The role of the left in SYRIZA

June 5, 2013

The Coalition of the Radical Left, or SYRIZA, shook Greece and all of Europe one year ago with its second-place finishes in two national elections one year ago. With a program of rejecting the "Memorandums"--agreements between the Greek government and the "troka" of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund to bail out Greece's financial system, but only on the condition that the government impose savage austerity measures that have shredded working class living standards--SYRIZA came within a few percentage points of winning both times. It pushed the Greece's main center-left party, PASOK, which led the government for most of the years since the Second World War, into a distant third place.

SYRIZA held a conference at the end of last year to turn the coalition into a permanent formation. At the conference, a moderate majority and a minority left wing crystallized. Meanwhile, the struggles of the Greek working class and the poor against austerity continue.

Sotiris Martalis is a member of Internationalist Workers Left, or DEA, one of the groups that founded SYRIZA a decade ago. At a March meeting of the Fourth International's International Committee, Sotiris discussed the direction of SYRIZA in the context of a broader discussion among European radicals about how the left should organize. The speech was first published in English translation by International Viewpoint and appears here in an edited version.

I BRING you fraternal greetings from DEA, the Internationalist Workers Left Organization, which forms part of SYRIZA.

I want to begin by clarifying one point: I do not intend in my contribution to provide a "model solution" to the question of the so-called broad parties. I will try, with the little time I have, to describe the difficulties we face and the manner in which we respond to them within SYRIZA.

There are six points that I want to highlight.


1. SYRIZA has a history going back more than a decade. Its foundation, in 2001, was the result of the conjunction of two elements. The first was the united action of revolutionaries and reformists in the movement against the effects of capitalist globalization. The second concerned the left reformist party Synaspismos' search for electoral alliances to overcome its weakness--the party risked not reaching the threshold of 3 percent necessary to have seats in the Greek parliament.

These two elements gave us the possibility of implementing a united front tactic. I use the term "united front tactic" because, in reality, because of the difference in size between the reformists and the radical left, we can't speak of a united front in the traditional sense of the term--in the sense of that was employed in the 1920s and 1930s.

SYRIZA supporters gather in the streets to mark the results of a second parliamentary election
SYRIZA supporters gather in the streets to mark the results of a second parliamentary election (Mehran Khalili)

During the last decade, SYRIZA has gone through numerous different phases. There has been united action in movements like the one which succeeded in 2007 in blocking efforts to change the Constitution to allow the privatization of the universities, or the youth revolt that began in December 2008 with the killing of a 15-year-old student, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, but also took place in a wider climate of corruption, diversion of public money and beginnings of a social crisis.

SYRIZA has also known divisions, as during elections to the European parliament in 2004 or during the national elections in 2010. These divisions took place when the reformist leadership attempted to create an alliance with the social democratic party PASOK.

SYRIZA can't then constitute a general model if we consider this coalition of independent forces, with their newspapers and their organizations, outside the context of the social and political movement of resistance. Another factor is the political support won by the left in Greece. This--and I speak of the left, not the center left--represents around 33 percent of the national vote, comprised of SYRIZA, the Communist Party, or KKE, and ANTARSYA, the Front of the Anti-Capitalist Left. Beyond this, there are around 45 radical anti-capitalist organizations.


2. If we want to explain SYRIZA's success, we should keep in mind that the working class in Greece has waged many struggles in recent years to defeat the policies of the ruling class: more than 29 general strikes, most lasting for 24 hours and three lasting for more than 48 hours; the occupation of government buildings; the movement of the Greek indignados, who occupied the parks, including Syntagma Square outside parliament in Athens; the "We will not pay!" movement against unjust taxes, price increases for public transportation, tolls to use the motorways and privatized roads, and so on.

There has been a falloff in struggle in late 2012 and early 2013, but we shouldn't ignore the significant struggles that took place in this period, involving transit workers and seafarers, peasants who demonstrated in Athens during a general strike on February 20, as well as the plans already underway for a strike in education in early March. We should also mention the movements that brought down two governments: the PASOK government of Georges Papandreou and the government that followed, led by the the technocrat and financier Lucas Papademos.

Despite these struggles, it is true that the resistance movement has not succeeded in reversing the policy of the ruling class. That is why it sought to do so through the ballot box when the situation presented itself in May and June 2012. Working people used SYRIZA as a tool to this end--and not the KKE, which had previously recorded votes twice as high as SYRIZA's totals.

Three reasons lie behind the vote for SYRIZA:

SYRIZA was active in the movement, unlike the KKE, which applied a profoundly sectarian policy.

SYRIZA provided a political alternative with its demand for a government of the left.

SYRIZA called for left unity--in particular, unity between SYRIZA, the KKE and ANTARSYA, despite their differences, and starting from the needs expressed by the popular majority.

