’t they express themselves publicly? Can there be a “radical transformation” of the state without adopting a strategy for the overthrow of the capitalist state rather than its continuity as a horizon?

Elsewhere though the PU has improved on Syriza’s old ­declarations on rupture with the European Union:

The recapture of monetary sovereignty, with the renationalisation of the Bank of Greece and the issuing of a national currency, will offer the necessary liquidity to the economy, without the burdensome terms of the loan contracts. It will decisively help the reinforcement of exports, the limitation and the substitution of imports and the reinforcement of the productive base of the country and of the tourist flow. It will favour the creation of jobs through public construction, the development initiatives of big public enterprises, through the backing of the social sector of the economy and the restoration of credit towards small and medium sized enterprises. The abrogation of the burdens on households of memorandums and taxes will reinforce demand, thus giving an impetus to growth. We will present an overall special plan for Greece that will put in place a radical, progressive programme under a national currency.6

This is undoubtedly a step forward from the old Syriza position, which left the question of the “institutions” and the EU controlling the Bank of Greece and the currency hanging in the balance. But what remains unanswered is the strategic question: who will control the, by then, nationalised central bank and the national currency? Is supervision by a future progressive government enough to turn this measure into a tool in the service of workers’ interests? Will the Greek capitalists suddenly cooperate in order to create new jobs, with better wages and with respect to collective bargaining? Should we be preparing ourselves for such “peaceful coexistence” with capital when we break with the euro or should we better prepare to fight against capitalists and capital flight when the devaluation, which PU economic spokesperson Costas Lapavitsas already presages in his interviews, occurs?7

Syriza had and still has the negation of the revolutionary perspective of changing society as its cornerstone—not only because its core was constituted by the old Synaspismos, which was dominated by the most right wing reformist politics, expressed by Kyrkos, Damanaki and Kouvelis8 but also because even during its “radical” period under Tsipras’s leadership, it always spoke scornfully of the perspective of the “Second Coming”: “If we have to accept that only in the ‘Second Coming’ of socialism can there be hope and life, then we will end up waiting for this ‘Second Coming’”.9

Those who are impatient for hope and life in the here and now, and separate this from the fight for the overthrow of the society that deprives us of them, end up searching for “realistic” alternative solutions, through compromises with the existing structure of society. This is the background to the reasoning that said “it’s better to take a new loan than to put ourselves in the adventure of cancelling the debt”, “better to take it from the eurozone’s institutions than put ourselves through the adventure of leaving”, “better to ask the people to suffer another memorandum than put ourselves through conflicts with those who send their capital abroad and who are difficult to control”.


Unless one breaks out of these fundamentals of reformist strategy, it is easy to fall into similar “realistic proposals”. For example, Syriza’s cadres that are now founding members of PU put their names to positions that state that “with an exit from the EMU (Economic and Monetary Union), the country will not become less European, but it will follow a different approach from the countries that form the core of the EU, a choice that countries like Sweden and Denmark have already made”.10 The last politician who said that Greece could be “the Denmark of the south” was George Papandreou, the Pasok prime minister who introduced austerity in 2010. It would be tragic if a movement that promises to help us escape from Syriza’s abjection was to repeat such nonsense.

There are, of course, people from this political space who are trying to enter the discussion about the strategy that was defeated along with Syriza. Stathis Kouvelakis locates the problem in “left Europeanism”, but he insists that there are many elements that should be preserved:

So, what has not been defeated in Syriza? In other words what is there that has been positive in this experience for the Left and the workers’ movement?

