In Shock After SYRIZA Flip-Flop
What Road for
Debt Peonage or Workers Revolution?
Following Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras’ July 12 surrender to the horrific austerity demands of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund, there has reportedly been a general mood of resignation in the Greek population. On the other hand, among leftists in and around the governing Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) there has been mounting anger. And internationally, we’ve seen disappointment and confusion among the opportunist left which not so long ago was singing hosannas for Tsipras and SYRIZA. Resignation, anger, disappointment, confusion, but what’s lacking is a clear program for militant class struggle against this unmitigated disaster for Greek working people.
When the first round of “bailout” demands by the ECB/EC/IMF
“Troika” was presented to the Greek parliament on July 16, a
quarter of the SYRIZA deputies refused to vote for their own
government’s bill. The measures increased the value added tax
(VAT, or sales tax) to a whopping 23% and slashed pensions,
particularly for the poor. Next up are laws to gut workers’
collective bargaining rights, calling for massive
privatization (particularly of the ports of Piraeus and
Thessaloniki) and further cuts to social services. On the eve
of the July 5 referendum, Tsipras had called on the Greek
people not to give in to “blackmail.” But when 61% of the
population voted for OXI (“no”), he turned around and did just
that. The referendum was a cynical ploy by Tsipras and SYRIZA
to absolve themselves of responsibility. Now Greece is to be
saddled with €86 billion (US$94 billion) more debt,
and stretching out payments for generations.
The capitulation comes as a brutal shock to those on the left who had hailed SYRIZA, which despite the social democratic, Stalinist, and other reformists in its ranks is actually a bourgeois populist party. Tsipras & Co. were elected in January on a promise to reject austerity, appealing to the resentment, anguish and exhaustion of a Greek working class that has been put through hell by European finance capital since 2010. The Thessaloniki Program (SYRIZA’s election platform) called for a debt write-off and a “European New Deal” – referring to the policies of U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s Depression.1Yet this was to be financed by the ECB, the leeches who had been sucking the lifeblood of Greek working people! As we noted in our article “Greece: The SYRIZA Illusion Exploded” (Internationalist 39, March-April 2015), it was clear from the outset that this “left” government would be administering austerity.
But this is not what a host of self-proclaimed socialists said at the time. In an article written as election returns came in, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in the U.S. gushed about “A New Day for Greece” and declared, “SYRIZA needs the support of workers and social movements across Europe and beyond” (Socialist Worker, 26 January). The ISO’s Greek co-thinkers in the International Workers Left (DEA) headlined “Taking the first step in a new direction,” calling the election results “a landmark moment in the struggle of the working class, the poor, the youth and the left.” But the first step of the SYRIZA prime minister was to form a coalition with the right-wing populist and militarist Greek Democrats (ANEL), who were given the ministry of defense. The very next day, the embarrassed DEA issued a statement saying that the deal with ANEL “jeopardizes the political project for a government of the left.”
But the DEA went along with it, merely saying that “the role of SYRIZA as a political party is irreplaceable.” It even declared that, “The implementation of the commitments made at Thessaloniki will be the first stop for the new government” (SW, 28 January). It took less than a month for that illusion to be exploded, when Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis signed the February 20 statement with the Eurogroup agreeing to continue the austerity policies demanded by the Troika and abandoning the “commitments” of the Thessaloniki program. Again the ISO and DEA grimaced, describing this as “is a clear retreat by the government” (“Confronting the concessions to austerity,” SW, 2 March), but didn’t actually do anything that would inconvenience Tsipras, Varoufakis et al. Being an opportunist requires a strong stomach, as they swallow one bitter dish after another.
Then came the July 5 referendum, and the same pattern was repeated. In the first flush of the “OXI” landslide the DEA was jubilant, declaring that the coming days would be crucial for the “consolidation and further development of this crucial election victory” (SW, 7 July). DEA leader Antonis Davanellos (who is also a member of SYRIZA’s Central Committee and Political Secretariat) renewed his oath of fealty to his party and government, writing that the massive “no” vote had “given the government and SYRIZA a clean slate to work from.” But just as happened after the January election, Tsipras immediately moved sharply to the right, and the day after referendum issued a joint statement with the parties that said “yes” to the Eurobankers’ diktat. Yet while calling this a “wrong step,” the DEA leader endorsed “negotiating” with the Troika bloodsuckers, saying, “It is perfectly understandable that the government feels obliged to take part in new negotiations with the lenders” (SW, 10 July).