We should also not forget that during the inter-election period. from May to June, SYRIZA firmly resisted all pressure to join a government of "national salvation" with the bourgeois parties.


3. It seems right now that working people see SYRIZA as a political instrument they can use, in addition to the struggles they participate in. The comrades of the KKE and ANTARSYA made an elementary error in seeing SYRIZA's proposal for a left government as something that would simply manage capitalism. They use an example the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) in Cyprus, which was defeated in February 2013 elections, when former President Demetris Christofias did not seek reelection, leading to AKEL's defeat by the right-wing candidate Nicos Anastasiades.

But unlike AKEL and other center-left parties, SYRIZA has argued for the transitional objective of a left-wing government in the specific situation of Greece on the basis of programmatic agreement of all parts of SYRIZA on cancelling the Memorandums--the three austerity plans concocted by the troika and a sector of the Greek ruling class and overturning the austerity policies of the ruling class.

The discussion should, consequently, be about the conditions which should allow us to attain the objective of a left government as result of a wave of struggles while keeping in mind the fact that such a government is not a final objective, but a transitional step which will strengthen the confidence of workers and their allies in themselves and in the power of the workers in struggle.


4. It is obvious that the reformist leadership of Synaspismos has an approach which envisages the constitution of a left government as the result, above all, of purely electoral tactics. That is why it adapts to the pressure of "realism" and tries to win votes by approaching social democratic political forces--or more precisely, those originating from a social liberal politics.

With the aim of conducting a clear, transparent and loyal opposition to this tactic, we formed, at the last conference of SYRIZA, the Left Platform, which brings together the "left current" of Synaspismos and the forces of the "RProject," creating a left opposition supported by 27 percent of delegates at the conference.

RProject represents a quarter of the Left Platform. It amounts to a "red" network of activists and organizations which lead struggles not only in the national political field, but also inside the local structures of SYRIZA and workplaces, as well as in the trade unions, where a reorganization is taking place under the pressure of the economic crisis and the government's attacks. The RProject is trying to build an alliance of forces sufficient to constitute an obstacle to the adaptations and oscillations of the reformist-oriented leadership of Syriza.

Our basic program for Syriza is:

Unilateral cancellation of the Memorandums, as well as cancellation of the loan agreements, and the overturning of all the austerity laws;

An increase in wages and pensions in a manner that takes account of the depth of the crisis, plus defense of public schools and hospitals;

Nationalization of the banks and the renationalization of the big public enterprises that have already been privatized--like, for example, an important part of the port of Piraeus, which is now in the hands of the Chinese enterprise COSCO;

Increased taxation on capital;

A fight for the return of capital that has left the country;

Control over capital flows.

This amounts, in fact, to a transitional program, opening the possibility for the working class and its allies to win a clear majority behind advancing in the direction of the overthrow of capitalism. This socialist perspective should emerge with more clarity during further struggles--and within the debates that should accompany them--on both the national level and the European level.


5. The main difference with the comrades of ANTARSYA, a coalition of anti-capitalist groups that got 0.33 percent of the vote in June 2012, revolves around the fact that SYRIZA does not support an exit from the eurozone or the European Union.

ANTARSYA's main argument is that the euro is an instrument of the ruling class, and therefore Greece must leave the currency. We think that Syriza holds a more correct position: "Not a single sacrifice for the euro."

Let us leave aside the fact that a minority section of the ruling class supports an exit from the eurozone, hoping that, through a currency devaluation that would follow, it can reduce wages still further.

Also, can anyone give me an example of a currency that is not an instrument in the hands of the ruling class? I don't even want to focus on the effects of an exit from the euro that will favor of sectors of the Greek economy with significant funds outside Greece and that will harm the working class, small peasants and so on.

The left should begin the difficult resistance to austerity and not involve itself in the dilemmas--whether to keep the euro or go back to the drachma--of the ruling class. If, in addition, we do exit the euro, it must be accompanied by a powerful movement in defense of wages and pensions, and with a strategy of extending the struggle beyond Greece, synchronizing it, in different forms and rhythms, with other countries of the so-called periphery, and by building links with the most combative sectors of the German and French working classes, among others.


6. My final point concerns the fight against the fascists--the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn. This amounts to a significant front of struggle. The essential point is that the fascists have failed, at least up until now, to win the streets and public areas, apart from specific actions.

But maintaining this advantage depends on one thing: it is necessary that the initiative remains in the hands of the left, which has succeeded, for now, in responding with united action in this area--with the exception, once again, of the KKE, which acts in a sectarian and manner, although debates have begun within it about this policy.

The struggle must be organized on an international and European scale. Wherever the chain is broken, the conditions will exist to build a stronger European left. If the weak link is Greece, I hope that we will respond well to win the first stage, which will require massive solidarity to be consolidated.

This speech was first published at International Viewpoint.

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