When Syriza won the Greek general election in 2015, most socialists burst into celebration across Europe.
A party committed to ending austerity had, at last, triumphed as everywhere bosses and governments imposed savage cuts in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Here, it seemed, there would be an alternative strategy that could be a beacon for people fighting back across the world.
Syriza’s rise was one expression of a massive wave of struggle in Greece against austerity, with 32 general strikes from 2009 to 2014. Health workers, teachers, council workers, migrant workers, cleaners, students and many more fought epic battles over several years.
When the election came in 2015, the Tory New Democracy (ND) party, which had made workers pay for bailouts for bankers, won only 76 seats in the 300-seat parliament.
Labour-type Pasok, which was the traditional left party but had pushed through cuts in coalition with ND, was reduced to just 13 seats. A new word, “Pasokification”, emerged to describe the extinction of a party that had looked likely to always be part of the political scene.
In Britain, 27 MPs, mainly from the Labour left, signed a motion saying, “This House welcomes the support for the Syriza party in Greece, which is committed to ending years of austerity and suffering”.
The German socialist party Die Linke had a placard, “We start from Greece, we change Europe.”
Yet within months Syriza was implementing worse austerity than its right wing predecessors. And in the recent elections this year it was reduced to 20 percent of the vote while ND was cemented in office.
Syriza’s failures have given a lease of life to Pasok which even has hopes it might overtake Syriza in the next round of voting which comes soon.
Straight away after it entered government, Syriza faced a challenge and a choice. The bosses, bankers and European institutions weren’t going to easily allow any let-up in austerity. They feared that workers elsewhere might be inspired to elect their own left governments.
So they treated the Greek voters’ verdict with contempt. They resolved to crush Syriza for the “demonstration effect” this would have on others.
Yanis Varoufakis, the Syriza finance chief, said that when he met other EU ministers “to engage in economic arguments”, all he received was “blank stares”. “You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem, you’d have got the same reply,” he said.
The Troika—the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund—insisted on more cuts to repay the debts flowing from bailing out the financiers. To give it an excuse to retreat, the Syriza government held a referendum on the Troika’s demands for cuts.
But after a massive grassroots campaign, Greek people threw out the Troika’s prescription with a 61 percent “OXI”—No—vote. That should have been a signal to break from the Troika and defy the bosses, the financial institutions and the rich.
Such a struggle would have required an appeal to workers everywhere to show solidarity with Greece and to fight their own ruling classes.
Yet within days Syriza collapsed and started to implement assaults on working class people—a higher retirement age, increased health charges, cuts in schools and much more. Syriza unleashed riot police against those who protested.
Syriza’s retreats and betrayals weren’t primarily about the personal views of Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras or any other figure. They were rooted in a strategy that could not see beyond working with the bosses and the financial institutions and the existing system.
Panos Garganas is from SEK, the Greek sister organisation of the Socialist Workers Party, and is the editor of its newspaper Workers Solidarity. “Syriza was never an anti‑capitalist force,” he told Socialist Worker.
“Its programme was to reform the system—the barrier was not challenging the whole of the state, ruling class and economy.”
This led to major splits within the party. Tspiras resigned then won a new election and agreed with the Troika a deal that meant pension cuts of up to 30 percent.
Syriza gambled that a “compromise with capital” would enable it to deliver. In fact capital extracted concession after concession—and then demanded more.
Another huge shift was over refugees. In 2015 a wave of refugees tried to reach Europe through Greece. Syriza went from saying they should be welcomed, to debating how to make the border wall bigger.
It opened detention centres and signed anti-migrant deals with Turkey and the EU. In the recent elections it squabbled with ND about where the money for the wall would come from.
Syriza also implemented anti-union laws to limit collective bargaining and launched a programme of privatisation. This included privatising the railway—which would ultimately lead to 57 deaths in a train crash last February.
By 2019 Syriza won just 31.53 percent and was booted out of office.
Since then it has failed to criticise the Tories’ handling of the pandemic, while demanding an end to strikes and demonstrations. It has been largely absent from workers’ movements and criticised unions’ and socialists’ proposals for increasing the minimum wage.
And it was silent when three million people struck on 8 March against privatisation, wage decreases and cuts after the railway deaths.
Petros Constantinou is also a member of SEK. “Syriza’s strategy is that there’s no way to implement change or overthrow governments through rising working class struggle.
“Yet its biggest rise from 2012 was because it supported this,” he told Socialist Worker.
“It’s moved away from that strategy because it’s for the continuity of how the state operates. It alienated people who were involved in struggle.”
Socialist groups sharply differed on how to deal with Syriza. SEK did not join Syriza, unlike most of the rest of the left. And it was part of the Antarsya anti-capitalist coalition that stood against Syriza in elections throughout this period.
Panos explained, “The main disagreement was that change is made by voting. We said that despite its radical rhetoric Syriza remained a party devoted to parliamentary politics—and that’s a dead end.”
“Joining Syriza meant being disciplined to accept the parliamentary way of doing things. That’s what happened—more quickly than predicted,” Panos added.
As Syriza has moved to the right, some socialists, including Varoufakis, thought the solution was to set up a “better” parliamentary version of Syriza, or to “return to Syriza’s roots”.
But a Syriza Mark II has failed, even on its own terms. Varoufakis’s “European Realistic Disobedience Front” party was wiped out in the May elections.
The lesson is not that struggle can’t lead to political shifts or that it is pointless. It is that prioritising parliament is a trap. Resistance in the streets and workplaces has to discipline any electoral intervention, not the other way round.
Petros said, “There’s a huge contraction between the rise in working class radicalisation and Syriza’s shifts to the right. It left opposing racism, sexism and Islamophobia to the far left—this was part of its strategy for managing the state.
“Syriza is now rapidly collapsing. It’s important to have a strong revolutionary left and not let disappointment be a barrier to the movement, struggle and resistance.”
The current Greek elections aren’t over. Prime minister and ND leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis has called a second general election for 25 June in the hope that he can win an overall majority. But it’s impossible to imagine a return to the glory days of Syriza.
Panos said, “People within Syriza blame ordinary people for becoming more conservative. But this isn’t true. And its leaders say the party was more radical when the situation was extraordinary. Now, they’ve not changed, but the context has.
“That’s also not true. The crisis isn’t over. We have to campaign against the Tories, but also build a successful mood for fightback inside the working class.”
Why did Syriza fail? by Panos Garganas International Socialism journal Issue 148
Syriza and Socialist Strategy—a debate with Stathis Kouvelakis and Alex Callinicos
Keir Starmer's Thatcher praising speech
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