Syriza and its "Left" Critics

Despite being forced to accept under duress the Troika's demands to agree to a punitive memorandum, Syriza was able to maintain the trust and respect of a vast electorate, especially working class and young voters. With that, the original vision of Syriza not only did not die, but the struggle for a just, democratic society goes on under the party's banner.
Mark Solomon
September 30, 2015
The election resulted in an unexpectedly-large victory for the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), which fell 6 seats short of an absolute majority and was able to reform its coalition government with the right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL).
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The victory of the left party Syriza in Greece and its leader Alexis Tsipras in the September 20 snap election confounded dire predictions of some on the left of the party's imminent collapse. Rather than disintegrating, the party won by nearly the same vote that brought it to power in January 2015. The odds appeared to be unmistakably huge against Syriza, which had been forced by the European "Troika" (The European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission) to accept brutal austerity, punitive tax increases, assaults on pensions and widespread privatization of public property as terms for a bailout of the country's crippled financial system.

Despite being forced to accept under duress the Troika's demands to agree to a punitive memorandum, Syriza was able to maintain the trust and respect of a vast electorate, especially working class and young voters. With that, the original vision of Syriza not only did not die, but the struggle for a just, democratic society goes on under the party's banner.

Founded as an ingathering of diverse radical and socialist forces to promote "dialogue and unity of action on the left," Syriza emerged out of that dialogue, becoming an effective political vessel forging unity within ideological diversity based on a common anti-austerity program. That unity inspired leftists around the world who now saw the possibility of building new 21st century radical left coalitions that shed the old sectarian disputes of the past.

That coalescing of diverse left forces was spurred largely by Synaspismós (Coalition of the Radical and Ecological Left) whose roots were in the communist youth movement and in the Euro-communist currents that arose in the seventies.  Synaspismós was the largest formation in a convergence of feminists, ecological activists, Trotskyists of various stripes, Maoists, left social democrats, etc.

Not surprisingly, there were periods of internal volatility as various currents struggled to advance their respective views. Inner turmoil never ended but was muted as Syriza focused on a growing economic and social crisis.

The global recession worsened a multitude of internal problems, including reckless capital flight, a corrupt and inept tax system, failing foreign capital investment, and escalating debt - while unemployment reached catastrophic levels. Greece's financial problems had been disguised by "advisors" from Goldman-Sachs who painted a false portrait of Greece's economic condition to qualify the country for Eurozone membership. Greece's adoption of the Euro and Eurozone's stringent rules had deprived the country of economic flexibility to cope with fierce global competitive environment.

Entering the second decade of the 21st century, Syriza congealed into a party with a majority of its constituent organizations agreeing to merge into its political structure. Its program focused on fighting austerity that was the price for bailouts by the Troika, defending social security and pensions and saving the deteriorating environment. It adopted the color red representing traditional Marxist parties, the color green representing environmentalism and the color purple representing newer social movements - gay rights, feminism, and immigrant rights.

Starting from a base of little more than three percent of the electorate, Syriza struck an increasingly responsive chord among a public facing economic and social disaster. Its "people before profits" mantra symbolized a new party of radical reform that went beyond traditional social democratic nostrums to seek an alteration of power relations between the classes within the country and to militantly challenge the Troika's smothering austerity. Syriza sought to tread a path rarely if ever traversed before - to fight for meaningful change while respecting the desire of the Greek public to remain within the European Community (including the Eurozone). Syriza's rise was concomitant with the decline of the traditional parties - the conservative New Democracy and the social democratic PASOK, both of whom had caved to the Troika's demands.

The elevation of the youthful Tsipras to leadership represented the convergence of the traditional left with new political currents. With a background in the communist youth movement and a present rooted in the rising social movements, Tsipras signified the radical change advocated by Syriza that contained within a fresh vision of a democratic socialist future.

By 2012, the party's vote had risen sharply to twenty-seven percent auguring the ascension to power that arrived with the January 2015 election that installed a Syriza government in coalition with a small anti-austerity right wing party.

