Following on from Part 1 and Part 2 of my analysis — which were first published in abridged form as a single article at Jacobin Magazine — I bring the Greek tragedy up to date with why the Syriza breakaway Popular Unity failed its first electoral test, as well as delving deeper into the dead-end of trying to do radical Left politics without a social base.
It is hard to imagine a more humiliating defeat for the anti-austerity Left in Europe than the result of the 20 September election called by Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras. Defying opinion polls that suggested a swing against it and back towards New Democracy — the centre-right party that had, with Pasok, jointly dominated Greek politics since the fall of the dictatorship — Tsipras’s Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), came home strongly and was once again able to form a governing coalition with the right-wing ANEL.
While the raw percentages were not far from those of January’s election, this time Syriza was no longer campaigning on stopping austerity but on being able to most fairly and competently implement a harsh bailout package (“memorandum”) it had “reluctantly” signed with the Eurogroup.
Meanwhile, the newly formed left-wing split from Syriza, Laiki Enotita (Popular Unity) — running on an almost identical platform to that which had brought Syriza into government eight months earlier — failed to gain the 3 percent of votes it needed to secure seats in parliament. Twenty-five anti-bailout Syriza MPs — members of the party’s Left Platform — were forced to leave the party when Tsipras called the election because he would’ve been able to purge them from its electoral lists. Now as Popular Unity they lost all parliamentary representation.
The other two openly anti-bailout parties to win seats, the Communist Party (KKE) and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, saw only minor improvements in their share of the national vote in response to Tsipras’s stunning transformation from anti-austerity firebrand to implementer of Troika-designed restructuring. Yet even they lost votes overall as 7 percent fewer voters turned out than in January, with an abstention rate of over 43 percent the highest since World War II.
The result was in some ways an even bigger blow to the “hope” invested in the radical Left political project than when Tsipras trashed Greek democracy in July by turning his back on both his electoral mandate and the referendum result. At least, so the argument went, Popular Unity was a serious electoral option for all those who felt betrayed by Tsipras’s actions. Yet the new party made a derisory electoral impact.
This was despite its coterie of ex-Syriza MPs garnering major media coverage during the campaign, participation in one of the televised leaders’ debates, and even a shot at forming an alternative coalition immediately after the election was called. In addition the hugely popular former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis — widely seen as a principled opponent of Tsipras’s betrayal — publicly stated he was voting for the party.
At the time of Popular Unity’s establishment, former Syriza central committee member Stathis Kouvelakis argued that the new party had two main goals:
[The first goal] is to provide an expression to social forces that do not necessarily recognize themselves as part of the Left but want to fight austerity, the memoranda, and the “troika rule reloaded” of the new memorandum.
The second is that the goal of the front is to constitute the political expression of the “no” as was expressed both in the January elections and in the referendum of July 5.
Yet the disastrous result for Popular Unity shines light on how Syriza’s rise reflected much more the vacuum created by the collapse of Greece’s post-dictatorship political order than any kind of social force capable of challenging Eurozone austerity head-on, let alone a social base for radical left-wing politics. To be clear, most ordinary Greeks want to see austerity defeated — it is in the vast majority’s direct social interest for the crisis to end — but there has not been a large and well-organised enough social response to the cycle of economic collapse, runaway unemployment and cuts to social services on which to base a political project that could have achieved something substantially different. Further, since 2012 there has been a definite retreat in terms of even the limited, and often bureaucratically controlled, struggles of the first period of austerity from 2010. This retreat was singled out by many of Syriza’s boosters as the reason that there needed to be a “political solution” to the impasse of the social movements.
It is this that explains why apart from a few small protests and strikes there has been no sustained social resistance to the new bailout, and therefore no basis for an alternative politics that could marshal such forces against the government. There is much cynicism and anger at what has happened, but there has been no mobilization that could break the current impasse. Instead, from political activists there is a recycling of the notion that there needs to be yet another rearrangement of Left politics, whether around Popular Unity or some new constellation, in order to somehow produce a different result.
