Tear-gas in Syntagma Square

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.


  1. Talking of coups perhaps someone should remind Kev O about the Greek military junta before he mentions the miners strike again. I think that coup, and dictatorships in southern Europe and Latin American helped evolve the profoundly conservative ideas that dominate in much of the far left; whether it sees them derived from Gramsci or Poulantzas. as others say here the classic Marxist strategy of the united front is the only hope both to resist the EC and a revival of New Dawn.
    The “black block” / anarchists (whatever you want to call them) throughout Europe are so enmeshed in police tactics of disrupting mass movements I’m not sure why any one here would defend them. As true are their terrorist off shoots, and of course we saw all this in the 60s and 70s but no doubt it will be replayed again.

  2. What might help the left in Syriza put the treatment of the Syriza leadership into perspective is to recall the coup in Chile. Allende’s disastrous reformist strategy contributed to his murder and decades of terrible suffering for Chilean workers. The bullying of Tsipras pales into insignificance historically, and while it might serve as propaganda against the Troika, the terrible suffering due to the disastrous political strategy of the Syriza leadership is not academic but very real for Greek workers. Will the Syriza leadership, when they retire to their summer homes, pick up the pieces of their careers and attend another “post-marxist” or “game theory” conference remember that?

  3. “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.”

    Reform or revolution? That’s the dilemma facing the left opposition in Syriza and their reluctance to face this reality is making it very difficult to let go of Syriza which has become a vehicle for the Troika’s austerity agenda with no chance of the left reforming it. Rather than face this unedifying fact, focusing on so-called “property destruction” by anarchists, KKE’s “sectarianism” and the alleged “ultra-leftism” of ANTARSYA is just a opportunistic diversion away from criticism of Tsipras and the Syriza project.

    Kouvelakis, above all, needs to drop his “ultra-left” nonsense about anyone on the left critical of Syriza and start organising with the left outside of Syriza. He and the rest of the Greek left have a clear mandate to oppose austerity so it’s pretty galling to read the hand wringing over Tsipras being bullied when millions of Greek workers who voted OXI don’t get to go back to a comfy air con government building with all the trimmings associated with a leadership position. Nothing dispels illusions like heat and hunger.

    The deal that Tsipras signed is unworkable and is predicted to collapse forcing Grexit anyway. Leaving the EU in a principled manner was always an option that Tsipris chose not to take because of his political strategy. The time to address this political failure is now, not trot out some excuse that he was bullied (which is entirely a consequence of his own strategy); claim to have been opposed at the time while doing nothing about it or blame the left outside of Syriza. Syriza was elected to, at the very least, reduce austerity. It failed spectacularly to even achieve this minimal goal. Time for the left as a whole to have an honest debate about why this happened which includes a critique of the political strategy of the left inside of Syriza. Tsipris is now history we need to concentrate on how we go about actually making it.

  4. Think the use of the word “violence” was perhaps a poor choice, but I don’t think it’s being used in this case as a judgment of wrong-doing by the anarchists. Perhaps “disruption” would have been a better choice?…

  5. New Democracy coming back to power would be less disastrous than the mass association of the Left with austerity.

  6. “The violence came from anarchists” Property destruction is not violence. Golden Dawn assassinations of activists is violence. The anarchists are also fighting the state because of the inhumane conditions that anarchist prisoners continue to face even under SYRIZA. It’s easy to cast anarchists as a boogey-man, but at least do some research.


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