So many put their puts hopes into Syriza; so many were bitterly disappointed. Greece’s Coalition of the Radical Left proved wholly unable to resist the enormous pressures put on it and it is Greek working people who are paying the price, not excepting those who voted for Syriza.
How should we analyze the depressing spectacle of what had been a genuinely Left party, indeed a coalition of leftist forces from a variety of socialist perspectives, self-destructing so rapidly? The simplistic response would be to wash our hands and condemn Syriza as “opportunists,” but we’ll learn exactly nothing with such an attitude. If we are serious about analyzing Syriza’s spectacular failure — including those who expected this outcome in advance — digging through the rubble is unavoidable.
There were many currents coursing through Syriza, in addition to other Left tendencies outside. Nor were there shortages of people who feared what the fate of Syriza might become, including leaders inside it, before it took power, reminds Helena Sheehan in her new book The Syriza Wave: Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left.* Written in exhilaration and sorrow, Professor Sheehan, a veteran of solidarity work with the Greek Left, rides those tides as she recounts the anticipation and optimism before, and the depression and shock afterward, inside Greece and among Syriza’s allies across Europe.
The prologue to this failure is well known, but Professor Sheehan takes us through it in a “you are there” style reflecting what was happening then and her own optimism. That we know how this story will end does not detract from this writing style; rather it heightens the emotions as we re-live what at the time appeared to be the imminent first serious blow against global austerity and the ever tightening grip of finance capital. This was not a pollyannaish optimism, for no one serious had doubts about the immense task facing Syriza should it be elected. Certainly Greece could not be a small socialist island in an immense sea of capitalism — Greece’s problems then and now can have only European and international solutions.
Still, someone has to go first. The international Left saw hope in Syriza, and Syriza economists worked on solutions. There was much political seriousness as Syriza was seen as the last hope; that fascism might well be next given the growing menace of Golden Dawn focused minds.
Professor Sheehan sets this stage, opening her book in 2012, a year in which a second memorandum is signed, forcing more harsh austerity on Greeks, and in which Syriza rose from a minor parliamentary presence to finishing a close second to Greece’s main party of the Right, New Democracy. Providing the analyses, hopes and fears of a variety of Greek activists gathered on repeated visits, she recounts Syriza’s strong efforts to engage social-movement groups (in contrast to the Greek Communist Party’s sectarianism) and for Syriza to be inter-generational in its leadership.
Tip-toeing to the election by backtracking?
Nonetheless, there was Left criticism that Syriza was “watering down its wine” or wanting only to manage capitalism instead of creating socialism. Syriza officials vigorously denied this, saying they would reverse austerity cuts, restore wages and pensions, and re-distribute wealth and power. This would not yet be socialism, but “was intended to open a new path to socialism for the twenty-first century.” One danger sign, however, was that the party was split on whether to remain within the eurozone, even if the euro and the European Union as a whole were seen as a site of struggle. Some within Syriza, such as Costas Lapavitsas, argued that Syriza should be prepared for a break with the European Union. Despite these warnings, no systematic preparatory work on any “Plan B” was formulated.
Austerity might have been coming down harder on Greeks than elsewhere in Europe, but this was no aberration specific to one small country EU officials saw as easy to bully. This was not a local battle, Professor Sheehan writes:
“These cuts to pay, pensions, and public services, this privatization of public property, this redistribution of wealth from below to above: these were not temporary contingent measures. These were integral to a systemic restructuring of capitalism. … Where there were once experiments in socialism in the east, there were now oligarchies. Next on the agenda: advances achieved by the labor movement in the west were to be stripped.” [page 58]
Yet no success in a single European country will be sustainable unless it is followed by similar successes in other countries.
“Yiannis Tolios, an economist, also elected to the [Syriza] central committee, articulated the problem starkly, but with a different stress: ‘If having socialism in a single country is considered hard, having socialism in all countries at the same time is nearly impossible.’ Greece needed to forge ahead, whether the rest were ready or not, but it was perilous path.” [page 59]
Syriza would reconstitute itself as a unified party, with its previous constituent groups, including its largest, Synaspismos, dissolving themselves (although some remained outside). One-quarter of the central committee were members of Left Platform, an organized faction advocating reversing austerity by any means necessary, with the central committee majority heterogeneous but pro-Alexis Tsipras. Internal critics complained that too much power was being concentrated in the hands of the party leader and his inner circle, nor was concern that Syriza was moving too far toward the right confined to the Left Platform.
Most active members of Syriza believed capitalism was the problem and socialism the solution, the author writes, but had “stopped dreaming of storming winter palaces.” She writes:
“They were not holding out for an all-encompassing insurrection, which would destroy capitalism one day and inaugurate socialism the next day. They were planning for a protracted process, which would include winning multiparty elections, entering into difficult negotiations, agreeing to unattractive alliances, undoing damage done, building the new inside the shell of the old.” [page 85]
Winning an election, but not necessarily power
Anticipation grew as Syriza prepared to take office, but the party’s 2014 Thessaloniki Program was seen by many as a significant retreat. Was Syriza watering down its wine even before the next election? Whatever the strength of the wine, Syriza won the election of January 2015. The “troika” of EU institutions and the International Monetary Fund that had been dictating austerity to the previous Greek governments wasted no time in tightening the screws on the new government in what was seen as an outright attempt to humiliate Syriza. Negotiations dragged on, and amidst much international solidarity, Prime Minister Tsipras called a referendum that summer to supposedly buttress his negotiating position.
