Face to face with the minotaur

Issue: 149

Nikos Lountos

Kevin Ovenden, Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth (Pluto Press/Left Book Club, 2015), £11.50

I’m writing this review on the eve of a general strike (3 December) in Greece, the second against the Syriza government since it was re-elected in September. Alexis Tsipras is eager to find allies among the leaders of the pro-austerity opposition, feeling already that the majority he enjoys in the parliament, along with his nationalist allies, the “Independent Greeks”, will not be enough to push through measures such as a massive cut in pensions. Interestingly, Tsipras’s hopes are being complicated because of the deep internal crisis the biggest opposition party, the right wing New Democracy, has got itself into. After the resignation of its leader Antonis Samaras in the aftermath of the referendum on the bailout in July, and the prolonged stay of an interim president, New Democracy failed to stage its own primaries. Now all the candidates are rowing about whether to try again to elect a leader or to split the party altogether.

So, those who predicted that Syriza’s second electoral victory would put an end to the political turbulence in Greece have been proved wrong. Yes, on the surface it might appear that the revolt expressed in the “No” vote in the referendum has been aborted. The triumph of the 61.3 percent vote for “No” in July was converted into an overwhelming 90 percent majority in favour of “Yes” to austerity in the parliament elected in September. But, the unsettled account between class forces goes deeper than the parliamentary balance of forces.

Big events can act as blasts of light revealing to us hidden aspects of reality. But the reality is there, ever-changing in between the big moments, be they elections, referendums or general strikes. As we enter 2016, and the anniversary of Syriza’s first election victory approaches, Kevin’s book is indispensable for anyone trying to grasp this deeper, hidden engine of the Greek turmoil.

This is the first merit of the book. Although formally written about Syriza, its route towards power and its tempestuous first semester, it is actually an insight into the dynamics of the class struggle in Greece in the last decade, thus not a book merely about analysing the past, but, more importantly, about shaping the future. Kevin analyses Syriza as a product of the experience of the bitter struggles and political conundrums through which the movement in Greece has passed—as much as it is an independent political actor in this process. But, contrary to a view of the political actors as ready-made entities, coming out of the blue, like Minerva born already armoured, Kevin advises that: “political crisis and succession of massive popular mobilisations were not simply raw materials to be worked upon by leaders of the radical left to sculpt a victory at the polls of 2015. They comprised the actions and political choices of millions of people concentrated at key moments in the crisis and also the collapse of various strategies by the traditional parties of government to weather the storm” (p21).

In order to strengthen his position, Kevin offers a concise history of the Greek left over the last three decades. Few people outside Greece remember, for example, that the leadership of Synaspismos (the main party behind the creation of Syriza) was ideologically very close to the Blairite prime minister Costas Simitis in the 1990s. Kevin reminds us: “When Simitis spoke as a guest at the 1996 Synaspismos conference, around half the delegates gave him a standing ovation”. How did Syriza go from this to being the carrier of hope for radical change? Kevin answers that it was the movement against corporate capitalism that erupted after Seattle in 1999, and following that, the movement against the war in Iraq, that pushed Syriza in a more radical direction. That was not the end of it. In what he calls the “Resisted Rise of Syriza” Kevin traces the key moments in its transformation, including the wave of university occupations in 2006 and 2007, the revolt against austerity and police violence in December 2008 and then the full-blown economic crisis.

A second merit of the book is that it avoids the trap of the “theories” of Greek exceptionalism. It is written both from an insider’s and from an outsider’s perspective. The inside part is due to the author’s careful observations of developments in the country in the last decades. He has a feel for the events, and for the specific impact some moments have had even if they didn’t make headlines. But the outside part is equally important. Many commentators have referred to the exceptional character of the situation, whether they are the European Union’s elites with their propaganda that describes the Greeks as a problematic people, unwilling to reform, or those of the international left who have taken superficial approaches in the weeks after the elections, seeing Greece as the promised land. Kevin, on the contrary, is not afraid to use British examples and analogies in order to give colour to persons, events and political forces. He doesn’t use the phrase “left reformism” but his conclusions open the way to dealing with Syriza’s rise as a phenomenon in the same category as that of Podemos in the Spanish state or Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent in Britain. There are strategic lessons coming out of the process that led to Syriza’s victory, as much as out of the defeat of its governmental strategy and its retreat after the showdown with the Troika last summer. These strategic lessons, which come out of each one of the book’s eight chapters, have a universal value, wherever we may live and fight.

This doesn’t mean that Kevin neglects to go into the specificities. On the contrary, a third strong point of the book is the clever use of Greek history to help the English reader understand the specific weight of places, words, names and events. The impact of an electoral victory for the left in Greece bears the weight of December 1944 when British tanks suppressed the revolt after the liberation from the Nazis. For Greeks it also brought memories of the 1958 elections when, despite the Communist Party being forced to operate under conditions of illegality with thousands of militants exiled or imprisoned, a left wing party, the “United Democratic Left” polled second, becoming the opposition party in parliament.