As a first approximation I would make the following four points… For starters, the argument that a unitary government of radical left forces is a necessary and tested instrument for approaching the question of power has been validated…

Second element: the transitional programme…

Whatever its limitations, particularly in relation to the calculation of its net budgetary impact, the so-called “Thessaloniki Programme”, on the basis of which Syriza won the popular mandate last January, was an incomplete but basically sound approximation to such a programme…

The transitional programme is also organically linked—this is something we learn from the inheritance of the third and fourth congresses of the Communist International and the subsequent elaboration by Gramsci and Togliatti—to the goal of the united front…11

The above leads me to the fourth and final remark on “what remains” from this experience—the relationship between the social and the political… This was precisely the gamble that was launched in 2012 and after, with all its contradictions and limitations. That is to say the combination of a left government and of a rich record of popular struggles, which of course can never be taken for granted and must continually be reasserted, so as to open up a perspective of radical social change.12

Unfortunately if all these elements of Syriza’s strategy are to be preserved, the whole effort of breaking with its failure has been annulled. Reformism subordinates the political perspective of the workers’ movement to the mediation of a parliamentary victory that brings the left into government. The whole dynamic of the relationship between the political and the social is being completely fragmented on the altar of an effort to manage the ministries that can only lead to dead ends.

To speak more precisely, Lenin’s revolutionary outlook—based on an analysis of The State and Revolution—on the character and nature of the mechanisms that a government of the left can possibly have to manage actually escaped the impasse of such management by proposing achieving the political goals by the forces of the movement itself.

He didn’t propose to the soldiers who were fighting to end the war that they put their hopes in the peace initiatives of a progressive government, but that they take control of the units by rebelling against the generals. To the peasants who wanted land reform he did not propose waiting for a relevant law to be voted by a left majority, but called on them to occupy the land by throwing out the landlords. To workers who demanded an eight-hour working day and faced the employers’ lockouts he did not propose the emergence of a revolutionary as minister of labour, but the imposition of workers’ control by the workers themselves in each factory and in the whole economy.

With this strategy the Bolsheviks came to enter the ministries only, as Rosa Luxemburg put it, “on the ruins of the bourgeois state”. If we start by searching for ways this strategy was improved on by Palmiro Togliatti, then we are making a backward step. Togliatti was the leader of the Italian Communist Party who advised that the resistance movement during the fascist occupation should come to terms with the Christian Democrats. He was the architect of the Italian version of the “Lebanon” Agreement, a sell-out that ended up in a “Varkiza” type of defeat without a fight.13

It is through such reasoning that Popular Unity still sees the Thessaloniki programme as “transitional”, while in fact it was Tsipras’s intermediate step towards the compromises that followed.

The logic of the “government of the left” was the one that led the leadership of Syriza to a systematic shift towards “moderation” on the basis of the electoral needs and at the expense of workers’ struggles after 2012. A teachers’ strike during the exam period does not win votes, said this logic. Instead the softening of its programmatic declarations would supposedly win “moderate voters”. The parliamentary road develops its own dynamic, and the popular masses’ turn to the left at the ballot box is not interpreted as a political advance that allows bolder initiatives, but rather as an encouragement for greater adaptation to the requirements of electoral tactics.

Because it has not developed any criticism about all these aspects, continuing, on the contrary, to beautify them as a supposedly modern reformulation of a radical strategy, the Left Platform/Popular Unity has remained silent throughout the period of Syriza’s adjustment to the right, from 2012 until the January 2015 elections. Fear of being accused of endangering the electoral victory was dominant. The left more often criticised Antarsya than Tsipras’s leadership.14

And of course, it accepted ministerial posts, promising an uncompromising attitude while at the same time the Anel-Syriza government was going from one compromise to another. What dominated was the illusion that a leftist minister controls their ministry, while in reality ministers cannot even control the actions of their “comrade-ministers”, and even less the capitalists and the bureaucracy that serve them.

These criticisms do not signify a return to a naive movementism that considers politics dirty and in practice accepts the division of labour—“politics to the politicians and social struggles to the movementists”. We have the experience of how whole sections of the autonomists and anarchists surrendered without a fight to the charms of Syriza. As Alex Callinicos states, “The problem is not that politics is sullying the purity of the social movement—politics is always implicit in social struggles—but what kind of politics comes to predominate”.15

Before going on to consider the alternative politics that should and must confront the bankrupt reformist policy that ended up supporting a memorandum, we also need to see the bankruptcy of Syriza’s organisational model.

