To: Detroit Workers' Voice
Date: August 6, 2015
RE: Syriza in the wake of the great capitulation
The submission of the Tsipras government to the stepped-up austerity demanded by the European bourgeoisie means the end of his party, Syriza, as an alternative to the sold-out parties of the Greek bourgeoisie. Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, had won the election of January 2015 as a protest against austerity and an alternative to the establishment parties, all of whom, whether conservative or "socialist", supported austerity. Now its leader, Alexis Tsipras, presently the Prime Minister of Greece, says austerity must be accepted, and uses the votes of the establishment parties to pass it. This means that Syriza has lost its soul.
Protest against capitulation to the European financiers has swept Syriza since mid-July. As the deal was announced, the majority of the Central Committee said it opposed it. The largest regional organizations in Syriza, those in Athens and Thessaloniki, are opposed to it, and so are many other Syriza branches. The national youth organization is said to have opposed it. Syriza members of parliament tend to belong to the more rightist factions of the party, but still a quarter of them voted against capitulation. Even several ministers opposed it, and were later replaced by Tsipras.
Indeed, the decision to capitulate was taken by the Tsipras government alone, not the Syriza organization. It wasn't even taken by discussion of the whole government, just a handful, and ultimately only by Tsipras. But Tsipras has the backing of the rightist factions in Syriza and the power of his leadership positions, so it looks like Syriza will not repudiate him, but will instead be disciplined by him.
If so, this means that it isn't sufficient that there is anger
against Tsipras in Syriza. The question is whether the left section in
the section who refuses to kiss the ass of the European big bourgeoisie, the section who takes the Syriza program seriously, will agree to work with Tsipras anyway, or whether it will form a separate organization. If the opposition separates, it can continue the struggle against austerity. If it doesn't, then it becomes decorative window-dressing for a party that is now carrying out austerity. The appropriate timing of a split is something that can only be determined by the Greek comrades, not from far away. But serious opposition to austerity requires separation.
Tsipras's deal with the troika is the worse one ever. On the pretext that they don't trust the Tsipras government, the institutions of the troika (European Central Bank, European Commission, and International Monetary Fund) are insisting on even harsher conditions than previously. Tsipras has agreed to everything, and he rushes every outrageous demand from the European bourgeoisie through the Greek parliament, without even leaving a decent time to debate them. They must be passed on the timetable demanded by the financiers who are presently the real rulers of Greece.
Tsipras had earlier promised to deal with what he aptly called the humanitarian disaster caused by austerity, and to protect those who were especially endangered: threatened with homelessness, loss of medical care, unemployment, or cuts in pensions, etc. But the new austerity conditions will make the ongoing disaster worse. The new measures will remove protections which Syriza had pushed through parliament earlier this year. So there will be more cuts in pensions; higher retirement ages; more fees; more unemployment; castration of collective bargaining; etc. That's not to speak of the heavy increase in the sales tax (VAT) from 13% to 23%, which will serve as an automatic wage cut for workers and bear especially hard on the poor.
Every protection, however modest, that the working people might have had is being stripped away. A week after the vote of July 16 on the troika's economic demands, two additional bills were pushed through parliament that changed Greek law in this direction. For example, previously when companies went bankrupt, whatever assets were left went first to the employees and retirees, but now the bankruptcy banks are to be paid first. Moreover, it is to be easier to foreclose on homes. These laws will deepen the humanitarian crisis, ensuring that the hard times hurt people as badly as possible. Kick them when they're down, and keep kicking them, over and over and over. These bills were opposed about a quarter of Syriza parliamentarians, similar to the vote a week earlier. The passage of these laws is yet another mockery of the idea, put forward by those who apologize for Tsipras's betrayal, that he will be able to administer austerity more humanely than the other parties.
The two new bills totaled 997 pages, and they were rushed through parliament in 24 hours. Clearly, under the new agreements, parliament is supposed to rubber-stamp anything demanded of it by the troika, without bothering to read it. Indeed, why bother reading and carefully discussing the bills, when no changes will be allowed?
