Syriza Syriza. Photo: Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann

As a Corbyn government seems more and more likely, there are clear lessons to be drawn from the Greek experience, writes Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

The right has failed to win a convincing majority and faces chaotic negotiations with the European Union. The left has advanced and is the government in waiting. The centre has collapsed. Sound familiar?

Sure, it’s Britain in 2017, but it was also Greece in June 2012. There, like in the UK now, the right cobbled together a coalition. This coalition hobbled on until an early election brought Syriza to power in January 2015. Syriza consolidated its victory in a further election in September 2015.

There are of course differences between the two countries and situations, but there is enough similarity to ask whether the movement around Corbyn has any lessons to learn. After all, Syriza’s first victory was a spectacular victory of the movement against austerity in Greece.

However, Syriza’s time in government proved deeply disappointing. Despite winning a referendum in July 2015 by an overwhelming margin with over 61 percent of the vote, Syriza quickly capitulated to the demands of its foreign creditors. It ended up continuing to impose austerity much like its predecessors.

How was this possible? And could the same happen to Labour under Corbyn? The danger signs certainly exist. We know for a fact most Labour MPs hate Jeremy Corbyn and socialist politics. We saw them attempt a coup last summer after the Brexit referendum. Could they gain the upper hand? And what can we do to stop them?

Greece: from the movements to parliament

Looking at the Syriza experience helps us understand what we can do in Britain today. In particular, it is important to underline the record of Syriza’s relationship with the movements. Syriza’s stunning second place result in June 2012 came on the back of an extraordinary struggle in the workplaces and streets. There were twenty general strikes in the period 2010-2012 alone.

The call for a government of the left in 2012 had struck a chord with those militants who had not seen the movements from below make a leap forward in the shape of new political institutions to contest those of the capitalist state. There was no pre-revolutionary situation in Greece in that sense.

What there was, though, was a growing anti-austerity movement learning from its experiences. It decided to give the more combative left, Syriza, a vote of confidence over the traditional working class party, PASOK, since the latter had joined hands with external creditors to ram through austerity measures while in government in preceding years.

Syriza’s result in 2012 therefore on one level gave confidence to the movements from below but, on another level, it also gave the various movements a seemingly easy target: victory in the next election. What occurred over the next three years was therefore key and is a crucial lesson for the left in Britain: Syriza began to moderate its message in order to win power – with catastrophic results.

This became obvious on a number of levels. Conference resolutions became less confrontational with the international creditors and the freedom of the left inside the party was curtailed. Syriza began accepting defectors from more moderate centre-left parties. Critically, its support for strikes became more lukewarm. The message was not lost on key militant neighbourhoods which did not back Syriza as enthusiastically in the European elections of 2014 as they had done in 2012, as shown at the time by Stathis Kouvelakis.

Syriza’s road to defeat: from hope to despair

The Syriza leadership’s hope was that it could switch the movements on and off as it saw fit in order to take power. Once in power, it could use them as a reserve as it cleverly manoeuvred to divide rulers and creditors at home and abroad.

It thus hoped that Greek nationalists would back Syriza against domestic capitalists and international creditors. It hoped that the social democrats in Germany would back Greece not their coalition partners, Angela Merkel’s conservatives. It hoped the socialist president of France would back Greece against Germany in Eurozone debates. It hoped to gain the support of the IMF for Greece against the European Central Bank.

The reality was, though, that class interests came above factional interests for international capital. This would become clear after 2015. The creditors closed ranks against Greece. Meanwhile, on the domestic front, the deep state continued to affect Syriza’s cabinet via key appointees who were meant to appease the right but ended up controlling the left – as brilliantly depicted in Kevin Ovenden’s book, Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth. Soon, Syriza simply capitulated.

Back to the movements

It did not have to be that way. The movements on the streets and in the workplaces continued between 2012 and 2015. The left could have spurned the demands of the creditors – called their bluff – and made the rich pay for the crisis instead. It could have relied on the movement from below in the first instance. It could have put class at the heart of its message.