For a long time all of Syriza’s wings were presenting their coexistence under the same roof as a model of party democracy. “Unity in diversity” was the slogan that justified the compromises of components of the party that declared themselves radical or revolutionary with the leading group dominated by cadres like Dimitris Papadimoulis, Giorgos Stathakis and Yiannis Dragasakis under the “youthful” presidency of Tsipras.16

Even more, the left groups that participated in Syriza led the attacks on Antarsya for being sectarian because it maintained its independent presence. They said that their presence inside Syriza was the most effective way for leftist voices to be heard and to have influence. Until recently still, these illusions supported the claim that “the government cannot ignore the Syriza-party”. Instead on our side we warned that this model of “peaceful coexistence” was leading to failure.

Now we know how this “experiment” is over. The same groups that never questioned Tsipras’s leadership, not even by exercising their democratic right to propose an alternative candidate for the presidency of Syriza at the party conference, are now being forced to denounce him as a “putschist”.

If you have an alternative left politics, you need a separate left organisation. Otherwise you merely serve the broad church tactics of a leadership that is heading elsewhere.


This is a conclusion that concerns not only the past of Syriza, but also the future of Popular Unity. Alas, there is a danger that under the pressures of a sudden election campaign, the political debate succumbs once again to the charm of “unity in diversity”. This risk is more than real, as the leading group of Popular Unity repeats not only many of Syriza’s political formulas but also its organisational recipe. The comrades of Aran and Aras who choose to leave Antarsya and join Popular Unity are shutting their eyes to these problems.17

But does the persistence of Antarsya in raising the political and organisational issues result in a sectarian attitude just like the Communist Party’s?

It’s a fact that the leadership of the Communist Party has surpassed itself in this area. The withdrawal of the Left Platform of Syriza releases thousands of activists and fighters who had supported Tsipras’s party during the previous period. It is the natural continuation of the massive shift to the left that was recorded in the referendum with the victory of the No camp and that Tsipras pompously ignored.

The Communist Party leadership kept an equal distance from the Yes and the No position, by choosing abstention or a spoiled vote. By this choice, it found itself in an unfavourable position with the people that fought for the No camp. Now it is trying to recover by denouncing Popular Unity’s leadership and Panagiotis Lafazanis personally.

But the Communist Party supporters—who widely ignored the line of spoiled vote and abstention in the referendum, voting No instead—are wondering why the leadership holds a different position today than the one it held when Dimitris Tsovolas and Dikki broke from Pasok.18 Was Pasok a more left wing party than Syriza? Did Tsovolas have a more leftward course to boast about than Lafazanis? The answer is obviously No. Yet back then the Communist Party had welcomed the left split from Pasok as progress and emerged strengthened from that period. In the European elections of 1999 it had reached 8.67 percent of the vote even though Dikki had taken 6.85 percent and Synaspismos 5.16 percent. The ballot had confirmed that there was a current to the left. The issue was how do the leaderships of the left exploit it? Today again the issue remains. The crisis and the splintering of Syriza are the fruit of the leftward dynamic created within the working class and the youth when encountering the impasse of a reformist force that entered government and compromised. Is there an attitude that avoids both the error of repeating Syriza’s strategy and that of sectarian denunciation?

This is the challenge that the forces of Antarsya are trying to confront. To succeed, we must utilise the historical experience and the experience of thousands of fighters from the struggles of the recent period.

Historically, it is useful to recall what happened after the capitulation of social democracy to the warmongers 100 years ago. That great compromise caused splits in the socialist parties of the Second International to the left and a regrouping of the left with the formation of the Communist parties of the Third International. That regroupment did not come automatically. It took the revolutionary left to adopt the tactics of the united front to win sections that were oscillating between reformism and revolutionary strategy, while clarifying its stance against the sectarian trends that were developing back then.

Communist parties employed this united front approach in Germany when the USPD had left en masse from the SPD to the left, but also in Italy with Gramsci’s reckoning with Bordiga’s sectarianism.19 Mass revolutionary parties were built by utilising the left breaks with reformism, by maintaining a unifying attitude but at the same time acting independently without succumbing to a practice of wiseacre denunciations.

Is there a basis for such efforts today?

The answer is definitely Yes. Not only because capitalism is in its most lengthy crisis since the 1930s and Greek capitalism in its worst. Not only because the massive turn to the left of the working class is at its highest point for decades. But also because there is an experienced force of pioneering fighters, women and men, who carry the experience of revolts against the betrayals of Pasok and against the limits of traditional leaderships of the left.

