We need to be honest about what is happening in Greece

Jonathan Neale adds his view to the debate on events unfolding in Greece.

Syntagma Square rally, Athens 11/2/15
Syntagma Square rally, Athens 11/2/15
Pic: Marios Lolos

We need to be honest about what is happening in Greece.

The leadership of Syriza said during the election that under no circumstances would they leave the euro. But if they won the election, they would be able to persuade the governments of other European countries to allow them to end austerity and stimulate the economy.

This turned out not to work. Once Syriza has begun the negotiations by promising not to leave the euro, the leaders of the other governments knew they could humiliate Syriza. So they did.

This was not just a matter of “Germans”. It was a class thing. The governments of Spain, Italy, France and all the rest piled in with the government of Germany. The Greek ruling class support the “Germans” too.

This was entirely predictable. In fact, many people predicted it. The far left Antarsya coalition predicted it in Greece. Antarsya said that Syriza would have to impose capital controls, take over the banks, default on the debt, and leave the euro.

In this, maybe they were half wrong. Imagine that Syriza had gone into the negotiations saying they were prepared to impose capital controls, take over the banks, default on the debt and leave the euro if they had to, but they would rather compromise. They might well have won if they did that.

But Syriza would have had to be willing to go all the way, not bluffing. So if Antarsya were maybe half wrong, they were also basically right.

This is not necessarily a matter of reform vs. revolution. Capital controls, not having the euro, taking over the banks, and defaulting on debts, are not revolution. They are reforms. Serious reformists would have taken the chance. As it is, Syriza is delivering no reforms, but the opposite.

Many countries have defaulted on debts – most recently, Russia and Argentina. Many have capital controls, like Cyprus and Malaysia. Many have taken over the banks, like Sweden.

Capital controls can be imposed in five minutes. What you do is close the banks and stop all transactions while you work out the detailed rules. Roosevelt closed all the American banks when he came into office in 1933, for weeks. In the Iranian revolution, the bank workers stopped all movement of money out of the country on one day. The bank workers in Greece are in a radical union. It is completely doable.

Many people say, however, that Syriza would not have been elected if they had not promised to stay inside the euro. This is true, but some people would have voted for that Syriza. Particularly if all the leaders of Syriza had spent months patiently persuading people, instead of telling people a Grexit was unthinkable. Moreover, no one at all would have voted for what the leadership of Syriza has actually done.

But, some people say, we should not listen to Antarsya because they are “sectarian”. After all, they did not join Syriza and they ran against Syriza in the election.

At the time, Antarsya were saying they had to stay separate because if they did not, their coalition would fall apart. There are eight organisations in their coalition, and this is probably true.

More to the point, I don’t think they could have joined Syriza and continued to say in public that Tsipras’ strategy would not work and he would crumble. After all, there is a left in Syriza, and many of their leaders did think that, and they did not say it in public – although they are now saying it in public.

Also, it is very important now that there is an organised force in Greece that can call for protests and resistance. That has to be against government policy, and against Tsipras, or it is meaningless. Antarsya has called on everyone to go the streets. They can do that because they remained separate and organised. That creates a pole of attraction that makes the left in Syriza stronger. It also means the left in Syriza are more likely to fight, because if they do not there are other people who will lead their members.

We need to be honest, and balanced, about what Antarsya represents. They got two-thirds of one per cent of the vote. Partly that is because their vote was squeezed by people wanting to make sure Syriza won a close election. But still, a very small vote. Maybe their real support is 2 or 3 percent. Among activists, students and union militants, the proportion prepared to work with them is higher. Now, it will be higher again. So not good, but real support.

This means, though, obviously, that all calls for protests, demonstrations and strikes have to be calls for joint action. It would be mad to say Antarsya has to replace Syriza now. Instead, the supporters of the Syriza left, the Communist Party (KKE), and Antarsya have to move together, and that will mobilise much larger number of Syriza voters.

Of course anyone who knows the Greek left knows also that formally united demonstrations and protests may be too much to hope for. But all that is needed is protests on the same day, in the city centres, called separately by Antarsya, the Communist Party, and the Syriza left. That would be the beginning of resistance.

