World Politics

The Syriza Victory: A Working Class Victory. But is Parliament the Last Word?


Soma Marik

The Syriza victory and its context:

The moment it appeared Syriza were the front runners in the elections, the International bankers and their media were campaigning that Syriza were a threat to the Eurozone, to the stability of Europe. After the elections, when Syriza, with 2.244 million votes (36.34%)  emerged with 149 seats in the 300 member parliament, it became the tone to say that a merely elected government cannot change everything at will, thus setting to rest the suspicions some Greeks had that a democratic government might be precisely about such changes.

The extent of working class fightback cannot be gauged merely by the votes, but even the distorting prism of parliamentary elections does give some indications. Iannis Delatolas, an activist in the main far-left alliance Antarsiya (which did not support Syriza) explained in a recent interview: “In the traditionally "red" working class areas of Athens the combined vote [of Syriza, KKE and Antarsiya] is even higher. In electoral districts “B Athens” it is at 45.1% and “B Piraeus” the combined vote for the Left is at 51.2%. In effect what this means is the end of the social democrats of Pasok.” Behind this, there are the 34 general strikes since 2008, that have so far brought down four governments.

Syriza had in fact not suggested leaving the Eurozone, something that was demanded by Antarsiya. But what if Syriza carried out, merely, the injunctions of a regulation adopted by the European Union in 2013 against Greece, Spain and other indebted members of the EU? It is to be noted that Greece is expected to pay off 175% of its annual national wealth as debt. Now clause 9 of article 7 in this says: A Member State subject to a macroeconomic adjustment programme shall carry out a comprehensive audit of its public finances in order, inter alia, to assess the reasons that led to the building up of excessive levels of debt as well as to track any possible irregularity”.

Greek debt, which was at 113% of GDP in 2009 even before the onset of the Greek crisis and the intervention by the Troika (the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the IMF), which now holds about 80% of the total debt, reached 175% of GDP in 2014. We therefore see that the Troika intervention was followed by a very considerable increase in Greek debt.

Between 2010 and 2012, the loans that the Troika granted to Greece were very largely used to repay its most important creditors at that time, mainly the private banks of the principal European economies, starting with the French and German banks. In 2009, some 80% of Greek public debt was held by the private banks of seven EU countries. Fifty percent was held by French and German banks alone.  Eric Toussaint argues that an audit of the Greek debt will show that European private banks greatly increased their loans to Greece between the end of 2005 and 2009 (rising by more than €60 billion, from €80 billion to €140 billion) without taking into account Greece’s real repayment capacities. The banks acted recklessly, reassured in their conviction that the European authorities would come to their aid if there was a problem. The so-called bail-out of Greece organised by the Troika, has in fact enabled the banks of some European countries to make vast profits while driving Greek workers to ruin. So when the EU argues that it will take a strong stand on refusing debt write off, it is saying, in effect, that it will protect the interests of the dominant sections of European finance capital.

It is from this perspective, that the victory of Syriza has to be seen. This is a triumph of working class struggles against a very strong right wing offensive. This offensive has had terrifying effects on the Greek workers and petty bourgeoisie. Some 2.5 million people in a country of under 12 million live under the poverty line, with a further 3.8 million facing the same prospects. The legal minimum wage currently is 586 per months, down from 739.50 in 2010. Half of all companies in Greece hire workers outside the books to avoid paying insurance and tax for the workers. A survey found that about 47% of Greeks were unable to afford necessary treatment. Between 2009 and 2013, educational spending has been cut by 33%, with a further 14 % cut projected by 2016, totally gutting public education.  In this context, the 40 point plan of Syriza, demanding minimum wages to not below 750, raising income tax to 75% level for incomes over 500,000, exclusion of private sector from national health policies, suspension of debt payments, cutting military expenditure (including ending Greek participation in NATO and the Afghan war) and the protection of immigrant rights, while not at all directly overturning capitalism, will certainly confront actually existing Greek and European capitalism with major challenges.

