Greece: When the circus turns into a nightmare

The masses of Greece, who fought the various austerity plans that were imposed on them since the beginning of the decade by all possible means, must now be living—or rather reliving—a very bad dream.

After having overwhelmingly rejected the latest demands from the “troika” (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) in the July 5 referendum, they saw the leaders of the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), who were elected last January with a firm commitment to end the austerity measures, totally change their mind and comply to the demands of European leaders.

Now, a month later, the Prime Minister and leader of Syriza, Alexis Tsipras, resigned and called for the holding of anticipated parliamentary elections, which should take place on September 20. With this move, he wants to rebuild a parliamentary majority around a program that, this time, will be less hypocritical and more “realistic”, marked by submission to capitalist Europe.

Right after this announcement, 25 Syriza MPs declared the formation of a new parliamentary group, “Popular Unity”, that will become a new political party. [Among Syriza MPs, there were 32 who voted against the agreement reached between the Tsipras government and Greece’s creditors, while 11 abstained when the vote was held on August 14.] It seems that the Greek people will have the “chance” to vote for a new incarnation of what could be called “the radical left of the radical left,” whose program will still lead them down the same cul-de-sac in which Syriza was trapped.

Dissidents will indeed campaign on an “anti-austerity program” similar to that of Syriza and based on the same strategy: that is, to rely on people’s mobilization, but to channel it towards the electoral and parliamentary path, hoping that this time the “political flair” that some believed Tsipras had will prove to be true. This strategy is immediately doomed, and all indications are that it won’t arouse enthusiasm amongst a tired, disappointed and disillusioned population.

A historical betrayal

Of course this is not the first time that the electoral and parliamentary road ended in failure: the example of Chile’s Salvador Allende still occupies an important place in the memory of the world proletariat as one of its great tragedies. At least Allende fought the reactionary forces, paying with his life; this cannot be said of Alexis Tsipras, whose “leadership” is now celebrated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Given the magnitude of the anti-people attacks contained in the austerity plans imposed on the Greek people since 2010 and of the hopes raised by the election of Syriza, the latest low blow from the Tsipras government is likely to prominently feature in the list of great betrayals that the workers’ movement has suffered for a century and a half.

Since the 2008-2009 crisis, the masses of Greece never cease to suffer the consequences of the various austerity plans that have been imposed upon them. The inability of the Greek State to meet its obligations to its main creditors caused its leaders to beg for additional financial assistance from the institutions of the troika. The help came, but conditional on the imposition of austerity plans, details of which were part of the Memoranda of Understanding.

The first memorandum was agreed in May 2010 under the “socialist” government of Prime Minister George Papandreou. Among the measures it contained were the privatization of 4,000 public companies, pay cuts of up to 15% for public sector employees, increased taxes (including sales tax), and massive cuts in pensions which led to massive impoverishment of retirees. The plan was ratified by a close vote in the Greek Parliament (157 to 134), despite the overwhelming opposition of the population, including a massive general strike and hundreds of rallies, actions and occupations during which three people have even lost their lives.

It was at this moment that Syriza, which already existed since 2004 as an electoral front of a half-dozen of small leftist groups, took off. The old parties having been increasingly discredited, Syriza, which supported the uprising and proposed to unify the resistance, began to appear as a “political outcome” in the eyes of larger sectors of the population. Syriza easily supplanted the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), even if the latter was taking part in the people’s movement, sometimes with a rather militant attitude; the historical compromise of the KKE with bourgeois institutions and especially with the Socialist Party (PASOK) and its steady opposition to the most radical sectors and networks probably contributed to its political isolation.

In late 2011, given the extent of popular resistance and his own inability to “deliver the goods” to the troika, PM Papandreou just thrown in the towel; a coalition government was then formed including PASOK and New Democracy—the traditional rightist conservative party (rightist, as far as one can differentiate left from right in these matters). A few weeks later, in February 2012, this new government agreed to a second Memorandum of Understanding with the troika, which was also be ratified by Parliament, while demonstrations and riots were unfolding throughout the country.

