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Supporters at a Syriza election rally in Athens in May 2014. Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP

Supporters at a Syriza election rally in Athens in May 2014. Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP

Europe's neoliberal elite are alarmed at the prospect of a Syriza government - the left needs to be equally clear about the possibilities and limitations writes Sean Ledwith

For millions of workers enduring austerity across Europe, 2015 will begin with renewed hope due to the tantalising prospect of a left-dominated government coming to power in Greece.  Polling throughout 2014 has given Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left)  a significant  percentage lead over  New Democracy (the Greek Tories), creating the very real possibility that, even if it might not win an outright majority, the far left party will be in a position to dominate the next government.

polling graph

If Syriza does attain some form of executive power at the end of this month, it will represent a remarkable rise to power for a party that was only formed just over a decade ago.

The intensity of the social and economic crisis in Greece means there are significant differences between the situation there and in other European states, but the starkness of the conjuncture also means there are numerous lessons to be learnt for the left on the rest of the continent.

The next few weeks and months will generate crucial debates for socialists around perennial themes such as the relationship between reform and revolution and the nature of the state in capitalist societies. It is clear already that the neoliberal elite within the EU is hugely alarmed at the prospect of Alex Tsipras becoming Greek Prime Minister. The left needs to be equally clear about the possibilities and limitations of such an outcome.

Radical perfect storm

Syriza was formed in 2004 amid a backdrop of mounting global anti-capitalist radicalism initiated by the perfect storm of the Seattle protest of 1999, the Genoa protest of 2001 and the demonstrations against the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Greek leftist radicalism in the post-World War Two has always benefited from the dual legacy of the heroic role played the country's far left in both the resistance against German occupation in the 1940s and the opposition to the homegrown dictatorship imposed on the country in 1967. When the generals’ junta was toppled in 1974, Greece's equivalent of the Labour Party, Pasok, was the initial benefactor. 

Millions of Greek workers looked to that party to secure the social democratic provisions and freedoms enjoyed by the rest of Europe. As the country emerged from the years of military rule, Pasok became firmly embedded with the key economic and political institutions of the post –dictatorship era, hence the exceptional intensity of the current crisis compared to other European states.

Throughout the 1990s and into the opening of the 21st century, however, it became apparent to an increasing minority in the labour movement that Pasok would follow the example of reformist parties throughout the EU and essentially become the handmaiden of neoliberalism.

Disillusionment with electoral politics merged with the mounting influence of green and revolutionary currents on the Greek left to form the core group of what would become the Syriza coalition: Synaspismos (the Coalition of Left Movements and Ecology). This group initiated the founding conference of Syriza in March 2004, which crucially brought together a diversity of leftist currents from various traditions, but with an agreed agenda of grassroots democracy and united front activism.

 2000 delegates attended the conference in Athens, elected by assemblies across Greece of up to 15000 people. The focus of activity initially was creating a significant impact for the far left in the parliamentary elections of that year. Syriza did manage to register on the electoral radar, achieving just fewer than 4% of the vote in the general election that year, but electoral considerations were soon overtaken by the eruption of a new wave of anti-capitalist protest on the streets.

Student rebellion

Throughout 2006-07, students and university lecturers united in an effort to fight off an attempt by the New Democracy government to undermine the state-funded nature of higher education. 

The campaign was a success and further embedded the pattern for radicalism to be orientated around spontaneous assemblies of protest, both on campuses and in city centres. In December 2008, this wave of student-led revolt was taken to a new level by the murder of a 15 year old student at the hands of the police. 

Giant demonstrations took place across the country, emboldened by the impact of the global recession that had erupted a few months earlier and which was starting to take a toll of the employment security of public sector workers. Unlike Pasok and the Greek Communist Party (KKE), Syriza chose to commit its support to the protest wave and ignore the predictable accusations of condoning criminality from the establishment when the protests evolved into riots against police brutality.

The crisis triggered a tactical dispute within Syriza over the legitimacy of the student uprising but the left faction held firm, campaigning on the slogan 'No Step Back’, and thereby maintaining its credibility as a principled organisation of the left that was capable of withstanding pressure from the political elite.

Euro eruption

The onset of global recession in 2008 initially led the majority of Greek workers to look to Pasok as their best protection against the ravages of austerity implemented by the New Democracy government of Kostas Karamanlis.

The election of a centre-left reformist party once more created a tactical fracture within Syriza. An electoralist grouping wanted the organisation to limit itself to a parliamentary compact with Pasok in which supposedly progressive legislation would be supported and regressive policies opposed. In contrast, a left-wing pole within the organisation espoused explicit and unreserved criticism of the Prime Minister, George Papandreou, and the mobilisation of a mass movement founded with the intention of supplanting

Pasok as the dominant party of the Greek left. The theoretical argumentation within the movement was resolved by an escalation of the wider social and economic dislocation, just as the debates at the start of the decade had been subsumed by the student uprising. The Papandreou government was overwhelmed by the impact of the sovereign debt crisis a year or so after taking office.

Although many analysts sourced the crisis in the corruption and tax avoidance condoned by the Karamanlis government, Papandreou accepted the Troika (the EU, IMF and ECB) narrative that excessive public spending was the root of the crisis, and so he negotiated and implemented the first Memorandum, an austerity package designed to carve through the Greek public sector. The response of the working-class was the 'Movement of the Squares’, inspired by the examples of the Arab Spring revolutions and the Occupy protests in the US that focused on the occupations of public space as gestures of defiance.