But we need to be clear about some of the things that will happen. The leadership of Syriza will impose austerity. The majority of Syriza MPs support Tsipras.

Austerity will not be an abstract matter of political position. Many people in Greece are now going through dumpsters for food, and many very sick people have no medical care. Austerity will be lived. People will hate whatever government imposes it.

This means that Syriza will be pulverised at the next election. It also means that Syriza will split – not immediately, but it will split.

Can Syriza wait for a movement of European solidarity? No. Mass solidarity comes to people who are fighting, strong, confident, and defiant. Mass solidarity does not come to those who grovel. But if there is mass resistance in Greece, then there will be solidarity.

Does this mean resistance will be easy in Greece? No. The defeat of Tsipras’ strategy will demoralise many. The fact that the defeat is abject, and that Tsipras is lying about it, will demoralise more. People are exhausted – literally, this is not a political metaphor. And many are terrified of leaving the euro.

On the other hand, people voted for change. They are desperate for change. And right now we don’t know the outcome. The only realistic strategy is to hope and fight. And if the result is defeat, at least there has been an organised part of the Greek left that has held together, told people the truth as they saw it, and been proved right by events.

That part of the left will grow, in two ways. Formally, there will probably be unity moves with splits from Syriza. At least as important, there will be a much wider informal unity on the streets, in the workplaces and in the schools and universities.

So there will be an alternative to the far right. And that as Syriza craters, there will remain a left, formally and informally, that has dignity, argues for an alternative, and is visible on a national level.

There will also be a living lesson for the rest of us, so that we are not bound to make the mistake of Tsipras again.


  1. According to your claim the opinions of Greek workers are fixed. How then did Syriza manage to go from 4.5% of the vote to becoming electable? The whole point of the “Grexit” argument is to highlight the increasingly obvious consequence that continued EU membership means further austerity. The only chance that Syriza has of reforming the Greek state, which I hope you’ll acknowledge, was the basis on which they were elected by workers, is to leave the EU. Any other strategy is not only breaking their election promise to end austerity but ultimately lying to the workers who elected them. Such an historic betrayal will either pull workers further to the left or have the opposite effect of emboldening the right including, terrifyingly, Golden Dawn. The rise of Syriza is evidence that political allegiances change so you can either be a part of that process or stand on the sidelines spouting statistics while being blown by the wind.

  2. Despite predictions by Critical Reading and others that SYRIZA’s post-election surge in support was temporary, polling data shows that this is not the case. 47% of Greeks support SYRIZA and 84% want to remain in the Euro. http://greece.greekreporter.com/2015/03/21/poll-shows-47-8-of-greeks-trust-syriza-and-84-want-the-euro/ So the anti-Tsipras far left has maybe 10% support for its “leave the Euro” position (16% want to leave the Euro minus Golden Dawn’s 6% = 10%), a non-starter for a viable political strategy for a governing party.

  3. So, despite years of strikes the best the Greek working class can hope for is watered down reformism which will inevitably fail and open the door to reaction? Such pessimism is very unlikely to reinvigorate the left anywhere. Rather than a Marxist dialectical analysis we’re offered the ruminations of Mystic Meg. Had Syriza listened to such pessimistic predictions they would have given up at 4.5% of the vote. Lucky for workers they didn’t but that still doesn’t let them off the hook for such a historic blunder – even for reformists. A bad outcome to the negotiations would have been to gain few concessions but to return with none and spin that as a victory is downright insulting to all those Greek workers who went out on strike and voted for them. And to compare that to the Brest Litovsk negotiations demonstrates an extremely limited understanding of proportion and political strategy.

  4. The balance of forces was hugely unfavourable to Syriza’s negotiators. They were representing a peripheral European country, the economy of which has been trashed. The Bolshevik negotiators at Brest Litovsk took home a much worse deal and history tends to judge them more favourably than Jonathan does the Greeks.

    They have bought some time and a huge amount of popular support. As others note above, the Greek working class sees it as the best deal that could have been done in the circumstances and that’s why Syriza’s support is holding up.

    It’s highly likely that Greece will leave the Euro zone. The process by which it does so is very important. What Syriza seems to be doing is showing its electorate that they are being forced out by the Germans, French and Italian. That is tactically astute. You don’t do a thing like that without preparing the ground for it.

