Bourgeois Populist “Radicals”
Based on Middle-Class Sectors
What Is SYRIZA?
SYRIZA supporters at October 2014 rally.
SYRIZA, the “Coalition of the Radical Left,” mesmerized the mainstream capitalist media and the bulk of the left throughout Europe and the world with its January election victory. It recalled the election of François Mitterrand and his Union of the Left in France in 1981, or the victory of Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular in Chile in 1970. Those popular-front coalitions headed off a potentially revolutionary crisis by chaining the workers to a section of the ruling class, thus opening the way to a return of the right as the left failed. In the Greek case, SYRIZA is a bourgeois populist party with a left rhetoric. But seldom has the bankruptcy of the “left” governing a capitalist state been so dramatically shown as in Athens today. Many a disillusioned leftist has to be asking, “How could this happen, and so fast?”
Part of the answer is that SYRIZA leaders Tsipras and hip finance minister Varoufakis were bluffing in the high-stakes game of liar’s poker: they never had a plan nor the resources to withstand an unbending “nein”from the German-dominated Eurobankers. Partly, too, they miscalculated badly on the response of the ruling French and German social democrats and Italian Democrats, none of whom broke ranks with the conservative bankers. Despite the Greek leaders’ whirlwind tour of European capitals, in the end they had no allies in Brussels. But much of the explanation for SYRIZA’s political kolotoumba (somersault) is confusion about the nature of the party itself.
“Left” and “right,” after all, describe relative positions on the spectrum of bourgeois politics, dating back to the French Revolution of 1789. SYRIZA started out in 2004 as a coalition of (not-so) “far leftists” who were in the process of turning sharply to the right. A crazy quilt of ex-“Eurocommunists” of Synaspismós (Coalition of the Left, Movements and Ecology) and AKOA, ex-KKEers of KEDA, Maoists of the KOE and groups mislabeled Trotskyist including followers of the late Tony Cliff (DEA) and Ted Grant (Communist Tendency), SYRIZA came together as an anti-establishment electoral coalition firmly rooted in capitalist parliamentary politics. Despite the “radical” in its name, its program didn’t go beyond classical social democracy.
It was the largely middle-class movement of “aganaktismeni” (the outraged) camped out in Syntagma (Constitution) Square in front of parliament and in other city plazas in 2011 that launched SYRIZA as a contender for power. The Coalition raised its electoral score from under 10% to 27% in two legislative elections in 2012, as its number of deputies shot up from 9 to 71. Under pressure from the bourgeois media to rein in leftists in its ranks, a founding congress in mid-2013 began transforming SYRIZA into a bourgeois electoral party, including organizational measures concentrating power in the hands of Tsipras. A program was adopted replacing calls to cancel the debt with vague talk of “renegotiating” it within the EU framework.
In a lengthy interview with a social-democratic magazine in the U.S., Stathis Kouvelakis, a leader of the Left Platform of SYRIZA, explained that after 2012, there was “a process leading more to a party of members than a party of activists or active members, a parti d’adhérents rather than a parti de militants. Which also means that this rendered Syriza as an organization to a certain extent permeable to the practices of, if not clientelism, at least the practice of local, traditional networks of power, which are still very strong in Greek society” (“Greece: Phase One,” Jacobin Magazine, 22 January).
As SYRIZA was transformed from a coalition of activists into an electoral party, there was an influx of middle-aged academics, petty-bourgeois professionals and office employees. Kouvelakis noted that the party is “dominated very much by intellectual layers: public-sector workers with a high level of skills and education,” and “the relative weight of the younger layers remains quite limited.” And when snap elections were called after the failure of parliament to elect a president in December, the “radical” Coalition’s slate was stacked with distinctly non-radical members of parliament:
“On 3 January, the day he filled a stadium with 5,000 party members, the inner core saw him browbeat his party’s left into withdrawing their objections to his choice of prospective MPs. Tsipras has transformed both the party and its operation; the central committee in its shabby HQ became less important than the policy team around shadow ministers.”