Greeks responded by heavily voting “no” to further austerity. The Syriza government then did a remarkable about-face. Eight days later, Prime Minister Tsipras signed an agreement even more unfavorable that what had been demanded by the troika. More than half of Syriza’s central committee signed an opposition letter and most Syriza members were furious. This was ignored.
Some Syriza officials offered public justifications for this turn of events, arguing that the party was in a marathon and not a finished race, and that the party retained scope for maneuver and to continue to be a Left party through links with solidarity networks. Others, however, argued that the new agreement was a disastrous capitulation. One alternative path to austerity was to exit the eurozone. The counter-argument was that the analysis supporting a eurozone withdrawal was correct but nonetheless such a road should not be taken due to the balance of forces tilted heavily against the Greek economy.
There were arguments both for remaining in and for leaving the eurozone, but anti-austerity advocates on both sides recommended strong steps such as renouncing the debt, nationalizing the banks and imposing capital controls. These were not considered — Syriza never had a “Plan B.”
Staying in the eurozone was favored by a majority of Greeks, a factor undoubtedly an influence on the party. But by taking office without an alternative plan to negotiating with the troika, in particular EU officials completely cold to any Greek argument, Syriza had boxed in itself. Excuses by Syriza officials for why, rather than reversing austerity, they had agreed to its intensification were just that, excuses. Professor Sheehan challenges those excuses sharply:
“It was one thing to allude to a gun to the head and to admit to defeat, but another to turn around and to claim a great moral victory and to aim the attack on anyone who said otherwise. There was much violation of elementary logic, evasion of empirical evidence, and denial of ethical culpability. … The point about conceptualizing contradiction is not to affirm it and to wallow in it, but to struggle to resolve it, to transcend it, to create a new synthesis from it. As if intensified economic expropriation and political capitulation were not bad enough already, they added intellectual obfuscation and moral degradation to the dreadful reality unfolding. … You cannot build a left when you trash the very basis of our beliefs. It came from a mix of blatant opportunism, genuine confusion, psychological distress, and postmodernist sophistry.” [pages 133-134]
Syriza, despite all the bustle of the previous three years, had taken office unprepared. And, bizarrely, holding a belief that the troika could be reasoned with.
A suicide mission followed by a purge
Next was a “suicide mission for the Left” — Syriza introduced into parliament a 977-page bill to be voted on immediately with no time to be read. The Left Platform voted no as a unified faction and a separate Syriza parliamentary faction, the 53+ Group, complained about the stifling of party democracy, yet Syriza overall voted yes and the new agreement was approved with support from most other parties. “I do not believe that you can do bad to do good,” is the author’s succinct appraisal.
In the wake of shameful capitulation, rather than call a party congress, Prime Minister Tsipras decided to call a snap election, which he would use to purge Syriza of its left wing. He distinguished this campaign by attacking the Left and international supporters. The Left Platform members of parliament resigned to form a new party, Popular Unity, but with little time and no resources it failed to reach the 5 percent vote threshold. Syriza won again.
Defections from Syriza and attempts to build a new Left party have continued since as not is only no debt relief in sight despite one humiliating concession after another but Syriza lurches right in foreign policy and the prime minister falls to his knees in front of the church. It had taken Syriza only six months to travel the path that the former socialist party, Pasok, had traveled in 20 years but without the genuine reforms that Pasok had implemented early in its time in government. Implementing and expanding expropriation in order to end it is not dialectical; it is nonsense, Professor Sheehan points out.
So why had Syriza taken such a road? No one answer could suffice, but the author, in a wide-ranging survey, explores several opinions offered by various Greek activists. In short form these include:
- That Syriza’s actions constitute a retreat, not a betrayal, as transformation is a painful marathon with many retreats.
- Syriza had no coherent program but its left was too focused on a transformation of the state.
- Syriza failed to contest the narrative of “there is no alternative” and should have renounced the debt, nationalized the banks and elaborated an anti-capitalist narrative.
- Syriza’s failure is rooted in its class compromises and constant reassurances to the Right since 2012.
- Popular Unity has a future despite “messing up” its first election.
- It is impossible to control the economy inside the eurozone.
- The power of money destroyed Syriza.
Helena Sheehan has written a most useful study of Syriza and in particular the range of platforms and outlooks, and the evolution of these, as the party prepared to take power and then found itself unable to manage, let alone solve, internal and external contradictions. That this is a “you are there” document from a personalized standpoint does not at all mean that The Syriza Wave is anything other than a serious political analysis. The work could have been strengthened in two ways: one, a deeper discussion of the economic issues, including the ramifications of staying (or exiting) the eurozone, and, two, a discussion of how virtually every euro of the troika loans are going to creditors and banks rather than to the Greek people, a topic barely mentioned in passing only once. These are topics that should not have been sidelined.
Nonetheless, a reader wishing political analysis and to understand what activists and leaders in Syriza were thinking and doing, including ministers before and after taking up their posts, would do well to read this book. Professor Sheehan, despite the appropriately bitter denouncements of the party’s performance in office in contrast to her earlier support, ends on an optimistic note. We are, after all, supposed to learn from defeat so we can do it better in the future, yes?
* Helena Sheehan, The Syriza Wave: Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left [Monthly Review Press, New York 2016]