Following is a statement on the recent election in Greece by the Party for Socialism and Liberation (USA).
The situation in Greece and Europe as a whole has taken a dramatic turn with the electoral victory of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) and its leader, Alexis Tsipras, as prime minister. Poor and working people in Greece, who have suffered tremendously under austerity measures that have stripped away the gains won over decades of struggle, expect the new government to deliver on its promise to end this offensive against social rights and reduce the country’s debt burden.
SYRIZA’s 40-point program calls for a complete break with austerity: reversing wage cuts, guaranteed health care for the poor, strong labor regulations and unemployment insurance, housing for the homeless, among others. At the same time, it calls for increasing taxes on the rich and their luxury items, prohibiting speculative financial derivatives, eliminating the financial privileges of the shipping industry and Church, and nationalizing private banks and hospitals. In foreign policy, it calls for closing all foreign bases, getting out of NATO and ending military cooperation with Israel.
It is unprecedented in recent history for a self-described radical leftist party to lead a government in Europe, and because of this progressives and revolutionaries around the world are closely following the situation.
The victory for SYRIZA was even bigger than opinion polls suggested. The formerly ruling, right-wing New Democracy party won just under 28 percent of the vote, compared to slightly over 36 percent for SYRIZA. The neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn came in third with 6.3 percent. PASOK, a social democratic party that used to dominate Greek politics alongside ND, was crushed, receiving less than 5 percent. Of the parties that participated in the last general election, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) was the only one other than SYRIZA to increase their share of the vote, albeit modestly, from 4.5 to 5.5 percent. Combined, an enormous 42 percent of the population voted for a radical left or communist party.
While the main development to come out of the Greek election is the ascension of SYRIZA, it must also be noted that Golden Dawn continues to attract considerable support, also benefiting from the discrediting of the Greek political establishment. Following the murder of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas by a Golden Dawn member, almost the entire leadership of the neo-Nazi movement was imprisoned on charges of leading a criminal organization. Despite what would normally be a crippling setback, the fascists only received one less seat than it did in the last parliamentary election. Golden Dawn has been able to build an especially deep base of support within the security apparatus of the state, including the police, and remains a serious threat to all progressive forces — particularly as the class struggle intensifies.
SYRIZA Leadership Moves to Reassure European Bankers
The fundamental contradiction of the moment is between the people’s desire for radical change and the institutions of capitalist rule, in Greece and the Eurozone, that are determined to prevent such change. EU leaders imposed austerity on Greece through punishing debt obligations, which SYRIZA now inherits as the head of government. All eyes are now on the country’s new leadership: will it do whatever is necessary to carry out its own program, which the people voted for and which would greatly improve the lives of millions, or will it yield to the power of the banks?
In reality, though, no maneuver by the SYRIZA leadership can solve the larger contradiction. The vast hardship caused by economic crises, depressed living conditions and capital flight cannot be resolved in the context of capitalism. Only the revolutionary transformation of society — in which working and oppressed people seize power and put the means of production under collective control — can break this cycle. The task of revolutionary Marxists is to participate in the struggle for reform in such a way that advances the working class, politically and organizationally, towards this revolutionary conclusion.
This is not the orientation of Tsipras and the top SYRIZA leadership, which has repeatedly assured the ruling classes of Europe that they seek only to reform, not to overthrow, the capitalist system. The party initially rose to prominence calling for a “government of the left” that would “tear up” the debt memorandum. Now the centerpiece of SYRIZA’s program is what they call a European Debt Conference, in which the leading European imperialist states would convene a summit that would forgive a large portion of Greece’s debt, and finance instead a “European New Deal” of public investment to spur consumption and revitalize the region’s economy.
But the “European project” has been constructed to pool the influence of imperialist powers and to facilitate the exploitation of labor by capital. Transforming the character of the European Central Bank would indeed be a gigantic step forward for the people of Greece and Europe, but is impossible without fierce continent-wide class struggles to put the working class in power.
SYRIZA’s economic policy is framed in largely social-democratic terms, suggesting that a shift away from austerity will be a win-win situation for both workers and capitalists. In a December interview, Tsipras argued that “A SYRIZA victory will break the bad spell and liberate markets. It will create a feeling of security.” This vision to “save the country in the euro,” promising that the best of both worlds can be achieved through summits and negotiations with the imperialists, has a highly disorienting effect for workers and oppressed people.
Rather than abstaining from this process, the key task for all revolutionaries is to utilize SYRIZA’s electoral victory – which has raised the hopes of millions in the country and beyond – to encourage a new wave of mass mobilization and revolutionary politics in Greece and other Eurozone countries suffering under austerity. This will at once strengthen the ability of SYRIZA to extract concessions from the EU leaders, push the elected leadership to carry out the necessary reforms they promised, and give greater confidence to those, both outside of SYRIZA and among its followers, who see the limits of reformism.
