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The Greek left tradition and the SYRIZA phenomenon

Platypus Review #86 | May 2016

AFTER THE OUTBREAK of the global economic crisis in 2008, Greece was actually the first Euro-area country where the neoliberal “shock doctrine” was imposed. (I thank Professor Vassilis Droucopoulos for his comments on an earlier version of this article.) This was an attempt to place the fallout of the systemic capitalist crisis on the shoulders of working people. These extreme austerity policies were disputed. A series of mass demonstrations and strikes ensued. The most important result of these mass movements was the fast disintegration of the political system, mainly manifested in the unravelling of the Socialist Party (PASOK). This party was in power for more than twenty years during the last three decades and negotiated a Troika (IMF-ECB-EU) “stabilization program” for the country that introduced class-ridden austerity policies. Mass movements and popular demonstrations finally led to national elections in May and June 2012, through which the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) became the major opposition party in Parliament. In the early national elections on January 25, 2015, SYRIZA achieved a stunning victory with 36.3% of the vote, winning 149 parliamentary seats of the total 300 and, eventually, leading a coalition government with the Independent Greeks (ANEL), a conservative anti-austerity party.

After six months in office, the SYRIZA-ANEL government agreed on a third financing program by the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) and the IMF, which was connected to a new austerity Memorandum. The noncompliance with the new party policy of twenty-five SYRIZA MPs, who later formed a new anti-austerity parliamentary group called Popular Unity (LAE), led to the resignation of the government and to new national elections on September 20, 2015. SYRIZA won again with 35.4% of the vote, taking 145 seats and forming a new coalition government with ANEL. LAE, with only 2.86% of the vote, did not reach the 3% electoral threshold and remained without any representation in Parliament.

This article examines the shifts in the policies of the Greek left, focusing on the “SYRIZA Phenomenon,” from the standpoint of a Marxist approach to (European) capitalism, relations of class representation, and the historical tradition of the Greek left.

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras is applauded by lawmakers before addressing his parliamentary group meeting in Athens on July 10, 2015. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras is applauded by lawmakers before addressing his parliamentary group meeting in Athens on July 10, 2015. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

SYRIZA’s history, contradictions, and mutation

SYRIZA was formed in 2004 as a coalition of SYN (a left party formed in 1992 and stemming mainly from the Eurocommunist tradition) and twelve other political groups of the Left, at least five of which belonged to the so-called “revolutionary extra-parliamentarian left.” The formation of SYRIZA was the final step of a process that started in the year 2000, when most of the political groups that later formed SYRIZA co-existed in the Greek and European alter-globalization movement shaped during that period. Several thousand Greek leftists participated in the Genoa “Group of Eight” Summit protest, from July 18 to July 22, 2001, possibly the biggest European alter-globalization demonstration ever, the majority of whom were members of the political organizations that later formed SYRIZA.

SYRIZA started as a fairly loose coalition of different left currents, whose coexistence allowed them to be represented in the Greek central political scene and Parliament as an opposing left pole to the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). A turning point in SYRIZA’s history was the national elections of 2012, when it became the main opposition in Parliament. It was transformed into a unitary party comprised of different ideological streams in July 2013 on the basis of the resolution of its first founding Congress.1 However, SYRIZA never developed a new synthesis, remaining a “party of political unity” that resembled a united front of different fractions and influential cadres.

Although comprising more than ten tendencies or streams of thought, SYRIZA practically derives from four major traditions: (a) the left post-Stalinist tradition (which contains tensions between former pro-Soviet and Eurocommunist sub-traditions), (b) the extra-parliamentarian left tradition (which contains tensions between the Trotskyist, the Maoist, and the radical Eurocommunist sub-traditions), (c) the tradition of the alter-globalization movement of the early 2000s, which practically influenced most parts of SYRIZA, as all parties and political groups that formed SYRIZA had participated in the Greek and European Social Forums, and (d) the reformist social-democratic tradition, which was strengthened after the 2012 elections and the disintegration of PASOK that followed. As SYRIZA became at that time the main opposition in Parliament, a part of its leadership, mostly stemming from the post-Stalinist KKE or/and SYN tradition, adopted a reformist stance, contending that the party should shift towards “pragmatism” in order to win the next elections. A new narrative emerged within the party that distinguished between the “old SYRIZA of 4%” and the “new SYRIZA of 27%” (after the 2012 elections). This tendency was further strengthened by the fact that many former PASOK cadres and members entered SYRIZA.

