Greece’s radical Left experiment: An obituary (Part 2)

by · September 22, 2015

Finance minister Tsakalotos & PM Tsipras, who negotiated the new austerity package

Finance minister Tsakalotos & PM Tsipras, who negotiated the new austerity package

This is the second of three parts of my analysis of the Greek radical Left debacle. Part 1 focused on the lead-up to the referendum in July. Part 3 will focus on the most recent developments, including the election result, and respond to some criticisms of my argument that have emerged within the Marxist Left.

While my prediction that Tsipras was unlikely to purge Syriza’s dissident Left Platform was proven wrong, the resultant breakaway Popular Unity party’s derisory result in the election — unable to break through the 3 percent threshold for getting MPs — has confirmed its lack of popular influence outside Syriza.

An abridged and combined version of Parts 1 and 2 was originally published as “The failed strategy”, after the referendum but before the elections were called, and published by Jacobin Magazine in the United States.



The days after the massive 61 percent “no” vote in the Greek referendum were littered with commentaries from across the political spectrum that completely misunderstood what had just transpired.

Some saw the vote as applying pressure on the Eurogroup to soften its demands. From others there was an expectation that the “no” would result in a rapid transit to a nasty, forced Grexit, because Syriza had so flagrantly tried to put a democratic domestic vote ahead of the rules and processes of the Eurozone. Some on the Left who favoured a “popular” Grexit saw this as a chance for Tsipras to come to his senses and be forced into a rupture with the logic of austerity.

Most agreed with the sentiment that, “In calling the referendum, prime minister Alexis Tsipras unleashed a social outpouring,” and that:

In a very short week, there has been a reckoning. Over the coming months we will learn the full measure of Sunday’s victory in the preparedness of workers, students and the unemployed within Greece and across Europe to continue the fight against every manifestation of austerity.

Instead what they got was a horrific austerity deal — even more on the Eurogroup’s terms than the one that had just been rejected in the popular vote. There was no Grexit, no move to a “rupture”, and the Greek Parliament voted through the new Memorandum by large majorities. While a section of Syriza’s Left refused to vote for the new deal, the Left Platform’s leader Panagiotis Lafazanis pledged to support the government, despite it being committed to implementing austerity:

“We support the government, and those of us who said ‘No’ support the efforts leading Greece to exit the crisis with its head held high and [with] social justice,” Lafazanis said after the vote, adding that “we are deputies of this government. We support it wholeheartedly, we are the heart and soul of SYRIZA, we support the party, we support the party in the government, we support the prime minister — we do not support the memorandum.”

He added that SYRIZA was united and the backbone of a government that will follow a progressive course to exit the crisis. Asked whether he would resign if Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras requested it, Lafazanis, a leading member of his cabinet, said that it is the premier’s prerogative to set the cabinet’s composition. Tsipras is the prime minister by the will of the people, he stressed.

And there has been no mass social rebellion against the deal — with protests at best a small fraction of the size of the “no” rallies before the referendum. Indeed Greek opinion polls (like this one) have shown Syriza maintaining its electoral lead over all the other parties, strong support for Tsipras’s negotiation of the deal despite recognition it was against the spirit of the “no” vote, and at best a small increase in support for leaving the euro. There has been no surge in support for the parties of the far Left outside Syriza.

Tsipras summarized how he viewed the mandate he had been given just days later in Parliament:

[The Greek people] rejected the ultimatum. They did not grant a mandate for rupture. Their mandate sought to strengthen the negotiating effort for an economically viable agreement.

And I never hid my intentions or the truth from the Greek people. I did not ask for a “No” vote as a mandate to leave the euro, but as a mandate that would strengthen our negotiating position. I even personally pledged, prior to the referendum, to do everything in my power to pursue a better deal as soon as possible, even within the first forty-eight hours. The Greek people voted with these terms in mind last Sunday, and I am not here today to do something other than what I promised. And I am doing what I promised…

To me, the “No” vote represented a mandate for a better solution, for a better deal, for the dignity of a large portion of the Greek people – for the thousands of people who have experienced poverty and indignity all these years. I also perceived the “No” vote as a vote of confidence, as well, in the Government and its efforts. And the time has arrived to take stock.

Few expected the ease with which his interpretation could be carried, at least in the short term. In part they were thrown off by the class distribution of the vote, with working class areas most solidly in the “no” camp and wealthy areas overwhelmingly favouring “yes”. But a class distribution of votes in a referendum is not the same as a positive assertion of social class interests. As a New York Times report after the referendum contended, the real dynamic was that Tsipras “is the last person standing in Greece’s political landscape, without a rival in sight”:

Mr. Tsipras, experts say, will be speaking to a population that is deeply fed up with the politics of the last 40 years and hopes he offers a change. The two parties that traded power during that time, the center-right New Democracy and the center-left Pasok, are in disarray.

