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29 September 2023

Syriza and the death of Eurocommunism

Stefanos Kasselakis’s takeover of the Greek left-wing party marks a traumatic break from their political traditions.

By David Broder

A former Goldman Sachs investment banker, Stefanos Kasselakis may seem an unusual leader for the Greek political party whose name means “coalition of the radical left”. Kasselakis, 35, has little activist record, has never held elected office, and his campaign in Syriza’s internal primary, in which he scored 57 per cent of the vote on 24 September, did little to spell out his policies. Yet this, too, pointed to Syriza’s departure from the old forms of left-wing party organisation. In a social-media based campaign, focused on personality more than programme, the Greek American businessman spoke of making Syriza a “big tent” force akin to the US Democrats, one which would “copy the US political formula as soon as possible”. Syriza’s primary allowed 40,000 new supporters to register, most of them apparently Kasselakis voters, though his margin of victory suggests that more longstanding members also rallied to his banner.

In a sense, this is the logical outcome of Syriza’s recent history. Under the former Communist Youth leader Alexis Tsipras, Syriza formed a government in 2015 which promised to resist austerity while remaining in the eurozone. Yet faced with Troika intransigence, Tsipras chose to impose devastating cuts rather than pursue the confrontation with EU institutions advocated by dissidents within his party. Once this battle was lost – and Tsipras’s left-wing critics were purged – Syriza’s approach to everything from border controls to foreign policy became almost indistinguishable from that of the Third Way-style centre left. Even once Syriza returned to opposition in 2019 it did not resume its crusade against neoliberalism, but worked to consolidate the political space it had won from the social-democratic party Pasok. Now Kasselakis promises to “unequivocally embrace the political centre”.

Yet for the defeated side in Syriza’s primary, Kasselakis’s takeover marks a traumatic break from their political traditions. Syriza has roots the underground opposition to Greece’s military dictatorship, but also Eurocommunism: the tendency, mainly built in southern European communist parties in the 1970s, which promised an alternative to both Soviet-style command economies and reformist social democracy. Before his election in 2015, Tsipras’s own conversance in the Eurocommunist tradition won him many admirers on the European left, as he used rallies and interviews to cite his intellectual inspiration by Eurocommunists such as the 1970s Italian Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer. In the 2014 EU elections, Italian left-wingers repaid his admiration by running an electoral list called “The Other Europe with Tsipras”. 

Tsipras’s past references to Italian Marxism bear little comparison to Kasselakis’s own reference point in the US Democrats. Eurocommunism spoke the language of programme, of horizons for humanity’s future, of the theorisation of concrete conditions that justified political decisions. Evidently, Syriza’s engagement with Gramscian theories of the state made little practical difference, when its spell in government so thoroughly reflected neoliberal hegemony. But for the Eurocommunist tradition, this intellectual culture did matter, including as a means of rationalising their departure from previous orthodoxies. The concern to justify present-day political decisions in terms of inherited traditions, and a hoped-for end-goal, is typical of Marxist politics generally. But many Eurocommunists ended up changing what their end goal was. 

One striking example of such a conversion was Giorgio Napolitano, the ex-Eurocommunist and long-time Italian president who died last Friday. From the 1960s a leader of the Italian Communists’ reforming wing, his 1977 book-interview with Eric Hobsbawm was a major text for Eurocommunists in Britain; in 1978 he was the first leading member of his party allowed to visit the United States. An Atlanticist and enthusiast for the European project, Napolitano increasingly found his allies neither in Brezhnevism or Bennism but among social democrats like Neil Kinnock and Willy Brandt. Napolitano was often critical of Berlinguer’s commitment to communist identity and insisted the party’s natural “end point” was “a democratic socialism of European stamp”. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the party did take this turn, renaming itself “Party of the Democratic Left” in 1991. 

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If events in the Eastern Bloc reinvigorated European integration, this also offered a new political identity for many left-wingers. As Napolitano later put it, where communism’s utopia had turned into its opposite, European unity was a “gentle, non-violent utopia, the bearer of freedom and progress”. As Italian president from 2006 to 2015, Napolitano was the first ex-Communist to fill the role and his political choices showed he was rather more “ex” than “Communist”. Determined to maintain both centre-left and right-wing parties’ commitment to the EU, he made unusually interventionist moves to ensure governments’ compliance with Brussels. He orchestrated both the formation of Mario Monti’s technocratic cabinet in 2011 and, after the 2013 election, a short-lived government uniting the centre-left with Silvio Berlusconi, for a further round of budget cutting. 

Such endeavours to enforce European fiscal discipline were surely far from the Eurocommunists’ original agenda: they had spoken of European integration as a means of realising the left’s social mission, rather than an alternative to it. In their different careers, Tsipras and Napolitano each abandoned the Eurocommunist tradition’s initial emphasis on grassroots democracy; as such Eurocommunists were among their leading critics. Yet in each case, their path to the political centre was built on common assumptions about the declining power of nation-states, the iron necessity of European unity, and the subordination of working-class material interests to this overall agenda.

Interviewed by Hobsbawm in 1977, as the tectonic plates of the world market had begun shifting, Napolitano spoke of the changed priorities of the left. His party could no longer speak only of the demands of workers but had to set out a programme for economic growth, taking up the “perspective of the continuous, organic, balanced development of the Italian economy” and the “retailoring of production for the foreign market”. He spoke a language of adapting economies to a new era, like we often hear on the centre left today. Hobsbawm interrupted Napolitano, asking how this fit into the Communists’ general political strategy: 

Hobsbawm: All this is very useful and positive… 

Napolitano: But what does it have to do with the advancement of socialism? 

Hobsbawm: That’s exactly what I wanted to ask you. 

Napolitano: That’s a question whose answer is less simple than it may seem. 

Unable to directly answer Hobsbawm’s question, Napolitano insisted that the working classes must gradually take over the levers of the economy. In reality, the opposite has happened — and as Syriza’s time in office illustrated, the eurozone’s institutions have played an important role in stifling such bottom-up control. Tsipras organised a referendum where Greeks said “no” to austerity, only then to tell them that there was no alternative. 

Succeeding him as Syriza leader, Kasselakis has been careful to avoid such promises. Even as Greece emerges from the most intense austerity, few will believe in utopias and sunlit futures. There are still some in Europe’s radical left who speak of reforming the EU’s institutions. What’s rather harder is identifying the mechanisms by which that could happen — or continuing to see the EU as a beacon of progress.  

[See also: The new face of the Greek left]

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