One axis along which such arguments have run is the idea that a more radical “rupture” with the Eurozone is needed. While it was always clear to some in the radical Left that part of Syriza’s strategic deficit in dealing with the Troika was its deep commitment to staying inside the single currency, simply being willing to countenance a “Grexit” is no solution either. As I wrote in August:
For the Left Platform, 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.
Although any socially progressive solution to the Greek crisis would almost certainly entail leaving the single currency, it doesn’t follow that a government with no social base for an alternative route out of the crisis would deliver relief from austerity by exiting the euro. Syriza and Popular Unity’s most consistent advocate of a “progressive” Grexit, Costas Lapavitsas, admitted as much in July when he described the likely consequences of such a move:
My guess is that if we follow this path in a prepared way that we’ve been discussing, we’re going to go into recession. That will be difficult. It will probably last several months, at least the downward slope would last several months. I don’t think it will last more than six months judging by monetary experience. In Argentina the downside lasted three months. Then the economy picked up again.
So the contractionary aspect will last several months, then the economy will pick up. Positive rates of growth might take longer to appear because the blow to consumption, the uncertainty, the blow to small and medium businesses is likely to be significant. I’d expect positive rates of growth overall to begin to materialize after about 12-18 months.
Yet even this painful picture is based on Lapavitsas’s brave presumption that Greece would get the same benefit from a devalued currency that Argentina did, a projection that has been widely disputed by economists.
While Popular Unity was promoted as regrouping 13 organisations of the Greek radical Left, in practice it was dominated by the majority Left Current section of Syriza’s Left Platform, led by veteran politician Panagiotis Lafazanis who had served as energy minister under Tsipras. This posed three problems.
First, the Left Platform had been exceedingly loyal to the Syriza leadership even as it shifted rapidly rightwards following the electoral breakthrough of 2012. Despite being critical of such moves Left Platform members continued to argue for staying inside Syriza even as the Tsipras leadership centralized power around itself, limited the freedom of criticism of internal factions, wooed big business, and watered down its anti-austerity program. After Syriza entered government the Platform’s adherents accepted a coalition with the hardline, conspiracy-theory-loving chauvinists of ANEL, refused to break ranks when Tsipras signed the 20 February interim deal to continue the Troika’s austerity program, failed to differentiate themselves from Tsipras in the referendum campaign despite the cynical and half-hearted way he ran the case for “no”, and continued to pledge loyalty to the government even as they voted against its July deal with the creditors. Indeed, all signs were the dissidents would continue fighting a losing battle inside the party, at a planned party congress, rather than try to bring the government down. Only when Tsipras called the election and effectively purged them did they finally leave Syriza. Given this record many voters would have doubted Popular Unity’s credentials as a real alternative to Syriza’s failure as Lapavitsas, for one, conceded.
Second, the Left Platform’s focus on Grexit and old-fashioned statism meant Tsipras could paint them as being part of the “old political system” he railed against during the campaign, and even as “reactionary remnants” who wanted to take Greece back to the bad old days of the drachma. His ability to attack opponents on Left and Right with a message of political renewal comes out clearly in this report from the campaign trail:
Tsipras said he wanted to complete what he started when Syriza won national elections in January.
“Against us is the old political system that pushed the country into a tragedy, which built the regime that led to the bailouts,” he told a gathering of the party’s central committee in Athens. “We want to demolish this regime.”
He urged supporters to fight back against the old “hated” political system he held responsible for Greece having needed bailouts, and justified his decision to agree to a third rescue.
“We do not regret having fought nor having chosen at the end to avoid catastrophe,” he said.
“Whoever wants to escape has the right to do it but we are moving forward, we have not seen our best battles yet,” he said, in a reference to a breakaway Syriza faction that has formed the anti-bailout Popular Unity party.
It cannot have helped matters that Lafazanis was less than inspiring in his support for a possible Grexit, defending it on the basis that it would “not” be a “disaster” or “hell”, and flipping and flopping on whether he supported a return to the drachma.
