Managing the Greek Crisis
Syriza & the Dangers of Popular Frontism
Since the outbreak of the global financial crisis and the imposition of severe austerity measures dictated by the Troika (International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission), life in Greece has become considerably harder for the mass of the population. One in five workers, and half of youth, are unemployed. Government spending, the minimum wage and unemployment benefits have all been slashed by one-fifth, and education spending and civil servants’ salaries have been cut by one-third. Pensions are shrinking while the pension contribution period has been extended by five years. Suicides are averaging 70 per month, and homelessness is widespread.
In this climate of social devastation, rooted in the irrationality of the capitalist system and Greece’s dependency on foreign capital (primarily German and French), the authority of the ruling coalition of New Democracy and PASOK has increasingly diminished. Popular support for PASOK in particular has fallen dramatically. With the political center collapsing, the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn have grown in size. This political polarization has included an enormous advance for Syriza, a reformist “far left” organization. A week before the legislative elections on 25 January 2015, a public opinion poll conducted by the newspaper Parapolitika put Syriza at 35 percent, New Democracy at 30 percent, To Potami (The River) at 7 percent, Golden Dawn and the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) each at 5 percent, PASOK at 4 percent and the Independent Greeks at 3 percent.
Syriza gained international attention when it was placed second in the June 20112 elections on the basis of advocating a reform program its leaders dubbed a “European New Deal” after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” of the 1930s. Syriza pledges to provide free electricity, housing, meal subsidies, medical care and public transport for those below the poverty line and to raise the minimum wage by 50 percent – from less than €500 to €750 per month. To fund these proposals, it promises to go after the privileges enjoyed by the Greek Orthodox Church and the shipyard owners (representing most of Greece’s richest capitalists), introduce a tax on incomes above €500,000 and increase taxes for the biggest companies. Syriza claims that after assuming office it will be able to negotiate a deal in which Greece’s international debt will “be drastically reduced and interest repayments cut” (Observer, 17 January 2015).
Syriza has postured as the champion of the exploited and has supported workers’ struggles, including that of cleaners at the Finance Ministry who struck against redundancy last year and have since camped out in tents in central Athens, occasionally clashing with the police. Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, has vowed: “We will introduce labour legislation in collaboration with the World Labour Organization repealing anti-labour memoranda legislation” (left.gr, 18 January 2015).
Despite the pro-worker rhetoric, as Syriza comes closer to the possibility of taking office, Tsipras has been softening his image and signaling that he is no threat to the Greek capitalists whose state he hopes to administer. The Observer explains:
“Aware that the vast majority want to remain in the eurozone, Tsipras, who turned 40 last year, has toned down his anti-European rhetoric. Gone are the references to ‘tearing up’ the memoranda of conditions attached to the country’s rescue programmes. Last week he went out of his way to placate German taxpayers, saying that they had ‘nothing to fear from a Syriza government’.
“‘Our aim is not for a confrontation with our partners, to get more credits or a licence for new deficits,’ he wrote in the economic daily Handelsblatt. ‘It is to stabilise the country, reach a balanced primary budget and end the bloodletting from German and Greek taxpayers.’”
In his forthcoming book, My Left, Tsipras suggests the possibility that a Syriza government could introduce its own version of austerity: “Holding to a budget balance goal is really a key point in our strategy, as it gives us the possibility to negotiate from a strong position. That said, we need to say that budget balance doesn’t mean resorting to austerity per se” (Bloomberg, 8 January 2015).
The prospect of holding office has also led Syriza to tone down its foreign policy rhetoric, as the business news agency Bloomberg notes:
“As it comes closer to gaining power in Greece, the anti-establishment Syriza party that once advocated a pullout from NATO and expulsion of the U.S. Navy from a base in Crete is moving toward the foreign-policy mainstream.… With the party holding a slim lead in the polls for the Jan. 25 election, even Syriza’s commitment to rolling back European sanctions on Russia is in question.”
No Coalition with Capitalist Parties!
A Syriza government cannot lift Greek capitalism out of its crisis. The pain inflicted on the population is likely to intensify – quite possibly resulting in mass upheavals. Greece’s ruling class has a tradition of resorting to military dictatorship to restore “order,” and it is entirely conceivable they will do so again if they find that parliamentary maneuvers are not enough to maintain social peace. The growing forces of Golden Dawn will undoubtedly play a role in the calculations of the bourgeoisie. Since Syriza has no intention of launching a serious assault on the power of the ruling class by expropriating the holdings of domestic and foreign capital, and is promising instead to somehow make capitalism work for a majority of the Greek population, it is laying the groundwork not simply for disappointed voters but for a potentially bloody outcome to the crisis.
The 35 percent of Greeks who support Syriza do not yet understand this. Beaten down, under attack on many fronts and without a genuinely revolutionary alternative, they desperately yearn for some improvements in their lives and see Syriza – untested in office but with concrete promises for reforms – as willing to fight the established powers.