Even harder than the first one, this second MoU included a drastic reduction in the minimum wage (by 22%, and even 32% for youth under 25), a wage freeze in the private sector, suppression of 150,000 jobs in the public sector within four years, a reduction in spending of over one billion euros in the health sector, and changes in labour laws to facilitate the dismissal of employees. The country was then pressed into a protracted period of instability during which Syriza continued to grow.

At the May 2012 legislative elections, Syriza saw its support rising from 4.6% to 16%, becoming the second party in parliament behind New Democracy. No party being able to put together a majority to form a government, a new election was held a month later; this time, Syriza got 27% of the votes and became the official opposition.

What happened after is now known. As the country continued to sink into the crisis (the official unemployment rate increased to over 25% and it is now estimated that nearly a quarter of the country’s population live in extreme poverty), and opposition to crisis measures deepened, the parliamentary elections of January 25, 2015 saw the triumph of Syriza. To the despair of the Troika and European leaders, the party of the “radical left” claimed over 36% of the votes, but with 149 MPs out of 300, they still had to make an alliance with a small right-wing party.

Hopes and Illusions

Syriza’s election on the basis of an anti-austerity program was clearly the result of the resistance movement that unfolded since the imposition of the First Memorandum—a movement that the state and the traditional parties have never managed to crush or even control. The coming to power of Syriza, with new faces and a renewed team (even including some Marxists), aroused great hopes, not only in Greece but everywhere, where the austerity measures are hitting the working people and are introduced as a “fatality” against which nothing can be done. Unfortunately, these hopes have proven illusory and it took only a few months before they gave way to disappointment.

Following the election of Syriza, we discussed in the pages of the Partisan newspaper the constraints of this project:

“Some adjustments will presumably be implemented, which may alleviate the suffering of the masses. [Ed. – Perhaps we were a little too optimistic…] The new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, has pledged to implement a number of measures that could go in this direction; he also said that his government won’t apply the latest conditions imposed by the IMF and the ECB. However, the same Tsipras also committed to continuing to repay the giant debt owed by the Greek State, although it hopes to renegotiate the terms. The fact is that it is not Tsipras who pulls the strings […]. As a capitalist state member of the European Union, Greece can’t bypass the fundamental trends that more than ever characterize the world imperialist system—a system in which there are fewer and fewer crumbs to redistribute to the working masses and no more space for what has been called the welfare state. […] Failing to challenge the power of the Greek bourgeoisie and the domination of imperialist powers means that new attacks on the working class will inevitably happen—sooner than later.” 1

“Sooner” arrived very quickly, when the Greek State found itself in default after months of unsuccessful negotiations with creditors. That’s when the Tsipras government pulled a rabbit out of its hat, holding a referendum on the Troika’s demands.

As everyone knows, the Greek population overwhelmingly voted against the austerity plan of the Troika, to over 61%. The hope was rekindled! Many began to talk of a “historic defeat” of the IMF and the major European institutions, naively thinking that they would accept “the democratic verdict.” Back from Athens, the well-known Québec activist Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois (who was the co-spokesperson of “la CLASSE” during the 2012 student strike) wrote these comments in an op-ed posted on the Ricochet website: “By winning hands down his gamble, the Greek Prime Minister, yet young and inexperienced, just served a real political lesson to Europe. […] The pressure is now on the troika. For the first time in over five years, Greece is now in a strong position at the negotiating table. […] Alexis Tsipras just inflicted on the German Chancellor the biggest defeat of her reign in international politics.” And the author concluded, with undisguised enthusiasm: “Who said that the Left could not govern?” 2

Certainly not us… In fact, the “Left” has proven time and time again in almost all European countries that it can—and maybe we’ll see that in a few weeks here in Canada after the October 19 election. The kind of “Left” that is involved in institutions that are part of the state apparatus, and is recognized in that capacity, is perfectly capable of governing the state and act as the executive committee of the ruling class, to use Marx and Engels’ relevant expression.

By changing his political hats a few days after the July 5 referendum and agreeing to a plan of emergency measures (July 16), and a Third MoU (August 14) even worse than the one that was rejected in the referendum, the Tsipras government showed that they are indeed fully capable of governing. In defense of Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, one must admit that he is far from being the only one to get excited about the “great tactical skills” of Alexis Tsipras and Syriza’s leadership.