The political and class struggle enters new stage
The pressure will only grow in the coming days and weeks for SYRIZA to deepen its commitment to the “responsible” management of the system. The Tsipras government must now deal, under a deadline, with the demands of Greece’s “Troika” of creditors – the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – and the imperialist leaders of the continent, principally Germany.
Strict discipline around a unified party line and program is not a feature of SYRIZA’s organizational form, which gives considerable flexibility to leading officials to potentially violate its own program. (In the United States, the Democratic Party can pass a “progressive” program at their convention but Democratic officials can simply ignore it once in office.)
Two votes shy of a parliamentary majority, and rebuffed by the Communist Party, after the election SYRIZA announced that it was forming a government with a small right-wing party, Independent Greeks. This is a “populist” split from the formerly ruling New Democracy party that opposes the austerity program of the international bankers from a nationalist point-of-view, while espousing racist hatred towards immigrants and reactionary positions on many other social issues, including LGBTQ and women’s rights. The leader of Independent Greeks was given control over the important Defense Ministry, which oversees the armed forces.
The alliance with Independent Greeks — made from the perspective of opportunist parliamentary arithmetic — creates a clear access point for the Greek ruling class (and international capital) into the government.
The Troika, the SYRIZA leadership and the Independent Greeks, however, are not the only political actors. Because SYRIZA is a multi-tendency operation, there is an open Left Platform inside the party that aims to hold Tsipras to the more radical aspects of SYRIZA’s program. Although the democratic bodies of the party have begun to atrophy as power is concentrated around Tsipras and his inner circle of advisors, this Left Platform represented roughly 30 percent at the party’s founding congress. Its leader, Panayiotis Lafazanis, was made Minister of Production, Reconstruction, Environment and Energy.
The people’s movements in Greece also have the ability to play a decisive role, exerting pressure on and challenging Tsipras from below. SYRIZA’s strength at the voting booth is greater than its weight in the mass movement, where activists struggling for workers’, women’s, LGBTQ and immigrant rights will be alienated by every measure that betrays their support. This combined mass movement has been mobilizing in the streets and will be required to stare down the EU imperialists in any meaningful way.
There is also, of course, the well-organized and relatively large Communist Party of Greece (KKE), which is deeply rooted in the organized working class and enjoys a proud tradition of struggle. Many militants worldwide look to the KKE because it has fought the dominant “Eurocommunist” trend, which blatantly abandoned the revolutionary politics and spirit of Marxism (a trend out of which SYRIZA originally grew). With tens of thousands of members, significant electoral support and a centralized organizational model, the policies and tactics of the KKE in the coming period can have a major influence on the class struggle as a whole. It is for this reason that the KKE’s present tactical orientation must be examined and challenged.
The role of the KKE and the communists
The combined seats of SYRIZA and the KKE would have been enough to form a majority government without the participation of the Independent Greeks or any other ruling-class party. But the Communist Party refused in advance to have any kind of cooperation with SYRIZA inside or outside the parliament. They have focused instead on sharply criticizing the party’s electoral opportunism and reformism.
The KKE advances a program for the revolutionary transformation of society, leaving the EU and nationalizing all major industries under people’s control. The problem is not with this program, but that their abstentionist tactical orientation cannot help guide the masses at this critical moment to it.
It would be one thing if the masses of people were demanding that the organized working class, led by the KKE, seize power. But that is not happening and the KKE is not actively planning insurrection. The broad masses, who are moving to the left, have great expectations about reversing devastating austerity and are looking to SYRIZA’s leadership to provide this. For revolutionary consciousness and conclusions to broadly develop, the masses of people will have to go through their own political experiences that expose the inadequacy of the reformist left. This will not happen by waiting for people to learn the hard way, and then come running to the communists, which appears to be the KKE strategy.
A communist party must play the most active role alongside the people in whatever form their present struggle for reform takes, proving themselves the most sacrificing, adept and principled elements within that struggle at every stage. People who desire profound change but retain social-democratic illusions are generally not moved to follow those who correctly predicted that they would fail. More likely is demoralization or growing susceptibility to right-wing and fascist demagogy, which has historically made use of such divisions between communists and social democrats.
The KKE refusal to form any sort of united front with SYRIZA, even a highly conditional and critical one, creates a wall between the party membership and the millions who just voted for SYRIZA because they want it to succeed in reversing the bankers’ austerity. This makes it harder, not easier, to politically break SYRIZA’s rank and file away from its social-democratic leadership.
The SYRIZA reformist leadership is perfectly happy that the KKE is not pressing for a socialist/communist majority government. It lets them off the hook with their base and allows them to open negotiations with Europe’s bankers free from the taint of association with the “communist party.” But credibility of the communists does not grow by what could be perceived as the active sabotage of social-democrats. Many SYRIZA supporters will accept their leadership’s words when they are told that the communists’ sectarian refusals made right-wing compromises necessary.
