Greece: The rise and fall of Syriza

Tsipras2On 5 July 2015 a historic referendum took place in Greece against the European troika’s austerity memorandum, with a tremendous 61.5% majority vote for No. But two years later, Greek society under a Syriza-led government is faced with the continuation of the same policies that were applied by the traditional parties of the ruling class, the social democratic Pasok and the conservative New Democracy (ND). What went wrong?

The attack on the living standards and rights of the Greek people is actually deepening under the Syriza (‘Coalition of the Radical Left’) government. It tries to hide this by speaking of ‘hard negotiations’ and ‘doing everything possible’ against the ‘Institutions’, the new name for the troika of the EU Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But this is just theatre. The latest agreement of 15 June released €8.5 billion to Greece (out of which €8.2 will be used immediately to pay back loans). It added nothing to the Institutions’ proposals made at the Eurogroup meeting on 22 May.

Syriza prime minister Alexis Tsipras used this time only to make a lot of noise, internally, proclaiming that there will be no crossing of what he (very often) calls ‘red lines’. The result is always the same: the Institutions make it clear that they will not retreat; threaten that if the Greek government does not retreat it will be kicked out of the eurozone; Syriza’s red lines become thin air.

The latest agreement puts additional burdens of around €5 billion on the masses between 2019 and 2022. In more general terms, from next year until the end of 2022 Greece will pay debt interest to the level of 3.5% of GDP – with the government committing to an annual 3.5% ‘primary surplus’ of tax income over expenditure before interest payments. The loans will be paid back by new loans. From 2022 the interest paid annually (primary surpluses) will amount to an average of 2% of GDP. This will go on until 2060. This is the most ‘optimistic scenario’. Based on this, the sovereign debt will be around 60% of GDP in 2060. However, not all the Institutions agree: the IMF says that these primary surpluses are unattainable and that the debt will get out of control.

Until the creditors are paid, every policy of any Greek government has to be approved by the Institutions. The so-called ‘left’ government of Syriza signed up to this clause and is imposing a new wave of austerity.

It has further increased income tax for all layers of the population, even those earning around €400 a month – the threshold was around €700 under the previous ND government. It has increased indirect taxation on everything, including the most basic goods like Greek coffee and traditional souvlaki, by between 10% and 20%. It is cutting pensions by a further 9% on average. It is applying measures that previously ND and Pasok found impossible to get through, with the biggest privatisation program ever. The labour market remains a jungle where the huge majority of private-sector workers are owed months of wages and exploitation has reached indescribable conditions.

As a result, the prevailing feelings of working people are mass anger and, at the same time, mass demoralisation. The idea that politicians are crooks and liars dominates. In the past this used to mean the parties of the establishment, ND and Pasok, which have ruled the country since 1981. Now it applies to Syriza as well. It rose from a small party with around 3% electoral support to a mass force winning over 36% in January and September 2015. This was the result of the huge convulsions of Greek society which, faced by the attacks by Pasok and ND, turned to the small left party and developed it into a mass force, only to see it turn against the masses and continue the same policies.

Historic roots

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 created an entirely new objective situation on a global scale. Among other things, a huge vacuum on the left developed after the collapse of the Stalinist ‘Communist’ parties and the bourgeoisification of the social democratic parties which fully embraced the ideas of the ‘free market’. The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) and its national affiliates predicted that this would give rise to attempts to create new left formations, new workers’ parties, to provide political representation to the working class and to play a role in the development of its struggles.

The Greek Communist Party (KKE) experienced major splits, with its official youth section (KNE) leaving en masse. Another new formation was Synaspismos (SYN – meaning ‘alliance’ or ‘collaboration’), created by the small forces of the old Eurocommunist party of Greece uniting with a section of the Communist Party. With Pasok moving speedily to the right, the left was faced with a massive contraction of its forces. The KKE was down to 4-5% but still retained roots in the working class, particularly among private-sector blue collar workers. SYN was struggling from election to election to get the 3% minimum vote to enter parliament – not always successfully.

Things began to change towards the end of the 1990s. SYN was the only semi-mass left formation which was not sectarian and it was able to intervene in the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements around the turn of the century. Being open to collaboration and alliances it began to attract a number of other smaller forces. Together they created the Space of Dialogue and United Action which developed into Syriza in 2004. Xekinima, the Greek section of the CWI, took part in the Space proceedings but declined to join Syriza in 2004 as it had been put together hastily for electoral reasons with a right-wing reformist programme that was in no way radical.