For a time, Syriza gave voice to the mass sentiment against austerity, and it provided a way for the masses to repudiate the main bourgeois parties in Greece. I have written about Syriza several times since 2013, and I have repeatedly made the point that it was "the first step, not the last, in this effort" to separate from the old parties (DWV List item of Nov 22, 2014). When Syriza won the elections of Jan 25 this year, I hailed this as a political earthquake, said it "will open a period of struggle", but said "I don't mean that the Tsipras government is the representative of the working class struggle. The question instead is whether the working class can exert pressure, including on the Tsipras government." (DVW List item of Jan. 29, 2015)
It is going to take many attempts for the working class in Greece, or elsewhere, to replace the old corrupt parties and build up militant parties of the class struggle. In backing Syriza, the masses deserted the old parties for the time being; and after the election of the Tsipras government, the struggle with the troika shook the hidebound institutions of the European Union. The capitulation by Tsipras is a major tragedy, but the working class struggle proceeds through major zigzags. The struggle is not to be regretted; it is to be improved by learning its lessons and doing better next time.
The referendum of July 5 had seen 61% of the Greek people vote "no" against the austerity program. The five months of brutal ultimatums by the troika against the Tsipras government resulted in more and more people considering the possibility that radical measures would be needed against the financial institutions of the European bourgeoisie. They voted "no" despite the European Central Bank strangling the Greek economy by forcing Greek banks to shut down. The Tsipras government will now do its best to smother the anti-austerity struggle, but it will return again in a new form.
Syriza was one of several organizations that have been hailed as a world model for the revitalization of the left. But the capitulation of the Tsipras government to the troika wasn't simply due to Tsipras and a few top ministers. It could only take place if there were also organizational and political weaknesses in Syriza that made such a spectacular collapse possible.
Thus throughout the world, workers and activists will be trying to understand if there was something wrong with how Syriza was built, something that led to this debacle. I will not set forward a model of a perfect organization to replace Syriza: no one would listen to such a plan anyway. Instead I will indicate some of the problems that arose: what activists hoped they were doing, and what went wrong along the way. I hope to encourage activists to ponder for themselves these issues, and consider how they are reflected in other organizations. Activists will have to decide how to build something better than Syriza, something that is a step closer to the organization of class struggle needed by the working class.
So let's examine some of the features of Syriza.
Syriza was formed in 2004 as a coalition of a number of left trends and individuals. The groups maintained their existence, but united in support of Syriza. Then in 2013 there was an attempt to turn Syriza into a "unitary party" into which its constituent parties would dissolve; this aimed at weakening the left-wing of Syriza, which, however, maintained itself.
The different groupings included many social-democrats, Eurocommunists, Maoists, Trotskyists, and others. With regard to the economic crisis since 2009, it included those committed to keeping Greece in the Eurozone (the 19 of the 28 states of the EU who use the Euro as their local money), and those who wanted Greece to return to having its own currency, the drachma. Everyone was united on the demand to end austerity, and the Thessaloniki Programme of September 2014 put forward social measures aimed at ending the humanitarian crisis caused by years of austerity.
No doubt certain political debates continued inside Syriza. But they did not overcome the theoretical crisis of the left or clarify what should be done if the European bourgeoisie refused to renegotiate its financial arrangements with Greece. Syriza was united on the need to get rid of austerity, but not on other things. This unity made Syriza into a major electoral force: instead of the ineffectiveness of a multitude of small groups with clashing programs, one had unity.
But when the Tsipras government found that it couldn't implement the Thessaloniki Programme through negotiations with the troika, the different factions in Syriza were divided on what to do, and Syriza as a party wasn't prepared to deal with the situation. Even the factions who call for leaving the Eurozone don't seem to have given much concrete thought over what had to be done.
The left does have to learn how to overcome sectarianism. But just shoving every difference under the rug hasn't worked either. Syriza didn't overcome the ideological crisis of the left; it didn't solve the key issues about what to do if the European financial institutions wouldn't accept the end of austerity; and it fell apart on these issues.
