By Dave Sewell
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Failure of reformism led to Greek tragedy

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Issue 2462

The agreement in Greece has been widely described as a coup—and in some ways it is.

Europe’s rulers have used vicious financial and political blackmail to overturn the Greek people’s vote against austerity.

But there was no gun to the head of prime minister Alexis Tsipras, of radical left party Syriza, when he agreed to the latest austerity deal. He asked the vultures to compromise. When they said no, he had no Plan B but surrender. 

To recover from this blow we need to look honestly at how that happened. Syriza was supposed to be different to the old Labour-type social democratic parties. 

Alex Callinicos

Alex Callinicos (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Stathis Kouvelakis from Syriza’s central committee debated with Alex Callinicos from the Socialist Workers Party’s central committee at last week’s Marxism Festival.

Stathis argued “Syriza is an anti-capitalist party. It is a party that seeks to overthrow capitalism and go to socialism.”

For Stathis, Syriza’s radical aims and roots in social movements set it apart from reformist parties “that seek to improve the conditions for the working class within the framework of capitalism”.

It’s true that Syriza was a breath of fresh air compared to the stale Labour Party and its clones. And Stathis is part of a large and outspoken left wing inside it. 

They have made clear, honest and urgent criticisms of the government’s strategy. They have called for an exit from the European Union (EU) instead of endless concessions to it.

But as Alex responded to Stathis, “Those kinds of criticisms are ineffective unless you act.”

When the Greek parliament voted last Friday to sign off on worse austerity than Greece’s referendum had just rejected, only two Syriza MPs voted no.

Another eight abstained, seven stayed home, and 15 said no while voting yes in the hope of defending the government. Members of the organised Left Platform were scattered on all sides.

Alex argued, “There should have been a concerted vote against the agreement—and then those MPs should be out on the streets calling for mass opposition.” 


When Syriza rose to prominence in 2012, some denounced any attempt to build other left parties. Socialists were told they would have no influence unless they joined it.

But the dividing line between Syriza and social democracy isn’t so clear-cut. Greece’s closest equivalent to Tony Blair was a former guerrilla fighter.

Britain’s Labour Party was formally for socialism until 1994, and its left wing still is. And the German SPD was Marxist in name when its MPs voted to support the First World War.

Stathis Kouvelakis

Stathis Kouvelakis (Pic: Guy Smallman)

All reformists seek to use the capitalist state to bring about change. And this state has always changed them more than they have changed it.

Revolutionary socialists look instead to the struggles of the working class. This isn’t out of dogmatism. It’s because this is the only way to win. Workers keep the wheels of capitalism turning. Their movements can bring it to a halt.

Petros Constantinou is a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party in Greece (SEK) and an Athens councillor in the anti-capitalist front Antarsya. He said, “We don’t want the left government to fall at the hands of the EU rulers.

“We celebrated the left government. But, we said, that isn’t our power—and prepared people to fight back.”

Greece’s crisis has posed questions that only workers’ control can answer. And the existence of a party arguing this was central to countering the bosses’ blackmail in the referendum.

Petros said, “We’re very optimistic we can fight back. And we’re optimistic because we’ve got revolutionary organisation.”

Many who once said there was no future outside Syriza now talk as if there’s no future at all. And if the Greek left couldn’t keep Syriza on their side, what chance does socialist Jeremy Corbyn have of reclaiming the rotten Labour Party?

The Greek crisis underlines vividly that even the best socialists can find themselves disarmed at crucial moments—unless they have a revolutionary party.

Watch the debate at


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