Greece’s radical Left experiment: An obituary (Part 1)

by · September 21, 2015

TsiprasThe results of the Greek election, with Syriza again able to rule with the help of the hard-right nationalists of ANEL (the Independent Greeks), represents a further blow to the radical Left political project in Europe. Syriza now has an electoral mandate to implement the austerity deal it agreed with the Eurogroup, and which saw over 30 Syriza MPs voting against or abstaining. Popular Unity, which formed after Tsipras effectively purged Syriza’s dissident Left Platform by calling an early election, scored under the 3 percent needed to enter parliament, thereby losing all of its 25 MPs. It had run on a platform of doing what Syriza had promised before the January election, but tied to a harder anti-euro stance. The anti-capitalist Antarsya, while increasing its vote a little, gained less than 1 percent. Worryingly, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn saw a small rise in its support to just under 7 percent — despite currently being on trial as a criminal organization. The rate of voter abstention also rose by 7 percent, to over 43 percent, reflecting growing disenchantment with politics.

How did the “hope” of Syriza’s rise to power so quickly turn into a debacle? This will be the first of three posts on the Greek situation this week at Left Flank. Today and tomorrow we’re running the two parts of an earlier, slightly longer version of my article “The failed strategy” which was written on 3 August, after the referendum but before the elections were called, and published by Jacobin Magazine in the United States. In a third part later this week I’ll write in more detail on the most recent developments and respond to some criticisms of my argument that have emerged within the Marxist Left.



The leader of Spain’s Podemos party, Pablo Iglesias, recently elaborated on why he believed the deal Greece’s radical Left Syriza party reached with the European institutions was “sadly, the only thing they could have done” because a small Southern European government has so little political power. In a remarkable performance he argued that even Podemos would only be able to deliver very limited reforms:

We can’t do more than that. We defend the same that Christian Democracy did 30 years ago. But in this chess game in which we have got almost nothing, there’s not much more we can do. Spain can do a little more than Greece … but the limits are massive.

Is politics nice? No, it’s absolutely horrible, abject, the worst thing. … [But] what the situation in Europe has shown is that politics depends on the power you’ve got.

In a similar vein, Canada-based Marxists Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin have criticized those who would attack Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras as not being willing to face up to the lack of social base for a program of radical rupture — first from the Eurozone, and then “with the European Union as a neoliberal free trade and free capital zone”. Panitch and Gindin come across as more hopeful than Iglesias in that they pose the possibility of Syriza winning its supporters to a prolonged period of social sacrifice as the political capacity is built for such a radical project, although how a government implementing brutal austerity can simultaneously build popular capacity for opposition to austerity remains murky.

Bleaker assessments of the limits of the European radical Left project it would be hard to imagine. For all the ideological passion of the radical Left, for all its historical commitment to fundamental social transformation, the current pickings are very slim indeed. Apparently now what we have to look forward to from radical Left success in politics is more of the very austerity that it was supposed to overturn.

These are a far cry from the mantra of “hope against fear” that reverberated through the international Left from the time of Syriza’s sudden breakthrough in the May 2012 general election, and which was stepped up again when the party was able to form a coalition government in late January. Even if the Syriza leadership around Tsipras had moderated its platform, not only was this the first radical Left led European government of the post-WWII period, but it was also the first serious governmental challenge to the harsh austerity that the Eurozone had embarked on in 2010 with the first Greek bailout.

One of the products of the “hope” mantra was a dismissal (and sometimes denunciation) of those who raised the notion that something other than a radical Left political project (like Syriza) was needed to reverse the deep social suffering being inflicted on ordinary Greeks. Even many who were critical of the Syriza leadership’s commitment to remaining within the single currency argued that the minority inside the party who called for some kind of Grexit proved that being inside Syriza was the most important political place to be. In that line of thinking, the presence of a platform grouped around a mostly correct program of action within Syriza meant that a Syriza government itself was worth having, because if the pro-euro line failed in practice the minority view would have its time in the sun. That is, “after Tsipras, our turn”.