It is widely expected that Syriza will win the election but fail to gain an absolute majority, and will therefore seek coalition partners in order to govern. The only other explicitly working-class party of any size, the KKE, has consistently refused to consider participation in a coalition. Syriza itself has declared it will not govern with either of the parties of the existing ruling alliance or with To Potami, a petty-bourgeois “anti-corruption” formation that has declared its willingness to form a coalition with either Syriza or New Democracy. To Potami is seen by most bourgeois commentators as a likely kingmaker, and it would be naïve to presume, particularly in light of the flexibility Tsipras has displayed on austerity, that Syriza could not find “pragmatic” rationalizations for reversing its earlier posture if forming a government required it. Notably, Syriza has failed to exclude the possibility of a coalition with the rightwing populist Independent Greeks.
Tsipras speaks vaguely of leading a “government of the left,” but Syriza has made no commitment to unite only with working-class parties, thus leaving open the possibility of entering into a popular front, a coalition with bourgeois or petty-bourgeois parties. The New York Times (20 January 2015) notes that a bourgeois coalition partner could be quite convenient for Tsipras in explaining why a government headed by Syriza is unable to carry out its promises to defend workers’ interests:
“ For Mr. Tsipras in particular, an alliance with To Potami, which has cast itself as the party of moderation and preached the need to stay in the eurozone at all costs, could be politically useful. It could help soothe the fears of creditors and financial markets that have been unnerved by earlier statements from Mr. Tsipras about renegotiating Greece’s bailout agreements. And it could provide him political cover should he need to shift away from the more radical demands of the far left wing of his party and compromise with the so-called troika.”
Whenever parties rooted in the working class have governed in coalitions with bourgeois partners, workers’ struggles have been demobilized. In some cases this has paved the way for a rightist dictatorship. In 1936, the Greek Communist Party, which had been leading a mass strike wave, abandoned class-struggle tactics in favor of seeking to form a government with the Liberal Party of Eleftherios Venizelos. The result was the brutal military dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas:
“All the major strike movements of 1936, moreover, were under the direct leadership of the Communist Party.… By 1936, on instructions from the Comintern, they had made an about face and began their ultra-opportunist course of the People’s Front. Instead of organizing the workers for decisive revolutionary action and working to draw the peasants of the countryside into the struggle, throughout the fateful months between April and August 1936, when the working class was in deep revolutionary ferment, the Stalinists busied themselves with a campaign to force the Liberal Party to organize with them a People’s Front. The Liberal Party, however, had heard its master’s voice and turned down the Stalinist offer. They were busy easing the way for Metaxas. The Stalinists wasted the whole six months in these criminal negotiations – six months that should have been employed to mobilize the broad masses for the revolutionary assault on the capitalist government. Just as in Spain, bourgeois democracy had become an illusion, a reactionary snare in Greece in 1936. The only alternatives were Metaxas or Soviet power. There existed in Greece in 1936 no third alternative.”
— “Civil War in Greece,” Fourth International, February 1945
If Syriza were campaigning as a workers’ party committed to a serious fight against the capitalists, it would rule out any possibility of a coalition with bourgeois forces. In that situation, the struggle to build a revolutionary party in Greece might best be advanced by Marxists giving critical support to Syriza in the election – that is, by pointing out the reformist core of Syriza’s program and its inability to solve the most fundamental problems faced by workers yet advocating that Syriza be put to the test of office to expose it before the eyes of the working class. Such a tactic could help in the task of politically defeating Syriza and breaking its most militant working-class supporters away to the project of a revolutionary socialist party.
But while Syriza entertains the possibility of governing with one of the minor capitalist parties, it is impossible for Marxists to extend this kind of electoral support. A coalition with the Independent Greeks or To Potami would remove even the pretense that Syriza stands for the interests of the poor, the oppressed and the working class.
Two years ago, in “Greece: A Crisis of Leadership,” we outlined the perspective around which militants in Greece can build a revolutionary alternative to Syriza:
“Greek workers need an internationalist communist party committed to the fight for proletarian power. Following the example of the Bolsheviks, such a party would advance transitional demands aimed at deepening workers’ struggles and exposing the pro-capitalist politics of the union bureaucrats and their partners in the reformist left. To address the problem of growing unemployment, revolutionaries would demand the construction of public works on a massive scale, as well as a sliding scale of wages and hours to distribute work among all those able to perform it, while also ensuring that purchasing power is not eroded by inflation. A mobilized, militant workers’ movement would demand an end to capitalist secrecy and an opening of the books of the banks and commercial and industrial enterprises to expose the massive swindles and outright theft that have helped bring Greek society to the brink of the abyss. When the imperialist financial agencies demand the dissolution of public sector companies as part of their ‘rescue’ plans, the workers’ movement must respond by mobilizing the masses to seize the means of production, transport and communication in order to lay the basis for constructing a new society in which planning replaces irrational speculation.
“A socialist revolution requires the expropriation of the capitalists – both foreign and domestic. It can only be secured by dismantling of the capitalists’ repressive apparatus, and replacing it with new institutions of proletarian rule. On this basis, the road is open for humanity to eliminate the insanity of an economy geared to maximizing private profit for the few, and create a social system dedicated to meeting the needs of all.
“A revolutionary breakthrough in Greece would, of course, immediately be targeted by every imperialist power on earth. But the victorious Greek workers could count on an enormous outpouring of enthusiastic support from billions of victims of capitalist austerity – just as the Russian workers could after their revolution in October 1917. The birth of a Greek workers’ republic would dramatically reconfigure global politics and signal the beginning of a struggle to create the Socialist United States of Europe – an event of world-historic importance.”