Turning resignation into resistance in Greece
The struggle in Greece has reached a new stage since Alexis Tsipras won the parliament's sanction for drastic new austerity measures, over the opposition of more than a quarter of MPs from his left-wing party SYRIZA and larger numbers among its rank and file.
SYRIZA won elections in January on the strength of its promise to reverse austerity measures negotiated by previous governments as a condition of the bailout of the Greek financial system by the so-called "troika" of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. The party's election mandate to reverse austerity was renewed in a July 5 referendum on the European creditors' latest proposal, when 61 percent of voters voted "no" ("Oxi" in Greek). But Tsipras' continued negotiations with the European blackmailers turned that determined "no" into a humiliating "yes." Now the left in Greece is taking stock and organizing opposition to Greece's third "Memorandum," as supporters of SYRIZA's Left Platform, which opposes Tsipras' surrender, call the agreement.
"A PYRRHIC victory against the Greek people" is how Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras described the new Memorandum. It isn't yet clear that this is the case.
At the conclusion of the Battle of Asculum in 279 BC, Greek King Pyrrhus of Epirus remarked: "One more such victory and we are undone." His army had just smashed the Romans in a struggle for control of Magna Graecia (the coastal areas of Southern Italy). Success, however, had come at great cost--several thousand of his soldiers were dead.
European leaders today are not counting their dead; they are, in fact, counting on more victories and view the strangulation of Greece as the key to their future. In an interview with the Financial Times on July 18, European Council President Donald Tusk revealed that the ruling classes' fear that any concessions to SYRIZA would galvanize a left opposition in other countries also:
I am really afraid of this ideological or political contagion, not financial contagion, of this Greek crisis...The febrile rhetoric from far left leaders, coupled with high youth unemployment in several countries, could be an explosive combination...For me, the atmosphere is a little similar to the time after 1968 in Europe. I can feel, maybe not a revolutionary mood, but something like widespread impatience. When impatience becomes not an individual but a social experience of feeling, this is the introduction for revolutions."
The creditors hope that the "SYRIZA example" now will show that the left says one thing and in office does another--just like the rest of the political establishment. They hope, by punishing the Greek population, that workers across the continent will get the message that There Is No Alternative to neoliberal Europe. Yet there also is a possibility that the integrity of the European project has been undermined by the creditors' strategy. A people wounded might not lie down and die, as the rich hope--the political contagion they fear may yet result from their own obstinate strategy.
IN THE domestic press, the attacks on the Left Platform and the SYRIZA MPs who voted against the bailout have been at a hysterical pitch since the vote on July 15. Tsipras is lauded for his "maturity" and sense of responsibility. The corollary is the old trope that the radical left are a bunch of rebellious teenagers who speak out of turn and don't know what they're doing. The message is that governing should be left to the adults that know the right time for sacrifices and how to discipline misbehaving children.
Left Platform members who voted "no" have been removed from their ministries. Parliamentary Speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou cannot be removed because her position is meant to be independent. Tsipras has asked her to resign.
The move that has provoked the most outrage from the party membership is the refusal to convene a central committee meeting. A majority of the leadership signed a statement strongly condemning the bailout, so it is in Tsipras' interest to delay any meeting. Fresh elections being held off until after the situation has "stabilized" also is a way to defer a confrontation with the party's left.
The left is accused of trying to split the party and bring down the government. This was the basis of Tsipras' appeal to representatives in the parliamentary vote on July 15. It was effective. SYRIZA MP Ioanna Gaitani reported at a Red Network meeting that the opposition within the parliamentary group is broader than indicated by the vote. (The Red Network is one of the two factions within the Left Platform of SYRIZA.)
The pressure is also reflected in statements such as Left Platform leader Panagiotis Lafazanis' that he "wholeheartedly" supports the government and the prime minister, but opposes the memorandum. Should resistance to the Memorandum mean the government falls, it will be because it followed the path of austerity, not the fault of the left, he said. The left is fighting to overturn support for the Memorandum.
A second line of attack is that the Left Platform has no plan, or if it does, it should have presented it earlier. The Left Platform actually has a well-publicized plan: the Thessaloniki program. Thessaloniki is not a set of principles thought up in the Dark Ages. It was formulated last year and announced in Greece's second-largest city. It was the basis of the party's January 25 election triumph. It is Plan A, B and C.
The difference between the right/center of the party and the left is the question of how the program would be implemented. Here, the center of the party around Tsipras insisted that it could be achieved by appealing to a Europe of democracy and fairness. The refusal to countenance an alternative when the creditors refused to budge was a fatal mistake. It is Tsipras who had no Plan B and is promising to persist with the same disastrous strategy when negotiating the next phase of the bailout.