Elections and Mass Struggles: The Contradictory Rise of Syriza

It is from this perspective that a revolutionary view of Syriza needs to start. Syriza was formed through a process over the last decade and a half. The Left Reformist Party, Synaspismos, had initially launched the call for a broader left coalition, because under the Greek proportional representation system, a party needs at least 3% votes to be represented in parliament. In 2004, Synaspismos formed an alliance with several groups of far left origin, as well as organisations that had split off from the KKE (the Stalinist Greek Communist Party). Getting 3.3% votes, they sent six MPs. Initially, it was dominated by Synaspismos and this led to tensions. But the election of Alekos Alavanos as party leader was an important shift. He was more committed to the coalition. He was also able to push the party to promoting younger generation leaders, something that resulted in the elevation of Alexis Tsipras.  Over the years, other left groups adhered to Syriza. And in 2012, as a result of the shock of the Troika imposed policies, working class voters swung left, voting for Syriza and the KKE. The second of the 2012 elections saw Syriza getting 27% votes, becoming the second party in parliament. But the KKE, with a policy that formally mirrors the German communists before Hitler (everyone except the KKE is equally reactionary) refused any cooperation.  This continued even before, and after the elections of 2015, despite the reality that the Fascist Golden Dawn party has come third in Parliament, and despite the fact that the KKE has in the past collaborated with the right wing New Democracy.

In 2013, Syriza turned into a unitary party. A leader of the party left wing, Stathis Kouvelakis, explained to Sebastian Budgen in an interview, that the Syriza right, that is, the left reformists, had expected that this would reduce the political power of the left wing. Instead, their weightage grew. The Left Platform, which is willing for Greece to leave the Eurozone, got 30% seats in the Central Committee.

But the electoral victory for Syriza was also built on a foundation of mass struggles and Syriza’s participation in the struggles. In the more dynamic sectors of the trade unions, over the last five years, Syriza has overtaken the KKE as the principal force. In the universities, Syriza and the far left both improved their positions. A very dynamic youth wing of Syriza also developed by taking part in the anti-racist and counter-globalisation movements.

The Greek parliamentary rules make it clear that the government of the day must have a majority at all times. There was no possibility of Syriza forming a minority government. So the sectarianism of the KKE was totally destructive, giving the Syriza moderates the plea to go for an alliance with the rightist party ANEL (Independent Greeks), which is also opposed to the austerity measures, but which is anti-immigrant, and extremely nationalistic.

The Choices before Syriza and the Greek Working Class:

As events unfold, Syriza will be faced with sharp choices. It has only limited negotiating space. For Greek workers, the battle has just begun with the defeat of the parties that had carried out the austerity policies. Unless austerity is rejected, they cannot even breathe. And to reject austerity is to begin to fight, not just neo-liberalism, but capitalism as a whole. In a country that since the mid 70s has had a stable parliamentary system, one can avoid parliament only in one’s imagination. But to put the main focus on parliament would be to ensure defeat. How far the workers mobilize, how far they can force Tsipras to live up to his promises and refuse to use the alliance with ANEL as the fig leaf to back down, would be crucial.

The first week has shown that the government is taking steps in both directions. This cannot last forever, or even for very long. Syriza is demanding things that are reasonable for Greek toilers. Let us understand that of the 246 billion loaned to the Greek government, less than 10% has been spent by the government. The remainder has been used to repay private creditors – the major banks, in the first place of Germany and France. The immediate emergency spending that the new government wants to do comes to just 12 billion. But if Greece is permitted to write off its loans, even in part, if Greece is permitted to raise minimum wages and increase social spending by the government on sectors like public health, then a whole range of countries will see similar demands coming up.

As the Syriza leadership has held its ground, the international right wing consensus is coming under strain. Former IMF European Director, Reza Moghadam, has suggested a 50% write off of the debt. So the aim is to reduce the debt burden but hold the line on imposing austerity. This does not solve the problem of the Greek workers and petty bourgeoisie, who simply do not have the money to buy goods. That in turn is also affecting the Greek economy.