Here we see something that we will see again and again: the same feature was both a strong point and a weak point of Syriza. By ignoring major political differences, it united a major section of the left (aside from the Stalinist KKE), and this unity was important for its spectacular electoral triumphs. But its failure to make any progress with the theoretical crisis of the radical movement left it disoriented in the face of the brutal opposition of the bourgeoisie.
Syriza campaigned for election on ending austerity while insisting that Greece would definitely be staying in the Eurozone. This reflected the views of a majority of the Greek people: they wanted an end to the austerity that is strangling them, but also wanted accommodation with EU financial institutions. They may have had a number of different reasons for this stand. Many probably believed that using the Euro was a guarantee of a certain economic stability; as well, many saw EU institutions as a guarantee against the return of a new military dictatorship such as the one which oppressed Greece in 1967-74, and believed that being in the Eurozone helps cement Greece's position in the EU. Some consciously oppose the EU bourgeoisie, but believed that only a joint struggle of workers throughout the EU would have sufficient strength to fight the market-fundamentalist offensive. And in the election, Syriza told the people what they wanted to hear: we can end austerity and definitely still have the Euro. That may be why it won the election.
But this was an unrealistic position. There was no way to guarantee that the troika would negotiate a deal that would accept the Thessaloniki Program. And if it didn't, Greece might be forced, whether the government wanted to or not, to leave the Eurozone. For example, while in the Eurozone, the supply of money is at the mercy of the European Central Bank, which could shut down the Greek banks and strangle the economy at will. This was, in fact, what the troika threatened to do, and finally did. There is no way to restore Greek economic life in defiance of such actions by the ECB except by taking steps that might lead to Greece being expelled from the Eurozone.
Here, too, the same position represents the strength and weakness of Syriza. It told the people what they wanted to hear, but then it couldn't implement it. It mobilized people around a major demand of Greek life - the end to austerity - which is a proper thing to do. But the Tsipras leadership didn't tell the people that they had to risk leaving the Eurozone if they were to accomplish this.
The decision to capitulate to the troika was taken by Prime Minister Tsipris, who has also been the head of Syriza since 2009. The fate of Syriza was thus determined by one individual. The decision was not debated in the Syriza Central Committee before it was taken. It was not even a decision of the entire government.
As first revealed by ex-Finance Minister Yanis Yaroufakis, the government had a small working group of four or five people seeking to develop "Plan B". Yaroufakis's Plan B aimed at keeping the Greek economy going despite the sabotage of the European Central Bank, and it involved setting up a parallel payment and banking system which was independent of the one associated with the ECB. It wouldn't in itself have meant leaving the Eurozone, but it would have been a step in this direction. Only a handful of ministers even discussed Plan B, and it was eventually rejected. That decision by Tsipras in effect meant that the government was at the mercy of the troika. That decision not only wasn't made by Syriza, it was secret from both the people and Syriza.
It is the Greek Constitution that gives the government power to make decisions, but it is Syriza which decides whether it is going to exercise any control over what its members do while in the government. Syriza has a loose form of organization in some ways, but the flip side of this, is that it apparently lets its leadership do what it pleases. It could have forced Tsipras to have the key decision on the austerity agreement made collectively, under pain of expelling Tsipras and bringing down the government, but instead it let Tsipras act by himself.
This was not simply an organizational matter, of course. Tsipras had
support from the more rightist factions in Syriza, and they let them
concentrate power in his hands. But it also reflects the organizational
nature of Syriza. According to one account, this concerned even the
selection of certain candidates to run for office against the will of
the local committees. But I haven't been able to find a reliable
account of how Syriza selects its candidates for public office.
Those who saw Syriza as a new type of left organization emphasized that it was built on the basis of social movements. It was supposed to show a new way of relating these movements to political organizations. The social movements weren't to be directed by Syriza or coordinated too closely with it; they would maintain a certain distance from the party. But Syriza was supposed to reflect the common desires of the various movements.