Syriza did badly in the 2004 elections and SYN’s right-wing leadership decided to kill the project. But it re-emerged in 2007, again to stand in elections. The difference was that there had been a change of leadership, with Alekos Alavanos becoming the party’s chair and beginning a process of pushing it to the left. Syriza inched forward, polling 5%. This was the beginning of major changes as the global crisis that hit Greece in 2009 deepened the vacuum on the left. Pasok was elected in autumn 2009 with a huge majority, but the following year became the agent of the troika, applying the first memorandum. In June 2012, ND won the elections and began to implement the second memorandum.

The massive attacks by these establishment parties, in combination with the huge social struggles that swept Greece particularly from 2010-12, laid the basis for the rise of Syriza to fill the huge vacuum that had been created. From spring 2010, the trade union confederations (GSEE in the private sector and public utilities, and ADEDY in public services) began to call general strikes. In total around 40 general strikes were called between 2010 and Syriza’s victory in 2015.

These were married with sectoral strikes and occupations, some lasting months. In the autumn of 2011 there was hardly a government building that was not covered with banners saying ‘under occupation’. There were other extremely important social and local movements, like the struggle of the people of Keratea against a waste landfill site, or against the Skouries gold mines in Chalkidiki, northern Greece, the anti-road tolls movement in winter 2010, and the Occupy movement of 2011.

Although signs of tiredness were evident by the middle of 2012 after some serious defeats, there were still struggles of historical significance, such as the ERT (national broadcaster) workers in 2013 and the VIOME workers who continue to keep their factory running. Both ERT and VIOME provided excellent examples of how workers could run production democratically without the need of a boss or appointed directors.

Why Syriza?

This was a time when only the left could provide a way out of the crisis – even though the same conditions aided the rise of the far right, which grew in the form of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. But why did Syriza rise and not some other party? Before the onset of the crisis and in its initial period, the left party with the bigger appeal was the KKE. The Anti-capitalist Left Front formation, Antarsya, was stagnant at around 1% in the polls. Syriza showed signs of significant support but with big fluctuations, while the KKE was more stable, rising from its traditional 7-8% to 10-12%.

One of the main differences (not the only one, of course) between the three formations was that the KKE and Antarsya were sectarian. They rejected, in the name of ‘revolutionary authenticity’, the idea of a united front of all the left and the forces of the mass movement, whereas Syriza was very positive to the idea of united action. KKE followed an extremely sectarian path of refusing to collaborate with anybody else – even to be on the same demonstrations!

The breakthrough for Syriza came in the 2012 elections, in May and June. In May, Syriza won around 17% of the vote and the KKE 8.5%. But in June, Syriza rose to 27%, narrowly behind ND on 29.7%, while the KKE fell to 4.5%. What is significant is how the relative strength of the parties evolved prior to and in the course of the elections. From December 2011 polls gave Syriza and KKE similar percentages – around 12%. In the early stages of the electoral campaign – in fact, up to three weeks before the vote on 6 May 2012 – the two parties stood at around 12% each.

Then Tsipras made an open appeal to the KKE for a joint government of the left. Previously, he had refused to raise this slogan despite the pressure from sections of the left. They included Xekinima which collaborated closely with Syriza, with a section of our membership also being Syriza members, campaigning for a government of the left parties on a socialist programme. The impact of the call was clear. The Stalinist leadership of the KKE immediately rejected any kind of joint government with Syriza as a matter of principle! They even stated that if Syriza was in a position to form a minority government the KKE would not give it a vote of confidence in parliament. In other words, they would bring it down.

This debate within the left immediately tilted the balance. Syriza won and the KKE lost. The total left vote in May 2012 (17% plus 8%) was similar to that recorded in the polls in the weeks and months before (12% plus 12%) – except that Syriza had surged ahead. This shows the significance of the united front approach for the broad masses, something which, unfortunately, is entirely beyond the conception of the KKE leadership and most of the organisations of the Greek left. There are no official figures but, based on information from KKE rank-and-file members, about a third of the membership either left or were forced out because they opposed the KKE’s refusal to respond positively to Syriza’s appeal.

Was capitulation inevitable?

The capitulation of Syriza to the troika was not unavoidable. It was the result of the leadership’s lack of understanding of the real processes taking place, the naive if not criminal perception that they would “change Greece and the whole of Europe”, as Tsipras boasted. It was the lack of understanding of the class nature of the EU and a complete lack of confidence in the working class and its ability to change society. When Tsipras came face to face with what it really means to clash with the ruling class he fell into despair and capitulated, completely unprepared.