In his famous 1920 polemic Left-Wing Communism: A Infantile Disorder, Lenin reviewed the Bolsheviks’ history of complex compromises, electoral united fronts with reformists, and other tactical maneuvers that were essential to winning over broad masses to the need for revolution. Leninist tactics – including the forming and undoing of temporary united fronts with non-revolutionary parties – derived from the varied and complex political struggles that were a precondition for the maturation of revolutionary consciousness.
What would the KKE lose by providing some form of critical support on the key issues of rolling back the dictates of the brutal austerity regime? It could, retaining its political independence, form a united front to achieve a parliamentary majority. This need not compel them to take cabinet positions – there is ample precedent in numerous parliamentary democracies for this. This would boost their credibility among the masses of people, and even their small minority would have considerable leverage in government because they could at any moment walk away and throw the SYRIZA leadership into crisis. Doing so at that point, if SYRIZA had clearly abandoned its program to fight austerity, would be popularly understood (and embraced) by many SYRIZA supporters.
Were the KKE to lend critical support to Tsipras’ government, pushing for radicalization at every turn, criticizing the SYRIZA leadership whenever necessary, they would almost certainly find an eager audience among a very large and politicized section of the working class, and considerable sections of SYRIZA. They would weaken the right wing by keeping the Independent Greeks out of office, and force SYRIZA’s leadership to either abandon that alliance or expose themselves.
In fact, complete abstention can only result in irrelevance at a moment when the working-class struggle against capital will revolve around legislative initiatives. Already, SYRIZA’s initial measures and promises against austerity have led to heightened financial instability, and there will be more of this in the weeks to come. This will encourage reformist leaders within SYRIZA to call for “going slow.” If the communists had joined a governing bloc clearly dedicated to overturning austerity, they would have a much larger audience and credibility to show their own way forward against the banks.
The KKE has also not offered a “united front from below” to the SYRIZA base, which would show a determination to build the struggle against austerity where it matters most: in the workplaces, the schools and communities. The KKE has given indispensable leadership to these struggles in the past, but its practice is to only mobilize its members for activities, marches and actions that it has called and leads. This is untenable in a situation where millions of people currently support a competing radical party, and the political situation urgently requires their mass mobilization. Likewise, the construction of dual-power institutions — which emerge in all revolutionary crises to express the power of the working class — is not conceivable without the participation of SYRIZA supporters.
At a time when key struggles are emerging against the criminal erosion of living standards for workers, the KKE has, in advance, ruled out many forms of united working-class struggle.
At a recent party conference, the KKE swore off the possibility — in advance — of merging or uniting with any left-wing splits from SYRIZA. This too flies in the face of a Leninist conception of tactics, and a century of working-class political experience. All revolutionary processes produce new and unexpected organizational forms, unifications and splits.
In sum, while holding out a revolutionary program, the KKE appears to have a conservative and defensive tactical orientation, aimed at keeping their own working-class membership outside the influence of SYRIZA. The other approach would be to aggressively participate and actively fight as a numerically small trend to influence the SYRIZA base of support, which now clearly numbers in the millions.
Dramatic challenges ahead
In the coming months, the SYRIZA government will face many challenges that will threaten its survival. The early elections took place because SYRIZA was able to block the election of a new president – a largely ceremonial role that requires a three-fifths majority vote in parliament. For the new government to successfully nominate a replacement – barring support from the KKE or Golden Dawn – it would need to attract the support of a new center-left party called “The River” as well as the moderate Socialist Party, in addition to Independent Greeks. This may act as yet another moderating pressure on SYRIZA.
Furthermore, the government will have to pay back 11.4 billion Euros of debt over the course of the summer, meaning that SYRIZA only has a few months to make a deal with the Troika. While the imperialist ruling classes did not desire a SYRIZA victory in general, some capitalist sectors are holding out hope that this can help move Europe away from Germany’s austerity-only approach and towards policies that seek to stabilize capitalism by stimulating demand. Tsipras’ government may be able to exploit these differences between imperialists, but time is not on its side.
The Greek working class has a tremendous history of struggle, from the anti-fascist resistance during World War II to the 1946-49 Civil War, the fight against the 1967-74 military dictatorship and on into the present day movement against austerity and the Troika. This dramatically new situation will call on every ounce of experience and organization accumulated over the years.
All progressive and revolutionary-minded people need to stand with the Greek workers as they face this enormous challenge. The banks are likely to take a hard line not because Greece’s debt is so huge and economically important, but because they are worried of a precedent of reversing austerity that could reverberate widely through Europe and be emulated next in Spain. Ultimately, the balance of forces in the international class struggle, and particularly throughout the Eurozone, will be of decisive importance.