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Syriza's modest proposal

20 January 2015

By Tobi Hansen and KD Tait

19 January 2015

A snap general election in Greece looks set to end in victory for radical left wing party Syriza, ending a six-year monopoly of pro-austerity governments across Europe.

The prospect of a government that rejects the massive social cuts and privatisation dictated by the European Union institutions and the International Monetary Fund has provoked ruling class alarm but enthusiasm amongst millions of European workers, who share Syriza’s belief that jobs, pensions and social security should not be sacrificed to maintain the profits of the banks.

The contest between Syriza and the governing New Democracy-led coalition has become a referendum on four years of austerity. Nowhere have cuts been pursued more rigorously, more ruthlessly and with such vindictive indifference to the human cost than in Greece.

Syriza’s rise has challenged the consensus that there is no alternative to austerity. In victory or defeat, the question has been bluntly put: who should pay for the crisis? How Syriza attempts to answer this question in Greece will shape the course of the class struggle across Europe.

The crisis of austerity

The dramatic events unfolding in Greece were triggered by early legislative elections but have their roots in the tensions within Greek politics about how to deal with its debt and the country’s relations with the European Union.

The government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, elected as a coalition of New Democracy, the rump Pasok, and a rightist split from Syriza, the Democratic Left (Dimar), was the willing tool of Greek capitalism, the European Union and the global institutions of finance capital, who are all doing a brisk and profitable trade in Greece’s debt.

Although Dimar abandoned the coalition after it closed down state broadcaster ERT, the coalition used its slim majority to force the IMF’s medicine down the throats of Greek workers, destroying decades of social gains in less than three years.

Six years of recession in Greece have seen a quarter of the workforce thrown onto the scrapheap. Amongst youth, this figure rises to more than 50 per cent, precipitating large-scale migration to other EU countries. Some 2.5 million people cannot afford medical insurance, or have to choose between that and paying for electricity, even in working households.

Although all its actions demonstrated that Samaras’ government was committed to ensuring the bulk of the crisis fell on the backs of workers, pensioners, the youth and the unemployed, Greece’s subordination to the Eurozone institutions has obstructed Greek capital from taking full advantage of the large profit margins opened up by the collapse in wages and the huge army of unemployed.

So, although Greek shipping families have regained their leading position in the international sea transport market, the basis for the development of domestic manufacturing or finance capital does not exist within the Eurozone. In effect, austerity has guaranteed the loans of Greece’s creditors and protected the position of the strongest elements of capital, but has been unable to resolve the crisis and establish the basis for a new round of profitable production.

Austerity has undermined the economic foundations of the Greek economy and in so doing undermined the confidence of sections of the capitalist class, and above all, the ruined petty bourgeoisie. Greek capital has no perspective for surviving outside the Eurozone, but it also has little indication that its situation is about to improve.

This is the context in which Prime Minister Samaras sought to capitalise on this ‘success’ in securing a ‘technical extension’ to Greece’s second bailout by bringing forward the presidential election.

The candidate of the ruling coalition was New Democracy member and former EU Commissioner, Stavros Dimas. To secure victory, the government deployed the carrot of potential ministerial positions alongside the threat of new elections in which many MPs would be certain to lose their seats.

The European bourgeoisie resorted to open blackmail in support of their Greek proxies, with President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker saying “I think that the Greeks – who have a very difficult life – know very well what a wrong election result would mean for Greece and the Eurozone”.

The failure of the parliament to back the government’s candidate, despite the bribes and threats, shows that an important section of Greece’s political class is unwilling to take responsibility for implementing further austerity. Even if it has no real alternative, it would rather gamble on its influence in a new alignment of forces following an election than face certain political annihilation by backing Samaras.

The early presidential election was intended to steal a march on Syriza, which had been leading New Democracy in the polls for over half a year, and to rally the forces of austerity behind the government. The failure of the tactic spooked the markets and opened up the road to a Syriza victory and the potential for a Europe-wide challenge to austerity.

Years lost or gained?

This is Syriza’s second chance at power, following their defeat in the June 2012 election. All polls point to Syriza as, at least, the biggest party, but the effect of three years of grinding austerity has not made the political landscape favourable to a Syriza government.

The years 2010-12 were the high point of working class resistance to austerity, characterised by a succession of general strikes, a social movement based in the square occupations and violent confrontations between the youth and police. The ability of capital to impose its policy against this movement was in real doubt.

The ruling social-democratic Pasok and the conservative New Democracy both sang from the IMF hymn sheet, insisting that Greek workers had to make sacrifices in the national interest.