The whole approach was amateurish. Immediately after Syriza’s January 2015 election victory, hundreds of millions of euros began to flow out of the country on a daily basis. Tsipras and his economics minister, Yanis Varoufakis, did not do the basics: impose controls to stop the outflow of capital. They had the example of Cyprus, in 2013 – where the troika itself applied capital controls – but still they did not dare to act.

Then they did something even more outrageous. They continued to pay back the debt despite the fact that the troika had stopped providing any new funding of the debt! They drained the economy, confiscating every euro in the hands of public institutions like universities, hospitals and local governments – to show the EU that they were ‘good boys’. Then the ECB stepped in to freeze liquidity to the banks and thus force them to close down. The economy was on its knees.

Tsipras had one of two choices: surrender and accept all the terms of the vindictive victors, or change course and go on the offensive. The Greek masses sent him the message in the historical referendum of July 2015: fight back and we will be on your side. But Tsipras had already decided. He would give in to the troika. He had actually called the referendum with the aim of losing it. The result had shocked him; he never expected such a landslide. Varoufakis confirmed this in a recent interview, saying that he had told Tsipras “not to bring out the people” if he had made up his mind to concede to the troika’s demands.

There was an alternative, which was developed in some detail by left organisations like Xekinima: impose capital controls; refuse to pay the debt; nationalise the banks; move speedily towards a national currency (drachma); use the liquidity provided by that currency to finance major public works, to stop the continuous contraction of the economy and put it back on the path of growth; cancel the debts of small businesses crushed by the crisis and provide loans under favourable conditions so they can get back into activity and provide a quick spur to the economy.

Nationalise the commanding heights of the economy; plan the economy, including a state monopoly of foreign trade, so that it acquires sustained growth and does not serve the profits of a handful of ship owners, industrialists and bankers, but is in the service of the 99%. Create special planning committees in every sector of industry and mining, and put particular attention into agriculture and tourism which are key to the economy and have huge potential. Establish democracy in the functioning of the economy, through workers’ control and management in every field and level. Appeal to the workers of the rest of Europe for support and solidarity, calling on them to launch a common struggle against the EU of the bosses and the multinationals. For a voluntary, democratic, socialist union of the peoples of Europe. In short, an anti-capitalist, anti-EU offensive on a socialist programme and class internationalist solidarity was the answer to the troika’s blackmail.

This was entirely beyond the conception of Tsipras and co, including Varoufakis. Though it is to his credit that he did not bow to the EU masters, the fact remains that the economic policies applied between January and July 2015 were catastrophic, and Varoufakis has direct responsibility for them. He had, and unfortunately still has, illusions that he could convince the EU to change its policies and reform.

What about the rest of the left?

The capitulation of the Syriza leadership is one aspect of the problems faced by the Greek working masses. The other, in a certain sense more important, is the inability of the left forces to take advantage of the capitulation of Syriza to provide an alternative. This is particularly the case for the two major left formations, the KKE and Antarsya, both of which speak in the name of anti-capitalism and socialist revolution. Most of the Greek left suffers from a number of ‘eternal sins’ due to the massive influence of Stalinism on its history and development. This has tragic consequences as the KKE and Antarsya have sufficient forces, a critical mass, to act as catalysts of major changes and upturns in the situation.

Firstly, there is little understanding of the transitional program, the need to have a link, a bridge, between the struggles of today and the socialist transformation of tomorrow so that the two tasks are intertwined into one dialectical whole. As a result, the KKE speaks about the need for socialism but only presents it as some aim in the distant future which will somehow come about if and when the KKE acquires sufficient strength. The KKE therefore refuses to support demands such as nationalisation or even exit from the EU, on the argumentation that this is ‘meaningless under capitalism’.

Antarsya is not the same but there is still wide confusion in its ranks. Some sections support a ‘transitional programme’ but interpret it as a minimum programme, separating it from the issue of workers’ power and socialist transformation. Antarsya is known for its general characteristic of making ‘loud cries for revolution’ without concrete proposals of how to get there.

Secondly, there is no conception of the united front tactic as explained and applied by the Bolsheviks under Lenin and by Leon Trotsky in the 1930s, which he summarised as being able to ‘march separately but strike together’ in action. The KKE and Antarsya never had a united front approach to the masses of Syriza. Although they understood that at some stage Tsipras and co would capitulate to the capitalists’ demands, they believed that by some magic the disappointed masses would then simply turn to them. The masses around Syriza, however, would not join with forces that treated them with contempt in the period before. They simply went home.

