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Why Syriza’s Defeat Still Haunts the Left

Panagiotis Sotiris

Five years after Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras capitulated to the Troika, the Left’s challenge to European neoliberalism is weaker than ever. The Greek case showed how the Left could exploit ruling-class crisis — but also the tragic consequences of a failure to prepare for power.   

A protester burns a left-wing Syriza party flag in front of the Greek Parliament during a rally against new austerity measures on May 18, 2017 in Athens, Greece. Milos Bicanski / Getty

Interview by
George Souvlis

In 2010, Greece entered a period of extreme austerity measures, but also intense social and political struggle. The tectonic shifts produced by the crisis led, in 2015, to the election of Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza — a hope for Europe’s radical left. Yet despite impressive popular resistance, the “Troika” of European institutions soon brought the Greek government to heel — imposing even harsher policies of austerity, privatization, and neoliberal reforms.

The hopes of a break with neoliberalism were disappointed — and in last July’s general election, Syriza was finally ejected from office. Yet this social and political sequence poses important questions — indeed, not only regarding European integration or Greece’s public debt. For this was also a period marked by political crisis, new forms of protest and social movements, and the rise of neo-fascism — phenomena that are now affecting all Western countries in different ways.

The Greek experience was thus a kind of political laboratory. The themes of this period are examined in depth in the collective volume Crisis, Movement, Strategy: the Greek Experience, published by Brill’s Historical Materialism series. The book’s editor, Panagiotis Sotiris, spoke to Jacobin’s George Souvlis about the political moment that the Greek crisis represented, the lessons learned from it, and the unanswered questions for radical-left strategy in Europe today.


GS

The defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party as well as setbacks in other countries have produced a fresh round of soul-searching on the Left. What do you think the Greek experience has to offer to contemporary debates?

PS

In a strange way, Greece was the first example of such a resurgence of the Left, apart from the Latin American “Pink Tide.” It offered a rare case of a radical-left party that had the possibility of reaching governmental power. But at the same time, it was the first example of the tragic dimensions of what might result if such an experience met with defeat.

I think the elements present in the Greek experience have a lot to say about other cases as well. Here, you can find deep economic crisis (the total and unprecedented depression of the Greek economy from 2008 to 2017), political crisis marked by a crisis of hegemony, and the Left’s emergence from a marginal position to the center of the political scene. But we also find the Left’s inability to enact a plausible strategy and tactics of rupture with austerity and the European project’s embedded neoliberalism.

In Greece, then, we have elements that created an immense historic opportunity. But, at the same time, we also have the strategic shortcomings that turned it into defeat: underestimating opponents’ strength, illusions in Europeanism, the lack of grounding in autonomous social movements, the inability to think through the necessary transformation of the state, and the absence of any actual economic plan that could enable the difficult rupture with the Eurozone.

Moreover, in the Greek case, you can also see what this can lead to. For the Left has become a force associated with austerity and neoliberal reforms, leading to a profound disillusionment among the subaltern classes. This has, indeed, led the right-wing New Democracy back to power in the form of an aggressive and authoritarian neoliberal vengeance.

All this does not reflect some Greek exceptionalism. Rather, these factors point to the same dynamics and contradictions that have undermined other left-wing projects as well. They exhibit the same strategic deficiencies and the same reluctance to think collectively about the open questions that socialist strategy faces today.

GS

In your writing, you emphasize the importance of Antonio Gramsci. How can he help us to understand what happened in Greece over the 2010s? Which of his analytical concepts help us better decode the key structural shifts that took place in the lead-up to Syriza’s arrival in government?

PS

Gramsci is highly relevant for any attempt to discuss what happened in Greece. On the one hand, the very notion of a crisis of hegemony offers a way to theorize the particular form of political crisis Greece went through. It was not just a protest movement or a series of struggles — it was a much deeper rupture. One might say that it was a crisis of hegemony, in the sense described by Gramsci.

In every country, the process is different, although the content is the same. Its content is the crisis of the ruling class’s hegemony, either because the ruling class has failed in some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses (war, for example), or because huge masses (especially of peasant and petit-bourgeois intellectuals) have passed suddenly from a state of political passivity into activity. They put forward demands that, taken together, albeit not organically formulated, add up to a revolution. Here, we can speak of a “crisis of authority”: the crisis of hegemony, or general crisis of the state.

At the same time, Gramsci can help open up the discussion on strategy. For example, if you look at the extent of social contestation in the 2010–2015 period, you can see that one could talk about the emergence of a potential historical bloc [a class alliance organized around a common set of hegemonic ideas].

