Helena Sheehan in The Syriza Wave provides a vivid and incisive account of the rise and fall of Syriza, finds Peter Stäuber
Helena Sheehan, The Syriza Wave: Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left (Monthly Review Press 2016), 247pp.
'You hold your nose, you take it,' said Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras in a recent interview with The Guardian. 'You know that there is no other way.' He was referring to his astonishing volte-face in summer 2015: a few months after being elected prime minister of Greece thanks to Syriza’s opposition to the EU’s austerity drive and refusal to grant debt relief, he suddenly caved in to the pressure from Brussels and imposed a harsh programme of spending cuts and privatisations: the very policies that he had so vehemently denounced in the years before, making him one of the most popular figures on the European left. By now, two years after he aligned himself with his former opponents, Tsipras has joined the long list of left-wing politicians who first gave hopes to progressives all over the world, only to deeply disappoint them shortly after. With his exhortation that there is 'no other way', he’d gone full Thatcher, denying the idea of an alternative to the debtor’s logic.
The story of Syriza, the left-wing party that challenged the neoliberal consensus but eventually crumbled under the immense pressure of the EU bureaucracy, is instructive: it highlights the dangers of compromising principle for power and failing to develop a plan B. Helena Sheehan, a Marxist philosopher and professor emerita at Dublin City University, has written an interesting account of these years, based on numerous travels to Greece and countless conversations with Greek politicians, activists and academics, many of whom are her long-time friends.
Sheehan was as close to the action as possible for non-Greeks to be. Not only did she follow the developments as closely as possible, but she also actively intervened in the debates that were going on within the Greek, Irish and European left. Her book sometimes suffers from an overly detailed account of her daily encounters and routines, which are not necessarily relevant to the story she’s telling. Nevertheless, her personal approach ensures that the reader is re-living the exciting days of the Syriza surge, as well as experiencing the disappointment once the wave crashes.
Sheehan doesn’t try to gloss over just how devastating this defeat was: ‘Syriza was a horizon of hope. Now it is a vortex of despair’, she writes towards the end of the book (p.185). Even though she was shocked by the turn of developments in the summer of 2015, she was always cautious with respect to the merits of Alexis Tsipras. In spring 2014, when she helped organise a conference in which the Syriza leader participated, she concluded:
‘Nothing about this encounter lessened my worries about Tsipras and elements of Syriza being too bland and populist in present discourse and too compromising in future practice’ (p.98).
Her worries were confirmed a couple of months later, when Syriza launched its electoral manifesto: it moved the party away from outright anti-capitalist rhetoric in favour of a social-democratic growth strategy. As Sheehan writes, the party placed the emphasis more on ‘getting into power than on what to do when getting it’ (p.104). Nonetheless, the general election in January 2015, when Syriza won 36% of the vote, was a triumph for the opponents of austerity all over Europe.
Yet, the problems were soon apparent. The negotiations with the ‘troika’ – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – suffered from the fact that the two positions were on a basic level irreconcilable. The Greek government wanted to end austerity, in keeping with the mandate it had received from the Greek people, whereas the EU negotiators were not prepared to yield an inch in terms of easing their programme. The basic flaw of Syriza’s strategy was to try to end austerity within the confines of the Eurozone. This turned out to be impossible due to Brussels’ resistance. Sheehan writes:
‘I believed that, when it came to the crunch and they had to choose, they would choose to end the expropriation. The negotiation was plan A. I always assumed that there was a plan B, or even a plan C or D’ (p.110).
That turned out not to be the case: Syriza was not prepared to advocate an exit from the Eurozone in order to achieve its goals. In light of this, there was a certain logic to Tsipras’ blatant disregard for the referendum result, in which 62% of Greeks rejected the creditors’ proposals. Shortly afterwards, he cut a deal with the troika, which included far-ranging expropriating measures and the sell-off of fifty billion Euros worth of assets; even more unfavourable than the proposals rejected in the referendum. ‘Even after watching it unfold, nearly blow by blow, I was still shocked by this outcome’, writes Sheehan (p.123).
In the aftermath of this defeat, she participated in the heated discussions that unfolded on the international left, berating those who would try to excuse Syriza’s presumed pragmatism. The following year’s events only deepened the disappointment: ‘They had lost the plot. They talked left and walked right, but only the confused believed and only the opportunists followed’ (pp. 227-8).
However, there are lessons to be learned from the Syriza tale, which will hopefully prevent a repeat of a similarly disappointing experience: Voting for a left-wing party does not amount to a change in power relations. It is no substitute for everyday work on the ground, building alliances with progressive movements, mobilising the resistance against neoliberalism – only in this way can the formidable powers of capital be challenged.
Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.