Mr. Tsipras benefits from having never had anything to do with those parties. “The vast majority of Greeks want a break from the parties of the past,” said Nick Malkoutzis, a political analyst with MacroPolis, a website that specializes in news analysis.

Put simply, Syriza was much more the beneficiary of the rapid collapse of the old political order than some kind of expression of social movements against austerity. This was true in the lead-up to the 2012 elections, as I argued at the time, and it must have been even truer after mid-2012 when, as is universally acknowledged, the overall level of social struggle declined considerably compared with the previous period.

By missing this fact — and instead being preoccupied with Syriza’s historical origins in post-war communism, its main internal ideological trends, its canny move to relate to 2011’s “movement of the squares”, and the stated commitment of even its more conservative leaders to opposing austerity and carrying through some kind of “radical Left” program — many commentators failed to grasp the shallowness of Syriza’s social base, and hence the even more paltry social base of its more radical internal currents. Whereas at its height of power in the 1980s Pasok was able to draw power from and carry a substantial social base to dominate Greek politics, Syriza relies far more a negative process: the hollowing out and fragmentation of the old parties. The big “no” vote on 5 July therefore represented more a decisive rejection of the old pro-Memorandum political class than any kind of radical class break with the social crisis wracking Greece. And it meant that while Tsipras could come out as undisputed winner within the airy realm of politics, he would have no more social power behind him to force a substantially different outcome from negotiations.

The “no” vote did give Tsipras leverage to get the main opposition parties to formally agree to back him in parliamentary votes over new negotiations and austerity, allowing him to get around his internal dissidents in the immediate term. The effect was to strengthen his position within the political system, and to expose the isolation of those within his ranks who had met to draw up plans for a Grexit. Because the Left Platform had little social base worth speaking of, and because there was only a small minority of the voters who nominally supported a return to the old currency, its naïve and amateurish decision to hold meetings to make such plans left it open to hysterical accusations of “plotting” to undemocratically reintroduce the drachma. For the Left Grexit was not a realistic strategy that had any chance of being implemented on the basis of the existing balance of forces. Instead it was a purely intellectual opt-out from the trap they had walked into and had no way out of in the real world.

The effective internal opposition to Tsipras has subsequently receded rather than grown precisely because there is no clear social basis for it. To deploy the term used by Pablo Iglesias (and taken from Stalin), there are no military “divisions” that could be deployed to make a radical exit from the euro a viable policy. Thus, the initial majority against a deal among the Syriza Central Committee has fragmented, leaving the Left Platform in a minority and allowing Tsipras to push through an extraordinary party conference with fresh election of delegates — which means the leadership is likely to wield a crushing majority that reflects the current weakness of its opponents. It is almost certain that Tsipras will be able to press home this advantage, bolstered by the Left Platform’s lack of a credible alternative program, to quell internal dissent, hold the government together and avoid having to call early elections (which would be a headache he doesn’t need). The Left Platform depends more than ever on being inside Syriza (and, now, in government) to exercise any influence and maintain its parliamentary representation. Far from the austerity deal confirming a perspective of “after Tsipras, our turn” the Left Platform finds itself with nowhere else to go.

For all the talk of the lack of democracy in the EU, of “blackmail” and of the “sadism” of the Germans (the latter accusation laced with unpleasant Greek chauvinism in some commentary), the reality is that Syriza has twice anti-democratically smashed its electoral mandate to halt austerity — once on 20 February where it deferred its (rather mild) election promises in favour of continuing austerity, and again after 5 July when it shamelessly turned “no” into “yes”. Those who continue to portray the government as a victim forget that the Greek political class has not only willingly signed up to the euro project, but that even the “radical Left” variant of that political class treats the Eurozone as (in Varoufakis’s words) “just like the Eagles song ‘Hotel California’ — you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”. It’s a familiar pattern of weak politicians and governments hiding behind EU technocrats, matching their own detachment from real social interests with claims that they are in no position to deliver on those interests because of the very institutions they desperately cling to. The only new thing here is that the radical Left has been able to provide a fresh face for a discredited political system, more honest about its inability to make a difference beyond the political sphere.

Tsipras’s ability to get away with one of the most brazen volte-face ever seen on the radical Left reflects the lack of a social basis for an authentic alternative. Moreover, recent events have confirmed the almost complete lack of social class content underpinning Syriza’s political program, which could therefore be discarded without much trouble when the going got tough. If the election of Syriza had really been the expression (however distorted) of a popular social movement against austerity, then it is hard to imagine how the last few weeks could have happened as they did.