Third, and finally, even the more critical members and backers of Syriza based their support on the idea that, whatever the party’s limitations, there was no way it would simply accede to the Troika’s wishes. Thus they were incapable of providing an independent political position for the working class and social movements when exactly that happened. Here is Kouvelakis, long a critic of Syriza’s Europhilia, interviewed days before the January election victory:
But what will we do if the Europeans refuse [to cancel Greece’s debt]? Once again all the options are on the table, but Syriza will not retreat and let itself be blackmailed the way Anastassiades, the rightwing Cypriot president was in spring 2013 when the parliament of his country reject[ed] by a unanimous vote the bailout plan proposed by the EU.
Worse than what happened in Cyprus, Tsipras turned his back not on parliament but on the 62 percent of voters, overwhelmingly concentrated in working class areas, who rejected the bailout deal in the referendum.
Given what has subsequently transpired the international Left’s scramble to identify with the Syriza project now appears as a blunder of the most embarrassing kind. After all, the “hope” from a Syriza victory was supposed to translate into tangible victories against the harsh economic restructuring being demanded of “periphery” Eurozone economies by the stronger members of the single currency. Instead, ordinary Greeks now face more vicious attacks under the radical-left Syriza than those under the previous Memorandums that Pasok and New Democracy presided over.
By and large, however, self-criticism has been kept to bare minimum, focused at best on secondary tactical issues. Many Marxists who tied themselves to Syriza’s mast have simply doubled down by claiming that any other course would have left them “immediately marginalized” from the Greek working class and social movements. Others have conceded that, “the disappointment produced by SYRIZA could translate into a level of political apathy or cynicism never experienced in history in Greece,” seemingly in denial of the years they spent attacking other Leftists for not joining the party or simply for daring to run against it at elections. Even though many admit that the outcome of Syriza in power has been a disaster for ordinary Greeks, because other outcomes were hypothetically possible they continue to defend a strategy that ended in failure, even after it has gone belly-up.
It would be easy to take cheap shots at the torrent of premature (and at times unhinged) proclamations of victory retailed by left-wing writers inside and outside Greece over the last year, but it is more important to get back to the central point about the hollowness of a “radical” politics that lacks a social base. The problem with such an approach can be illustrated by looking at criticisms leveled at my position by revolutionary Marxists Catarina Príncipe and Dan Russell:
[A] viable left strategy for ending austerity can’t counterpoise [sic] the social and political: a political alternative must help create its own social basis. This was precisely the project of Syriza, which the newly formed Popular Unity will carry on now that the Syriza leadership has abandoned its commitment to fighting the memorandum.
Despite defeats and detours these projects remain the only viable path toward an eventual rupture with not just austerity but capitalism itself.
Yet the lesson of both Syriza and Popular Unity is precisely that left-wing political parties with little or no serious social base cannot themselves create such a base from which to even begin challenging capitalism. To think that they can gets things upside-down. The basis of the capitalist state is bourgeois civil society, and capitalist social relations are the ultimate producers and shapers of political relations — not the other way around.
Rather than dealing with the concrete failure of a strategy for social change based exclusively in the political sphere, Príncipe and Russell drift off into a potted history of the socialist movement in the twentieth century that dances around the most striking difference between then and now: At their height the Second and Third Internationals represented millions of organised workers who were acting in their own interests in struggles against employers and governments. Today’s European struggles against austerity — with the partial exception of the social movements in Spain since 2011 — are, sadly, only a pale shadow of those past battles. More important still, mass representative institutions have been hollowed out so that even in Spain the new “anti-political” political formations carry only a fraction of the social weight that social democratic and communist parties could deploy last century. These are simple empirical facts that no amount of heroic rhetoric about “shifts in consciousness” and “political radicalization” can overcome.
The consequences of trying to effect change without a social base emerge vividly in one Popular Unity candidate’s description of the activities of Syriza in government:
I would like to stress three important issues. The first one is that during the negotiations with the lenders, the movements’ role was completely underestimated. The government did not try to use the power generated by the motivation of the masses to support its position in the negotiations in general, with the exception of a short time interval before the agreement of the twentieth of February, and the week before the memorandum.
