The capitulation of Syriza’s leadership to the demands of the Troika is not the end of Greece’s struggle, but the start of a new phase. Social confrontation and workers’ militancy might still succeed where parliamentarianism failed, write Matt Myers and Barnaby Raine.
In Athens last night, Molotov cocktails and tear-gas flowed. The SYRIZA government, which had removed police barricades from Syntagma Square with much fanfare after being elected, now rely on the riot police to ensure order reigns in Athens. The scene in Syntagma yesterday was a bitter indication that the SYRIZA project has been unable to fulfil the promise of last week’s referendum victory, in which Greeks ignored every press mogul and a barrage of threats to vote against the new austerity measures proposed by the country’s creditors. The reformers from above have not delivered on hopes unleashed from below, in a referendum that saw wealthy parts of Athens choose the EU deal by margins of up to 80% while working class neighbourhoods rejected it with similar force.
This was no personal betrayal by fickle or deceitful leaders. There were no chants against Alexis Tsipras tonight, only anger at the European elites who have bullied him and, from many, a weary sense that the government’s ‘Europeanism‘ was always going to end like this, because it was premised on appealing to the compassion of powerful forces rather than confronting them as enemies. SYRIZA’s attempt to defy structural norms by forging a state under capitalism that sided with those at the bottom is surely over. They were good people fighting an almost impossible battle. Their project was unprepared for the scale of the intransigence of the ‘extreme centre‘ which rules the EU. Just last week, the Prime Minister lined up alongside Trotskyists and other radicals in the referendum on EU imposed austerity, defying Greece’s creditors. Now he seeks to implement austerity – his pleas to Europe’s rulers having fallen on deaf ears – and last week’s allies protest against him. At times like this, the pace of politics quickens.
In such moments, how much really changes? This protest was strikingly similar to countless past demonstrations. Perhaps 10,000 people were there in total, but it wasn’t really one protest at all. The great majority came from the PAME trade union federation, closely controlled by the Communist Party (KKE). In keeping with KKE sectarianism, they marched separately – at one point we followed riot police as they chased protesters setting fire to bins and smashing ATMs, while a large, disciplined bloc of PAME members watched from a side street, shouting slogans (“workers without masters!”) that never change, even after 40 years of demonstrations. There is something profoundly un-Marxist about their lack of responsiveness to changing conditions. The violence came from anarchists, black-clad crowds who stood separately from the third group, the Trotskyists, Maoists and others of the far-Left ANTARSYA electoral coalition. One member of that coalition told us the protesters represented the majority of Greeks, who last week voted “No” in that referendum. Where, then, were those millions? This was not a mass rally, but a demonstration of the established Left against austerity. Much did not feel that new.
That reflects a deeper continuity. The mood was defiant and unfazed by the deal largely because, as Thanasis Kampagiannis from the Greek Socialist Workers Party put it, “we are just entering a new stage in a long struggle.” Greece contains deep-rooted cultures of working class militancy. Its creditors know that; their headache stems in part from the half-hearted implementation of neoliberalism here, which has left large unionised workforces intact, often in nationalised industries, and which they now aim to quash once and for all with new ‘reforms‘ that make a priority of shifting the legal and political terrain irrevocably in favour of capital and against organised labour. We spoke to the socialist journalist Kevin Ovenden, who saw this attempt to break that culture and institutional strength as one of the abiding goals of the troika. As Ovenden put it, Greeks have not yet endured an emotional sea-change on the scale of the 1984 miners’ strike in Britain.
An attempt to resist that market project through parliament has failed. The attempt was pursued both in desperation and with genuine commitment, and its failure is deeply depressing. But this is no “1989 moment” for Greece, as some close to the SYRIZA leadership (who see the collapse of the USSR as a historic defeat) are privately saying. A more fitting analogy might be the capitulation of Ramsay MacDonald’s 1929 Labour government in Britain. Desperate at all costs to maintain the Gold Standard (a shibboleth of economic stability equivalent to the Euro in Greece today), MacDonald was prepared not only to implement austerity but also to confront, and break with his own party to form a ‘National Government’ with the Right. Labour’s capitulation in the 1929 crisis kept it out of power for 15 years – whether this will happen to Greece’s parliamentary Left, only time will tell.
A lot will depend on whether SYRIZA’s Left Platform can successfully “reclaim” the project, as is their intention according to Central Committee member Stathis Kouvelakis. With no historic mass base, SYRIZA became a vehicle for opposition to austerity. If it now implements cuts and privatisation, it will become redundant. If the Left Platform, the Marxists in DEA (International Workers’ Left) and other opponents of this memorandum fail to win the argument inside SYRIZA, then they should continue to articulate a fidelity to last week’s democratic rejection of austerity, not to a particular party form. That might mean leaving SYRIZA. Whatever happens, keeping alive the dynamism of the referendum campaign will require the practical unity of militants in SYRIZA with those in ANTARSYA and with those trade unionists in the KKE who are beginning to reject their leadership’s antics (estimates suggest 80% of KKE members voted No in the referendum, though their CC demanded spoilt ballots).
What is clear is that total victory of the EU power-brokers will involve destroying the consciousness and confidence of many hundreds of thousands of their antagonists in Greek society who voted OXI, not merely intimidating a government. It would require more than being able to pressure SYRIZA into passing the memorandum through parliament with the help of parties of the centre and right. To implement the memorandum will be no easy political fix, but will force huge social confrontation, whose outcome is less easily foreseen than a parliamentary vote. Already, ministers from across Europe are openly declaring their fears. So long as Greece retains cultures of militancy, the neoliberalisation of its society will remain incomplete.
Having said that, a warning: since this crisis began in 2009, the radical Left has answered every defeat by declaring that tomorrow victory-through-struggle would be certain. “Tomorrow” has been repeatedly deferred. The current government even won January’s election running on the slogan “hope is coming”, and then continued to insist that hope was just around the corner until finally they were forced to face the present. Their optimism now lies in tatters and Greece has been impoverished. The situation is bleak, and no Greek left-wingers we met thought the battles ahead would be easy. Yet there are still people prepared to fight those battles.
The political battle from above has suffered a severe setback, but the war continues. Athens remains tense in what is clearly a start of a new conjuncture in Greece.