    As for Antarsya, my view is that their role has been atrocious. It is utterly delusional to think that any force on the left will profit if Syriza’s project is defeated. It will destroy the Greek left for a generation and demobilise class struggle forces across Europe. Tiny numbers of people will cling to the wreckage of ultra left lifeboats but the first serious challenge for state power in a long time will have foundered. It’s a time for solidarity with Syriza.

  5. Perhaps a good indication of the scale of Syriza’s abject loss of nerve could be measured by the behaviour of our own ruling class. It was widely reported that when Syriza accepted its ‘compromise’ conditions that the FTSE 100 as well as stock exchanges around the world went through the roof (‘London Stock Exchange biggest rise in 8 years as Greece capitulates’, FT). When the beneficieries of neoliberalism are upping their champagne and cocaine consumption then it isn’t in celebration of a working class victory. But a likely problem for Syriza and its liberal/left adherents is the possible scenario of workers and the poorest (which mean workers in general) ‘breaking faith’ with Syriza and starting strikes and occupations, militant protests and riots. Would they then indulge in a paraphrase of Bertolt Brecht and conclude that as the people have clearly lost faith in Syriza, it is time for Syriza to elect another people?

  6. Are you *$%*ing kidding? Estimated cost 200 million Euros! Break out the bunting and crack open the champagne! In what way will this alleviate austerity for millions of Greek workers? It’s a drop in the ocean and only incomes up to €10,547 for a 4 person family are eligible subject to possible claw backs from tax authorities and social insurance funds. Food and other essentials are distributed by local businesses using smart cards – no doubt creaming a nice profit in the process. Even Ian Duncan Smith and Mother Teresa did better than this! Did you actually read the final paragraphs?

    “Food and basic goods are considered to be among the most expensive in the euro zone, and the welfare state has almost collapse. Heating oil became unaffordable for large segments of the society due to extra taxes imposed in favor of revenue increases. Several cuts have taken place in the health sector and exorbitant increases have occurred in prescription medicine participation for the patients.

    Unemployment allowance of €360 per month runs for only 12 months maximum, independently from the work years of the jobless. There is no allowances for rent.”

    When are they going to sort out that lot?

  7. Syriza is playing the national role that Labour-controlled councils are undertaking across the UK. Faced with capitalist, ideologically-imposed ‘austerity’ there are three options:

    1. Confront capitalist, ideologically-imposed ‘austerity ‘at a national level by imposing a ‘transitional programme’ or, at a local government level, by setting a needs budget that defends services, jobs, workers terms and conditions and the lives of working people.

    2. Refuse to implement capitalist, ideologically-imposed ‘austerity’ and refuse to impose Troika ‘austerity’ – in the case of Syriza and Greece, or Tory ‘austerity’ in the case of Labour-controlled councils in the UK. This – as the capitulators warn us – will only lead to an administrative takeover of the ‘economy ‘at a national level by Troika-imposed ‘technocrats’ (capitalist shitbags and henchmen, choose your epithet) like Mario Monti or Lucas Papademos, as have already been used in the Eurozone, or at a national level, Whitehall and Westminster will appoint capitalist shitbags and henchmen (choose your epithet). Technocrats and administrators may well be imposed, but they will then face the opprobrium and resistance of the working class. Or..

    3. Do the Troika’s, the Tories’ and capitalism’s dirty work and implement ‘austerity’. Option three is the one chosen by Syriza in Greece and Labour-controlled councils across the UK.

    We have no sympathy with, nor do we make any excuses for Labour-controlled councils doing the Tories dirty work and implementing their cuts for them. We should have the same attitude and adopt the same political position in relation to Syriza as we adopt towards Labour-controlled councils.

    To those who say we are too critical and sectarian towards Syriza, I say we are to soft on the liberal left’s apologism and cheer-leading of Syriza. Rather, we should be much harder on Syriza and our analysis should be both sharper and more polemical. When the liberal left suffers from self-delusion and uses ahistorical analysis to provide Syriza with ‘left cover’, we should be unrelenting in our criticism of both Syriza and the self-delusional left.