–“‘Hope begins today’: the inside story of Syriza’s rise to power,” Guardian (28 January)
While SYRIZA received the votes of many working people, its ties to the workers movement are slim, and hardly organic. A dock worker member, queried about criticisms that the party “is dominated by university intellectuals, not people from the union movement,” answered that this is “more or less true,” and “people in the unions who are members of SYRIZA are few in number.” He added that SYRIZA and the unions “don’t have strong connections,” and agreed that “there is a negative opinion of trade unions” in the party, because of historical ties of the unions with the rightist New Democracy (ND) and the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Party (PASOK), which governed Greece for the last four decades. In the port of Piraeus, he said, “the power rests with the Communist Party link in trade unionism” (Viewpoint Magazine, 16 February).
The petty-bourgeois character of SYRIZA’s base was heightened in the recent elections, as it managed to break into traditional ND and PASOK fiefdoms in the countryside where, the Guardian (28 January), reported: “farmers have been forced to take mortgages, the banks are clamouring to repossess and suicides in these quiet farming towns are on the up.” The planks in SYRIZA’s election platform calling for an end to the onerous unified property tax and lowering rates on small and medium property had a particular echo there. Urban homeowners were attracted by calls to end seizure of bank accounts as well as foreclosures and evictions from primary residences.
With its electoral appeal among white-collar government employees, homeowners and property-owning small farmers, SYRIZA managed to attract much of the former base of PASOK. From over 3 million votes in 2009, it fell to 750,000 in 2012 and under 300,000 in 2015. Although part of the social-democratic Second International, PASOK is a bourgeois nationalist party with a clientalist base in the government bureaucracy. As it crumbled amid popular fury over the austerity it implemented under the Eurobankers’ Memorandum, whole sections of this capitalist party went over to SYRIZA, typified by the prominent legislator Alexis Mitropoulos, a founder of PASOK. In fact, in key respects SYRIZA is to the right of the early PASOK, which called to leave NATO, nationalize the means of production, etc.
Today, SYRIZA is not a “far left” party at all, or even part of the workers movement, but – like PASOK, whose position it has inherited – a party based on the petty bourgeoisie with a bourgeois populist program. The phenomenon of capitalist parties proclaiming themselves “radical,” “socialist” and “revolutionary” is hardly new. In fact, they often appear in a potentially revolutionary crisis when the ruling class needs some left-talking poseurs to defuse the crisis and divert the masses. This was the case of the French Radical Socialist Party, founded in 1901 amid the mass radicalization over the clerical-militarist and anti-Semitic Dreyfus Affair. The bourgeois Radical Socialists ensnared the Socialist Party of Jean Jaurès in the web of class collaboration, bringing it into the capitalist government via the Left Bloc.
As Tspiras noted in a talk at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. during a 2013 visit to introduce himself to the International Monetary Fund and U.S. State Department, “the term ‘radical’ was used by many parties in Greece, even former Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis used the term ‘Radical Union of Greece,’” one of the parties the conservative leader led during the quarter century he ruled the country. Tsipras ended his talk saying, “I hope I’ve convinced you that I’m not as dangerous as some people think I am.” He convinced the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises, which declared after the January election that “The Federation, as the basic representative of the organized Greek businesses, will be at the side of the government.”
In the case of Greece, a country of small businesses, whose monopolistic sectors (shipping and banking) operate mostly offshore, while SYRIZA’s rhetoric may have a social-democratic tinge, its bourgeois nationalist program (like that of its predecessor PASOK) reflects the interests of a significant section of the ruling class. The weak bourgeoisie of this “second-tier” imperialist country requires a strong state sector to survive in the face of the multinational giants that dominate the Eurozone economy. In this way, the “Coalition of the Radical Left” resembles various populist bourgeois parties in Latin America.
