Why Rush to Judgement on Syriza?

The speed with which many leftists around the world have concluded that Syriza has sold out strikes me as a bit precipitous.

One day, Hail Syriza. Next day, Phooey on Syriza. Perhaps more time is required to judge what has happened, and what response is needed, not to mention more information.

Tsipras went to the Greek public for a referendum. This was a powerful instance of democratic behavior. It was exemplary in its own right, and he is praised for it across the left, even while various finance czars decried the idea that people should have any say in their own lives providing a very stark and instructive contrast. Surprisingly, despite incredible media machinations, Tsipras’ preferred position won very strongly. Then, even more surprisingly, after but another day, Tsipras offered a new and only modestly altered proposal to the masters of Europe presumably in a last ditch effort to avoid Grexit. He seemingly, to many observers, sold out his population.

Okay, one possibility is that indeed the population was ready and prepared to fight for way more concessions including backing it up with an exit, and so Tsipras folded out of cowardice or due to wanting to preserve the perks of his position, or even out of ideological loyalty to corporate power, whatever the costs for others might be. But is this really plausible? Should we so quickly throw Tsipras under the bus – to use an American expression for it – as our explanation of his apparent turn about? Maybe that is the explanation – but what if it is wrong?

Suppose we ask, what would it have looked like if Tsipras took the referendum and went to the masters of Europe and said, cancel the debt or a large portion of it, anyhow, and sign off on our programs for Greece, or we are leaving you, now, and if he was then shown the door? Would that have been a victory against austerity?

Maybe it would have been, if, for example, the next day there would be millions in the streets, energized, not just present for a day, but ready to dig in and fight for months upon months, and if the government had workable plans and organizational means to keep the economy afloat while rebuilding and renovating it, including undertaking nationalizations, price and wage controls, redistributive policies, and implementing whatever currency policies and grassroots goods provision, and whatever else was needed not only immediately, but for a long time to ward off the predations of European and American finance capital who would want a separated Greece to fail even more than they wanted to preserve austerity in the first place. But what if all this activism was unlikely or even transparently not going to occur? And what if there was tons of support for fighting against austerity and for a better deal, as the referendum suggested, but very little support for Grexit and sustained even fiercer fighting thereafter?

What if, in other words, the day after Grexit, most of the Greek population would be blaming Syriza and not the masters of Europe for the ensuing chaos? If so, the get-tough scenario would look less like victory and more like disaster. (Please note, this possibility also reveals a completely different grounds for criticizing Syriza – not that they are sell outs or bad negotiators, or whatever else of that sort, but that they spent five months totally caught up in dancing with the Devil to the near exclusion of preparing the Greek population, and even the apparatus of Syriza itself, to fight fiercely and successfully for clear goals during and after an exit.)

So, if Tsipras’s assessment of likely outcomes after the referendum was that Grexit would bring disaster, what would his offering new last ditch proposals accomplish? If they were accepted, as has apparently happened, it would gain some time, again, and win some modest gains on some fronts, while agreeing to continued austerity and even incurring some serious losses on other fronts, to be sure – and while looking like a beaten supplicant, as well, – but if it allowed refurbishing and deepening popular support rather than seeing it melt into acrimonious, depression-induced passivity after an exit, the fight could at least continue and perhaps re-intensify. On the other hand, what if the masters received the new proposal and still said goodbye Greece? What then? Well, if that happened, Tsipras may have been thinking, it would be totally clear to the Greek population, and to most of the world, that Grexit was the will of the masters of Europe and could be blamed only on them, not on Syriza, in which case Tsipras and Syriza would be in position to rally not merely the left wing of Syriza, if even that, but 60% and maybe even 75% of the population, all highly angry and motivated.

Is Tsipris a very clever organizer seeking to amass sufficient strength to proceed successfully in new rounds of struggle in the future, or is he a mere doormat for the masters? Do I know? No. But I don’t think others know either, so I wonder why there is a rush toward explanations that let us hurl epithets at folks who need help, not hostility.