GS

Why did the Left become hegemonic in the movements against austerity? What explains why the far right was also strengthened?

PS

The far right tried to take advantage of this conjuncture — in particular, since the loss of sovereignty associated with the European memoranda did seem to offer grounds for a “nationalist” reaction. But the very notion of austerity as an attack on social rights and collective aspirations made it impossible for the far right to become hegemonic. Moreover, we are talking about a period marked by collective resistance and solidarity, which are inherently antagonistic to the atomized resentment associated with the far right.

The emergence of Golden Dawn from a marginal position in the political landscape to parliamentary representation was, however, also a result of the deeper political and ideological crisis in Greece. Within the context of this crisis of hegemony and extreme insecurity — especially among large segments of petit bourgeois but also working-class strata — the xenophobic and authoritarian discourse of Golden Dawn gained appeal. This also drew on the traditions of the Greek far right, in a country with a history of dictatorships and the institutionalized authoritarian anti-communism that followed the Civil War of the late 1940s.

However, Golden Dawn’s appeal, in a sense, marked the limits of social protest and contestation: those segments of the subaltern classes that did not see themselves represented by these collective practices and that experienced the crisis in a more atomized and fragmented way were more vulnerable to Golden Dawn’s appeal. Moreover, a certain investment in anti-immigrant policies by mainstream parties in the late 2000s and early 2010 also helped make racist and far-right discourse part of the political mainstream. This helped the progress of Golden Dawn — a neo-Nazi criminal organization and not just a “far right” party.

GS

Syriza is a party of Eurocommunist origins, the break from the Soviet model that emerged in some of the late 1970s European Communist Parties. Do these origins have some relation to its ultimate defeat?

PS

In Greece, the emergence of Eurocommunism in the 1970s coincided with the division in the Communist movement after 1968. Back then, the Communist Party of Greece faced a strategic crisis rooted in different ways militants perceived the reasons for defeat in the Civil War.

This — accentuated by an inability to respond to the military dictatorship imposed in 1967 — drove a split between the Communist Party of Greece and the Communist Party of Greece of the Interior. This second formation, which represented a more right-wing approach but also incorporated many militants looking for a radical renovation of left-wing strategy, was to become the representative of the Eurocommunist turn in Greece.

In terms of organizational strength and electoral appeal, the “orthodox” Communist Party, the KKE, was much stronger. But the Communist Party of the Interior was very influential in the ideological debates within the broader Greek left. However, at the same time, even the orthodox KKE was moving toward a reformist and electoralist position.

At the same time, both parties were unable to stop the rise of PASOK. In this sense, large segments of the Left made a broader turn toward an electoralist and reformist strategy — the idea that what we want is a government of progressive forces. It is also worth noting that a large part of the cadres of Synaspismos, the precursor of Syriza, actually came from the KKE after the 1991 split.

I would say that the roots of Syriza’s strategic inability to deal with the question of power had rather more to do with the broader problem of the Greek left’s inability to actually discuss a strategy of rupture. In Syriza’s case, this was accentuated by an element that, in Greece, did indeed come from the Eurocommunist tradition — namely Europeanism.

By this, I mean the conceptualization of European integration as an objective and inescapable process and not as a class strategy of European bourgeoisies. This had an enormous political cost, since Syriza’s limit was precisely its insistence on a break with austerity and neoliberalism within the context of the Eurozone and European integration. For it was more than obvious that the problem in the Greek crisis was the neoliberalism embedded in the European project.

GS

In that sense, do you think the call for national sovereignty can take on progressive connotations?

PS

I would speak of the need to reclaim popular sovereignty, rather than national sovereignty. And yes, one of the challenges in the Greek case was how to articulate the possibility of a reclamation of sovereignty, in the sense of an exit from the Eurozone and the European Union, in a way that would have been progressive, democratic, and emancipatory.

In the context of the contemporary forms of internationalization of capital, and particular forms of international integration that involve some form of ceding sovereignty (for example, abolishing national currencies or accepting the primacy of EU regulations over national legislation), there can be no real break with austerity and neoliberalism. That is, there is no possibility of initiating a process of social transformation while remaining within the institutions of the EU.

In my view, this also represents a form of internationalism: if the EU is the common enemy of the subaltern classes in Europe, the only way to actually fight is by means of a series of exits. Such a position has nothing to do with right wing “sovereignism,” which is xenophobic, pro-business, and reactionary. As we see in the cases of Hungary or the politics of Matteo Salvini in Italy, in the end, this just functions as a bargaining tool within European integration.