This loose connection was a way of dealing with the sectarianism and bullying of activists in the mass movements by various Stalinist, Trotskyist, or other parties. It addressed a real problem, but this way of dealing with it put a major separation between Syriza and the movement activists who supported it. It should be noted that Syriza only has limited influence in the trade union movement, which is divided among several antagonistic trends. But Syriza has strong links with a variety of activists in other movements.
This way of dealing with the social movements also seems to have
meant that Syriza couldn't directly rely on a strong base of activists,
even though these activists were supporters. Its supporters were
divided by the social movement they were in; they were also divided by
what political trend they backed; and Syriza's own special sphere would
seem to have been the elections.
At least, this is how I think Syriza worked. The descriptions of Syriza by those who promoted it around the world are generally fairly sketchy, and I have had to rely on them. Should others know more about the way Syriza worked, I would appreciate if they would write in with their information.
The problem with this method of organization would come up as soon as one tried to change Greek economic life. In order to fight austerity and to restrict the patronage and corruption in the state apparatus, it requires more than passing bills in parliament or relying on the apparatus of some ministries. It would require mobilizing workers and activists and sympathetic administrators to oversee a mass of activities formerly supposedly run by the state. Indeed, leaving the Eurozone would involve a period of economic sacrifice and reorganization that would need thousands upon thousands of people ready to fight bourgeois sabotage, oversee banks and various companies, ensure proper distribution of scarce goods, extend social services, and carry out the multitude of emergency tasks needed until the overall economy stabilizes. Moreover, the Greek unions are sharply divided, and this would limit their role in economic reorganization. In this situation, it would be especially necessary for Syriza to be able to rally a mass of activists around itself and encourage coordination between them.
So here too Syriza's strength is its weakness. It joined together the social movements by its hands-off approach, but this also weakened its connection with the activists and their role in Syriza.
Although Syriza is officially an organization of the radical left,
"radical" may mean many things. In fact, it has a moderate majority and
a more militant left-wing. It is the left-wing that openly opposed
Tsipras's agreement with the troika, and that Tispras now seeks to
remove from party positions.
The left has had substantial representation in the Syriza Central Committee. And the grouping called the "Left Platform" was represented, until he purged them for opposing the new austerity deal, by four ministers in the Tsipras government. But the declarations of these ministers hadn't represented government policy. They might militantly declare that the government would never accept privatization, but it was because they were worried that Tsipras was going to concede on this too. This happened on one issue after another. Such declarations may have had a certain value in putting some pressure on Tsipras, but they also had the effect of obscuring what the actual policy of the government was. It is definitely to their credit that the "Left Platform" ministers did not go along with Tsipras's capitulation, but their policy while in the government seemed to be largely that of a verbal leftism.
There is also a limit to how serious economic planning by the left in Greece has been. The left in Syriza would rather have Greece leave the Eurozone then bow to the demands of the troika. And the radical left outside Syriza mainly advocates leaving the Eurozone. But the left hasn't been that concerned to consider the concrete measures needed to leave the Eurozone, the opposition they would face, and how they could be carried out against that opposition. It has noted certain necessities, such as nationalizing the banks and seizing additional control of the economy, but has not looked at things closely. The most detailed plan seems to be that put forward in the book Against the Troika: Crisis and Austerity in the Eurozone, by the German economist Heiner Flassbeck and the Syriza member of parliament Costas Lapavitsas. But it didn't appear until early this year.
The anti-Eurozone left seems to have especially failed to consider the problem of maintaining popular support for exiting the Eurozone during the temporary period of economic hardship that would follow. Lapavitsas deals with some of this, writing at the end of Chapter 7, that "It cannot be overstressed that the path of confrontational exit [I.e. exiting the Eurozone while being sabotaged by the EU's financial institutions-JG], requires political legitimacy and active popular support, if it is to be handled successfully by a government on the Left. It is important that the government should make it clear that exit would be forced on it by the EU refusing to accept reasonable terms in writing off debt and lifting austerity. It is also important to obtain open political support by putting the issue squarely to the electorate and the organised labour movement." But there is much more to consider, given that the left and "the organized labor movement" will be split, no matter how squarely the issue is put.