The “hope” invested in the election of a Syriza government was, in the end, in direct proportion to a lack of hope for the possibility of social resistance to austerity becoming a genuine alternative in its own right. At one level this was the product of the fact that the struggles that arose in 2010-12 were mostly unable to break free of the limits imposed by the trade union bureaucracy, let alone to reach even to the level of the 15-M movement in Spain. Wider social resistance, while significant, remained within the constraints set by a weakened political order. Recognizing this fact need not have been a counsel for despair about the social struggle, requiring some kind of “political alternative” outside it. Rather, it required an honest assessment that would lead people to think through how to help the movement get beyond its impasse using its own social power.

By rights the Greek debacle should serve as an obituary for the idea that radical Left politics is a viable solution to the growing social contradictions in Europe. For all the excitement about “the turn to politics” or “the return of strategy”, Syriza is a blinding demonstration of the limits of a politics that has no social base, bringing forth a new breed of politician that educates voters not to expect too much in the way of social change (because politics is not really about that kind of thing). Pablo Iglesias is therefore correct when he says of the radical Left in Southern Europe that, “in this chess game in which we have got almost nothing, there’s not much more we can do”. Missing from his analysis, of course, is the social power that the radical Left seems to have given up on, in favour of playing (however ingeniously) by the rules of the political game.

Discussion3 Comments

  1. McIntosh says:

    It seems you are moving closer to the KKE’s analysis of the situation and of Syriza. The KKE never shared the irrational optimism of many on the Left about the transformational possibilities of Syriza and saw it as left cover for the existing social order. Unfortunately the realignments and recomposition of politics in Greece seems not to have helped the KKE move beyond 5% of the vote. Participation in Syriza has not yet deepened understanding but caused confusion.
    Still, I suppose, it is better to small and right than big and wrong in the long run.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      I’m not really anywhere near the KKE’s position, which hides its own commitment to parliamentary elections behind ultra-Left “Third Period” communist attacks on Syriza. The critique here is more aimed at the limits of politics as a way of changing the social situation. There is no question in my mind that there needs to be a social movement on a mass scale to challenge austerity, etc., and that such a movement would have to intervene into politics, but what you see in Greece is a bunch of political actors with little or no social base playing the political game with no substantive connection to real social forces.

      In that sense, I would say the last thing Syriza’s leadership would want is increased participation in the party by people in civil society. Indeed, as the influx of new members happened after 2012, Syriza’s top brass moved very quickly to centralise power away from the “grassroots”. Why ordinary Greeks would want to join Syriza in large number now is beyond me, unless they thought there was some kind of career prospect in it.

  2. Lycaon says:

    The implication in this series of articles that the entire left was swept up in Syriza’s vacuous and Obamaesque marketing campaign (We open a way to hope, etc) and the hype it created around Eurocommunist figures like Tripras and Varoufakis is either mistaken nonsense or a barefaced lie.

    While here in the UK, the majority leadership of Left Unity party did admittedly seek to identify the party as the “British Syriza” and embrace Syriza and Podemos as sister parties, they were strongly opposed in this by the Communist Platform within Left Unity. The Communist Platform identified and repeatedly warned the rest of the left here, including the leadership of Left Unity, to the bankruptcy of Syriza’s (and Podemos) politics and entire strategy. For instance, see the extract below from just one article published by the CPGB paper Weekly Worker on this subject.

    Now having watched Tsipras and Varoufakis project of saving capitalism from itself collapse on its own sandy Eurocommunist foundations, many sections of the left which chose to ignore the warnings about the bankruptcy of Syriza and Podemos now also refuse to draw any political lessons from the inevitable failure of their initial strategy. Instead, like Iglesias and their erstwhile hero Tsipras, they feign ignorance, cover their tracks with political dishonesty, while counselling despair and openly embracing Margaret Thatcher’s infamous and self-serving dictum that There is no alternative (Tina).

    Weekly Worker, 28 March 2013.

    Communists are clear that the working class cannot implement a programme for socialism either through the capitalist state or within one country. There can be no excuse then for calling for a Syriza-type government: history has demonstrated that attempts by the left to manage capitalism are inevitably followed by crushing defeat and demoralisation. Tsipras seems to be presenting himself as the Chávez of Europe (not that there has been much antagonism between himself and the US) and there were numerous references to the social gains made under Chávez that evening [by Tsipras at a meeting in London]. But Chávismo does not amount to socialism and it could not be replicated in Greece in any case – Greece has no equivalent of Venezuela’s oil.

    I will finish, for those still in doubt over the depth of Tsipras’s reformism, with a quote from his talk at the London School of Economics the previous day. The Labour Party, he said, is “one of the few parties so close to power in Europe with whom we share a lot of positions and with whom we can be in constant communication”.

    By your friends shall ye be known.