    Ahistorical? Some may question. Ahistorical, yes. We have been here before albeit under a different incarnation:

    Chris Harman, Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left, International Socialism 2:4 (Spring 1979)

    There is a fourth option of course – the one I prefer:
    We need revolution now!

  8. At the very least SYRIZA could have nationalised the banks to prevent the flight of Greek capital. Rather than giving Greek workers a breathing space the deal allows the Greek ruling class time to regroup and protect their wealth while the Troika now has more time to plan how to humiliate SYRIZA further. SYRIZA failed at the decisive moment but this was not a case of the leadership being caught unaware because they had plenty of time to plan for such a reaction from the Troika.

    Tsipras has tried to spin this as a victory which indicates that, behind closed doors, appeasing the Troika was the plan all along despite the rhetoric of the leadership. On that basis, Tsipras didn’t have a plan B because there was no need for one in the leadership’s eyes.

    Fortunately, there will be other decisive moments and SYRIZA isn’t holding all the cards, others on the Greek left can and will have an influence.

  9. Jonathan Neale says it as it is.

    Syriza lacks the material power to smash either ‘austerity’ or capitalism, but it does poses the left-reformist capitulation to save ‘austerity’ and capitalism – as Varoufakis has accepted and widely announced they will do.

    Syriza are so weak and powerless they have the ability and willingness to only to annoy the Troika. If Syriza represented a threat to capitalism and the Troika, they would have at least worried and alarmed the Troika by now – but none of it has happened.

    If Syriza represented any form of challenge to ‘austerity’ and capitalism, they would have presented a ‘transitional programme’ to both the working class of Greece and the Troika – but again none of it…

    Even if Syriza presented a ‘transitional programme’ they would be a centrist party at best. However, the failure to present a ‘transitional programme’ exposes Syriza as the pale, weak and delusional Stalinist, left-reformist, capitalist-safety-valve they are.

    What we (the European and Greek working class and the left) need to see is Antarsya leading the Greek working class to move in to self-activity and move both Greek capitalism and its safety-valve, Syriza aside.

    We need revolution now!

  10. In five years SYRIZA went from 4.9% of the vote to 36.3%. It can lose that support a lot quicker and unless there’s a left alternative then the ruling class will recover and possibly the fascists will grow just as quickly. The problem is not that SYRIZA compromised, which we all knew it would, but how far and how quickly and that Tsipras lied that this was a victory. There’s a lot at stake here which appears to glide right over the head of RDS, friend of the “Greek people”.

  11. Ray B, the working classes overwhelmingly support SYRIZA. We Marxists use the term “people” when discusses more than 1 class, in this case the urban petty bourgeoisie, the (alarmingly large) lumpenproletariat, and farmers. There is zero evidence for the notion that the working class is rejecting SYRIZA, unless you count the always-hysterical fringe party called KKE whose positions and support among workers never change.