What a travesty! The political outlook and gut-level instincts of anyone who could say this, or stomach it, particularly as Greek working people sink further into poverty, is worlds removed from Leon Trotsky’s elemental insistence that “We are not a government party; we are the party of irreconcilable opposition” (In Defense of Marxism).
So now we get handwringing over Tsipras’ capitulation, and even a hint of contrition, along with pious hopes that “we find the strength to face a challenge of historic dimensions.” “[t]his time, the Memorandum and the harsh austerity policies come as a proposal from the government led by SYRIZA – from the political leadership that we, along with a very wide section of the working class and popular forces, actively supported” (Davanellos, in a meeting of the Left Platform, SW, 30 July). He adds, “another difficult question we face: How did we get here?” How you got there, backers of the DEA, ISO, Left Platform – and those who “critically” supported SYRIZA, hailing its election and/or going along with its referendum maneuver – is by endorsing this bourgeois party, its policies and ploys, when what was called for was intransigent revolutionary opposition. Be assured, Tsipras couldn’t have done it without you.
In a January 27 statement, the DEA had claimed “With the social movement at the forefront, we should open the way for the overthrow of austerity, once and for all.” Six months later, austerity has won out, and the opportunists are scrambling for an explanation. But what credence can one give to their after-the-fact critique when they (“critically”) went along with one sellout after another?
The fact that the “left” social democrats of the ISO and DEA ended up in a capitalist party that is dutifully implementing the dictates of the imperialist financiers is the result of their whole political trajectory and training in the political tendency founded by Tony Cliff. At the dawn of the post-WWII Cold War, Cliff broke with Trotskyism, declaring the USSR “state capitalist” and refusing to defend it against the imperialist West. This led Cliff & Co. to support anti-Soviet reactionaries from CIA-backed Islamist mujahedin in Afghanistan, who systematically killed “communist” women teachers, to CIA-backed Catholic clericalists like Solidarność in Poland, who led the counterrevolution that impoverished workers and denied women the right to abortion.
While deriding this as “ancient history for ortho-Trots,” the Cliffites keep tailing after one supposedly “progressive” bourgeois regime or ruler after another, up to proclaiming “Yes We Can!” over Obama’s election as commander in chief of U.S. imperialism in 2008. These professional tailists are always on the prowl looking for a new “movement” to chase after, and principles be damned! While they may now try to use Trotsky for radical window-dressing, they are certainly alien to the declaration of the Fourth International’s founder that it “uncompromisingly gives battle to all political groupings tied to the apron-strings of the bourgeoisie” (Transitional Program).
Having backed Solidarność that closed the Gdansk shipyards, now Tony Cliff’s heirs are part of SYRIZA that is closing Greek shipyards and privatizing the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki. That stark fact tells you a lot about whose class interests they ultimately serve. But, of course, the Cliffites are not alone. The same could be said about a host of pseudo-lefts buzzing around SYRIZA.
Keeping the proletariat in line at the behest of their financier overlords is precisely what opportunist leftists do best. It is their raison d’être. The German Social Democrats (and their counterparts elsewhere in Europe) did it when they voted for war credits in 1914, and a new generation is doing it now. Whether directly voting for austerity or cheerleading for SYRIZA, their task for the bosses is to deceive the working class and would-be leftists, chaining them to bourgeois coalitions and parties. Now, writes Paul D’Amato of the ISO, SYRIZA “can no longer be a party of anti-austerity resistance.” Instead, “That task will fall to the Left Platform of SYRIZA and to Greece's radical left” (SW, 23 July). Translated: SYRIZA is dead, long live the new SYRIZA! But these same forces did nothing to block Tsipras and Varoufakis. As for the Left Platform, its main spokesman, Panagiotis Lafazanis, declared: “In case the agreement is voted, then we can do nothing” (Greek Reporter, 5 August).