Hopes were raised again as the post-election negotiations with the Eurogroup began. Yanis Varoufakis’s unorthodox negotiating style and public shenanigans seemed to announce a new, more aggressive approach to the Troika in contrast with the loss of “dignity” that the capitulation of previous governments to EU-ECB-IMF demands had produced. It is important to understand what the initial strategy entailed, because it has been obscured by claims that Syriza’s electoral mandate was supposed to shift the Troika by moral persuasion. Varoufakis was brought on board because he had long put forward a view that it was in the economic self-interest of the stronger Eurozone nations (especially Germany) to use their creditor status to “recycle” the debts of the poorer and more indebted peripheral nations — much in the way the United States had played this role in relation to a pulverized Europe after WWII.

On this view, countries like Germany were undermining the integrity of the euro by pressing for a strict rules-based approach to public finances across the currency zone since such rules would eventually lead to the default and exit of weaker countries like Greece. These rules precluded the writing off (or “restructuring”) of Greek debt that even the IMF was calling unsustainable.

What Tsipras and Varoufakis found in the negotiations was a wall of political opposition to their argument, one that seems to have caught them off guard. This was especially because other “periphery” governments (Ireland, Portugal and Spain) that had suffered most in the crisis were even more vicious in defending the “German” approach than the usual Northern European suspects.

The Syriza negotiators had completely missed how in a situation of massive disparity in public finances across the Eurozone, in the midst of a deep economic crisis, the stronger nations would only ever move to greater political convergence on terms that protected their own fiscal integrity. The point of political convergence was to overcome the widely recognized problem that monetary union without fiscal union (that is, a single political decision-making system for public spending) created dangerous centrifugal forces within the Eurozone, which had become gravely apparent following the financial crisis of 2008. Tsipras and Varoufakis had simply not understood the importance of the political dimension to the Eurozone crisis. This politics was not one based on “neoliberal ideology” nor the caricatured view of the sadistic “ugly German”, but on the logic of keeping the single currency together politically as well as economically.

Additionally, also contrary to Syriza’s expectations, there was no benefit for the political classes of the indebted “periphery” nations in now allowing one of their number to get special treatment after they had inflicted deeply unpopular economic pain on their own electorates by acceding to the existing rules. Such a move would only have fed the popularity of Syriza’s local counterparts, such as Podemos, which had been making electoral gains on the basis of the crisis of the old pro-austerity parties of centre Right and centre Left. Popular anti-austerity sentiment made the other periphery governments more — not less — keen for Greece to acquiesce.

The first major blow to “hope” was, therefore, the 20 February interim deal in which Syriza basically agreed to a continuation of Troika (now renamed “the institutions”) monitoring of austerity as agreed by the previous New Democracy (ND) led government. Nevertheless, many saw this as winning “political breathing space” for Syriza to regroup and extract a better deal in the months of negotiations ahead, despite the social suffering it would lead to. Meanwhile, the fiscal rectitude of the other periphery governments was rewarded after the deal with Greece with a major tranche of Eurozone Quantitative Easing (monetary stimulus), one that would be unlikely to reach Greece because of its unique circumstances.

But worse was to come.

As it became more and more obvious the Eurogroup was going to press for continuation and intensification of strict fiscal discipline, with a forced Grexit dangled as punishment, Tsipras was put in an extremely difficult position domestically. On the one hand, while he had been elected to try to end austerity (even if only on a moderate platform), he had also been elected on the basis of staying inside the single currency. Greek opinion polls had consistently shown high levels of support for the latter and the absence of a widely known and credible plan for Grexit meant this was unlikely to change anytime soon. On the other hand, Tsipras faced a party in which skepticism about the euro was much higher and the Left Platform had essentially come to the conclusion that Grexit was both necessary and inevitable. If he negotiated a crummy austerity deal, Tsipras faced the possibility of the government collapsing because his own side would vote against him in large numbers. This is certainly how Varoufakis explained Tsipras’s snap decision to call a referendum to the Eurogroup, admitting at the time that they expected the “no” to lose.