An example is Evo Morales’ Movement toward Socialism (MAS) in Bolivia, based on the Aymara and Quechua peasantry. While invoking “socialism” in its name and although Morales frequently excoriates Washington – much as Tsipras goes after German domination of the EU while recalling the Nazi occupation of Greece in World War II – the MAS regime of “Andean capitalism” (in the words of Bolivia’s left-talking vice president Álvaro García Linera) has spearheaded vicious attacks on the workers while using rhetoric about defending (state capitalist) enterprises like the COMIBOL mining company.1 Another parallel is the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) of the bourgeois populist government of the late Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, although here again SYRIZA is notably to its right.
With their anti-Yankee rhetoric and ties to Cuba, Chávez and Maduro have been a thorn in the side of Washington, under Republican Bush as well as Democrat Obama. In the face of imperialist attacks, Trotskyists stand for military defense of Venezuela, Bolivia and other countries targeted by the arrogant Yankee overlords. But despite its talk of “revolution” and the reference to “socialism” in the party’s name, the PSUV is a bourgeois party based on the capitalist state apparatus, particularly the military. And while we stand four-square against the seditious opposition by pro-imperialist rightists following Washington’s script for toppling the Caracas regime, Trotskyists denounce its repression of labor and worker militants.2 In fact, key slogans from chavista Venezuela have been cribbed by Tsiparas’ party in Greece, whose program passed at its 2013 founding congress proclaimed “SYRIZA’s strategic objective is socialism of the 21st century.” It was Chávez who coined the slogan “21st century socialism,” later picked up by Ecuador’s anti-labor capitalist ruler Rafael Correa.3
Today SYRIZA operates as a bourgeois electoral machine, with an atomized membership, in which all important decisions are taken by Tsipras and his ministerial clique while party bodies and militants are powerless. When it was forming the coalition with the rightist ANEL and agreeing to the February 20 Eurogroup statement not even MPs were consulted, or even informed, before these steps were announced. Sure, leftists can sound off and present amendments in the Central Committee, but CC decisions are meaningless. No need to check if the union tops are lined up either, as British Labour Party leaders still do occasionally. Greek unions could be decimated and it wouldn’t put in question SYRIZA’s existence any more than it would that of the U.S. Democrats, Argentine Peronists, or the ex-Communists of Italy’s bourgeois Democratic Party.
As for SYRIZA’s economic program, it is resolutely capitalist. Nothing in its platform for the 2015 election, the Thessaloniki Program, goes beyond what bourgeois governments have done elsewhere. Its call for a “European New Deal” recalls U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s; in urging “quantitative easing” by the European Central Bank, it echoes the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank under Barack Obama (whom Tsipras has cited as an alternative to EU austerity policies). And SYRIZA’s call for a moratorium on interest payments and for writing off much of the public debt in order to make it “sustainable” was endorsed in an open letter to the Financial Times23 January) by 18 leading bourgeois economists, including Joseph Stiglitz, most of them advocates of John Maynard Keynes’ policies of stimulating production by boosting demand.
Finance Minister Varoufakis (a former advisor of PASOK prime
minister George Papandreou and not a member of SYRIZA) says
openly that his aim is “stabilising European capitalism,” and
that his “agenda [is] founded on the assumption that the left
was, and remains, squarely defeated.” He decided “not to
propose radical political programs … to overthrow European
capitalism,” but instead favors “forging alliances with
reactionary forces … to stabilise Europe today” at “the risk
of becoming co-opted, of shedding our radicalism through the
warm glow of having ‘arrived in the corridors of power’”
(“Yanis Varoufakis: How I became an erratic Marxist,”Guardian,
18 February). This “game theorist” is no Marxist at all, but
he’s certainly aware of the game he is playing. In bowing to
the Eurobankers he didn’t betray his principles, just stabbed
in the back the working people who voted for SYRIZA. ■
- 1.See “Brutal Repression by Evo Morales Against Bolivian General Strike,” The Internationalist No. 35, Summer 2013.
- 2.See “Leftist Union Leaders Assassinated in Venezuela,” The Internationalist No. 28, March-April 2009.
- 3.See “Ecuador Needs a Workers, Peasants and Indian Government,” The Internationalist, December 2007.