  12. Syriza did agree to austerity measures which they had campaigned *against*, however ambiguously. Either it’s the best they or anyone could do, in which case avowed socialists should stop exerting themselves with pointless expressions of opposition. Or, as I believe, Syriza has betrayed Greek working people (with the second of their right-wing capitalist coalition partners, ANEL). The new government’s negotiating tone (not the content) was defiant enough to annoy the “Institutions,” so it looked like Syriza was standing up to tyranny. That, plus the fact that few Greek voters want to believe that they were taken for fools goes some way to explaining the current apparent honeymoon of Syriza and Greek working people who want to fight austerity. It won’t last. I fear that the few crumbs which German Dutch, French, etc. imperialism did let fall (food coupons, free or lower-priced electricity) will soon show as what they are — crumbs. Others have commented on the relatively small demonstrations, etc., so far, criticizing the new pact from the left. Another explanation for this is that previous militant-seeming mass fightbacks against austerity were waged to lose. There have been something like 30 general strikes in 3 years or so, but all of them were time-limited, usually 24- or 48-hour affairs. The bosses easily waited these out, but the workers got tired and lost confidence in the efficacy of mass strikes. I gather, writing in New York City, that many of these mass strikes were led by KKE (Communist Party = Stalinist) linked unions. So Syriza is far from the only reformist workers’ party to screw up the fight against austerity. Having written that, let me ask: isn’t the KKE in a better position than Antarsya to catch elements moving to Syriza’s left, of whom there will be many? The KKE is much bigger than Antarsya, they perceptibly increased their vote total in the recent elections, and they talk a very left line at the drop of a hat. Greek workers who get disgusted with Syriza and look for a more radical group to take the fight forward might be more likely to move toward a big, established, well-organized, supposedly ultra-left outfit than a much smaller, less-organized, supposedly ultra-left outfit. Some practical conclusions for revolutionary socialists from all the above are: 1) Some important demands are — Repudiate the Debt, Stop all Privatizations, indefinite General Strike till the workers win their demands. Revolutionaries must raise them now, and patiently and persistently explain them. 2) Workers, students, immigrants and others who want to fight look now to the larger workers’ organizations with a reputation for opposing austerity. Revolutionaries must show in action that these organizations will not, cannot consistently fight for these demands, but must capitulate, sooner rather than later, to the capitalist system. Revolutionaries and other militant workers will have to demand that the reformist parties carry out the pro-worker aspects of their own programs, as well as put forward other demands which start to defend the struggles and needs of the working class and other oppressed. 3) If the reformists bring the fight forward under pressure of the ranks, good. If not, they will be exposed before a mobilized working class which can wage class struggles using organizations built in the fight. 4) *If* the KKE and their large union federation PAME come to the fore, and Syriza falters, even splinters, revolutionaries should direct their demands [see 1) above] at the KKE/PAME, and urge fellow workers and other organizations, such as Antarsya, to do the like. 5) The organization most needed by Greek workers is a revolutionary, Leninist/Trotskyist party which engages in the fight for reforms in such a way as to show that revolution is necessary. I don’t see any such party in Greece, or anywhere else, unfortunately (Though I think that the League for the Revolutionary Party has made a start in forming this party.). A dozen people can’t act as though they were a mass party. But a dozen people who work together to sow the seeds of the revolutionary party will find fertile soil in present-day Greece.

  13. Early days. It is naive to suggest that Syriza is- or ever will be, anything than a left-reformist formation. So it is rather silly for revolutionaries to feign surprise and cry ‘sell-out’ when they compromise. Compromise is in their DNA although we could have expected rather less than a total collapse by Syriza given the emergency that they were mandated to address. RDS is clearly a reformist given his/her faith in the solution to capitalist crisis being solvable through constitutional discourse with the most committed agents of the neoliberal project and without recourse to the mass mobilisation of forces beyond the parliamentary domain. But as I said, early days. And by the way. Whenever did critical debate become per se ‘sectarian’? Or is it the case that the greater the crisis the greater the self-denying ordinance on debate for socialists? A sound and overdue comment by Jonathan.

  14. …and we shouldn’t forget the grim scenario whereby some people who are disillusioned by left reformists go right and support the macho optimism expressed through fascism. I mean, that is also what’s ‘at stake’. We also know that when workers take strong united militant action under social democrat rule, social democrats have no hesitation in hiring the repressive forces of the right to crack down. The German CP may well have been wrong to treat the social democrats as ‘social fascists’ but it was not a totally irrational view, based on what had happened ten years earlier. Any or some of these scenarios are possible too. Sadly.

  15. Comments like the ones from sturdyblog and RDS are unhelpful because they gloss over what’s at stake for Greek workers. Whenever I read a post claiming to speak for the so-called, “Greek people”, it immediately smacks of liberal pretensions and demonstrates the conservatism of the writer. How little faith they have in workers and how desperate their desire is to contain politics within the status quo, which in this case is austerity.