Thirdly, is ultimatism. While in 1989/90 the KKE (as part of SYN) initially formed a coalition government with the conservative ND, and then a few months later a national government with both ND and PASOK, today the KKE acts like a carbon copy of the Comintern of Stalin’s ‘third period’. It accuses its opponents of being agents of the ruling class and even collaborators of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Recently, in Kefalonia (an island in the Ionian Sea) the KKE produced a leaflet against Xekinima after our supporters won elections for the local union of small shop-owners and professionals. They claimed that the ‘far left’ (Xekinima) had collaborated with big business, Pasok, ND, Syriza and Golden Dawn (altogether!) to defeat the union faction supported by the KKE. One can only raise one’s hands in desperation.

Finally, there is a refusal to face reality. After the July 2015 referendum and the September elections, which Tsipras hastily brought forward before the masses could fully experience what his capitulation really meant, Xekinima openly stated that these events represented a major defeat. We explained that this was bound to have a serious impact on the movements and the left in general, despite the fact that it would help a minority of activists arrive at revolutionary conclusions.

The majority of the left, however, refused to accept this. They continued to call for a mass movement to bring down the government which would simply not take place. Then, in a response particularly characteristic of the KKE, if the masses did not come out to fight ‘it is because they don’t understand’. In other words, it’s the masses’ fault. A second response would be to exaggerate the dimensions of a movement, misreporting the numbers on demonstrations, etc. Needless to say, these approaches can only lead the left into a blind alley.

If these major flaws explain why the masses refused to turn to the KKE and Antarsya after Tsipras’s capitulation, how about the left inside Syriza? The main opposition, Left Platform, had the support of about a third of the party. It split off in August 2015 and created Popular Unity (PU) to stand in September’s snap election. Initially, polls gave it around 10% – significant mass support – but this gradually fell to just below 3%. It is now 1-1.5% in most polls.

The PU leadership made a number of crucial mistakes. Firstly, its campaign concentrated on switching to a national currency – its ‘program’ was not only too limited, it was incoherent. It argued in favour of leaving the eurozone and refusing to pay the debt, but remaining in the EU! Leaving aside the fact that this was far from a radical, anti-capitalist, socialist program, it represented an impossible combination of demands.

The second major factor was the arrogance of the leadership and its top-down bureaucratic approach. Thousands of mainly non-aligned left activists approached PU when it was formed, hoping that it could provide a way out. But they were disappointed and turned away. They had seen this before and had not liked it then: an established leadership (locally and nationally) that accepted no questioning; a pre-set program that was not to be discussed; and a campaign to elect MPs who were appointed and not elected by the rank and file! Just before election day the PU leadership realised that things were not going well and made a last minute democratic turn, but it was too late.

Prospects and tasks

Towards the end of the 1990s it was possible to see where the initiative for the creation of a new left formation in Greece (which came to be Syriza) was going to come from. Today it is not. The phase of defeat that the Greek working class is passing through is a serious one, although not at all comparable to the defeat of the civil war of 1945-49 or the victory of the military junta from 1967 to 1974. The working class with its militant and self-sacrificing traditions will be back on the scene there is no doubt. Of course, the timing, scale and precise characteristics of this comeback cannot be predicted in advance. This process will run parallel to the attempt to build new formations which will be able to represent politically the mass movement and provide leadership to its struggles.

Working-class activists are faced with a double task. On the one hand, to draw the central political conclusion that stems from Syriza’s capitulation: that there is no solution on the basis of the capitalist system, that a revolutionary socialist program is the only way out of the crisis. On the other hand, it is necessary to bring together, into a wide river of common action, struggle and resistance, all the various strands of the Greek movements with the additional aim of galvanizing these into a new broad formation with united front characteristics. A broad united front is necessary to make struggles more effective, just as a revolutionary core is needed to fight for the socialist programme inside the working class, social movements and society.

Objectively, there is a lot of ground for these ideas. The problem is subjective and is related to the deficiencies of the main forces of the left. Therefore one can only fight for these ideas, and take initiatives where possible to show the way forward. Xekinima is campaigning in the mass movement and society for these proposals and at the same time is taking initiatives that can show the way. Initiatives like local Left Alliances, local ‘social centres’ with other left activists, common campaigns with other groups particularly over working class issues, etc.

There is retreat in the mass movement and there is demoralisation. There are very few major, ‘central’ struggles, but there many small and important ones. At the same time, there is a thirst for ideas among many activists. The present phase of lull will come to an end, sooner or later, and a new upsurge will be on the cards. The forces of revolutionary socialism are building on this perspective.

Posted in: Greece, Workers' Parties