But, although Kevin stresses the importance of the movement as a shaping factor, this does not mean that he separates the “social” struggle from the “political” struggle. Actually, the thread of Kevin’s argument is one of the “primacy of politics”. The political sphere is where the contradictory pressures, the antagonising interests, the burden of the past, the hopes for the future and the urgency of the moment are concentrated. The way these disruptions are resolved—or not—influences consciousness on a massive scale and, through that, the next wave of struggle. Because of this interrelation, the political aspects of the struggle, and more concretely the political challenges the movement in Greece has faced in the last 15 years, are given specific care by Kevin. This crucial series of arguments adopts an approach that is, if we leave aside articles written for this journal, very difficult to find in other writings in English about Greece.

In this sense, one of the most important parts of the book is Chapter Four, “The monstrous legacy of racism”. In 2012, Andreas Loverdos, an arch-bigot Pasok health minister, offered to the sensationalist press the faces of HIV positive women, labelling them as criminal migrants and responsible for the spread of AIDS in Greece. Is there a relation between this incident and the victory of the left in 2015? What did a demonstration of Pakistani immigrants in late August 2012 have to do with the anti-austerity struggle? Kevin answers that these moments have been crucial. The political questions around racism, bigotry and nationalism haven’t been optional extras in the struggle of these years. These have been the questions around which the ruling class tried to
reorganise itself in order to confuse—to divide and conquer. The outcome was not predetermined. It was up to the forces of the left and, in many cases, of the anti-capitalist left to take initiatives in order to block these attempts in circumstances anything but easy.

Kevin’s analysis of the fascist threat is at the same time nuanced and concrete. There are three simplistic views of the rise of the fascist Golden Dawn. It was seen as an automatic consequence of the economic crisis, or as a foreordained fate for a failed left government, or as totally irrelevant to the “primary” battle against austerity. Kevin stresses the fact that there have been specific actors fomenting racism and pushing the mainstream political discourse towards the extreme-right, and these factors didn’t come from the margins, but from inside the “liberal” establishment, and even from social democracy in the moments of its decay. The fascists didn’t get to their position in parliament by fighting in the streets—they found the streets prepared by the police and the ideological machine of the mainstream parties.

Antonio Gramsci distinguished between the wars of “manoeuvres” fought by revolutionaries when revolution is imminent and the wars of “position” to try to win over sections of the working class at other times. Anyone having in mind a caricatured version of this duality, with the reformists fighting a “war of position” and the revolutionaries only expecting a “war of manoeuvres” will see this turned upside down. Kevin explains that the fight against racism has been a “war of position” fought by the anti-capitalist left in the last decades, who made anti-racism a feature of every struggle, while at some key moments the reformist left shied away from these battles, considering them an obstacle in the way to electoral victory. If the anti-war movement hadn’t incorporated the fight against Islamophobia, giving voice to a new generation of Muslim migrants at the start of the 2000s, these same migrants wouldn’t have the tools and the networks to fight against racist police violence, against discrimination and at the end against the fascists themselves, and actually frame their struggle as part of the struggle of the left.

Kevin says: “it is to the enormous credit of that section of the Greek left which ­imaginatively bridged those domains that such a cross-fertilisation took place. The result was little noticed a decade ago. Today it is an unprobed assumption that there are so many Greek young people and activists whose response to the throttling of their country at the hands of the Troika is to see themselves as of a piece with Muslim women in Tahrir square or Palestinian fighters in Gaza” (p76).

Accordingly, Kevin employs arguments specific to the Greek context when he deals with the dead-end of Syriza’s first months in government. He does this in two ways. First, Kevin says that instead of focusing on the hypothetical question of how the deep state would react towards a government of the left, we should focus on the concrete choices Tsipras made in his cabinet. Offering us the profile of three ministers, Nikos Kotzias, Panos Kammenos and Yiannis Panousis (ministers for foreign affairs, defence and public order respectively) he shows how the deep state found its way into the government through Tsipras’s own appointees. Second, on the issue of the debt on which much has been written, Kevin, without underestimating the important economic debate, puts politics at the centre. Syriza’s retreat in front of the Troika was not the result of a wrong economic argument, not even of mere “Europeanism” (whatever this term means), but a consequence of a strategy that hadn’t taken into account the necessity of clashing openly with the ruling class—the Greek ruling class—in the first place.

I hope readers won’t be discouraged to read Kevin’s book by the condensed way I have presented it in these paragraphs. Its 180 pages are easy to read (although he doesn’t always follow the promise he gives in the preface not to use advanced political vocabulary) and each and every one of its sections can offer lots of intellectual and factual surprises for the reader who hasn’t followed Greek events as closely as Kevin. It is highly recommended not only for understanding Greece, but for orienting ourselves in all our struggles.