In the June 2014 elections for the European Parliament, SYRIZA led with 26.52% of the vote. It was clear by then that SYRIZA would form, or at least be the leading partner in, the new government to come after the next national elections. Arguing in favor of “effectiveness” and “safeguarding electoral victory,” the majority of SYRIZA’s leadership started flirting with center-left politicians and small center-left political formations (e.g., with the Democratic Left, a party formed in 2010 after splitting from SYRIZA). At the same time, in the party’s official language in the mass media, the slogans and the “immediate political targets” of SYRIZA started changing. The slogan “For a Government of the Left” was gradually replaced by “Government of National Salvation”; “Redistribution of Power, Wealth and Income to the benefit of the Working Majority” was displaced by “Productive Reconstruction of the Country”; all programmatic positions regarding the democratic control of society and the economy by the people as well as the development of self-directed, co-operative productive schemes were put aside; and even SYRIZA’s proposals for taxing the rich were cast away.

This shift to pragmatism was reflected in SYRIZA’s electoral program issued in September 2014, the so-called Thessaloniki Program. As M. Lebowitz correctly argues: “In place of any anti-capitalist (let alone, socialist) measures was a National Reconstruction Plan which focused upon restarting the Greek economy through public investment and tax reduction for the middle class. Recovery and growth (along with a negotiated moratorium on debt servicing) would rescue the Greek economy and allow it to ‘gradually’ reverse all the memorandum injustices, ‘gradually’ restore salaries and pensions and rebuild the welfare state. Economically, the Thessaloniki Programme was based upon Keynesian (not even post-Keynesian) theory, and it supplemented its focus upon aggregate demand stimulation by proposed measures to deal with the humanitarian crisis (e.g., subsidies for meals, electricity, medical care and public transit for the poor and unemployed).”2

It is true that a lot of SYRIZA cadres, members, and supporters considered the Thessaloniki Program to be a tactical move, in the sense that it described only the first steps of a radical program of democratic change that would evolve gradually, albeit steadily. This program was supposed to stop austerity policies and secure a deal with the official lenders of the country (the EU, ECB, and IMF, which were called the “Troika” and are now referred to as the “Institutions”) in order to cover the financing needs of the Greek public sector. However, a few weeks after the formation of the new government, and especially after signing the preliminary agreement of February 20, 2015, it became clear that Greece’s leaders were simply proposing a milder version of the austerity Memorandum in their negotiations with the “Institutions.”

In the government formed by Alexis Tsipras after the January 25 elections, several important ministers were appointed, including the Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis, who did not originate from SYRIZA or any left tradition. Shortly after his appointment as Minister of Finance, Varoufakis repeatedly declared publically that seventy percent of the Memorandum (the austerity “financial stability program”) was favorable for Greece.3 However, the SYRIZA government did not come to power supporting seventy percent of the Memorandum. If SYRIZA had made such a pledge, it probably would not be playing the key role on the parliamentary map today. Such notions redefined the SYRIZA mandate and amounted to an attempt to change the social alliances that had supported the historical experiment of a left government in Greece. Moreover, the Ministry of Finance publically distanced itself from SYRIZA’s rationale. In its National Programme of Reforms (Ministry of Finance, April 2015), all the main arguments of the neoliberal austerity agenda were adopted, including the assertions that economic growth relies on exports and that all wage increases undermine competitiveness.

Furthermore, the Minister of Finance himself always spoke in favor of a strategy that would supposedly lead Greece to a “growth stage” benefitting all classes. His declaration at the Twentieth Banking Forum of the Union of Greek Banks on April 22, 2015, was characteristic: “In the year 2015, after five years of catastrophic recession, where ultimately everybody is a victim, there are only a few cunning people who have profited from this crisis. The era in which a government of the Left was by definition contrary to the milieu of entrepreneurship has passed. If we get to a point when there is growth, we can start talking again about conflicting labour and capital interests. Today we are together.4 In the midst of such an ideological and political climate, the Greek government reached an intermediate agreement with the lenders on February 20, 2015, which included a four-month extension of the Memorandum signed by the previous government.