In a short text published two days after that of Nadeau-Dubois, the French philosopher Alain Badiou, otherwise known for his virulent criticism of “capitalo-parliamentarism,” also had kind words for Syriza’s “victory”: “The Tsipras government’s tactical victory offers encouragement to all new propositions in the political field. The parliamentary system and its government parties have been in an endemic crisis for decades, since the 1980s. Syriza’s successes in Greece—even if they are temporary ones—are part of what I have called ‘the reawakening of History’ in Europe. This can only help Podemos, and everything that is to come, in future and elsewhere, over the ruins of classic parliamentary democracy.” 3

What Badiou missed, however, is that Syriza’s project was from the outset fully inscribed into, and not outside of, classical parliamentary democracy. That classical parliamentary democracy is in ruins is certainly true, but Syriza’s strategy—as with all those parties who propose to “overcome” the current world order while not even considering, let alone preparing, the revolutionary option—cannot result in anything other than rebuilding the old power structure, using those “ruins.”

Clearly Alain Badiou, who has mastered the basic concepts of Marxism, is well aware of the pitfalls and difficulties of the process, which is why he also asked this fundamental question: “Is Syriza in complete control of the police, the army, the justice system, the economic and financial oligarchy?” To which he answered: “Certainly not.” This touches the heart of the problem faced by Syriza, which will also be the problem that Podemos will face in Spain, if they win the general elections to be held by the end of the year.

Was there any alternative?

The question therefore arises whether Syriza could have done otherwise. As Alexis Tsipras casually expressed after, Syriza leaders don’t think so: “I am fully assuming my responsibilities, for mistakes and for oversights, and for the responsibility of signing a text that I do not believe in, but that I am obliged to implement.”

Others, like the three dozen dissident MPs from Syriza, claim that it would have been possible to follow a different path. 4 They say for example that the government and Tsipras could have called for people’s mobilization and build on it, rather than rushing headlong into negotiations with the troika––that it would have been better to focus on the demand for debt cancellation rather than push for a series of specific measures that were playing both ends as the leadership of Syriza did.

Denying any agreement and refusing to pay the debt would have probably forced Greece to withdraw or be excluded from the euro zone—an avenue with unpredictable consequences. Some have suggested that the Tsipras government could have undertook talks for financial assistance with BRICS Development Bank and secure special agreements with Russia and China to ensure supply of Greece in energy, food and consumer goods.

That such tactics would have been possible, and that they could have then led to a different outcome, is likely. However, this would not have solved the basic problem any movement facing an enemy as strong as contemporary capitalism must face: that of preparing and organizing a rupture not only with this or that particular policy but with all the mechanisms and institutions that ensure the rule of capital.

One must admit that the kind of Left who places the bulk of its activity on the very terrain of these institutions—even those who say they will continue to “take to the street” while going into these institutions—will never succeed and will ultimately always generate the most bitter disappointments.

That some political forces even more dangerous for the Greek working class, such as the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn (now considered the third political party in Greece), could take advantage of the massive betrayal and disillusionment provoked by the radical or not Left to promote their anti-people program only accentuates the tragic nature of this experience.

If there is a lesson to be learned from this latest episode featuring what we Maoists call the “left wing of the bourgeoisie,” it is the need for a massive political offensive that will not confine itself in the framework of a “reappropriation” of the same institutions that enforce our exploitation, but will embrace the most difficult but necessary task of taking and clearing the path of revolution.

Serge Gélinas
  • 1. “Syriza’s Victory in Greece: Is This the End of Austerity?”, Partisan No. 58, February 13, 2015:
  • 2. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, “Alexis Tsipras est-il le meilleur politicien d’Europe?”, July 6, 2015: [Our translation].
  • 3. Alain Badiou, “Eleven points inspired by the situation in Greece”, July 8, 2015:
  • 4. Among them are four MPs who were elected under the banner of Syriza, but are also members of the Communist Organization of Greece (KOE), of Maoist origin. This organization joined Syriza in 2007. Another Maoist group, the KKE(M-L), (Communist Party of Greece [Marxist-Leninist]), always remained outside and critical of Syriza. The KKE(M-L) comrades are now calling for continuing the fight “against capitalist and imperialist domination, against illusions of a left government-saviour, against the disorienting proposals of ‘rupture’ without popular support.”