Meanwhile, as Stathis Kouvelakis pointed out in a post-election article, the adaptation to ANEL and Panos Kammenos is not insignificant. While ANEL is not as committed to keeping Syriza within the EU dictated measures as some other potential bourgeois partners, an alliance with ANEL still means an end to the idea that this is clearly a government of the Left. That Kammenos has got the post of Minister of national Defence is also significant. While he may be supportive of disengagement with the EU or NATO, he would also be a strong supporter of augmenting the powers of the state apparatus.

At the same time, the government has taken instant action, calling a halt to the privatization of Athens’ airport, the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki, and the railroads.

Smaller but demonstrative actions can also be mentioned.  Over 18 months ago, 595 Finance Ministry cleaners were put in a redundancy pool, their jobs out-sourced, and after a period in the pool they were sacked despite, in many cases, decades of service. But the women just wouldn't accept it and camped just outside the Finance Ministry a couple of hundred metres away from Parliament with a colourful display of posters, placards and banners. In one of his first speeches, Tsipras declared all these women would be rehired.

International Lessons, International Solidarity:

To conclude, the government of Syriza is not a revolutionary Marxist regime committed to the overthrow of capital, and it has not claimed to be one even before the elections. Those who have worn the dialectic to fine dust in order to arrive at this point are expending their energies on a futile pursuit. Indeed, even the forty point programme shows a limited vision in certain ways. Tailored as a response to a deep economic crisis, it stresses mostly immediate economic issues, though it does include a commitment to immigrants’ rights and equal pay for women and men. Still, it is possible to talk of inadequate responses on environmental and gender issues, if one wishes to stress the point.  But Syriza presents the most radical government to be elected anywhere in Europe, given that even the government of the Spanish Popular Front had a much more modest formal position. It is a left reformist government, that without breaking with capitalism, is seeking to significantly improve the conditions of the working class within capitalism. That is a kind of Social Democracy that has been long lost. And it has used language of a type long forgotten, when, before the elections, its spokespersons said that the formation of a left government in the specific situation of Greece would have a transitional objective involving the overthrow of the policies of the dominant class. There can be two responses from the far left to this, both of which are destructive. They can be carried away in the euphoria, and focus on primarily finding good points for acts of the government, or they can denounce it a priori as class traitors. To simply denounce Syriza and point to 1917 as a counter-example is not a very useful form of radical politics. Soviets are not springing up, even after years of militant mobilisations and repeated general strikes. The real task is to be active at the grassroots, demanding, not that Tsipras should fulfil some other left party’s policies, but his own 40 points. Such a campaign can actually generate mass working class support and lead to significant victories. One could add to that, bringing in other dimensions that the radical left have developed. For example, only 6 out of the 39 minsters are women, and while Panayiotis Lafazanis, a key member of the Left Platform, is to handle the expanded Ministry for Production Reconstruction, Environment and Energy, the left has been generally under-represented. These could be issues that show pressures being built later. Feminists across Europe have already expressed dissatisfaction.

Internationally, the task of left activists would be to do two things – to recognise, from the Syriza victory, that fighting fascism and capitalist neoliberalism calls for independent working class mobilisation and a complete rejection of collaboration with bourgeois parties and their policies (after all, the votes came not through the alliance with ANEL but because of class independence and the refusal in 2012 and after to collaborate with the bourgeois establishment), and to understand that socialism cannot be built in one country, surrounded by capitalism, so the best solidarity with Greek workers consists of intensifying social struggles in every country, and building concrete solidarity networks based on working class organisations. Much hinges on what happens in the coming days as the working class intensifies its struggles in the heartlands of capitalism. Spain, another debt-ridden country where people can be seen begging on the streets like any third world country, goes to the polls soon, with Podemos, the newly formed left party topping the opinion polls as workers are fed up with the traditional parties of the left.