The Greek working class has suffered a huge defeat with the savage new measures against it, one which will reverberate throughout Europe and the world, and for which ostensible socialists paved the way. What’s key is what is learned from it. A correspondent in Athens from the ISO’s Australian sister group, Socialist Alternative, writes: “The creditors hope that the ‘SYRIZA example’ now will show that the left says one thing and in office does another.” That is precisely what the opportunist left has done in Greece! She goes on: “There are some on the left who draw the old lessons about reform or revolution from Tsipras’s backdown: SYRIZA is reformist – what we need is a revolutionary party. This is a timeless truth, but the road to a revolutionary party of some weight inside the working class is not as simple as drawing up the right program and distributing it among workers” (Collen Bolger, “Turning resignation into resistance in Greece,” Red Flag, 27 July).
Behold opportunism incarnate. Rather than “Tsipras’s failed strategy,” Bolger wants “a clearer strategy to oppose austerity” … but one which “cannot yet be purely revolutionary.” The DEA, ISO, et al. would have the workers shielded from a revolutionary program, directing them instead to what? Break with SYRIZA? “DEA activists argued, to walk out now cedes the ground to Tsipras.” So like Lafazanis, they seek to stay in SYRIZA. What then? Only vague hopes of a revival of the class struggle “if people resist the implementation of the agreement.” But Greek workers already went through that experience five years ago, to no avail. It failed because the leaderships would not challenge capitalist rule. The “SYRIZA example” demonstrated that talk of ending austerity in this deep-going capitalist crisis is an illusion. It didn’t work under FDR in the 1930s, and it won’t happen in Europe today.
Unless militants spark sharp class struggle pointing to workers revolution, and unless they seek to build a revolutionary workers party to lead it, calls for resistance will again go nowhere.
Revolutionary Program the Key
As we have emphasized repeatedly, the crisis in Greece is not a national problem but the focal point of a Europe-wide and worldwide capitalist economic crisis that has lasted since the Wall Street crash of 2008. Europe and the U.S. are stuck in a depression, much more pronounced in the former where even official unemployment figures are everywhere in double digits, inflation has been replaced by deflation (falling prices), poverty has risen to unprecedented levels (even above 20% in Germany) as social programs are slashed to the bone and economic growth is virtually non-existent. Greece, with official unemployment over 25% and 50+% for youth while the economy is collapsing, is only the most extreme case of a general condition.2 That is a key reason why the Eurobankers are digging in their heels in refusing debt relief and why they insist on “reforms” intended to drive down wages and benefits and drive up profits.
And not only in Europe. Puerto Rico, the U.S.’ Caribbean colony, is now facing total devastation as a result of a debt crisis. Public education is being gutted in order to pay off Wall Street bankers. Water supplies are threatened in the midst of a drought because of a lack of investment. Young people are fleeing the island. Pension obligations are 99.3% unfunded. Interestingly, some of the same hedge fund vultures who have bought up Greek bonds and properties at fire sale prices are also the main holders of Puerto Rican debt. Leading the pack is John Paulson, who made billions off of speculation in subprime mortgages in the 2008 crash. Bourgeois liberals like economist Paul Krugman are crowing that the crisis in Puerto Rico won’t be so bad because it still receives U.S. transfer payments such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But that is little solace to laid-off teachers and jobless youth.
The economic crisis is the result of a systemic problem of capitalism, a falling rate of profit, rather than particular policies (“neo-liberalism,” “financialization,” free trade agreements, etc.). European banks are hugely undercapitalized – even in Germany where the capital of leading banks is as little as 3% of outstanding loans – and thus vulnerable if debtors start defaulting. They’re hard-lining it with Greece, whose debt is overwhelmingly held by official bodies, to send a message to Spain and Italy, whose far larger debt is held by commercial banks. Bankers are not that concerned about economic growth, since they can make money during boom times or bust, but they are threatened by a bank run. So companies are not investing and banks hold onto the euros doled out by the European Central Bank. There will be no return to Keynesian deficit financing, and nothing short of the fear of revolution will get the capitalists to end austerity.