The February 20 agreement made clear that the Greek government was negotiating within the European neoliberal austerity framework, and merely seeking a “fig leaf” to conceal its compromises. This “fig leaf,” which has often been described as the “red lines” of the Greek government, consisted of a moderate program of “ending the humanitarian crisis” (through such measures as energy subsidies and food-stamps for the very poor) and rejecting any direct nominal reduction of wages and pensions, while maintaining the existing restrictions with regard to mass lay-offs and low VAT coefficients for certain mass products in the Greek islands. This became even clearer after the promulgation, on June 5, 2015, of the Greek proposals to the “Institutions.” The government surrendered its program (even the Thessaloniki Program) and was attempting to get an agreement that would simply leave intact the existing neoliberal institutional and economic framework, with no further austerity measures affecting low and medium incomes.

However, the “Institutions” never accepted the Greek government’s “red lines” and shaped a plan to further finance Greece while deepening the existing neoliberal policies (including wage and pension cuts), eventually codified as the “Juncker plan.” The negotiations went on for five more months, during which time the Greek government did not receive any of the owed tranches by its lenders, whereas it continued paying all of its debt obligations to the ECB and the IMF, totaling over seven billion euros and more than three percent of GDP, until the final depletion of all public funds and the delay—by necessity since the government had practically run out of cash—of Greece’s payment to the IMF on June 30, 2015. On June 26, the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras proclaimed a referendum on the “Juncker plan,” and, on June 28, the government decided to impose restrictions on the withdrawal of deposits from Greek banks (the “bank holiday” and “capital controls”), as the ECB refused any increase in the Emergency Liquidity Assistance provided to the Greek banks, which could have met the needs of the anxious depositors who withdrew their savings after the proclamation of the referendum.

The election campaign for the referendum had clear class and social characteristics, which had not been seen in Greek politics for decades. There were two “Greeces” fighting each other. On one side, there were roughly the poor, the wage-earners, the unemployed, and many small entrepreneurs fighting for No, while on the other side were the capitalists, the managerial class, the higher ranks of the state, and so on, agitating for Yes. Ultimately, a broad coalition of the social majority saw the referendum as a chance to express their commitment to opposing austerity and neoliberalism. The Greek people voted with the banks closed and in an atmosphere of fear in which it was routinely declared that voting No would lead to disaster. There was also intense word-of-mouth blackmail from employers pressuring workers to vote Yes. Yet, despite this fear and propaganda, 61.3% voted No.

The Greek government transformed the No vote of the Greek people into a Yes vote in Parliament, in consensus with the conservative and center-left opposition and, on July 13, 2015, signed an agreement with the “Institutions” in Brussels which practically duplicated the “Juncker plan.”5 The government itself described the agreement as the result of “blackmail” by the dogmatic European elites6 and a “defeat” due to the negative relations of forces in the “struggle” between Greece and the “Institutions.” However, thirty-two out of the 149 SYRIZA MPs, mostly members of the party’s “Left Platform,” voted in Parliament against the agreement, while six abstained from voting. Finally, on August 20, 2015, the Prime Minister decided to resign in order that new elections would be proclaimed. In response, twenty-five SYRIZA MPs, under the leadership of former Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, broke away and formed a new party, Popular Unity (LAE).

The official SYRIZA approach to the negotiations and the “demands of the Institutions” perceived austerity and the Memoranda either as simply “an economic mistake,” in the sense that they are not able to boost growth, or as an attack on the Greek economy and society by “foreign interests.” Within this framework, the final capitulation of SYRIZA to the “Institutions” was interpreted as a “heroic fall in an uneven battle” that can eventually be reversed through “equivalent measures,” such as combating corruption and reforming the state, put forward by the “left government.”

Is austerity a “false policy”?

The question that arises from the above analysis is the following: why have the European “Institutions” never deviated from their austerity agenda, at least since the outbreak of the global financial and economic crisis in 2008? Furthermore, why did the Greek capitalist forces and their allies fight with such a fanatic frenzy for the Yes vote in the July 5 referendum in support of the “Juncker plan” and a third Memorandum?