Instead, it is typical for the Greek left to overestimate the likely extent of support of the masses for radical economic steps, and thus underestimate the political preparation needed for it. And, in part due to the legacy of the Trotskyist theory of"permanent revolution", and in part due to the legacy of Stalinist illusions, major steps against market fundamentalism are regarded as going beyond capitalism. But fierce resistance to the capitalists isn't yet overcoming capitalism as a system. Greece is not ready for socialist revolution at this time; it is a class struggle against austerity and the strangulation of the economy that is on the agenda; it is a bitter fight against market fundamentalism, in defense of the needs of the working masses, and against environmental disaster. This struggle would help turn the workers' movement into an independent political force, a mass revolutionary force whom aim is socialism. But if Varoufakis has reformist dreams of saving the capitalists from themselves, it is no more realistic to believe that the socialist revolution is upon us now. It is a period of one crisis after another and repeated struggles that is coming closer by the moment, but the ultimate victory is still distant.
Nevertheless, the importance of the left in Syriza is shown by its immediate opposition to Tsipras's capitulation. It will also face having to separate from the organization dominated by Tsipras. In doing so, it will face uniting the masses on a new program of fighting austerity, a new basis of unity, and not simply duplicating what Syriza was before Tsipras's betrayal.
The secrecy of the Tsipras government, and the concentration of power in Tsipras's hands, is illustrated by how Plan B was handled. One of Syriza's weaknesses was that it lacked an alternate plan of what to do if the troika wouldn't accept a deal and instead sought to starve Greece into submission, as in fact the European Central Bank tried to do during the austerity referendum of July 5. Plan A was the idea of getting the troika to agree to something reasonable. Plan B would be how to proceed against troika opposition. Varoufakis's version of Plan B dealt only with the immediate need for a parallel financial system. It would have been an essential step to resist the troika, but it barely scratched the surface of the preparations that were needed. But what's notable is that Plan B was prepared in secret. This meant that there was no discussion of it among the masses, or even in Syriza. Indeed, we wouldn't even know about Plan B if Varoufakis hadn't talked about it in an interview after he was dismissed as Finance Minister.
Varoufakis pointed out that, to really be prepared, the government would have needed to put hundreds of people to work on Plan B, while Tsipras only allowed four or five people to work on this. This was because it was thought that, if enough people worked on the plan, it wouldn't be secret, and the troika would find out and be enraged. And Tsipras's idea of negotiations was to avoid irritating the troika at all costs. No matter how badly the troika behaved, no matter how much it showed its contempt for the Greek government and its lack of concern for the plight of homeless and starving people in Greece, Tsipras pretended that he was dealing with reasonable people with reasonable concerns.
If Tsipras had defied the troika, he would have to put Plan B into effect. To do this without much preparation would have risked economic collapse. Tsipras thinks he has avoided this disaster because he has jettisoned Plan B, replaced Varoufakis with a more pliable Finance Minister, and agreed to whatever the troika wants. But almost everyone agrees that the new austerity plans are unrealistic, and the Greek debt crisis will continue. The troika will blame this on the Greek people, and so Greece may eventually be forced out of the Eurozone anyway, but under far worse conditions than if it had defied the troika.
There is more that could be said about the structure of Syriza. The above description is not meant as the last word on the subject.
Tsipras's deal with the troika will lead to a deeper humanitarian disaster in Greece, and, moreover, it may even unravel. This makes it all the more important to continue solidarity with the Greek workers and activists who will continue to fight the market fundamentalist hell of austerity no matter who tells them to stop. We need to support their struggles, but also to learn from their setbacks. <>
-- Joseph Green, editor, Communist Voice
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Posted on August 15, 2015