Although Tsipras and SYRIZA promoted illusions about getting the Eurofinanciers to ease up on Greece, they were only trying to negotiate a kind of “austerity lite,” or “neo-liberalism with a human face.” Even this was impossible from the start, as Marxists warned and EU leaders have made painfully clear. An honest revolutionary leadership would not have hoodwinked Greek working people into thinking that an “honorable” deal with the Eurobankers was possible, but neither would it promote illusions in “going it alone.” Exiting the euro and reverting to the drachma may eventually strengthen the Greek national bourgeoisie, or not, but in the short run it will for certain mean austerity with a vengeance for Greek workers. The only solution for the Greek and European working classes is revolution, workers revolution on a continental scale. But that requires above all a revolutionary leadership – armed with an internationalist Bolshevik program. And that is what is lacking in Greece, and throughout Europe, today.
The bankruptcy of Tsipras’ policies is plain for all to see, and a split in SYRIZA seems inevitable. Now attention is focusing on the Left Platform, which made mild criticisms of the government line while doing nothing to block it. The best articulated expression of its policies comes from Stathis Kouvelakis, professor of political theory at King’s College London and member of SYRIZA’s central committee. Writing for Jacobin (3 August), Kouvelakis describes the Greek left as being in “post-traumatic shock.” He even admits that he “bear[s] part of that collective responsibility” for the disaster, and notes that “there have been enclaves providing bridges with sectors of the oligarchy inside Syriza, even before it came to power.” He argues that what has been defeated is not just Tsipras’ policies but the strategy of “left-Europeanism.” But what does he propose in its place?
This Left Platform leader argues absurdly that the calamitous experience of the last half year confirms the idea “that a unitary government of radical left forces is a necessary and tested instrument for approaching the question of power has been validated”! Since, as he spells out, the SYRIZA tops made “a clear choice in favor of continuity at the level of the repressive mechanisms of the state,” he adds: “It is obviously one thing to be the government and quite another to have power. The question is whether we are able to use the first to achieve the second, and if so how.” The answer, as revolutionary Marxists who have done their homework could tell him, is that this “question” has been answered many times over – with the spilt blood of millions of workers. The bourgeoisie brings leftists into government not to promote “democracy” but to do the dirty work for capital, paving the way for war, dictatorship and brutal anti-worker austerity.
What Kouvelakis is advocating is another brand of bourgeois “left government” with different policies, namely “a new political project that will be class-based, democratic, and anti-Europeanist, and in a first phase will take the form of a front [!], open to experimentation and to new organizational practice.” With a nod to Antonio Gramsci, talking of a “‘war of position’ strategy,” and citing his comrade Eleni Portaliou, he declares the goal of this “project” to be “the reconstruction of this ruined country…headed by the working classes and the popular bloc.” This is the same populist drivel mouthed by Tsipras & Co. to justify “political project” of class collaboration. It is counterposed to the fight of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky for the political independence of the working class from all wings of the bourgeoisie. The only difference with the SYRIZA majority is the “anti-Europeanist” bent. Meaning?
Kouvelakis warns of the danger of Greece being turned “into a kind of Kosovo writ large, a country bound hand and foot in neocolonial chains and consigned to the status of an insignificant and ruined Balkan semi-protectorate.” But in talking of “liberation of the country, and the Greek people, from the shackles of the eurozone,” and arguing for “regaining national sovereignty as a prerequisite for exercising not even anticapitalist but democratic and progressive policies of the most elementary kind,” Kouvelakis makes clear that he is calling for a “Grexit” under capitalism. While claiming not to support “some ‘popular frontist’ conception of trans-class unity with some spectral ‘national bourgeoisie’,” that is precisely what the Left Platform is aiming at. Its focus on nationalizing the banks and some industries would bolster a weak bourgeoisie that needs a strong state to compete with imperialist rivals.
