Syriza revisited: what can the British left learn from Greece?

Returning to the frontline of Europe’s beleaguered battle against austerity.

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When I visited Athens in the heat of the Greek bailout referendum last year, the city felt like an insurrection. Posters, stickers and arguments adorned every café and public space, while legions of young Syriza activists rushed between workplaces and community gatherings and campuses.

This was the frontline of Europe’s battle against austerity, and when the Oxi (No) result came through with 61.3 per cent of the vote, it felt like Europe’s biggest party as well. In 2015, the Greek left provided a lesson in hard graft and appealing to a mass audience. Now, with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm of the Labour party, Greece can provide some deeper lessons for the British left.  

The first person I met on the Greek left, on 2 July 2015, was Petros Markopoulos, a leading light in Syriza’s youth wing.  He was running teams of campaigners across Athens on almost zero sleep out of Syriza Youth’s headquarters in Exarchia, the city’s lefty alternative quarter.

As the world watched Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis take on Europe’s elite in week after week of climactic negotiations, both sides threw everything they had at the referendum campaign, in the context of growing economic chaos and constant partisan interventions by Greece’s creditors.

That evening, Syriza Youth activists took us to Zografou, an east end suburb of Athens, where thousands of local residents marched noisily around the area, prompting cheers, and the occasional bucket of water, from passing balconies. This was a referendum campaign run from below, powered by the Greek left through broad organising committees in every local area. The eve of poll Oxi rally in Syntagma Square, one of the biggest in Greece’s recent history, saw speeches and statements from across Europe and the world, as well as from the Prime Minister.

Throughout the summer, Tsipras looked inches away from some kind of major compromise. Some Syriza activists seemed to be in denial; others, like the activist I met in Dea, a Trotskyist group, were already preparing for a confrontation in Syriza. Eventually, it happened. After signing the Third Memorandum, the left-wing Greek government has implemented some of the worst austerity ever seen in Europe at the behest of its creditors. Syriza has split. Tsipras now cannot set a budget without the permission of the Eurozone.

When I met Petros Markopoulos again last week at Syriza Youth’s new headquarters, which have moved from a now-hostile Exarchia, he tells me that around a third of the party’s activists have dropped out, most of them into inactivity rather than to the Popular Unity party set up to oppose the government’s bailout deal.

Then as now, many activists understand the basic problem, domestically at least, in terms of the unaccountability of Syriza’s leaders. “This is how the state wants to be governed – by an individual, not by massive blocks of people or political movements,” Markopoulos says. Then as now, Syriza Youth fights for internal party democracy, and also for a formal recognition that what has happened is a defeat, not a clever compromise to be defended.

“It wasn’t just a defeat,” Yanis Tolios, the former general secretary of the Industry Ministry tells me when I visit Popular Unity’s headquarters on the eighth floor of an office block near Omonia Square. “It was the moment when Tsipras, who should have turned over the negotiating table, hid under it instead.”

For Popular Unity and other fragments of the Greek left, the answer to the situation was and is clear – restructure the debt, get out of the Euro, nationalise the banks, and pick up the social and economic pieces.

Instead, Syriza has gone down the road of doing as much as it can without challenging the fundamentals of the grim austerity package. It has managed to push through gay marriage in what remains a relatively conservative political environment, and has made moves to secularise religious education in schools.

In economic and budgeting terms, Syriza pursues a strategy resembling a turbo-charged version of Labour’s “dented shield” in local government. Faced with implementing the privatisation of utilities, the government will attempt to retain a majority public share.

Faced with raiding money from pensions, it will raise contributions and take as much as it can from the wealthy; faced with the decimation of healthcare funding, it restructures the payments and extends coverage for the unemployed. The willing legalisation of mass redundancies can be traded for concessions on collective bargaining from the Eurogroup.

The Greek government’s record on refugees should not be idealised; when the land routes into Europe closed, Greece reluctantly closed its borders and signed the EU-Turkey Agreement. But its efforts do seem impressive on some levels. As well as extending provision in health and education to refugees, the government has mobilised Greek society in solidarity.

“If you wanted just to be popular, you would not do these things,” says Markopoulos. “But we have learned something else as well – that in government, you can determine public opinion from on high, by shifting the terms of the debate and involving the people”.

So why, I ask, could Syriza not have performed the same function in leading public opinion during the crisis – to take the leap out of the Eurozone? “It could have been done,” he says, “but we would not have held the balance of power domestically – to do it you would have needed control of the trade unions and other social institutions”.

For many on the Greek left, calculations are based not just on the prospect of social crisis, but the prospect of special courts against the government and military rule within living memory. “These people are not kittens like we are,” Markopoulos says. “Maybe we should have gone down like Allende, but I think I would prefer to leave something behind.”

For Yanis Tolios and others in Popular Unity, talk of a coup is “scaremongering”. His focus is not on the footwork that Tsipras uses to challenge the domestic elites, but on the much bigger questions of national sovereignty and the Euro. “The whole problem,” he says, “stems from a monetary system that more and more looks like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.” Although he is at pains to state that Popular Unity opposes withdrawal from the EU, he is more animated about Brexit than the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.

On one level, though, everyone seems to agree that Syriza’s compromise with the Eurozone was the result of a bad negotiation strategy. “Tsipras harboured a lot of illusions in the process,” says Tolios. “He believed he could persuade the elites, that he could avoid the memorandum inside the Eurozone”.

For Markopoulos, Greece’s potential withdrawal from the Eurozone was “not a hollow threat. Perhaps in 2012 it would have been easier – but by the time it happened, they [the Eurozone] were totally prepared.” With no Plan B, and with the Eurozone relaxed about a potential Grexit, Tsipras caved and signed Greece up to some of the toughest reforms in its history.

The result is that the Greek left – arguably the most formidable, socially ingrained and largest European left-wing movement, which until 2015 carried the hopes of millions – has been reduced to a defensive mission. For Markopoulos and others in Syriza, keeping the party running is “a way of holding a space open for the left – a way of keeping the debate alive. If Syriza collapses, the whole left collapses.”

Syriza’s long term strategy is not clear. For now, it is to cushion the most vulnerable in Greek society for an indefinite period against massive public sector cuts and a gigantic contraction in the economy, while foreign creditors have veto powers over its budgets.

Is this really sustainable? “I don’t know,” Markopoulos replies. “But the alternative is to say I want to keep my conscience clear and to let New Democracy do its business.” Popular Unity, the party with a very clear alternative strategy, received 2.8 per cent of the vote at the last round of elections. It is now polling below that. There is always a way out, but no one has yet found it.  

With even more immediacy than Syriza, the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn is coming to terms with its newfound relevance. The radical left in Britain now needs to speak not to an audience of a few thousand, but to prepare for government and to persuade an audience of many millions. Greece may be out of the international spotlight, but the experience of Syriza and the Greek left provides vital lessons in how to do this.

During the negotiations between Tsipras and the Eurozone in the summer of 2015, the wider European left placed its hopes in Syriza’s activist base to hold the Greek government back from an abject compromise. In the end, slick media management and clever footwork may be important, but they are no substitute for a dynamic grassroots with the willingness to contradict the party’s leadership and the power to make decisions democratically.

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Michael Chessum is a socialist writer and campaigner.