To my eyes, Greece was and still is navigating an almost impossible path with very little outside aid and against  a draconian and relentless enemy. Syriza entered the government with a very fledgling party, barely enough people to even fill posts, I suspect. And then it undertook negotiations – a dance with the devil – which became, at least viewing from the outside, the focus of almost all its sharply limited energies. This was the mistake – and a very large one, in my view. The problem was believing that the other side could be convinced by intelligence, dignity, and, yes, compromise – rather than realizing that the other side’s goals, including primarily demolishing any serious opposition to austerity, trumped all reason, all human sympathy, all dignity – as usual for corporate agendas. The tug of war was one of power – class warfare – not one of economic logic, all along. But based on believing that economic logic could prevail and perhaps simply not being sufficiently activist oriented, Syriza failed to build sufficient understanding, commitment, and organization at the grassroots to make the threat of a successful Grexit credible.

One last point – for some reason everyone seems to take at face value what the masters say – and now I am talking about the Masters of the Universe, in Washington, and not just their allies in Europe. To my eyes, however, masters everywhere have been and are still confronting a choice. In their view, should they try to avoid disrupting international markets unduly by cutting back even minimally on austerity for Greece to get a deal – or should they risk the disruptions that might accompany Grexit but, in the process, have in their view a near certainty of thoroughly demolishing Syriza and, by extension and example, other such efforts throughout Europe?

The Germans seemed to feel that the latter task warranted the risks. The widespread claim is that the U.S. masters thought the risks of disruption and what it might unleash outweighed the gains of punishing Syriza’s dissent – or, put differently, outweighed the risks of a Syriza surviving and even growing. Okay, this is possible, of course, but is it plausible?

Remember Vietnam – and basically all the wars since? The U.S. risked making a complete mess of its economy to prevent the “spread of a good example” – that is, to prevent the example of a country extricating itself from the network of subservience to U.S. and corporate control and the U.S. did that out of fear the example might spread. A Greece seeking to end austerity and then to redevelop in a manner leaning seriously left is a far more dangerous example not least because it is occurring in a world far more open to following the lead, it seems to me, than was Vietnam’s resistance. So my guess is that the Germans were not in the back rooms listening to U.S. anger, but were instead doing, in a very real sense, a job for the U.S. and all the world’s upper crust.

The final result appears to be Germany, and the U.S. too, I believe, deciding they could have their cake – no exit – and eat it too, force sufficient compliance on Syriza to crack its support and ultimately bring it down. And, on the other side, Tsipris presumably feels he has at least kept Syriza in the struggle, avoided the catastrophe of an exit blamed on Syriza, and can battle on from a position a little worse in some respects, but a little better in others, than in the past – with a public and international audience, as well, that now knows far better the rules of the dance and may be able to organize to fight on.

My own reaction is that some time may be essential to decide who is right. But here will be a clue, I think, as to where things may go.

Will Syriza immediately begin serious plans for grassroots struggle oriented to withstand truly draconian attack. Will it prepare to be ready, next time, to exit if need be? And will Podemos and others in Europe and more widely rally to Greece, militantly, as well as pursue their own struggles with an eye on the need not for reason when dancing with the devil, but for grassroots, sustained, and well organized power when doing so?


  1. avatar
    Jerry Fres July 14, 2015 6:16 am 

    Your point that it is premature to judge Syriza harshly is a good one, particularly from the outside. Having said that, the position of saying no to austerity and yes to the EU all the while knowing (based upon Varoufakis’ account) that the troika was not bargaining in good faith – not from day one, appears contradictory if not naive. Their strongest bargaining chip, it seems to me, would have been to prepare for and threaten grexit; but this was never what the leadership was about. The situation now fuels anti-EU right wing parties across Europe.

    • avatar
      Michael Albert July 14, 2015 1:08 pm 

      This is broadly my view as well – but, really, how much do we know. So they realized, says Varoufakis, that Europe was out mainly, even nly, for destroying them. They had to negotiate – I think perhaps they could have sent Varoufakis to be tough, and devoted all other available energies to giving him the backing of a population ready to exit and fight on. But again, what is they believed such support didn’t exist and could not be elicited. And what if that was true?