Against this capitulation to the diktats of finance capital, Syriza counterposed renunciation of the debt and shredding the ‘memorandum’ that amounted to an understanding that, while the EU would help Greece pay off its debts, Greek workers would be forced to repay this money many times over.

Syriza’s intransigent opposition to this criminal racket won it the support of millions of workers confident that the ruling class offensive could be stopped and reversed. Between February and June, Syriza was catapulted from minority party to mainstream opposition.

It is no secret that many in Syriza felt their party was unprepared for government in 2012. When the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) rejected Syriza’s appeal for a coalition government of workers’ parties, it condemned Greek workers to years of austerity and forced Syriza to decide how it would maintain its support in the face of a massive ruling class offensive.

The explosion in its electoral support was a powerful boost to the dominant reformist leadership of Syriza who favoured a primary orientation to the parliamentary arena. Syriza’s leadership calculated that, having established themselves as the only serious contender amongst anti-austerity forces by intransigence, they should now concentrate on developing a “responsible” programme for government.

Instead of using the backing of over a quarter of the electorate to mobilise direct action to block the austerity on the streets, challenging the hostile Communist Party, the KKE, to show its boasted leftism in action, Alexis Tsipras declared Syriza would be a “loyal opposition”. The party attempted to position itself as a legitimate component of the political terrain, one that could be entrusted with the reins of power.

It dropped its demand to repudiate the debt in favour of renegotiation and Tsipras toured Europe, meeting with far more captains of industry than trade union leaders, let alone rank and file workers. There was, and is, only one problem with this; “Europe”, and in particular Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel, would hear of no other solution but cuts to save the bankers.

Many on the left have argued that Syriza’s current success vindicates this approach. Certainly Syriza has played the parliamentary game skilfully, but at what price? Syriza’s strategic decision to pursue the limited power granted by governmental office was made at the expense of the far greater potential power embodied in the massive social movement that had vested its hopes in Syriza’s radical message.

Without a strategy for mobilising the power of the working class, Syriza’s parliamentary deputies were powerless to prevent the ruthless imposition of IMF austerity. At the same time, the workers, youth and unemployed, who were in the forefront of European resistance to austerity, were left without a perspective of struggle centred on their own capacity for action. The square occupations, the assemblies that limited themselves to consensus decision-making, were no substitute for a party structure that could have democratically led, and effectively coordinated, the struggle of millions.

The militant resistance that brought Syriza to the verge of power in 2012 wilted under the blows of mass unemployment and the demoralising experience of 30 general strikes that failed to stem the onslaught, much less stop it in its tracks.

The channelling of struggle from fragmented trade union struggles to the political arena means Syriza can expect a large vote and a real democratic mandate for its programme. Its victory will inspire a degree of confidence amongst the most militant layers.

This presents a real opportunity to overcome the legacy of defeat and prepare the working class organisationally and politically to seize the initiative, rather than relying passively on the ability of a Syriza government to resist the tremendous pressure that European and Greek capital will bring to bear on it.

Syriza’s modest proposal

Syriza’s opposition to austerity has rightly earned it the sympathy of much of the European left. Its ‘immediate programme’ represents a genuine attempt to alleviate the pressure on workers and reverse some of the most damaging attacks. It promises to reverse cuts to wages and pensions, provide free electricity for the poorest households, end privatisation and institute a programme of state investment to kick start economic growth. A steeper progressive tax system will be levied on the rich and big business and the conditions attached to previous bailouts scrapped.

Syriza’s programme calls neither for revolution, nor for a transfer of ownership and control of the commanding heights of the economy from individual bosses to the working class. It is an “emergency programme” of Keynesian measures to refloat Greek capitalism as the material basis for reversing the worst effects of austerity. Its modest proposal is designed to placate its creditors while satisfying the most urgent needs of its working class supporters.

It is this fundamental defence of capitalist interests that Syriza hopes will persuade European capitalism to give it the benefit of the doubt, negotiate, and ultimately collaborate with Syriza’s perspective of replacing the EU’s fixation on austerity with a turn towards Keynesian growth strategies.

This is no mere fantasy. The general political situation in Europe is markedly different from 2012. Keynesian policies are still vigorously opposed by German imperialism, which has an interest in imposing austerity policies on its neighbours. In the short term, that gives it an advantage over its competitors.

However, Keynesian measures have their supporters among sections of European capital, championed by their political servants in the social-democracy. As Europe faces up to the prospect of another recession, prompted in part by the counter-productive austerity measures as well as by its entanglement in the trade war between Russia and the USA, some sort of break with Berlin’s economic orthodoxy by sections of the European bourgeoisie becomes a possibility. This is what Syriza’s economists are gambling on.

