Turning resignation into resistance in Greece

Greece is in turmoil. The state for five years has been dependent on loans from other European states, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The loans have been conditional on successive governments imposing austerity, which has contributed to severe economic depression. Support for the traditional ruling parties, which carried out the dictates of creditors, collapsed while the radical left Syriza party rapidly ascended in the polls.

Syriza, led by prime minister Alexis Tsipras, promised to wind back the devastating austerity which has left some 30 percent of the population in poverty. After winning office on 25 January this year, the party leadership attempted to negotiate a new agreement (memorandum) with creditors that would provide debt relief and ease the suffering of the population.

The European establishment wouldn’t budge. Tsipras called a referendum for 5 July. Sixty-one percent of the population voted no (“oxi” in Greek) to the creditors’ demand that more austerity be imposed. Yet the popular mandate given by the referendum served only to harden the resolve of Europe’s rulers to punish both the government and the workers of Greece. The Syriza leadership buckled.

On 11 July the Greek parliament voted to give Tsipras the authority to negotiate a deal that was worse than the one rejected by voters just a week earlier. Only two members of Syriza’s Left Platform – Ioanna Gaitani and Elena Psarea from the Red Network, which is grouped around the revolutionaries in the Internationalist Workers Left – voted against.

Two days later, Tsipras negotiated the framework of a deal that was total capitulation. It betrayed everything the party had stood for in the 25 January election, and was a complete repudiation of the people’s no vote in the referendum. The Greek working class was left in a state of shocked disbelief. But the radical left, both within and outside of Syriza, began to organise opposition.

A general strike of public sector workers was called by the Federation of Public Sector Unions for 15 July – the same day that the Hellenic Parliament voted on the agreement. Tsipras was forced to rely on the votes of the discredited pro-austerity parties as 39 Syriza MPs voted no or abstained. Now, the battle continues within the party.

Red Flag’s Colleen Bolger is reporting from Athens. Her previous dispatches, along with other articles and statements from Greece, are collected at Articles from Athens.

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“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. European Council president Donald Tusk in the Financial Times on 18 July revealed that the ruling classes fear that any concessions to Syriza would galvanise a left opposition in other countries also: “I am really afraid of this ideological or political contagion, not financial contagion, of this Greek crisis”, he said.

“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.

The left under siege

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 15 July. 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’s interest to delay any meeting. Fresh elections being held off until after the situation has “stabilised” 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’s appeal to representatives in the parliamentary vote on 15 July. 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’s 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-publicised plan: the Thessaloniki program. Thessaloniki is not a set of principles thought up in the dark ages. It was formulated last year in Greece’s second largest city. It was the basis of the party’s 25 January election triumph. It is Plan A, B and C.

The difference between the right/centre of the party and the left is the question of how the program would be implemented. Here, the centre 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 whohad 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’s actions. Panitch talks about the war of manoeuvre as though it is all manoeuvre and no war. The manoeuvre 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 20 July 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 manoeuvre.

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” defences 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 appeal for pragmatism.

This position was advanced by a member of the party’s youth wing at the Democracy Rising conference: 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.

Debates

There are some on the left that 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’s 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 organising.

This was evident at the meeting of the Red Network on 18 July 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 the 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 Antarsya, the coalition of the anti-capitalist left were also present – a testimony to the grassroots campaign work the Red Network engage in with forces outside Syriza, which will be important in the reshaping of the left.

People spoke about their initial shock at Tsipras’s 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 11 July 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’s strategy had to be given a chance. But the people who are only now concluding that the 20 February 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 1am. 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 11 July 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 organised 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.

Prospects

In the labour 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 Merkel and her finance minister 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 mobilise 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’s 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 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 politicisation, however, which during the general strikes and the referendum exploded into mass mobilisations.

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’s 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.