      Let’s come to the present. When the referendum is relayed to Europe and the masters say, who cares, accept draconian austerity or we will boot you out – Tripris actually had, and arguably may still have, not two but also a third choice. The two are obvious, cave in – which he did. Say go to hell, exiting. Or, believing he had no mandate to do that, and believing he should not violate the will of Grek citizens, he could simply call for another referendum. This time it is – do we demand a reversal of austerity and leave Euro zone if it isn’t granted, or should we accept austerity and remain, hoping to fight another day. And he could explain in his view the costs and potential benefits of both, indicate his preference, and say, I will abide the vote…

      Now if be tough wins, and exist follows, he has a country ready to fight. And if give in wins, he knows his task, organize more support.

      I don’t know why this wasn’t considered – perhaps there is a good reason, perhaps not.

      • avatar
        Joe Emersberger July 14, 2015 3:13 pm 

        The ECB threatened to cut off banks entirely which would have made a referendum pointless. Immediate action would have had to be be taken as in a war time situation under bombing. Priority would have to be to issues IOUs while scrambling to get a real currency implemented, work out emergency financing and assistance with Russia/ China whoever

  2. avatar
    Joe Emersberger July 13, 2015 10:41 pm 

    Largely echoing Michael’s closing words in this article, Syriza MP Costas Lapavitsas says

    “What Greece needs now is a detailed exit plan, drawn up with the help of a wide range of economists. Of course a new national currency is not a magic wand. But it would liberate the country from the trap it currently finds itself. It would also allow the government to finally get started on a productive reconstruction of the economy.

    Syriza formed a government with a very successful electoral strategy, but its strategy has collapsed miserably in governance. The agreement that emerged on Monday will not solve the country’s problems and is likely to prove totally unworkable. The prospect of leaving EMU will be raised again very soon.”

    • avatar
      Michael Albert July 13, 2015 11:43 pm 

      Hi Joe,

      I am of course guessing – but I wouldn’t be surprised if they took office with a lack of people to fill posts. It may well be that what they were doing was nearly all they could do – it still would be a mistake, I think, to have not prepared, but not one I would want to castigate them for too strongly.

  3. avatar
    Joe Emersberger July 13, 2015 10:37 pm 

    I think it is clear Tsipras sincerely thought Grexit was the ultimate calamity – or that the risk that it would turn out to be was way too high too take. The Germans may have genuinely shared this premise or not, but at the very least the Germans sadistically exploited this fear to face down Syriza.

    By Varoufakis’ perhaps self serving account, he wanted to fight very hard after the referendum but saw that Tsipras and others m in the inner circle did not want to. Hence he resigned.


    Agree that there is no point or justification for hurling abuse at Tsipras for his mistakes. I do, unfortunately, hope he now gets defeated in parliament so that a part of Syriza, at least, can still salvage credibility and fight on effectively – without a leadership paralyzed by fear of grexit..

  4. John Vincent July 13, 2015 6:21 pm 

    I disagree. I don’t think those on the left saying Syriza sold out sped to that conclusion. On the contrary, I think they waited patiently for Syriza to take a strong stand and usher in a program that would put an end to the austerity measures being imposed on Greece by Europe’s financial elite. Measures that were primarily being imposed for the benefit of German and French banks rather than the people of Greece. Tsipris’s call for a referendum was a welcome stand at last. His earlier call for a review of Greece’s debt to determine if it was odious gave some initial hope. But Syriza’s capitulation and disregard for the results of the referendum only reinforced the notion of TINA. It became clear Syriza had no strategy for implementing an alternative. They had not organized or developed an alternative before or after January. They only demonstrated the futility of voting.

    Why did they spent five months totally caught up in dancing with the Devil to the near exclusion of preparing the Greek population, and even the apparatus of Syriza itself, to fight fiercely and successfully for clear goals during and after an exit? What possible evidence could they point to that would suggest that Europe’s financial elite would show sympathy to a leftist alternative that did not adhere to the neoliberal dictates of monopoly capital. The concurrent developments taking place in Ukraine, as one example, should have removed any wishful thinking on the part of Syriza; it only demonstrated what the West, under US management, is prepared to carryout to meet its objectives.