  16. Thank you Jonathan Neale for telling it like it is.
    Syriza won the election because they their programme offered an end to austerity and control by the Troika. They climbed to 80% support in opinion polls when they were seen to confront the EU and ECB in negotiations. Now that they have failed to live up to needs and aspirations of the Greek people things will change.
    The project here should not be elect Syriza and support them at any cost or wait for another 4 months and see what they do then. It is not sectarian of socialists to criticise or organise against Syriza when they will be implementing austerity. Instead of reversing privatisation and cuts. They will be making the cuts they were elected to stop! There strategy was rather like the Utopian Socialist like Robert Owen who tried to persuade capitalists that it was their interests as well as working class interests to have a more egalitarian form of society. The capitalists weren’t interested then and they aren’t now. Reforms have to be forced from them or they are part of developing resources to increase the efficiency and competitiveness of capitalism.( I would suggest the NHS and expansion of higher education are examples of this. They are of course constantly shaped by the changing needs of capitalism and our ability/inability to defend them.)
    When I asked Stathis Kouvelakis if Syriza’s Left Platform MP’s (about 30) would help trigger resistance to the deal by voting against it in parliament he avoided answering clearly and commented that their were differences among the left platform that needed to be discussed.
    If the left inside and/or outside of Syriza don’t provide an alternative the situation won’t stand still, the right and the Greek state will move back on the offensive.
    For all that’s been written. said and debated about Syriza they have failed at the first real test of their strategy. Most socialists recognise this despite the gloss Syriza’s leadership have given the deal. The stakes are too high in Greece and also internationally for any kind of movement against neo-liberalism for us not to realise what is happening.
    Syriza’s leadership are repeating the mistakes of virtually all left reformist projects and the left platform risk becoming a left cover for them by not effectively mobilising against this. The structural changes in Syriza and some of the tactical decisions made by them over the last year/18 months were warnings of things to come.
    Yes the situation is difficult, they face powerful institutions and potentially brutal opposition at home but we need to honestly face up to this in order mobilise the forces that can overcome austerity.
    I don’t see this as Syriza V’s Antarsya. Both have and will make mistakes. But, Syriza strategy has been tested and has failed. Their response must be to change course or we should stop seeing them as a reliable and consistent example of what a “Left Government” can bring to the fight against neo-liberalism.
    That fight should be “the project” for socialists. I fear that for some this project has been obscured by putting all our hopes in the “Syriza project” The warning signs were there that this situation might come but many on the left don’t see this as a problem or didn’t want to see them.
    The space for left politics will shrink as the right take advantage of this huge setback. There will still be fluctuations, twists and turns that the left can shape and hopefully lead but we must be clear about the role of the forces in
    Syriza rather than tail them.

  17. I’m afraid the one thing I could not credit this piece with is being honest.

    An honest piece may have conceded the fact that this country has been pillaged by consecutive governments for forty years. Forty years. So, perhaps a thousand dramatic blogs of the “Why did you betray us, Alexi?” variety, because the socialist utopia you may have had in mind has not happened within one month, are a little over the top. An honest piece may have conceded that the far left is nowhere as comfortable as it is in defeat and misery and when defeat and misery is not readily available, it will synthesise it. Like a heroin addict on methadone.

    Luckily, the vast majority of people in Greece, understand the difference between a government with little room for manoeuvre, applying that discretion with good motives and one that applies it with wicked ones. They understand that, the pervious government having already accepted not only this memorandum but also the next, any concessions gained are a bonus. They negotiations wouldn’t even be happening but for SyRizA. Which is why support is sky-high.

    So, by all means, synthesise misery and defeat, have your protests, burn a few buildings and, if we are very unlucky, you may destabilise the government enough to end up with Nea Dimokratia back in power. And then you can as happy as pigs in mud, in real defeat and real misery. Which you do best.

  18. I agree with a lot of this, but I also think that Antarsya’s approach to Syriza has certainly been sectarian. Joining Syriza and running candidates against Syriza were not the only two options. Antarsysa could have remained organizationally independent but urged a vote for Syriza in the last election, “with no illusions.” If they had done that, the left in Syriza would have been strengthened and Antarsya would be in a stronger position to work with them to mobilize support for the government to change course. Hopefully that will still happen.

    To RDS—the government remains popular because people see it has having stood up to the rest of the EU, but that popularity will erode very quickly if it continues to implement austerity. Stathis Kouvelakis lays out the situation very well here: http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1892-a-reply-to-the-sophists-by-stathis-kouvelakis.

  19. thanks for taking the time to write this down…what some people seem to have done is substitute party for class and have then got hung up on defending the leadership of the party against any criticism (automatically labelled as sectarian) and therefore have lost their class compass.

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