Subsequent events are well known and led to scathing disagreement on the left within Greece and around the world. Facing a total breakdown of the country's financial system, Tsipras and his then finance minister Yanis Varoufakis confronted an intractable Troika that would not budge from its demands that Greece adopt destructive austerity as the price of a third bailout.  Tsipras sought to clarify and fortify Syriza's position by calling for a referendum on July 5, 2015 to accept or reject the Troika's bailout conditions.  A "No" vote would presumably strengthen Syriza's position in negotiations while a "Yes" vote would likely hand the crisis to New Democracy and PASOK.

Confounding prognostications, the Greek electorate voted overwhelmingly against the bailout conditions. Now armed with a clear expression of the peoples' democratic will, Tsipras and Varoufakis returned to negotiations, only to be confronted with a shrug by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble who declared that elections had no bearing on Greece's debt.

Tsipras likely miscalculated the impact of democracy on the crisis. Syriza held political power, but the Troika held all the economic cards. Schaeuble, the Troika's principal power broker, was clearly not interested in formulating a viable recovery plan for Greece. He sought to assure its complete capitulation, thus discouraging resistance from other heavily indebted countries like Spain, Ireland and Portugal.

Confronting a bullying Troika, Tsipras and his party were forced to sign a memorandum accepting a cruel and vengeful austerity. Syriza did not conceal the destructive nature of the memorandum. Nor did it engage in verbal acrobatics to claim the memorandum's compatibility with the party's program and values. It was a defeat, plain and simple, imposed by a blackmailing Troika that threatened total disaster for the Greek people by forcing default and the shutting of Greek banks, thus liquidating the deposits of scores of small depositors while the wealthy had already sent their money abroad.

Twenty-five members of parliament defected from Syriza to form a "Popular Unity" party (formed in August, before the September 20 election). It called for rejection of the memorandum, stoppage of debt payments, nationalization of banks, a vague commitment to "redistribution of wealth," eventual exit from the Eurozone and reinstitution of a "national currency" based upon acknowledgment that renunciation of the memorandum would unleash the very blackmail that spurred Tsipras to capitulate.

The splitting of the Syriza majority government with the formation of Popular Unity necessitated the new election to confirm the government's majority and thus to avoid dependence on the votes of the old neoliberal parties. While a lower voter turnout likely reflected voter exhaustion, the result confirmed the Syriza-led majority and a near total rejection of Popular Unity. In general, the September 20 result underscores the deleterious impact of splitting a coalition of the left that had eventuated in Europe's first postwar radical left government within the confines of existing capitalism.

Critics inside and outside Greece launched similar attacks on Tsipras and the Syriza leadership: Tsipras misled the Greek people in claiming that austerity could be defeated without leaving the Eurozone; Tsipras betrayed the voters who overwhelmingly voted "No" to austerity; Tsipras accepted terms that were worse than the Troika's conditions advanced before July 5; Syriza had now traveled a path of betrayal formerly trod by the discredited PASOK. (The new conditions accepted by the Syriza leadership included disbursement of 86 billion euros over three years, thus providing some breathing space. Unlike the earlier proposal, the final bailout committed to exploration of restructuring the debt.)

Absent from such piercing attack was acknowledgement of the situation at the moment faced by ordinary Greeks. The European Central Bank had already shut down banks for three weeks. Thousands of frightened, desperate pensioners and other depositors had lined up at shuttered banks, fearful that they may never again have access to their funds. The empathy shown by Syriza's critics had an abstract character, not fully engaging the pain at the moment felt by a Greek majority. The pivotal goal of those criticizing Syriza to return to the Drachma courted disaster. Without the productive capacity and robust export economy of a country like Argentina (which defaulted its debts and returned to the Peso) the Drachma would become massively devalued, resulting in a precipitous loss of wage and pension incomes. Greece likely would be forced to prostrate itself before the not-so-tender mercies of the Troika for yet another bailout.

