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Syriza Congress: First cracks in a Broad Party

17 September 2013

Martin Suchanek attended the Syriza Congress in July as an international observer from the New Anticapitalist Organisation (NAO) in Germany

In last year’s elections in Greece, Syriza (The Coalition of the Radical Left) narrowly failed to gain the largest proportion of votes that would have given it the opportunity to try to form a government pledged to reject the crippling debt repayments and the austerity Memorandum dictated by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

That radical pledge was the principal reason for Syriza increasing by leaps and bounds in the years of the Greek crisis; from 4.6 percent in 2009 to16 percent in the May 2012 election and then 26.9 per cent in June 2012. Its tally of seats rose by 19 to 71.

At that time, it seemed that proposing a rejectionist coalition government of the workers’ parties was almost within Syriza’s grasp. The right wing New Democracy-led coalition, under Antonis Samaras, looked weak and the situation in the country was still highly unstable. Another election, in short order, was a distinct possibility, if not a certainty.

Moreover, since the elections, in little more than a year, Syriza has doubled its membership. The 3,552 delegates at the July Congress in Athens represented between 35,000 and 40,000 members.

As a result, leftists across Europe have begun to look to Syriza as the model for the sort of party that could really challenge the austerity governments inflicting social misery across the continent. It should be a “broad party”, in other words, it should include both reformists and revolutionaries and, above all, it should be capable of winning seats and challenging for power.

Today, however, the Samaras government is still in office. True, it was faced by a major crisis when it tried to shut down the state television company, but it weathered that storm as it has others. For the time being, it has stabilised the situation. In no small part this is because Syriza has not fought for a strategy of direct action and mass resistance against austerity. It has not set out to act as a leadership of the class struggle. Indeed, its leader, Alexis Tsipras, whom the German media dubbed “the most dangerous man in Europe”  before the elections, pledged to act as a loyal, parliamentary opposition as soon as they were over. He has been as good as his word.

Since then, Tsipras has been backpedaling on the pledges of the 2012 election campaigns, explaining away the radicalism of the slogans he used then, and re-interpreting the ambiguities he carefully embedded in them. Now he makes it clear that he has no intention of unilaterally repudiating Greek debt or the memorandum with the Troika (the European Commission, the IMF and the European Central Bank), but rather wants to renegotiate their terms. Above all, he wants Greece to stay in the euro zone.

In January, at the prestigious US Brookings Institution, he asked, “Is there really a reason for somebody to be afraid of the left in Greece today? I heard the person who spoke before me saying that I represent the radical left. But how are we really radical?”

He then went on to characterise as “scaremongers” those who say that Syriza, if it comes to power, will, “rip up our agreements with the European Union and the IMF, take our country out of the euro zone, break off all of Greece’s ties with the cultured, with the civilised, West.”

This policy represents the reformist majority within Syriza, the former Euro-communists of Synaspismos. They control the party apparatus and a majority of its MPs. Electoral success has brought hundreds of full-timer posts and juicy privileges for the leaders of the party.

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to think that this has meant a decline in the popularity of Tsipras amongst the masses. Syriza, and Tsipras, still embody the hopes of millions because they are seen as the only realistic alternative to the present government.

The Congress itself was plainly planned by the leadership to present Tsipras and Syriza as a future party of government, an “Alternative for Greece” with a programme for government. Central to this, Syriza was to be refounded as a unified party. Since its foundation, Syriza had been an alliance of 14 organisations or parties. For more than a year, it has also recruited individual members and this has been the main area of rapid growth. There are now around 500 Syriza local branches organised on a district or a workplace basis.

It is noteworthy that the Left, both reformist and revolutionary, was strongly represented at the Congress, making up about a third of the delegates, and that an increasingly sharp political polarisation between left and right was evident.

Tsipras’s opening speech stressed Syriza as a party “ready for government”. He avoided any reference either to the important ongoing workers’ mobilisations, such as the occupation of the ERT television station and the general strike on July 16, or the further drastic cuts and mass redundancies impending in the public sector.

On certain major  points, the Tsipras leadership did succeed in moving Syriza firmly to the right. Instead of cancelling the debts and setting aside all payments, there is now to be a “renegotiation” and an “examination” of “legitimate” and “illegitimate” debts. Greece will stay in the Eurozone, even if that means that not all the cuts can be reversed.

The banks and major corporations are not to be nationalised but “regulated”, abandoning the demand for the nationalisation of major companies and private banks under the workers’ control, and the amalgamation of all banks into a central bank.

The slogan of a “Left Government” will now be replaced by “a government in which the left is central”. The right wing even tentatively floated the idea of a government of “national” or “social” salvation but soon realised opposition to this would be too strong. The left wing of the party, by contrast, continues to argue for a left government with only the left parties, KKE and Antarsya.

In his speech, however, Tsipras only explicitly excluded a coalition with the fascists (Golden Dawn) and any parties that collaborate with them. Decoded, that means he is prepared to form a government with PASOK.

The party leadership had a consistent majority with around two thirds of the votes. However, for Tsipras and the centre-right reformists, it was not just a matter of gaining congress majorities on key questions. Their main concern was to transform the party, which has grown massively because millions of workers hope that it will end austerity, into one that is “fit to govern”. Such a government will be obliged to save Greek capitalism, nothing less. To do that, the leadership has to remove the internal obstacle the organised Left presents to this project.

This reveals the fundamental contradiction of the “broad party”  model. Quite simply, a party, led by reformists, that wishes to govern within the framework of a capitalist economy and legality, must inevitably abandon its pro-working class promises, disillusion its own social base and, indeed, attack it.

The consequences of pursuing such a policy should be remembered, especially on the fortieth anniversary of the military coup in Chile that overthrew the elected government of President Salvador Allende.

Tsipras and Co set out to ensure that the left should lose the right to retain their own organisations, both within the party and publicly. The left were stigmatised as trying to hang on to “privileges” at the expense of “ordinary members”. In fact, the right to organise as distinct political tendencies or factions is not a privilege and it does not limit the rights of the rank and file at all.  What it does limit is the power of the MPs and the party officials who otherwise can act as the sole legitimate faction.

Tsipras was also determined to strengthen his own position by being elected party chairman directly by the congress. This would free him from control by the central committee. In this he was successful, though without the near unanimity he had anticipated. On the question of the dissolution of the inner party groups, however, the Left won a partial victory. They have only been “requested” to dissolve and in a few months this “process will be evaluated”.

There were, nevertheless, weaknesses in the tactics of the Left at the congress. Concentrating too exclusively on the issue of the dissolution of the left organisations meant that key questions of the class struggle in Greece were scarcely mentioned. These included the need to overcome the limitation of collective action to one-day general strikes. These will never bring down the government. This vital objective can be achieved only by an all out and indefinite general strike.

That inevitably raises other issues; the united front, the formation of a fighting unity of all the workers’ parties, trade unions and workers’ organisations, the creation of  councils of action to unite fragmented struggles, organising self defence against racist and fascist attacks and police provocations.

Then there is the question that a “Left government”, a government of the workers’ parties, even if it were installed as the result of a new election, would face massive obstruction, sabotage and threats to overthrow it.  How would it defend itself and carry through its programme?

More generally, this raises the necessity for a workers’ government, not necessarily based on winning a parliamentary majority, but in the context of an unlimited general strike. Such a government would have to base itself on the mobilised working class and all its democratic fighting organisations, strike committees, popular assemblies etc.

Such a government could, indeed would, be obliged to carry out a transition to the direct power of the working class. For only such a state power would have the strength to  rescue Greece from social devastation and inspire the workers of the rest of Europe to follow the Greek example.

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