Syriza believes that the divisions provoked by a climate of economic uncertainty, alongside the rise of similar anti-austerity parties like Podemos in Spain, place it in a stronger position to bargain for its strategy within the EU. Europe is entering a period of instability and with doubts emerging even within the German ruling class, there is a possibility that Syriza could find allies in powerful places.

This is a dangerous gamble and one made less effective if it leads to the party keeping Greek workers in a passive state of waiting for “saviours from on high to deliver them” (in the words of the Internationale) whether these be the Syriza ministers or Mario Draghi, the President of the European Central Bank.

A programme based on collaboration and compromise with a capitalist system in deep crisis and unable to afford social reforms, or solve its crisis of profitability, offers no long-term solution. Even short term remission will be given only if the alternative is a massive eruption of class struggle which threatens the power of the capitalist class. Protest alone, as Greece’s 30 one day general strikes have shown, is quite insufficient to shake the bosses’ determination to resolve the crisis at the expense of the working class.

Syriza’s strategy is based on using its control of state power to mitigate the effects of austerity and deflect the demands of international capital by manoeuvres and appeals to the reformist wing of capital to join it in a campaign to alter the whole political direction of the European bourgeoisie.

This necessarily casts a Syriza government in the role of mediator between the aspirations of its working class base for an end to austerity and the desire of Greece’s creditors to bleed the Greek working class dry. Since these two are clearly incompatible, Syriza hopes to delay having to come down decisively in favour of one side or the other by exploiting the emerging tensions in the bourgeois establishment. This is an exercise in diplomatic cretinism, which relegates the Greek working class to the role of passive spectators.

Nevertheless, governments that intend to mediate between labour and capital often find themselves having to mobilise their working class base to “encourage” concessions from capital. The corollary of this is that the government also has to discipline the working class in order to convince capital that it is the only force that stands between private property and the overthrow of capital’s dictatorship. Syriza, for all its appeals for international working class solidarity, and the genuinely held convictions of its leaders, will not solve this fundamental contradiction.

Although Tsipras summarises the character of a Syriza government as “not a government of profit but rather a government which protects the people and defends their interests”, his programme is to force the capitalists to accept a limit to their profits while guaranteeing their right to derive profit through the exploitation of workers.

This settlement cannot please everyone indefinitely, but it can and has won support from millions of workers who will vote for Syriza’s programme as a measure of protection against the ruling class offensive. In this situation, the aim of socialists is to help workers ensure that Syriza does not capitulate to the class enemy, but carries out its programme to the fullest extent, whilst preparing the working class for the need to go beyond the straightjacket of a government committed to ruling within the limits of capitalism.

To do this we need to develop a tactic that exposes the limitations of Syriza’s strategy without cutting us off from the workers who align themselves with the aims of a Syriza government. We have to show not only that a government of reforms is still at the mercy of the bankers and bondholders but that their rule is backed up by the Greek state – with its reactionary, pro-fascist police force and an army which has launched coups within the living memory of older Greeks.

A workers’ government

Greece needs a workers’ government, that is, one which is defended and controlled by a mobilised working class, whether or not it has a parliamentary majority. In the struggles of 2010-12, Greek workers and youth occupied workplaces, built organisations to defend themselves against police and fascist attacks and created local assemblies to coordinate local struggles. Those are the kinds of organisation that will be needed to support and defend a workers’ government but, at the time, neither Syriza nor the KKE were offering a lead to develop them from means of struggle to potential organs of power.

The protests against the closure of the public broadcaster, ERT, in August 2013 were the last united mobilisation of the Greek left. Since then, the main focus has been combatting the rise of the fascist organisation, Golden Dawn. Within that, all the left organisations and parties, including Syriza, the KKE and Antarsya, have formed their own anti-fascist structures which, in some cases, such as after the murder of the hip hop artist Pavlos Fyssas, have organised joint demonstrations. Again, these show the possibility and the need to go further; to create united front defence guards that can tackle not just the fascist gangs but the police and paramilitary forces.

The divisions within the “socialist” left and, likewise, those amongst anarchist circles, were not overcome spontaneously during the mass protests, to say nothing of any conscious tactic to overcome these divisions. Thus, in November and December, anarchist circles were still pursuing their own militant confrontations with the police around the hunger strike of one of their political prisoners, without much support from the left movement.

Equally, the KKE organised several general strikes and demonstrations with “their” trade union, PAME, consciously separately from other organisations of the left. At the same time, Syriza oriented itself very strongly towards electoral success and developing a base in the unions without strengthening the social movements or playing a leading role in them.

