The following questions and answers with an audience took place after a talk Alexis Tsipras gave to SYRIZA’s London branch in Friend’s House in Euston on Friday, March 15th. Coverage of the speech itself can be found here. Some of the questions have been condensed to remove lengthy preambles and/or tangents but they remain an accurate reflection of the query posed by the audience member. Rónán Burtenshaw
Q. Could you give us a few reflections on what we can learn from the Left in Latin America and particularly the legacy of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela?
A. That’s a good question because I was in Venezuela a few days ago. What impressed me about my recent visit was the tens of thousands of people waiting patiently to go past the remains of Chávez. They weren’t expressing grief waiting to pay their final respects but they were showing hope, resolution and determination. This signifies that for the last fourteen years this process has been ongoing in Venezuela and is continuing. This shows us that no social transformation or movement can be sustained without popular support. Chávez was accused by his opponents of being a dictator but I have not met many dictators who have won thirteen elections in fourteen years. For us it is clear proof that without popular support it is not possible to carry out these reforms. This is what we can learn from the Latin American experience, and particularly Venezuela.
Q. How can Greece create enough room to manoeuvre at the international level to resist pressure from the creditors, the IMF and the EU and follow a real alternative path to austerity?
A. How will our lenders, creditors and our partners in the European Union be able to answer that question? It would be the first time that they are under this pressure from a government with popular support. How would they deal with this pressure? I am certain that austerity isn’t the way out of this crisis and, in fact, that it is the political aim of those who force it upon us. They are fully aware of that. They want to blackmail people with this enormous debt, which has been worsened by government policy, and by the threat of expulsion from the Euro. The clear aim is to create the conditions where the southern European belt will be a place of cheap labour and favourable conditions for exploitation, and they have been confronted so far with no opposition from any of the governments from the south. Instead what these governments are doing is accepting every absurd measure that’s being proposed to them. But once they have resistance from a government with popular support the balance of fear will change, it would move to the other side of the battlefield.
Q1. People today are looking for a fundamental alternative, and that’s why there’s such enthusiasm about the SYRIZA project. Do the comrades in SYRIZA understand that the only way to achieve the change you speak about in society is the abolition of capitalism?
Q2. In Greece today there are a series of very lively meetings in neighbourhoods about the prospect of Left government and breaking with the framework of capitalism. But what I saw in these meetings were Greek people asking, ‘what will SYRIZA do next Monday?’ My fear is that what you’ve said is a bit vague. Are you in favour of nationalising the banks under workers’ control and management or do you accept the dictatorship of the markets? I’m convinced that the Left in Europe can win but we’ve got to know what the character of this coming moment is. Will there be governments breaking with the framework of capitalism?
A. What is certain is that the day after the victory of a Left government we won’t wake up to socialism. Socialism isn’t something that is achieved through a single victory or by decrees. But I know that the election of SYRIZA will not simply be a change of administration or government, it will be the change of a régime. It will create a paradigm of resistance that will give example to the other countries of the European south and periphery. Undoubtedly the next day will be a very difficult day for us as a Left government, and for the Greek people. We don’t have a magic wand to solve all of these problems. But the election of a government which serves the people will release a tremendous popular energy capable of transforming society. This crisis which has overwhelmed us is not the crisis of one nation-state, it is much wider and more systemic – but if the Greek people vote for us it can represent the beginning of the end of Europe as we know it. So that’s why I said before that this wave will come through London. We will not be alone in this fight. If we win the elections in Greece of course the next day would be different but if we don’t manage to create a wave in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and also the United Kingdom, to change Europe it will be a very difficult future for us. So that’s our aim – to create an enormous wave of change in Europe.
On the one hand, yes, we can come forward and present our socialist vision but let’s also remember the experience of Chávez. When he came to power he did not say to people ‘vote for socialism’, he said ‘vote for a real change in your life’. Day-by-day he gained the people’s trust and day-by-day people believed that socialism was a good idea. They understood that socialism does not mean the Soviet Union and the other régimes but a system under which their lives will be better. So this is our aim and intention – to make changes in the lives of the people. This is the way we will fight.
Q. With its centuries-old tradition of democracy there is no excuse for the Greek people not to have toppled the capitalist system which brings down this destruction on them. For years now I have been disillusioned that they continue to patiently suffer rather than rising up. My feeling is that it is probably down to the power of the Greek oligarchs, with whom we also have a long tradition. How are you going to tackle these oligarchs – who’ve gone abroad or underground?
A. First let us say that in Greece over the last few years there have been so, so many demonstrations and strikes. If it happened in Britain or in the north of Europe I don’t think there would be more successes against your enemy. Because we have common enemies and common struggles. Greece is not something strange in Europe. We have a working-class, a middle-class and oligarchs. But you also have oligarchs in Britain! I think Greek people now are in a depression, not just economically but also psychologically. The first step of our efforts is to create a better environment, to convince people there is hope, and that we can defeat austerity and this government.