The answer is clear: Austerity is not a “false policy” but rather a class strategy for promoting the interests of capital against those of workers, professionals, pensioners, and economically vulnerable groups. In the long run it aims at creating a labor model consisting of fewer rights and social protections, low and flexible wages, and the absence of any meaningful bargaining power for workers. On the surface, austerity appears as a strategy for reducing entrepreneurial costs. It reduces the labor costs of the private sector, increases profit per (labor) unit cost, and therefore boosts the profit rate. It is complemented by economy in the use of “material capital” and by institutional changes that, on the one hand, enhance capital mobility and competition and, on the other, strengthen the power both of managers in enterprises and of security holders in society. As regards fiscal consolidation, austerity gives priority to budget cuts over public revenue, reduces taxes on capital, dismantles progressive tax systems, and downsizes the welfare state. However, these “burdensome costs” for the capitalist class maintain the living standard of society’s working majority.

The institutional arrangement of the Eurozone, with the ECB deprived of the power of being a lender of last resort, deliberately reinforces neoliberal policies. Member states will not always have the necessary liquidity to pay off bondholders, as is currently the case with Greece. This makes the downsizing of the welfare state a precondition for financial solvency. The ruling European elites have thus voluntarily acquiesced to a high degree of sovereign default risk in order to consolidate their neoliberal strategies. In other words, they have jointly decided to exploit the crisis as a means to further neoliberalize state governance.

The continuation of austerity is always bound up with the relation of contending social forces. Capitalist societies, similar to the inner workings of an enterprise, are battlefields of antagonistic interests. As Karl Marx observed on the limits of the working-day: “The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible … On the other hand … the laborer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here therefore an antinomy, of right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchange. Between equal rights force decides.”7

Beyond certain limits, the subjection of all of social life to the unfettered function of markets and the dictate of profitability may be a “political risk” for the neoliberal establishment, since it can trigger uncontrolled breakdowns and disruptions.8 This “political risk” was a strong weapon in the hands of the Greek working class, SYRIZA, and the government, and it could have been used to stop austerity and to guarantee an agreement with the lenders that did not violate the January 25 mandate. However, this could only have been achieved under one condition—namely, that SYRIZA and the government maintained the class partisanship of its program and the strategy of “people before profits.” This strategy pointed in an anti-capitalist direction, redistributing income and power in favor of labor; enhancing the welfare state, democracy, and popular participation in decision making; radically reforming the tax system (so that capital and the wealthy strata of society finally bore the appropriate burden); and implementing radical domestic institutional changes that establish a new basis for the allegiance of the subordinate classes. However, as already discussed, this strategy was abandoned in the summer of 2014 after SYRIZA was victorious in the elections for the European Parliament.

The evolution of SYRIZA towards the center-left and the new political landscape after the September 2015 national elections

From its very beginning, Social Democracy conceived of capitalism as a system that can be politically managed to be beneficial for both capital and labor. In the words of Eduard Bernstein in 1899: “Democracy is in principle the suppression of class government, though it is not yet the actual suppression of classes.”9 On the basis of this approach, Social Democracy slid from its historic strategy of the “peaceful transition to socialism” toward welfare-state politics and Keynesian demand-side macroeconomic growth policies, and, eventually, from there to center-left neoliberal pragmatism.

Social Democratic and center-left parties went so far as to attempt to refute the notion of capitalism’s inherently exploitative and contradictory character—the notion that it is a system of class power based on the exploitation (i.e., the extraction of surplus value) of the laboring class by the capitalist class. These political parties are aware of the reality of inequality and social exclusion but attribute it to the hegemony of the “counterproductive” financial system and to “false” policies, and not to the class structure of the capitalist economy. Therefore, they do not aim at promoting mass movements and at curtailing the class power of capital (which would mean the exacerbation of social conflicts) but rather at “stabilizing the economy.”10 These parties pursue the capitalist strategy of profit maximization as a presupposition of increased investment, and they inevitably creep toward neoliberalism since they understand the maintenance of capitalist profitability to be the necessary precondition for achieving “social justice.”

Instead of putting the interests and the power of working people above the bourgeois rhetoric of “the common interest,” SYRIZA finally complied with capitalist “reality,” which emanates from the internal “laws” of “economic growth” (i.e., the “laws” of capital accumulation on an expanded scale). Additionally, by signing the new Memorandum, SYRIZA agreed to clear Greek institutions and the labor market of the “rigidities” stemming from the workers’ past victories and gains. SYRIZA as a governing party is thus in a process of transformation into a neoliberal center-left party practically belonging in the camp of contemporary Social Democracy.

