Greek workers have provided the most inspiring resistance to the sharp economic crisis that has rocked the capitalist heartlands of Europe and North America. Last month they staged their twenty-seventh general strike since the beginning of the austerity measures that are destroying millions of lives.

On the same day as the strike, workers at the state television station ERT (equivalent to the ABC) celebrated one month of workers’ control. The workers have been occupying and continuing to broadcast since the right wing government tried to shut down the station.

But workers realise that while strikes, occupations and mass protests are vital, they are not sufficient. They need a political alternative to the mainstream parties that are imposing austerity to shore up the profits of the billionaires.

The rapid emergence of the radical left party SYRIZA, which has won mass support and scored 27 percent of the vote on an anti-austerity platform at the June 2012 elections, has been an inspiration. A year ago SYRIZA claimed 13,000 members (10,000 of whom were members of the left reformist party Synaspismos). Today SYRIZA is said to have 45,000 members.

This shows it is possible to build a left wing alternative to social democratic parties such as PASOK (equivalent to the ALP) that have enforced cutback after cutback on their working class supporters.

But while socialists should celebrate the rise of SYRIZA, we should not do so uncritically.

Divisions at conference

SYRIZA held a five-day conference in July at which the leadership around Alexis Tsipras went on the offensive against SYRIZA’s left wing. Almost 75 percent of the conference was taken up with debate over Tsipras’s move to compel the left currents to dissolve.

This highly undemocratic measure was strongly resisted by the Left Platform, formed by some of SYRIZA’s founding components – the left current of Synaspismos, various revolutionary groups including the Internationalist Workers Left (DEA) and prominent individual leftists.

In the lead-up to the conference, the press went on the offensive against the SYRIZA left wing, in particular targeting the DEA. The press barons demanded that Tsipras prove he was fit to govern by cracking down on SYRIZA’s revolutionary wing.

The leaders had been moving to a more moderate stance since late 2012. They fudged the question of forming only a left government, opening up the possibility of a coalition that included sections of PASOK (in government with the right wing New Democracy) and even the right wing “Independent Greeks”.

This rightward drift was accentuated in the first part of this year by a relative lull (by Greek standards) in the class struggle.

However, the government’s attempt to shut down the national TV network provoked an upsurge, in which SYRIZA played a leading role, that pushed the political climate back to the left and strengthened the position of the left in SYRIZA. Nonetheless, Tsipras’s supporters went into the SYRIZA conference with an agenda of strengthening the position of the leadership relative to the left.

First they proposed that SYRIZA’s president (Tsipras) be elected at the conference. While having the appearance of being a democratic move, this would strengthen the authority of Tsipras and make him less accountable to the party’s central committee. This tied in with the leadership’s conception of having a large passive membership that an elected president could use to overrule the activists, who tend to be more left wing.

Second, they aimed to change SYRIZA’s electoral system to make it harder for the left to win leadership positions. Third, they sought to force the left currents to dissolve.

The leadership won the vote on these issues in the face of stiff left wing opposition. Nonetheless, the Left Platform managed to win 30 percent of the seats on SYRIZA’s central committee. Probably because of the left’s determined stance and the leadership’s recognition that among active members the left had even more support, the move to dissolve the left currents was deferred for a few months.

How all this will pan out is difficult to assess, but the outcome of this battle is vital for Greek workers. It will depend on a range of factors, including the level of class struggle, how soon elections are held and the determination of the left to hold its ground and not capitulate to the leadership for the sake of a spurious unity.

While the debate on organisational issues dominated the conference, the left also suffered defeats on a number of political issues. The Left Platform’s proposals for an “outright write-down of the entire debt”, to impose controls on banks and to nationalise strategic sections of the economy were defeated.

Revolutionaries and reformists

Some on the international left have argued that there is no need to build a revolutionary party because parties like SYRIZA are sufficient. It is claimed that the differences between revolutionaries and reformists don’t matter because revolution is not on the immediate agenda, that revolutionaries and reformists share the same goal of resisting austerity and can work together in a united party.

It is true that revolution is not an imminent prospect, and revolutionaries do seek to work side by side with reformists to resist austerity. We do need mass working class parties to challenge the mainstream Labor parties. In that context, the rise of SYRIZA is something to celebrate.

However, as the example of SYRIZA also demonstrates, well before the moment of revolution there are bound to be sharp divergences between the approaches of revolutionaries and even radical reformists. Precisely because they believe there is an easier road than building a movement to overthrow capitalism, left reformists will be open to making compromises with the powers that be.

This can particularly be the case when they have a chance of forming government. They will then, as the experience of SYRIZA shows, come under enormous pressure to be “responsible” and moderate their policies so they are acceptable to the rich and powerful. That in turn will lead them to crack down on left wing “troublemakers” who stand firm in the defence of workers’ interests.

This is not an argument against revolutionaries being active in SYRIZA. There is still much to fight for, as the Left Platform’s 30 percent of the vote at the conference demonstrates.

 However, it does mean revolutionaries need to have their eyes wide open about the nature of such parties. They have to be clear that their reformist “allies” are unreliable and can easily turn against them. They have to be firm in their principles and build a strong revolutionary current to fight any backsliding by reformist leaders.

Much of the international left has glossed over the differences between the political currents in SYRIZA. SYRIZA is a battleground between revolutionaries and radical left reformists. The differences between reformists and revolutionaries are not abstract questions of the future. They matter in the here and now.