Whether or not Tsipras expected (and/or wanted) “no” to win, his campaign for “no” was crystal clear about what the referendum was not about: a Grexit.

The results of the democratic choice of our people will be respected, whatever their choice may be. But I want to make this clear: Any attempt for this referendum to be converted from a referendum to reject the new Memorandum to a referendum on the country’s currency serves to undermine the democratic process itself, and reveals the hidden and underlying aspirations of the Memorandum supporters.

This is exactly what the most extreme and conservative memorandum forces want—those who are mainly outside the country, as well as those who blindly repeat their views here. I want to reiterate that it is neither the intention nor the decision of the government or of the Greek people to equate the memorandum with our country’s membership in the European Union.

Greece is neither a visitor nor a guest in the European project. We are equals among equals. No one has the right, not even institutionally according to the European Treaties that we all signed, to show us the to the door to exit from our common home. We do not intend to concede this right to anyone for any reason whatsoever.

On the most charitable assessment, a popular “no” could be seen as giving Tsipras some extra leverage within the Eurogroup. However, given that the January election had failed to do any such thing, a more realistic interpretation must return to Tsipras’s domestic political dilemma. Of course, calling the referendum enraged the negotiating partners and the old, discredited Greek political class, which threw itself into an anaemic “yes” campaign — one based on fear of Grexit — and paid the price. It also led to significant economic disruption, with bank closures, ATM withdrawal limits and capital controls. But rather than helping the pro-EU camp this state of affairs ended up favouring the government.

It was a strange official “no” campaign, however, because no sooner had he called the plebiscite Tsipras was writing to try to broker a new austerity deal with the Europeans, and Varoufakis even offered to call off the referendum if its terms were accepted. In response to his offer being rejected Tsipras argued for a “no” on the basis of a break with the strategy of the old parties, but within the Eurozone:

I am well aware that during this period the sirens of destruction have been blaring. They are trying to blackmail you as well, and ask that you vote YES on all the measures requested by the institutions, without any prospect of exiting the crisis. They want you to side with those in Parliament who have repeatedly said YES to all the measures that have burdened the country. To become one with them. Complicit in perpetuating the memoranda…

Some insist on linking the referendum’s result to the country staying in the euro. They claim that I have a hidden agenda, if the NO vote prevails, to remove the country from the EU. They are knowingly lying. These are same people who used to say the very same thing in the past.

Tsipras tended to be much less concrete about what a “no” would mean for people’s social interests. Stathis Kouvelakis of the Left Platform, himself a supporter of a popular Grexit, has told of how when he was campaigning for “no” he found himself embarrassed that he had no answer to questions about what Syriza would do after the “no” won. There was a stark contradiction between the aspirations of the Left activists who made up ground troops for the “no” campaign (many of whom were already convinced of the need for some kind of “rupture”) on one side and the intentions of the government and the consciousness of voters on the other.

Again at the final massive “no” rally in Athens’ Syntagma Square on 3 July Tsipras made clear:

On Sunday, we will all send a message of democracy and dignity to Europe and the world. We will send again a message of hope to the people. Because on Sunday, we are not deciding about staying in Europe. We are deciding about living with dignity in Europe, working and prospering in Europe. For all of us to be equal in Europe. And believe me, no one has the right to threaten us that they will cut Greece off from its natural, geographical home. No one has the right to threaten, to divide Europe. Greece, our country, was, is and will remain the cradle of European civilization. … It is from this very place that the austerity technocrats want to abduct Europe again. NO. We tell them NO on Sunday. We will not leave Europe in the hands of those who want to abduct it from its democratic tradition.

It is this contradiction, the ambiguous and paradoxical nature of the “no” vote, which was missed by most of its radical Left supporters. As news of the massive 61 percent support for “no” rolled in, and a wave of euphoria overcame the Left, very few were prepared for the political disaster that was about to engulf them.

It is to explaining this that I will turn in Part Two.