The second one, which is linked to the first, is that no changes were made to the structure of the state that could have allowed the people — the productive forces of our society, the ones that experience the problems and can, hence, address the problems more directly — to propose solutions. A wider and deeper democracy — that has no financial cost — was not established. Moreover, and here comes the third point, not even the democratic force within Syriza was taken into consideration.
The party was totally absorbed by the state, exactly in the way that Michalis Nikolakakis predicted some months ago, and so were its chain of command and decisions. People in key state positions were playing a significant role, whereas party officials had no idea what was going on. This meant that the government lost track of the society and the party … We might want to reread the enlightening interview between Aristides Baltas with Leo Panitch, where the most famous Greek Althusserian philosopher practically tries to relativize structuralism, while he admits that spending twelve hours per day in the ministry did not allow him to communicate with the party.
Such failures are not a matter of inadequate political will, but the product of a politics that has no social force to mobilise against its enemies. With an approach little different in its fundamentals to Syriza’s, Spain’s Podemos has found itself falling back in the polls after its initial dramatic burst onto that country’s political scene. As I have previously noted, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has been a defender not only of Tsipras’s “realism”, but of the notion that a radical shake-up of politics will make very little difference in terms of people’s social conditions. Leftists frustrated by this situation will not be able to break free of the material constraint that a lack of social base places on political strategy, no matter how clever their proposals for Left regeneration might seem on paper.
Indeed, the worst possible starting point now is the one most commonly raised on the international Left, the notion that “the key challenge for the Greek radical left will be choosing the form its recomposition will take amid the imposition of the third memorandum”. Such recomposition is meaningless in a situation where the balance of social forces remains unchanged, and the staggeringly complicated history of socially irrelevant splits and regroupments on the Greek Left in the lead-up to the Syriza debacle should serve as a warning about this kind of thinking. Despite these problems it is a starting point that seems to preoccupy Marxists everywhere, as evidenced in the title of US socialist Todd Chretien’s recent reply to Príncipe and Russell, “Where do socialists belong?” Rather than starting with what is happening in society, Chretien tries to both defend a narrower conception of socialist organization than his interlocutors and to justify the decisions of his Greek comrades to bury themselves in Syriza (and then Popular Unity), again deploying historical debates with little modern relevance.
Having just read Lars Lih’s celebrated revisionist account of the pre-1905 Lenin and his pamphlet What Is To Be Done?, I was struck by the contrast between the real Lenin and the version deployed by Príncipe, Russell and Chretien. Whatever one thinks of his wider argument about Lenin (see here for an appreciative but sharp critique by John Marot), on page after page Lih makes crystal clear that the strategic and organizational polemics of the Russian revolutionaries were necessarily predicated on the real-life growth of a self-active, radical and increasingly socially powerful working class movement — exactly the material force missing from today’s sterile debates.
So what can be concluded from this obituary of Greece’s radical Left experiment?
In my view, Tsipras’s 20 September victory could end up being seen as an important turning point not so much for the radical Left, but for how political systems creaking under the strain of long-run hollowing-out — and more recent instability produced by austerity — might try to reconstitute themselves on a new basis. Syriza used its outsider status to fill a vacuum created by the collapse of the old parties, but the severe limits on what it could deliver socially from government may mean that similar parties elsewhere will find it much harder to take this path. Regardless, what is happening here is a rearrangement of the alienated sphere of bourgeois politics, not any challenge to its infernal logic.
Meanwhile much of the international Left has barely paused before moving onto its next beacon of “hope”, Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected ascension to the leadership of a British Labourism experiencing advanced decomposition. Such a development is even less plausible as a potential route to radical social change than Syriza’s strategy was. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how anyone can still take it seriously after the wide range of concessions and compromises Corbyn has already made, leaving his leadership only a shade more radical than Ed Miliband’s in practice. However, because of its deep commitment to “the primacy of politics”, the Left seems largely unperturbed by these ever-diminishing returns.