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Syriza and socialist strategy – part one

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Stathis Kouvelakis, a leading figure on the left of the Greek radical left party Syriza, argues it has made mistakes but is still our best hope for change.
Issue 2444
Syriza supporters rally ahead of their election victory in January
Syriza supporters rally ahead of their election victory in January (Pic: Guy Smallman)

After the agreement between the Eurogroup and the Greek government, there are serious reasons to be worried about the future of Syriza’s project. 

But any political project of that scale is a bet, with big risks and no guarantees. 

And the possibility of Syriza’s failure does not cancel its victory. 

This is the first time in Europe that a radical left party has won a national election.

There are many tests ahead. But there’s already a test behind us, and to really judge what Syriza is doing now we have to ask what brought it this far.

I will focus on four strategic initiatives.

The first is about the specific form of party. Syriza is a pluralist organisation, which includes various sorts of traditions of the radical left, Communists, Trotskyists, Maoists, movementists and some left wing social democrats. 

It should be seen as a project for the recomposition of the radical left. 

There’s a defensive version of what that means. It says that bringing the different pieces of what was a big movement together in a situation of defeat makes them stronger. 

There is also a more offensive version, which means working to overcome the very principle of that fragmentation towards a new unification and anti-capitalist political culture.


This means accepting that no single political culture on its own has the solution for the problem of social transformation.

Syriza’s components aren’t just a patchwork. They have to communicate with each other in a mutually critical relationship to explore new paths and practices.

Achieving this unification is still an ongoing process in Syriza. 

But it is the only way the left can overcome the trauma of the defeats of the 20th century.

Syriza’s second strategic initiative is about how it relates to the movements.

Its spectacular rise cannot be understood without the cycle of powerful social mobilisations that Greece has experienced.  

The whole atmosphere of mobilisation, of tension, of polarisation, of violence even, has been nothing like the usual social democratic sequence. 

But this has not been a linear process. The 32 days of general strikes, the hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets, haven’t stopped a single measure of the austerity “memoranda”.

A political perspective was necessary. The awareness of that prepared the ground for the moment of the political initiative.

Stahtis Kouvelakis

Stathis Kouvelakis

Syriza seized the imagination of the people by providing a political translation that so far had been missing. 

In 2012 Syriza proposed a government—not simply a Syriza government but a unitary government of the entire anti-austerity left.

This transformed the situation. It was the political condensation of the movements that was needed to effectively challenge the power of the dominant classes. 

This ability to translate the dynamics of social struggle into a political challenge corresponds directly to the party form that translates various components into a single project.

Other left groups paid a high electoral price for rejecting Syriza’s call. And the division of the radical left had devastating consequences.

The third strategic initiative is about Syriza’s programme. In a way, this is a version of what are called transitional demands. It seems modest. But it draws the right line in the specific situation—to break with austerity and the “Troika” that’s been imposing it. 

Big ruptures in history don’t happen in the name of grand designs They happen when seemingly modest demands, corresponding to vital needs, cannot be satisfied without changing the whole social structure.

The Russian Revolution was not made in the name of socialism. It was made for immediate peace, and for land. 


Yet it is the most important experiment of socialist revolution in human history.

Fourth is the question of power. There is a strategy that goes back to the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci. 

He—like the late Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin—asked why the Russian model of revolution didn’t happen in the West.

At the centre of Gramsci’s strategy is the relationship between “civil society” and “political society”.

By “civil society”, he meant the broad network of organisations that structure collective life in advanced societies. Political society is the state in the strict sense of the term. 

The masses are present in both— but unevenly. The organisations of civil society structure their collective life.

 Meanwhile, the state institutions structure their political representation and action.

Gramsci called his strategy “war of position”. Nicos Poulantzas and the Eurocommunist tradition reformulated it into the “democratic road to socialism”.

The working class and popular classes have to appear as a leading force in civil society. And they have to challenge political society and dismantle the repressive core of the state.

In both spheres they have networks and organisations that make their capacity to lead society and to seize real power. 

All that is democratic within bourgeois democracy has been the outcome of popular struggles. 

So this is a strategy of democratisation in the profound sense of stimulating and enlarging the participation of the working class and of the popular classes in collective life.

The democratic road is not an electoral road. Elections are a necessary step, but not by any means sufficient.

And it’s a strategy that doesn’t respect the division between the economical and the political, or reduce the political just to parliament.

It is a combination of struggles. The Greek experience provided the terrain to test that strategic hypothesis.


There are risks. Marx and Engels discussed some of this long before Gramsci.

Engels defended the possibility of winning elections as a way of accessing power.

He argued that the dominant classes will react to the advances of socialist parties with counter-revolutionary violence. 

But we should leave to them the initiative of breaking with legality and constitutional order. 

Engels used the metaphor of the slave-owning Confederate States that rose up against the US in 1861. 

This same counter-revolutionary violence was unleashed in Chile in 1973—and in 1967 in Greece.

So any serious process of social change that doesn’t defend itself should not be taken seriously.

Another risk is that if the party doesn’t transform the state, the state will transform the party. 

The state is not neutral—it is a capitalist state that reproduces very specific relations of domination.

We know by experience that this “statisation” of political parties can even begin before the conquest of power. I do not pretend that Syriza has remained untouched by this.

But there is one strategic domain where Syriza has yet to take the initiative it needs to be successful.

Europe’s ruling classes’ ideological hegemony has rested on the narrative of European integration. 

Syriza’s belief that it can transform the European institutions from within is an illusion that reinforces this narrative.

The retreat at the Eurogroup was not a betrayal or a sell-out. There was real confrontation. The institutions wanted to bring the Syriza government to its knees—because it is a real threat to them.

But the Syriza government followed a wrong strategy—and to overcome that we need to tell the truth. 

And the fact that it presented its retreat almost as a success is in a way more serious than the retreat itself. It prepares the ground for further defeat.

A strategic alternative is possible. This means breaking with the eurozone, or at the very least using that as a threat. 

But this will be a very tough battle—and one for the entire radical left. Syriza’s hands are now tied, and if there is no change in strategy the risk is of ending with a new version of austerity. 

This would allow the right and the far right to reorganise and counter-attack.

This is why we need to be inventive. People who believe in the scenario that “the reformists will fail and the revolutionary vanguard is waiting in the wings to lead the masses to victory” are living outside of reality.

We need to build new ways of working together to win this decisive battle for the future of anti-capitalist forces in Greece and Europe.

This article is an edited extract of a debate hosted by the International Socialism (IS) journal.

Stathis Kouvelakis is a leading left wing member of Syriza’s central committee. IS journal editor Alex Callinicos will respond in next week’s issue. He is on the central committee of the Socialist Workers Party.

Watch the full debate at or


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