The success of SYRIZA in the September 2015 national elections has to do, on the one hand, with the political “inertia” of the “lesser evil” (a majority of the working classes still believes that SYRIZA clearly differentiates itself in a positive manner from the “old political system”) and, on the other, with the lack of a clear political alternative. The political narrative of LAE (as well as, to a large extent, that of KKE) bases itself on a statist-economistic argument, which in many aspects is similar to that of governing SYRIZA: “We have the plan to stop austerity, as a prerequisite for the productive restructuring of the economy.” The economistic bent of LAE’s political intervention can be fathomed from the importance given to acquiring a national currency (as a decision to be taken by a prospective progressive government). The introduction of a new national currency is seen as a means for boosting the competitiveness of the Greek economy in the international arena. There is a case to be made as to whether currency devaluation can guarantee the same level of (labor and material) cost reduction, but with lower unemployment, as the type of “internal devaluation” pursued at present under austerity policies. However, it is clear that devaluation is mainly seen as a means of favoring national capitalist interests (the competitiveness of the domestic economy) and not from a socialist or anti-capitalist perspective.

SYRIZA remains predominant in the Greek political scene. However, it is no longer a movement of the radical left. After its two electoral victories in seven months, “order prevails” again in Greece and Social Democracy continues to hold up half the sky. |P


  1.  The political resolution of the first Congress of SYRIZA: <http://www.syriza.gr/article/id/53894/The-political-resolution-of-the-1st-congress-of-SYRIZA.html#.Vb9GBov9Ld4> (last visit August 2015). Also <http://links.org.au/node/3466>.  

  2.  Michael A. Lebowitz, “Social Democracy or Revolutionary Democracy: Syriza and Us,” The Bullet, Socialist Project, e-bulletin No 1149, http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/1149.php.  

  3.  Varoufakis declared on February 9, 2015: “We will implement deep reforms in coordination with the OECD, which is why its secretary general Mr. Gurria is coming to Athens tomorrow in order to help us design these reforms and control their implementation in a transparent way. To these reforms we will add about 70% of the reforms or commitments that have already been laid out in the current memorandum. As wise people, we don’t object to these reforms as long as the other 30% of reforms, which we deem unacceptable, are either suspended or removed.” See <http://investmentwatchblog.com/greece-eu-medicine-is-toxic-fm-varoufakis-slams-eu-austerity-programme/#T7Lcg9pYPRzdoLjv.99>.  

  4.  Video available online at <http://tsak-giorgis.blogspot.gr/2015/04/blog-post_770.html>.  

  5.  Full Statement of Eurosummit Agreement with Greece 7/13/2015: <www.consilium.europa.eu/.../20150712-eurosummit-statement-greece/>.  

  6.  The Greek government alleged that if it had not accepted the agreement the “Institutions” would have proceeded in expelling Greece from the Euro-area, a development for which the country was not prepared. The same argument was put forward after the February 20 intermediate agreement. However, Gerry Rice of the IMF clearly stated in a press communiqué on July 23, 2015, that “as we’ve said before repeatedly, our baseline assumption has always been that Greece would remain a member of the euro area.” <https://www.imf.org/external/np/tr/2015/tr072315.htm>.  

  7.  Karl Marx, Capital. Vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1990), 344. Emphasis added.  

  8.  As Franklin D. Roosevelt stated in his speech at Madison Square Garden, New York City on October 31, 1936: “We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.”  

  9.  Eduard Bernstein, Evolutionary Socialism (Schocken Books: New York, 1961), 143. Rosa Luxemburg criticized this approach as follows: “Bourgeois legality (and parliamentarism as the legislature in process of development) is nothing but the particular social form in which the political violence of the bourgeoisie, developing its given economic basis, expresses itself.” Cited in: Tony Cliff, Rosa   Luxemburg (1959), <https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1959/rosalux/>. Also in Rosa Luxemburg, Gesammelte Werke Vol. 3 (Ost-Berlin), 361ff. See also, Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism (Oxford, 1978), 56­–57.  

  10.  See Wolfgang Müller & Christel Neusüß (1972), “Die Sozialstaatsillusion und der Widerspruch von Lohnarbeit und Kapital,” Prokla, Sonderheft-1, Berlin.  

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