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29 July 2015

After the climbdown: where next for Greece and the left?

Michael Chessum looks back at the Greek climbdown.

By Michael Chessum

As yet another austerity package was voted through the Greek parliament last week, Alexis Tsipras confirmed his place as one of the Eurozone’s greatest heroes. Not only has the rightwing alliance around Merkel succeeded in imposing the most socially destructive and recessionary memorandum in European history, but it has a Greek Prime Minister whose popularity has risen as a result. Even more importantly, Tsipras’s capitulation, in spite of an overwhelming popular mandate to reject the deal, has left much of Syriza’s activist base divided and disorientated – and the left across Europe struggling to come to terms with what has happened. With Podemos, Syriza’s likely Spanish ally in government, plummeting in the polls, all hopes for an alternative to austerity in Europe now hinge on rethinking the strategy of the European new left – and quickly.

The temptation for many on the left is not to learn from events in Greece, but to seek to vindicate themselves. On one hand, there are those who regard Tsipras as a tactical genius, who is just “buying time”, and even now has a trick up his sleeve. On the other hand, Tsipras’s failure is seen as a routine ‘we told you so’ for insurrectionist political currents on the far-far left: Syriza’s strategy failed because it represented the outer-limits of what reformism can achieve, and the left should stop seeking to fight over the state.

Perhaps the most widespread conclusion being drawn from the current series of events is a Eurosceptic one. On the British left, there are a large number of people who have apparently only just realised that the EU is run by neo-liberal technocrats; and there are a smaller group of people who are seizing on events in Athens as a validation of their own position. Tsipras’s main mistake, they say, is that he didn’t break from the Euro and the EU from the outset.

What all of this misses is the intricate series of political struggles that preceded Syriza’s rise to power. As an alliance of a huge number of left wing fragments – ranging from Eurocommunists in Synaspismos who had much more faith in the negotiations, and in the structures of liberal democracy in general, to Trotskyist factions in the Left Platform who knew negotiations would fail and saw them as an opportunity to prepare Greek society for Grexit – Syriza had unite around a single strategy. “No sacrifice for the Euro” was the result: a commitment to fight within the Euro, but ultimately to withdraw if it meant being unable to implement their programme.

So when the Eurozone insisted on austerity, Syriza had a ready-made solution: leave. The problem was that, with internal democracy barely functioning while the party was in power, Tsipras walked into negotiations without any backup plan for leaving the Euro – and vetoed members of his own cabinet when they proposed to come up with one. What this demonstrates is neither the need for an unconditional break with the EU nor the final limits of reformism, but the victory of one political faction over another. On the British left, where Eurocommunism is an almost alien concept, the idea that one might entertain so many illusions in the prospects for negotiation is difficult to understand – but it was these illusions that mattered.  

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Over the weekend, a few hundred activists and academics gathered in Athens for a long-planned conference (‘Democracy Rising’), which served as a forum to discuss the defeat currently being inflicted on the entire European left. The culture-clash between the concision of activists in the heat of struggle and the long-windedness of academics has rarely been more cutting. On one plenary, three world-renowned social theorists lined up to give tacit intellectual backing to Tsipras’s compromise, one of them with a twenty minute paper on a ‘Hegelian trinity’ in recent Greek political discourse, and were upstaged by firebrand Left Platform MP and economist Costas Lapavitsas, who apparently gate-crashed the panel, and denounced the “neo-colonial” conditions being imposed by the memorandum.  “This is not Brest-Litovsk,” he shouted above the opprobrium in the room. “It is not buying time to establish Bolshevik power in Moscow and Leningrad.”

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For Lapavitsas and many of the international delegations in the room who roared with approval, the case for Grexit has been overwhelming for months. But beyond Greece, what is apparent is the sheer extent to which the Euorpean left is being forced to reassess its relationship to Europeanism, the Euro and the EU. As well as attacking some of the left’s retreat into Keynsianism, a speaker from the Slovenian United Left coalition used his speech to half-jokingly call for a ‘United States of the European Periphery’.  In Britain, the reassessment of how the left and the EU should interact is like watching a shadow-puppet version of the debate: the outlines are there, but there is little nuance or content.

The fight over the memorandum in Greece and inside Syriza is far from over, and while many foreign commentators and journalists (including me) are now leaving the country, the political crisis is likely to deepen. Tsipras is now effectively agitating for a split in Syriza, briefing the press against his internal opponents and preparing for the internal war. The Left Platform, too, is calling for a party conference to reverse the memorandum and elect a new leadership. The outcomes of the internal processes are uncertain – although a majority of the Central Committee has opposed the memorandum – and the rumoured expulsions of dissidents have yet to materialise. And then there is the wildcard that Tsipras can play at any point: fresh elections, during which he could try to replace his critics in parliament.

As a speaker from Portugal’s Left Bloc put it at the conference: “The markets have become people – they are happy, sad, depressed – while people have become numbers and statistics.” For all the intrigue, the basic contours of what is happening to Europe’s poor can be understood in relatively simple terms. The European project has been used by capital, and national governments which represent that capital, to make the poor pay for the economic crisis, and to bring down left wing governments where they seek to prevent this. With European politics at a crossroads, it is vital that the British left focusses on the real task at hand – building a radical political alternative that can challenge these forces – and not just on building an obsession with fighting the super-structure of the European Union.