The crisis in Syriza is not a shock to fighters with such experiences, who have not only participated in general strikes, the occupations of squares and the anti-fascist rallies in recent years, but who also remember the previous course of the Communist Party’s leadership and that of Synaspismos.

An important part of this politicisation is in Antarsya. Rallying around Antarsya not only for the struggle of the elections on 20 September but for the major battles that follow may be the starting point for the recasting of a left worthy of the high expectations of our class and of the great visions of its revolutionary tradition.

First published in Sosialismos apo Ta Kato (Socialism from Below) 112, September-October 2015. Translated by Dimitris Daskalakis.


1: This article was originally published two weeks before the 20 September election.

2: Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) originated in 2004 as an electoral alliance of Synaspismos (the Coalition of the Left, Movements, and Ecology) and various far-left groups. Synaspismos, which emerged in the early 1990s from the Eurocommunist wing of the Greek left and sundry later fragments of the KKE, was very much the dominant partner. In 2013 the different “components” at least notionally fused together when Syriza became a single party.

3: On Facebook on 10 July, go to http://tinyurl.com/o3ntxao

4: The Left Platform was the main opposition grouping in Syriza. Its leader, Panagiotis Lafazanis, was minister of productive reconstruction, environment and energy in the Tsipras government till he was sacked in July for opposing the government’s capitulation to Brussels. The following month he launched a new party, Popular Unity.

5: From the PU draft manifesto as presented to an Antarsya delegation by Yannis Tolios on 27 August 2015.

6: From the PU draft manifesto.

8: Leonidas Kyrkos, a leader of the Eurocommunist Party of the Interior and later of Synaspismos, backed the right-wing breakaway Democratic Left in 2010; Maria Damanaki, another Synaspismos leader, was appointed European Commissioner by the social democratic Pasok government in 2009; Fotis Kouvelis led the Democratic Left split from Synaspismos.

11: Palmiro Togliatti took over the leadership of the Italian Communist Party in 1927, after Antonio Gramsci had been imprisoned by the fascist regime. Thoroughly subservient to Stalin till the 1950s, he steered the PCI towards mainstream reformism thereafter.

12: Kouvelakis, 2015.

13: The Lebanon agreement of May 1944 and the Varkiza agreement of February 1945 both involved concessions by the KKE leadership, which dominated the armed resistance to the German occupation of Greece. These deals made possible the return of power by the royal government in exile and laid the basis for the Civil War of 1946-9. Togliatti made a similar compromise with the Italian bourgeois parties and the monarchy in April 1944.

14: Antarysa (the Front of the Anticapitalist Left) is a coalition of far-left organisations, most notably the New Left Current (NAR) and the Socialist Workers Party (SEK), which operates independently of Syriza.

15: Callinicos, 2015, p176.

16: All figures on the right of Syriza. Stathakis was economy minister and Dragasakis deputy prime minister in the Tsipras government.

17: Left Recomposition (Aran) and Left Anti-capitalist group (Aras) are two groups on the right wing of Antarsya that decided to leave and join Popular Unity.

18: Tsovolas led a left-wing breakaway from Pasok to form the Democratic Social Movement (Dikki) in 1995.

19: The Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) broke with the pro-war Social Democratic Party of Germany in 1917. In October 1920 the majority voted to join the Third International and fuse with the Communist Party. Amadeo Bordiga, founder and first leader of the Italian Communist Party, was a leading left Communist who opposed united fronts with reformist organisations. You can read more on this topic in the same issue of Socialism from Below as this article originally appeared: www.socialismfrombelow.gr/article.php?id=792


Callinicos, Alex, 2015, “Anti-politics and the social illusion: A reply to Tietze and Humphrys”, International Socialism 145 (winter), www.isj.org.uk/anti-politics-and-the-social-illusion-a-reply-to-tietze-and-humphrys

Kouvelakis, Stathis, 2015, “Turning ‘No’ Into a Political Front”, Jacobin (3 August), www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/tsipras-debt-germany-greece-euro