THERE IS a more "sophisticated" argument, prosecuted by left intellectuals such as Leo Panitch and Slavoj Žižek, which provides a justification for Tsipras' actions. Panitch talks about the "war of maneuver" as though it is all maneuver and no war. The maneuver is within the narrow confines of four concrete walls that are immovable--this is the "balance of forces," and it is adventurist to try to shift them.
Žižek falls into the same trap. In an article in the New Statesmen on July 20, he wrote: "The true courage is not to imagine an alternative, but to accept the consequences of the fact that there is no clearly discernible alternative." He repeated the line from the right that there will be more misery and chaos if Greece leaves the eurozone. "The prospect of such heroic acts is thus a temptation to be resisted," he wrote.
Žižek explicitly dismisses the calls for SYRIZA to return to the grassroots on the grounds that it is not strong enough to displace the power of the Troika. He says the best Tsipras can do is exploit divisions at the top: Again, it's all maneuver.
The radical professors' admiration for SYRIZA lies in its taking office with a radical program. But the program is secondary to taking office. Any sense of how the class struggle could change the terrain or consideration of the impact of this disastrous capitulation is absent in these "Marxist" defenses of Tsipras.
The arguments also are carried out within SYRIZA. These arguments are now between those who view a government of the left as one part of a strategy to end austerity, and those who view it as an end in its own right. The latter appeals for pragmatism.
This position was advanced by a member of the party's youth wing at the Democracy Rising conference in Athens: The argument that you could have both Thessaloniki and the eurozone was useful to win the election, but if one is to be sacrificed, it must be Thessaloniki, rather than risk a party split and the loss of office. For these people, Tsipras is a better leader than Lafazanis because a party led by Lafazanis would not win elections.
The problem with such pragmatism is that it is about preserving the current balance of class forces, rather than calculating how working class forces can be augmented and the forces of reaction resisted. The forces of those in power will always be greater until the moment of the latter's imminent overthrow. This kind of pragmatism always ends in a shabby compromise--in this case, transforming the anti-austerity soul of SYRIZA into the best manager of the crisis.
THERE ARE some on the left who draw the old lessons about reform or revolution from Tsipras's backdown: SYRIZA is reformist--what we need is a revolutionary party. This is a timeless truth, but the road to a revolutionary party of some weight inside the working class is not as simple as drawing up the right program and distributing it among workers.
The new situation has posed many questions for party activists. Arguing out Tsipras' failed strategy can help cohere a wider layer of activists--both inside and outside of SYRIZA--around a clearer strategy to oppose austerity. Such opposition cannot yet be purely revolutionary, because most activists open to such arguments come from other left traditions such as Eurocommunism and Stalinism. There also are many independent leftists who for years have been involved in the trade union movement or community organizing.
This was evident at the meeting of the Red Network on July 18 and the SYRIZA branch meeting in the second district of Piraeus, which I attended last week.
The Red Network was initiated by the revolutionary Trotskyist group, the Internationalist Workers Left (DEA). There were up to 300 in attendance at the meeting. Most of those who spoke, however, were not from DEA, but independent leftists such as John Milios (a prominent Marxist economist), trade union activists from the militant teachers' union and the not-so-militant union that covers the health sector, as well as current and former members of the Left Current, the other, bigger group in the Left Platform. Members of ANARSYA, the coalition of the anti-capitalist left were also present--a testimony to the grassroots campaign work the Red Network engages in with forces outside SYRIZA, which will be important in the reshaping of the left.
People spoke about their initial shock at Tsipras' capitulation. For many who had great hope in the SYRIZA project, the first reaction was to leave and be done with it. As one activist put it to me, before you deal with the political arguments, you have to deal with people's psychological state, such is the depth of disillusionment. However, as DEA activists argued, to walk out now cedes the ground to Tsipras.
Ioanna Gaitani recounted that she received a phone call from an elderly person prior to the July 11 parliamentary vote, who asked her not to sign another Varkiza. This was the treaty that the Greek Communist Party signed with the British in 1945, which resulted in the disarmament of the resistance forces. Another speaker pointed to the example of Aris Velouchiotis, who refused to lay down his arms and went back to his local area to continue the resistance. The task now is to fight for all those who are looking for an alternative and want to continue the struggle.
The relationships built through common struggle and open debate over the last 10 years are the basis on which the Red Network can wield influence now. It has not been easy, especially in the period after the elections when people thought that Tsipras' strategy had to be given a chance. But the people who are only now concluding that the February 20 agreement was a portent of what has transpired remember that the Red Network argued against Tsipras from the beginning.
The experienced leftists within SYRIZA will not easily find the energy to start a new project from scratch, but nor will they easily take the betrayal of what they have been fighting for these last 10 years.