The latest opinion polls from Greece are very interesting. The people believe that the next government will be SYRIZA. This is the good news. But the bad news is that at the same time the people believe that the next government will not manage to change the situation. So we need to convince people that they, not SYRIZA, can change this situation and the future will be in their hands.
Q1. You mentioned that this crisis is not only an economic and social crisis but also a political one. In the political system in Greece today there is Golden Dawn, a Nazi party, whose agenda is in a way accepted by part of the New Democracy party [senior coalition partners in government]. Greece has a tragic history of dictatorships – with the support in the 1930s of the British government and in 1967 of the USA and the CIA. Do you believe that there is a real fear of this in Greece now? Is the struggle of SYRIZA not just an economic one but a struggle for democracy and a front against any such threat?
Q2. You’ve talked about the difficult first days after the election – are you going to have plans to react to any threat to democracy?
A. It is important to understand that the first victim of the memorandum in Greece was democracy itself. They tried to implement these barbaric policies by avoiding the constitution and parliamentary rules. They said it was an emergency case and in these emergencies you have to avoid the constitution because we need to save Greece, to save society. But every time they voted for measures to save something in Greece the only thing they saved were the banks. Not the country. The country is not something different from its people. If the people have become poorer and poorer, how have they saved the country?
We have a humanitarian crisis and one of the results of these barbaric policies is the rise of the neo-Nazis. I think you can compare the situation in Greece today to that of Weimar Germany in the 1930s. It wasn’t the memorandum but the Versailles Treaty with barbaric rules and measures. And I think that this was the reason for the increase of the fascists, the Nazis. We could learn and be wise from history. This is a real fear. But at the same time I want to say that the agenda of the Samaras government helps the neo-Nazis in their politics. Because what are they trying to do? They are trying to change the agenda from the economy to the issues where they feel that they will beat SYRIZA – immigration and security. But the only force that wins in this changing of the agenda is the neo-Nazis because the people don’t trust the Samaras government that is implementing these austerity measures. But I should say too that inside his party Samaras has also got some crypto-fascists!
You asked me about fear. I can answer in the way the great politician Nelson Mandela did: the only fear you have is fear of the people (“our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure”). If people believe that we can change the situation then I think we have nothing to fear. Everything is in the people’s hands.
Q. Is it Euro or Drachma?
A. So, now that we are in Britain and you don’t have the Euro, everything is ok? You don’t have austerity with the Cameron government? And you are happy about what is happening to your society?
I don’t believe that this is a real dilemma. I want to underline that they are not stupid, they realise when we have lost our bargaining power. Right now everybody looks to SYRIZA and the Greek case. Not because we are more clever than others but because Greece is a systemic danger to the neoliberal structure of the eurozone. If Greece wasn’t a member of the eurozone of course some of you would be very sympathetic to SYRIZA in Greece but I think that we would not be the centre of your interest. Why in June’s election was the fight not between SYRIZA and New Democracy or the parties of government, but between us and the financiers, the markets in Europe. Remember what happened in Germany. A daily newspaper, the German Financial Times, ran a front page story with my picture saying “the Greek demagogue”. And the article was in Greek! In a German newspaper! It was in Greek language to convince people in Greece not to vote for SYRIZA. Why? Because they really feared the victory of SYRIZA in Greece, because we were a systemic danger to them. We are in the eurozone and the eurozone is like a chain with certain weak links. If one link is broken then the chain will collapse. They know this. And they know it would be a stupid strategy to lose this bargaining power.
We are not dogmatic. We know that, in the Euro or the Drachma, we would have different political directions: austerity and anti-austerity. So, we believe that the crisis is not a Greek crisis but a European crisis. And to a European problem we try to find a European solution. It is not easily done, it is difficult and complicated. But this is the way of the world.
I don’t think that we could believe that we would have a socialist island in a globalised, neoliberal world. I think the same applies to Cyprus (note: this talk occurred before the most recent savings tax crisis). The problems are the same, but of a different size, to those that will face our next government. That’s why I think the solution is not to think that everything we have to do we have to do just in our own countries. The solution is to act globally and to think locally. That’s why I believe in the power of the solidarity of the people. That’s why I believe that Europe is the field of the class fight. That’s also why I believe that what happens in Latin America is important – even though it is very far away from us.
Q. Is SYRIZA willing to co-operate with other democratic parties of the Left like Pasok and Democratic Left if we need to make constitutional changes to keep Golden Dawn out of parliament?
A. I don’t believe that this is a solution. I think, maybe, if we did something like that it would have another result: it would increase the support for the neo-Nazis. I think the solution is to try to convince people that Golden Dawn’s ideas and actions are not the solutions to the crisis. It’s not an easy way, it’s a difficult way, but it is the way to do it. You have to work hard. The reason that they are growing is the austerity measures. This is the reason for the development. Greek people were never swayed by racism or fascist ideas. Greek people were at the centre of the European resistance to fascism during the Second World War. I don’t believe that suddenly Greece became racist – austerity is the reason that this dangerous minority has grown. So the solution is to stop austerity, to create a better situation for the people in a society of justice. That’s the way to stop the rise of Golden Dawn.