    Did Syriza represent the “threat of a good example” that had to be destroyed if it were to take measures to free itself from the financial dictatorship of the Europe’s elite? Definitely. Could Syriza have faced severe consequences if it had chosen to pursue a leftist agenda, even risking a coup orchestrated by the West? Yeah, I think that was a possibility, one that should have been made public from day one, a lesson they could have drawn from the experiences of South America. The only way to overcome the power of today’s ruling elite is to start putting political power into the hands of the people. Tsipris apparently thought he could do it on his own. He was wrong and may pay the price for it.

    I hope I am wrong and that Syriza will stay relevant and live to fight another day and actually start winning, but right now the odds don’t look good.

    • avatar
      Michael Albert July 13, 2015 11:47 pm 

      The defeat in parliament might instead destroy syriza – who knows? Another possibililty would be to make very clear that there is a battle ahead and begin, now, preparing for it – with great clarity about goals and methods. Adding a clear account of what has occurred. This may restablish trust, and get the ball rolling toward future gains. But then again, it might not. In a sense, analysis that I offered aside, I think we are not talking here about your typically pretty well known context…but, instead, about a context so constrained by its details – which we don’t know – that it is hard to have strong opinions. We might guess right, but I don’t think what are guesses should be offered as firm formulations…

      • avatar
        Michael Albert July 13, 2015 11:59 pm 

        Hi John.

        What if waiting for Syriza to do what you say, was waiting for something which, if one has a grip on the details, would be seen to auger a disaster? I was hoping for it to, of course. But what if they were walking a tightrope, trying to get best results, but knowing the room for movement was ultimately very narrow because their exiting wasn’t a real threat?

        What if Syriza is really a pretty small operation, barely able to fill various visible posts in office, and not even able to fill most others? I don’t know that, but it would not surprise me. What if just keeping the doors open, plus negotiating, was the limit of their reach?

        They spent the five months presumably hoping reason would prevail – I assume they underestimated just how intent on destroying them the devil was…. Okay. That was a mistake, I agree, but it could easily have been an honest one. That is, if they thought they could operate in negotiations and blunt austerity considerably, of course they would try.

        That they should have also worked very hard to develop not only a plan for their own acts if they had to exit, or were forced to, but also a population prepared to handle the associated pain and fight back, I agree with, but again, we are asking of them what to my knowledge no one is coming close to anywhere on the planet.

        I am not sure, therefore, that you are disagreeing with me about what might have been a better approach, but instead only about why it wasn’t pursued as we might have preferred…

        We will see what happens, of course. I think you are of course right they could lose their posts, or retain them but move to the right – but it is also possible they will retain them and move left. Let’s hope!

        • John Vincent July 14, 2015 2:12 am 

          Hi Michael,

          I only disagreed on the speed with which leftists concluded Syriza sold out. I agree with you that it might have been an honest, though extremely naive, mistake on Syriza’s part to assume the troika would negotiate a reasonable settlement; since it is my understanding that destroying a member state is not part of the EU’s treaty. But then what Greece has been subjected to starting with PM Papandreuo gave indications that the troika was going to be harsh and authoritarian. Given those possibilities, and the resulting consequences, I think Syriza should have developed a contingency plan and not put all their hopes in the sympathy of the devil, the EU’s financial elite. You may be right that Syriza lacks numbers and depth, but there are members within the party who stand to the left of Tsipris, and who are perhaps not as naive, that were calling for stronger measures to be taken.

          It is true we don’t know all the details, but it seems clear now that Greece is in a condition much worse than it was five months ago, and things will not get better under a continuation of the troika’s austerity program. My fear is that this could lead to political instability allowing the far right to advance. But let’s have hope that Syriza has learned its lessons and will now take what bold measures are left available to it so that they can start to make a very bad situation marginally better in the short term and much better in the future.

  5. Peter Myers July 13, 2015 3:19 pm 

    Good analysis – I was one of those thinking that Tsipris was selling out too easily. Now I am not so sure and will await developments – as you suggest

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