THOSE ON the international left who are still telling people to go easy on Tsipras should have heard the debate in the Keratsini council rooms at the second district of Piraeus branch meeting on Thursday. The outrage was palpable. The debate went until 1 a.m. People demanded to know why the Central Committee had not met. Others were angry that it was taken for granted that they would put up posters for the party--yet the only people to have a say in such a major decision are the "20 LSE [London School of Economics] advisors."
Stavroulla was there. I had interviewed her at a nearby bus stop the day after Tsipras had announced the dreadful list of austerity measures he would take to Brussels. Shaken then, she was in fighting form at the meeting. She urged people to consider that if SYRIZA speaks honestly and in a radical way about Grexit and the eurozone, they will take not one step but ten steps forward; she urged people to stand up for the Thessaloniki program.
The debate was about drawing a balance sheet of what went wrong and a serious attempt to come to grips with how to turn the party around. This will not be done by accepting that Tsipras had no alternative, but by discussing the alternative plan the left can put forward based on the lessons of the last six months.
In Keratsini, the Left Platform dominates. But the borders of the different currents are shifting. For example, the meeting was chaired by a member of the Fifty Three, a grouping that includes Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos and representatives who abstained in the July 11 vote. The chair spoke against accepting the Memorandum.
The aim of the Left Platform is to cohere opposition beyond its ranks, as it did when it organized Central Committee members to sign the statement opposing the Memorandum. Almost all in the meeting called for a conference of members. This is vital as it will bring to a head the debates between the left and the right of the party.
For now, the left has set itself the task of fighting for the soul of SYRIZA. Lafazanis has said that the differences are the party's strength; on the other hand, some in the right reportedly have said that they could lead to a "possible divorce." We cannot second-guess at this stage how exactly this will play out. However, through these debates much can be clarified and the left has an opportunity to build its forces.
IN THE labor movement, we say, "If you don't fight, you lose." However, in the battles that really shake the ruling class, a defeat for the workers can be more severe because the rulers try to inflict a blow so devastating that it will deter people from rising again. These are the times that, having put up the fight, the people need leaders who will carry it through to the end. As the French revolutionary Saint-Just put it, "Those who half make a revolution only dig their own graves."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble engineered the Memorandum to be as destructive as possible precisely because the Greek working class resisted. Alexis Tsipras gave an opening to people to mobilize when he called the referendum. In their millions, they took it and said a resounding "no" to austerity. On the night of the referendum victory, people were dancing in the streets because they had momentarily stolen back the power that in normal times belongs to their Greek and European masters. Tsipras' culpability lies in his failure to take that resistance further.
This is not to say that the class struggle can be revived on cue. The disorientation and disillusionment within the left of SYRIZA also is apparent in society. For those who are disconnected from the debates about how to go forward, there is a tendency toward resignation that Tsipras did the best he could. This is why Tsipras has maintained an approval rating above 60 percent even after the capitulation. However, thinking this is as good as it gets is a giant step away from thinking he's a national hero, as people did on the Friday before the referendum. Consciousness is fluid.
The Greek working class has demonstrated more combativity than any other in Europe in the face of the economic crisis of the 21st century. When SYRIZA arrived in the 2012 elections as an anti-austerity party capable of forming a government, the mass struggle subsided; many wanted to see what the parliamentary road could deliver. Locals here talk about the struggle being "frozen." The next phase of the struggle could involve a significant thawing if people resist the implementation of the agreement. We know that the contradictions will not go away--the bailout is unsustainable and the cycle of cuts and negotiations and agreements will continue.
The outcome of the debates within SYRIZA will have a big impact on the class struggle--if the left helps the government implement austerity, it will not be able to fight its implementation on the ground. In turn, resistance on the ground could break through the "pragmatism" of those who cannot see past the current balance of forces.
There are great difficulties in turning resignation into resistance. However, the left is stronger here than anywhere else in Europe. Tens of thousands of activists identify with some form of socialism--a politics rooted in the power of working class struggle, rather than some leftish fad like the Greens or Podemos. The greatest difficulty is that the connection between the working class and the left is weak. The last five years of social crisis have led to a mass politicization, however, which during the general strikes and the referendum exploded into mass mobilizations.
In the Red Network meeting, Eleni Portaliou, SYRIZA's former mayoral candidate for Athens, called for the formation of a "social EAM." EAM was the resistance movement led by the Communist Party to the fascist occupation during World War Two and to the British-backed government that collaborated with the fascists between 1944 and 1949. The repression after the civil war could not suppress the traditions of the left. Everyone knows that the communists liberated the country through their resistance, and that a popular movement revived and brought down the military junta in 1973.
Plutarch records of Pyrrhus' victory that when he looked around after the battle, he saw that, "as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled up with fresh men, not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained, but even from their very anger gaining new force and resolution to go on with the war."
To fashion such an army is not easy. But if it can be done, like the Romans, they will be more numerous, powerful and not at all abating in courage for having suffered this current defeat.
First published at Red Flag.