Indeed, at one point, during 2013, it looked like Greece might become ungovernable as masses of the people in unprecedented numbers took to the streets following the fascist murder of musician Pavlos Fyssas. It was only the desperate decision of the government to declare the fascist Golden Dawn an illegal criminal conspiracy which prevented a full scale pre-revolutionary situation developing.

The scale of support for rejecting bailout terms put to Greece in the referendum of July 2015 speaks to the notion that, had a sizeable enough left outside and inside Syriza united to push mobilisations from below in advance of 2015, things might have turned out differently. In the event, when the left inside Syriza finally decided to openly split ranks with the right, it was too little, too late.

Despite a majority of the members of leading party bodies, the entire youth section and whole branches of the party rebelling against the leadership, the scale of the left rebellion inside Syriza failed to translate into a mass protest outside it.  The anti-memorandum left tragically even failed to enter parliament in September 2015.

The scale of this defeat is down to a combination of factors. The Syriza right now had the state apparatus at its disposal. The election gave little time to regroup. But, more importantly, the lack of preparation of the movement outside parliament for a showdown with the ruling class and the creditors – at the expense of internal party manoeuvring – appears to have been most costly. Struggle from in Greece has of course continued but the left is far, far behind where it could have been.

And this is another key lesson for the left in Britain. The pressure from the Labour right on Jeremy Corbyn will only increase from now until the next election to get him to moderate his stances. It has already started, with a demand from more than 50 senior Labour figures that the party champion membership of the single market.

Most Greeks would rightly sneer at the Labour right’s suggestion that the single market is “a framework of rules that protects people from the worst excesses of globalisation and unfettered capitalism, in addition to easing trade across the continent”. Greek GDP has fallen by more than a quarter, almost a quarter of Greeks are now unemployed and youth unemployment is more than 50 percent.

The importance of politics – beyond parliament

Luckily, unlike Syriza leader Aleksis Tsipras, Corbyn and the team around him have more faith in the mass movements that were so central to their rise in the Labour party. This is already symbolically clear from the call by John McDonnell for a million people to march on 1 July at the demonstration called by the People’s Assembly in London to bring the Tories down.

The left must make sure, however, that the streets and workplaces understand that the task is not done when a new election is called – or even won.

We can already envisage the Labour right being prepared to make pacts with pro-EU Tories to enforce a ‘soft Brexit’ that leaves the power of the City and big business in the UK untouched. They will probably also attack Corbyn over Trident. And they will do their damnest to make parliament less governable until they are able to stage a very British coup against their leader.

This is why it is important to make sure the movements go nowhere. The scale of industrial struggle is of course lower in Britain now than it has been in Greece for some time, but this is no cause for pessimism. The level of anger at austerity is extremely high, and the last decade and a half’s record of mass mobilisation on the streets against war, austerity and racism is at historic highs in Britain.

That can seep over into the industrial struggle. It is necessary now to start rebuilding workplace organisation and bring the spirit of the protest movements of recent years to the workplaces. To quote Rosa Luxemburg, ‘where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must the chains be broken.’ With people seeing the ruling class and Tories in disarray, their confidence in their ability to hit out at the bosses will be increasing.

We should be therefore be bold. It is enough to remember that in Greece it was the fascist murder of a musician that sparked a near-revolutionary explosion. There is no telling what can spark mass resistance. But there is a whiff of it in the air. It was enough to see the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, with crowds storming the local council, to understand what is possible.

What we need to make sure that austerity is finished in this country is a united movement that underlines that parliament is not the highest form of politics but that change comes from below. The People’s Assembly against Austerity coordinates just such extra-parliamentary action by forces inside and outside Labour as do movements like the Stop the War Coalition, which proved important in helping Corbyn combat right wing interpretations of the terrorist threat following the horrific attacks in Manchester and London during the election campaign.

Organised revolutionary groups – like Counterfire – have been key to the creation of such united fronts. We have also been less constrained than Labour members in taking action at important moments. The stronger the revolutionary pole in the movement, therefore, the bigger the chances of success. If you want to avoid the tragedy of the left in Greece, you should join us. We want to build a movement to win – not just the next election – but the fight against capitalist austerity.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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