Greek radical left party Syriza’s election in January 2015 was heralded as a new era for the left all over the world. Its anniversary went almost unmarked outside Greece itself.
There, leader Alexis Tsipras made a speech claiming he had no alternative but to slash pensions.
Days later he was in Israel shoring up a tight new alliance. He’s also made huge retreats over anti-racism, LGBT rights and the environment.
To justify last year’s buzzwords of hope, change and optimism Tsipras could only point outside Greece. The “Syriza effect” has seen anti-austerity leftists make big gains in Spain, Portugal, Ireland and even the British Labour Party.
But now Syriza is the last thing they want to talk about. If it could fail, why wouldn’t any future governments of theirs?
The question can’t be avoided if the left is to be taken seriously.
One common argument is that Tsipras’ capitulation was more or less tragic, but inevitable given the forces stacked against him.
It’s certainly true that both the European Union (EU) institutions and the bankers used their economic power to crush Syriza’s aspirations. It’s something to bear in mind in the coming EU referendum.
But attempts at radical change will always meet radical opposition.
The opposition faced by Syriza was mild compared to, say, that faced by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. If this can’t be overcome we may as well give up on the whole thing.
On the other hand some argue that Tsipras’ betrayal transformed Syriza into a fundamentally different party. Without him it could have stuck to its true nature and achieved something positive.
That’s a reassuring thought—it would take a disturbing coincidence for such a viper to pop up twice. But it doesn’t bear much scrutiny.
Syriza’s process of compromise with Greece’s creditors, the racist right and private bosses was a long one. Many of those now trying to excommunicate Tsipras from the left spent much of that time justifying his manoeuvres.
That’s because Syriza’s sorry sellout was no aberration. It reflects the problem with parties that seek to form governments under the existing system.
As Syriza came to see election victory within its grasp, it came under pressure to show it could represent all of Greece. Tsipras assiduously built bridges to right-wing politicians. He assured bosses he had a plan for the whole economy.
That naturally meant promising never to leave the EU that enforces their interests—and throwing away his strongest bargaining chip in negotiations over debt.
But there’s no such thing as Greek national interest. Like any other country today, Greece is riven by a fundamental division between the exploiters and the exploited.
At first Syriza tried to have it both ways, backing workers’ struggles while still seeking office in the bosses’ state.
But since it didn’t see workers as able to change the world themselves, whenever these aims came into conflict it had to “tactically” stick with the status quo.
Much of the left elsewhere feels the same. We heard a lot about Greek workers’ struggles when they seemed to be leading towards a Syriza government.
Today you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were all over. But the current strike wave is probably the biggest in four years.
This represents a real alternative power to that of the bosses, bankers and bureaucrats. To grasp its potential needs a left that looks further than to a change in government.
A year on, a number of former leading figures in Syriza have moved on—and are drawing very different lessons from its failure. Much of the debate focuses on the European Union (EU) institutions that held a gun to Tsipras’ head.
Zoi Konstantopoulou, former speaker of parliament, spoke at a Plan B For Europe summit alongside leading German, French and Spanish leftists. They want to campaign for democracy and against austerity at an EU level.
So does former finance minister Yannis Varoufakis. For him, the blackmail of Syriza means national-level politics in Europe are “finished”. He argues that the EU was set up “primarily as a cartel”, its institutions “democracy-free zones by design”.
But his solution is to make the EU more like the US. That’s hardly inspiring—an imperialist power where millions suffer poverty and racism. Nor is it realistic without a force to make it happen.
Varoufakis himself is “very gloomy, pessimistic”, seeing only “a very small chance of success”.
Much of Syriza’s left, including economist Costas Lapavitsas, formed the Popular Unity party led by former minister Panagiotis Lafazanis.
They have become part of a left opposition in Greece, often more principled than the larger Communist Party.
And they argue that defeat wasn’t inevitable. Syriza could have beaten the EU’s blackmail by leaving the single currency used to enforce it.
This is rightly a demand of the Greek anti-capitalist left too. But on its own it’s not enough—and voters know it.
A new currency would face devaluation, threatening to further drive down living standards. Tsipras plays on these fears to ridicule Popular Unity.
Answering them would require a plan to fight the banks, bosses and EU to defend workers’ interests. But that clashes with Lafazanis’ aim of appearing as a contender for government.
Popular Unity poses as the real continuation of Syriza, unlike Tsipras’ sold out rump. This limits its appeal to sceptical workers who’ve seen what promises of future left governments are worth.
Tsipras’ former chief economic advisor Yannis Milios slammed both approaches. He pointed out that Syriza’s sellout began long before its election as it sought respectability and broad appeal.
Milios sees the last 15 years as wasted and “any idea of a progressive left government… because of Syriza, dead”. All that’s left is to “start from the beginning”.
But the huge strike wave currently taking place in Greece doesn’t come out of nowhere. Workers have built up valuable experience and organisation through the years of struggle.
Despite paying lip service to an “anticapitalist” focus on “social struggles” Milios misses how much has been gained.
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