All of this has led not only to a weakening of the resistance but to the lack of any perspective of resistance. Today, probably hundreds of thousands of Greeks are organising their own social structures, from clinics and childcare to soup kitchens but without these being seen or used as the beginning of a “counter-power” and the self-organisation of the class.

Lastly, the two main trade union confederations, GSSE and ADEDY have seen a massive loss of influence. Mass unemployment, 28 percent of all workers, 55 per cent of youth, and mass sackings have meant that union struggles have almost completely disappeared from the landscape.

If a Syriza government tries to impose its most radical measures it will face a concerted attack from its class enemies both inside and outside Greece. With a government between a rock and a hard place, it is the task of socialists to prepare the working class both in Greece and in Europe to be harder on Syriza than the Troika is.

In the event of a Syriza government, other left “Communist” parties and MPs must defend it against the attacks of the EU, Greek capital and/or the Greek fascists, just as they should mobilise the class in order to ensure and oversee the implementation of Tsipras’s electoral promises.

Syriza has proposed participation in a “left government” to the KKE and Antarsya, just as they did in 2012. In 2015, they got the same answer, No. Clearly, the KKE and Antarsya know well enough that they have little to set against the electoral dominance of Syriza.

The policy of the KKE is truly scandalous. For it, the fact that Syriza does not demand an exit from the EU is evidence of further subordination to EU imperialism. For the KKE, an exit from the EU and the euro is the only way to overcome the crisis. What would then become of Greek capital and to what extent the reintroduction of the drachma would revive the economy remains completely unanswered, they probably continue to have hopes that a progressive element of the non-monopolistic Greek bourgeoisie will revive the economy and join them in a popular front government.

Instead of such a reactionary utopia, the revolutionary left needs a tactic by which, together with the left currents within Syriza, they can support a Syriza government against the ruling class and the European Union but, at the same time, push it forward and confront it directly with the demands of the working class.

The attitude of socialists towards a Syriza government can be summed up as: full support for those measures which benefit the working class combined with independent workers’ mobilisation to carry through those measures which the government will not.

Clearly, a Syriza government would not be a genuine workers’ government. It would be a “bourgeois workers’ government”, one which promises to improve the conditions of the working class and popular masses but, at the same time, does not want to challenge private property and the bourgeois state. Faced with this, the key task for revolutionaries is to utilise and sharpen the inevitable social contradictions such a government and its supporters will face in order to prepare the conditions to break workers from the reformist Syriza leadership and lay the conditions for the creation of a genuine workers’ government.


Greece’s creditors demand European governments act to protect their lucrative loans. Socialists must do everything we can to stop our rulers sabotaging a Syriza government or bending it to their will. Whether it ends in a victory or defeat, the experience of Syriza will have enormous ramifications far beyond the borders of Greece. It has already enthused many on the left, previously disheartened by the failures of the anti-austerity movement, whether the one-day protests of the unions or the square occupations.

The party’s lightning rise from the radical fringes of politics to a force that commands the loyalty of millions, like the rise of Podemos in Spain, shows that, in times of deep and prolonged crisis for capitalism, dramatic changes are possible. If there is a leadership to point a way forward. Left critics of Syriza, including ourselves, must not, however, stand on the sidelines predicting inevitable betrayal and defeat.

A few years ago, it seemed that the working class was doomed to see its political parties implement austerity while its union leaders blocked all effective resistance, resistance that would challenge the capitalist parties for political power. Though Syriza is no revolutionary party, its rise in response to the militancy of Greek workers and youth shows that this dire situation need not be accepted fatalistically. New parties armed with new strategies can be created if only we have the will and courage to do so. Nor is it inevitable that they must be reformist parties like Syriza. Indeed, if they are, and if it is the strategy of compromise and negotiation that wins out, then even more severe defeats lie ahead.

So, if the Greek workers elect a Syriza government, the only effective tactic is to back it against its enemies, who are also our enemies, while preparing, inside and outside Syriza, a revolutionary political alternative, a party of class struggle, a party of workers power.

Today, the European left must stand solidly on the side of Greek workers. This means not only demonstrations in their support but relaunching the most powerful fight for a real socialist alternative to crisis, poverty, capitalism and the EU. This EU is the EU of capital and austerity, a revolutionary left must fight for workers’ governments right across Europe, and for a united socialist states of the continent, not a retreat into national isolation.

Is this possible? Yes it is. In Italy and Belgium in November and December, hundreds of thousands took action against impending cuts in wages and social benefits in a general strike that proves that the European working class remains capable of fighting. Greece should inspire us.

For the bosses and the workers across the continent; from stock exchanges to picket lines, everyone has a major stake in the choice that Greece’s workers and popular masses make.

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