Exiting the Eurozone won’t wipe out the imperialist debt, and the Eurobankers are sure to make the whole process as painful as possible. What’s needed, as the League for the Fourth International has repeatedly stated, is a revolutionary mobilization of the Greek working class, seizing banks, ports, airports, and key industries and imposing workers control, organizing workers defense guards to crush the Nazi-fascists of Golden Dawn and appeal to the ranks of the conscript army, and organizing workers councils with delegates recallable at any time. This would lay the basis for a new state power, a workers state, led by a Leninist-Trotskyist communist party built on the program of international socialist revolution.
This points to the other key factor in the Greek debacle: the failure of the workers movement elsewhere in Europe to rise up in defense of their class sisters and brothers under fire from the Eurobankers who are bashing labor throughout the continent. Yes, there were protests, some fairly large, but these were largely Sunday parades rather than attempts to block the functioning of the imperialist machinery. Why could Eurogroup finance ministers meet in peace? Where were the strike actions shutting down transportation in Paris, Berlin, Milano and Brussels? As for Spain, the left has been tailing SYRIZA’s confreres of Podemos, viscerally anti-communist bourgeois populists who have let the Brussels bureaucrats and Frankfurt bankers know that they have learned the “SYRIZA lesson” and will be oh-so reasonable and “responsible” in office.
For all the talk of “resistance” to austerity, the European left and labor movement has been no more ready to challenge the dictates of finance capital than were Tsipras, Varoufakis … or the Left Platform. That is why every one of the struggles over the past dozen years against youth wages, pension cuts, slashing social programs and mass unemployment and inequality have gone down to defeat.
The attempt to end, or simply to mitigate, austerity and debt peonage within the framework of the European Union has been proved to be an illusion. No less illusory is the idea that this can be accomplished by exiting the Eurozone and even the EU while capital rules. The same policies are being enforced by governments the world over, from Mexico and Brazil to South Africa, in response to the global economic crisis, while millions of refugees brave death to escape war and hunger. The only way out of this hecatomb is through international revolutionary struggle against the capitalist system that produced the crisis. The experience of 2011, when popular struggles quickly leapt across the Mediterranean – from Tunisia and Egypt to Portugal, Spain and Greece – shows the potential. But they were all defeated. The experience of Greece in 2015 demonstrates anew that a genuinely revolutionary leadership is indispensable.
The workers of Greece and Europe have the power to break the chains of imperialism and liberate themselves. But they must understand that there is no peaceful, gradual, parliamentary transition to socialism. The capitalist state cannot be reformed to serve the exploited and oppressed. After browbeating Tsipras in order intimidate anyone in Europe who dares resist, the vicious Eurobankers want to asset-strip the country in order to pay off the German and French banks, just like corporate raiders in any leveraged buyout. The results of elections and referendums are dismissed, as the oligarchs of capital show that there will be no democracy for their wage slaves, any more than there was for the slaves of ancient Athens.
Greece may be forced out of the euro and the EU simply to avoid collapse. But victory over these loan sharks in Armani suits can only be won by a Europe-wide workers revolt that becomes a revolution. Supposed radicals who sneer at this conclusion today – when the bankruptcy of capitalism is starkly staring humanity in the face – are no friends of the working people. They may claim to be the most modern (or postmodern) “Marxists” of the day, but they are recycling age-old reformist recipes that have produced a chain of defeats worldwide.
The brutality of the German imperialist onslaught against Greece has shocked many all over Europe. Imperialist rivalries are reviving: French rulers are getting nervous about plans for Siemens to take over Alstom. Spanish and Italian bankers worry if they could be next. EU countries that have not entered the euro are having second thoughts. The Greek disaster may yet set off explosions elsewhere. Schäuble and Merkel may have won the battle in Greece only to lose the war for a German-dominated Festung Europa (Fortress Europe). The fight is not over, but the road to a socialist united states of Europe will be through a fight to bring down the European Union of capital. If Greek and European workers are “not ready,” the task of a revolutionary vanguard is to prepare the way.■