In the Greek context, the most high profile example of this tactic was the ongoing marches through Syntagma Square in Athens to confront Greek parliamentarians as they voted through Pasok's attacks on trade unions and the public sector. As in the student uprising two years earlier, the left of Syriza won the argument on the organisation's orientation to the occupations.

There were two crucial aspects of Syriza's approach to the Movement of the Squares: first, adopt an attitude of cooperation towards non-Syriza activists who were nevertheless crucial to the explosive growth of the protests, including anarchists, autonomists, greens and non-aligned protesters; and secondly, use the occupations as a means of deepening the democratic impulse of the anti-capitalist left and as the basis of a network of grassroots debates throughout Greece.

Role reversal

In the period between the Memorandum of 2010 and the general election of 2012 the respective support among the working class for Pasok and Syriza became inversely related. The latter had managed less than 5% of the vote in 2009 as workers looked to the established party of the left for protection. However, as that same party became the architects of a new tranche of austerity, Syriza’s support rocketed to 27% in 2012.

As the Papandreou government presided over the neoliberal onslaught devised in Berlin and Brussels, Pasok haemorrhaged support while Syriza reaped the electoral benefit of its unambiguous support for the almost thirty general strikes mobilised by the unions and activists on the left. For many Greek workers, the figure of Alex Tsipras came to personify defiance of the Troika and resistance to austerity from either ND or Pasok.  

In summer 2012, Papandreou was humiliatingly forced out by the disapproval of his European puppet-masters and Syriza came tantalisingly close to becoming the biggest party in the Greek parliament. Subsequently, a grand coalition of ND, Pasok and smaller parties was stitched together to thwart Syriza and to continue the austerity initiated under Papandreou. The government of Samaras has staggered through to the end of 2014 but now faces electoral defeat at the hands of Alex Tsipras and the resurgent Syriza.

The supplantation of Pasok by Syriza was furthered consolidated last summer by the Euro elections in which Syriza emerged as the biggest party with just fewer than 30% while Pasok was reduced to a paltry 4%-a remarkable role reversal from five years earlier.

The huge swing to the left on the part of the Greek working class over the course of the age of austerity is one of the most striking features of the current period. Syriza was initially encouraged by the spirit of anti-capitalism at the start of this century but the sovereign debt crisis has provided the concrete catalyst for the party’s explosive growth since 2010.

Socialists and Syriza

However, aswell as celebrating the inspiring rise of Syriza we have to be aware of the warning signs that the party has, to some extent, started to downplay its unambiguous opposition to the neoliberal agenda as the prospect of forming a government has advanced. Last year, Syriza’s charismatic leader and Prime Minister-in waiting, Alex Tsipras, delivered a speech in Washington to the right-wing think tank, the Brookings Institute, designed to re-assure US financial and political decision makers that his party did not necessarily represent a threat to their interests:

'I hope to convince you that I’m not as dangerous as some are trying to say... Let me say this clearly: Syriza will keep Greece in the euro zone.'

His comments reflect divided opinion on the Greek left on the critical question of EU/euro membership. Tsipras represents the pro-EU perspective, also highlighted by his backing last year for Jean-Claude Juncker’s bid for Presidency of the EU Commission; the latter campaigning with an explicitly pro-austerity agenda.

Also last year, Syriza supporters in the teachers' union were instrumental in arranging the suspension of a strike in the face of threats by the Samaras government. It would be utterly sectarian and counter-productive, however, to dismiss the prospect of a Syriza government as anything less than a huge step forward for the left in Greece. This, unfortunately, has been the mentality of the KKE which refused to ally itself with Syriza in the 2012 general election; thereby allowing Samaras to cobble together his grand coalition.

Tsipras has maintained a clear anti-austerity message in his speeches since the 2015 election was announced: 'Austerity is both irrational and destructive'; he told a party congress recently. With the poll less than a month away, he has also re-affirmed Syriza's commitment to freeze house repossessions, raise the minimum wage, abolish a punitive real estate tax and abandon the neoliberal pursuit of a budget surplus.

The real test comes, of course, if Syriza does become the dominant party at the end of January. In that event, the challenge for socialists - both within and outside Syriza - becomes one of maintaining the pressure on Tsipras and his colleagues to fulfil their election commitments. That means re-invigorating the extra-parliamentary tactics that Syriza itself has espoused in the recent past: grassroots forums, town and city occupations, general strikes and demonstrations when necessary. If Tsipras and his colleagues rapidly retreat on their promises it creates the opportunity for socialists to raise the question of the validity of the reformist strategy.

Making sense of the possibilities created by a Tsipras premiership requires an appreciation of the ongoing debates between the leadership and the rank and file of Syriza. The crises of 2008 and 2010 both triggered revolts by the left of the party against a perceived drift to the right.

It is feasible that in the event of Tsipras as PM backtracking on key commitments, similar rebellions from grassroots members would occur. The Left Platform faction within Syriza has already challenged aspects of Tsipras’ leadership. Alternatively, if a Syriza government pursues a left-wing agenda and encounters armed resistance from the police or army then the question of revolution will become front and centre of the debate on the left, not just in Greece but around the world.

The shadow of Salvador Allende falls over the prospect of Tsipras taking over as PM. Allende’s Popular Unity regime in Chile in the early 1970s remains the most significant example of an elected left-wing government being undermined by the forces of reaction from within and without. Many fear the Greek military‘s not so distant experience of political power may create a tempting option for an embattled ruling class.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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