At this transitional moment in history, the situation confronted by emerging radical left governments that have yet to gain control of the economic levers of society is exceedingly difficult. (This is true not only of Greece, but also of South Africa, and to a lesser extent, Venezuela, where the working class and its allies have taken the reins of government while multinational and domestic capital largely control the economy). Such circumstances require the need to take often exceedingly painful measures to relieve pressure and prepare for a next stage of struggle on more favorable ground. The Greek situation is especially difficult in light of the unmistakable reluctance of the Greek people to leave the Eurozone.

The classic example of the need to cede positions in order to survive and sow more favorable terrain is the situation faced by the Bolsheviks in Russia in the wake of their seizure of power. Facing threats from the Central Powers to advance into Russia, the Bolsheviks ceded the Baltic States to Germany, recognized Ukraine's independence, paid Germany six million gold marks in reparations and renounced all of Russia's commitments to the western allies.

The situation confronting Syriza is clearly daunting. Yet despite cries of betrayal by its far left faction, the party remains, for a major segment of the Greek population, the cornerstone of a new radical left and a source of hope for a better life. Without minimizing its problems and errors, including its failure to impose capital controls in the wake of ECB restrictions on access to liquidity, Syriza is girding for struggle to mitigate the painful consequences of the forced memorandum.

It will have to find its way around the cynical Troika edict to dissolve the country's anti-corruption agencies in order to fight tax evasion by the rich, illegal trade and other aspects of corruption. It likely will consolidate its relations with community-generated voluntary efforts to provide food, shelter and medical care to those most in need. It will support efforts to foster cooperative enterprises as a means of spurring grass roots economic advance. Crucially, it will press for debt reduction, possibly exploiting the fissure opened by the dispute between the International Monetary Fund (favoring a "haircut") and the rest of the Troika. Syriza will likely seek a "cross-class alliance" with small and medium enterprises against the little coterie of oligarchs. It will try to cut exploitative pharmaceutical contracts that drain the public health budget and rely more on generic drug production.  It may seek reasonable energy deals with Russia, Venezuela and Iran. Savings from those arrangements could allow Greece to advance solar energy and marshal various economies to develop the olive oil, shipping and ship repair industries.

Each of these steps is challenging, especially in light of the constraining pull of global economic integration and its smothering impact on domestic economies. It will require the continuation and consolidation of left unity. For progressive and left forces outside the country, the most crucial requirement is solidarity with Greece and the peoples' chosen political instrument - as well as relentless struggle all over against inequality and austerity. Failure to recapture step-by-step the ground lost to the Troika will have ominous consequences - with the fascist Golden Dawn waiting in the wings to "rescue" Greece from growing disaster.

Hovering over the Greek crisis, as ever, are Europe, the Eurozone and the European Union. Varoufakis' disagreement with Tsipras spurred him, and others, to leave Syriza but not to join the factional division represented by Popular Unity. He and other prominent European leaders have called for a "Plan B for Europe," a pan-European movement to forge a continental struggle against austerity. That objective is clearly consistent with Syriza's battle for Greece's survival and is an urgently needed component to that battle.

For all the cries and combat over Greece, we may well be witnessing the formative stages of the disintegration of the European Community. The dream of a unified, borderless Europe may not survive the pressures of internal exploitation and conflict going on within the context of a stagnating global capitalism. It is also possible that there may be a future "Grexit" from the Eurozone. If that happens, we should hope for a well-prepared and solid foundation for such a move. For the present, it is perhaps instructive to again digest Marx's famous dictum that humans make the own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing. There is a touch of irony in the demand of elements of the Greek left, much of whose political tradition is to question revolution in one country, to now call for precisely that objective. The Greek working class and their allies face a difficult, challenging task. Those on the left outside of Greece owe them, however critical, their solidarity, support and respect for their decisions and aspirations.

[Mark Solomon is past national co-chair of the Committee of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS). He is presently an Associate at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University and is author of "The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936."]

October 1, 2015