To give another example of such an emancipatory practice of sovereignty, I would point to the refugee crisis. In the current context of European anti-refugee and anti-migrant policies, the policies of “Fortress Europe” have led to thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean. So, the only way to make possible the demand to open the borders is through a rupture with the EU’s policies.

GS

What political inheritance has the first cycle of anti-austerity protests left us with?

PS

The first cycle of anti-austerity crisis was a tremendous expression of protest and contestation. This ranged from mass general strikes, to occupations, movements of disobedience, and forms of local uprisings. Such was the case of the mobilization of a local community in Keratea, Attica, against a planned landfill site, which took the forms of a mass confrontation with the police.

And, of course, we had the squares movement, part of the global cycle of 2011. In Greece, this assumed a particularly mass and persistent form, which also included many forms of mass defiance against the police. The “heritage” of all these movements was the emergence of new forms of movement organization, coordination, and solidarity, but also new forms of collective identities. Moreover, it is important to note the emergence of new forms of the public sphere and also a renewed interest in social, political, and economic alternatives.

Of course, all these were also contradictory. You could find both militant left-wing elements and, for example, nationalist readings of the Greek situation. But we could say that the democratic and emancipatory elements were dominant. It was exactly the extent, magnitude, and duration of such practices that created a condition that could only be described as almost insurrectionary — contributing to the crisis of hegemony.

These were not just strong or defiant movements, but ones marked by processes of management and networks of solidarity. This pointed to a kind of power from below, or counter-power, that could offer the basis of a contemporary form of dual power. I mean that in the sense of combining the Left’s possible rise to governmental power with a strong and autonomous movement from below, expanding its scope and creating new subaltern institutions.

This was also a terrain of experimentation and a learning process for new social and political configurations. Overlooked or underestimated by most left-wing currents, including even the anti-capitalist left, this dynamic called for a profound rethinking of revolutionary strategy, beyond electoral tactics alone.

After Syriza’s capitulation came the defeat of this dynamic, and New Democracy’s election victory in July 2019, bearing an even more aggressive neoliberal program. So, eight years on, it is obvious that things have changed. But 2010–2012 created a culture of struggle and defiance, and a collective experience that is still here. In this sense, one might say that it was a formative experience for large segments of the subaltern classes.

GS

In a possible Grexit scenario, where would a Greece outside of the EU fit in the global economy — what would it trade, and with whom? Would it expect a trade war with the EU? Is that enough?

PS

First of all, getting Greece out of the Eurozone and potentially the EU is about exiting the embedded neoliberalism of the euro and the European project in general. It is not about some kind of isolationism.

So, first of all, it is about transforming Greece’s economy in a direction that puts working class and, in general, subaltern interests at the center. It’s about putting an end to austerity, expanding the public sector, nationalizations, and implementing forms of worker’s control and democratic planning. In this sense, it represents a process of transformation and experimentation in a post-capitalist direction.

Moreover, it entails a change of priorities from mass consumption to improving social conditions and access to public services. It also entails new forms of developing the productive capabilities, from new forms of sustainable agriculture to turning to renewable energy. Of course, forms of international trade will continue, and, in certain cases, the exit process will enable a better planning of this kind of international position, for example, in the forms of moving from the emphasis on tourism to more value-added products.

However, it is impossible to have a process of emancipation and transformation while at the same time being subjected to the systemic violence that contemporary forms of internationalization of capital flows and trade entails, this kind of systematic social dumping.

GS

Do you see the possibility of a recomposition of the Greek Left?

PS

The 2010s were a watershed for the Greek left, a period when all its contradictions and strategic shortcomings became more than evident. In this sense, there is no other way to describe what is needed than a process of recomposition of all the aspects of left-wing strategy and politics. It is obvious that such a process cannot include Syriza, which is no longer a party of the Left, since it has strategically embraced basic neoliberal and Europeanist tenets.

Any process of recomposition must aim at the level of movements and resistance as well as at the political level. We need new forms of organizing resistance and solidarity but also new political fronts. These can act as reference points for movements but also as laboratories for the articulation of strategies and new forms of mass political-intellectual life.

This needs to go beyond the fantasy of a new Syriza — but also the temptation of falling back into the convenient solution of the classic sect, armed with “revolutionary” rhetoric but no actual grounding in society. So far, the implosion of Popular Unity and the open crisis of Antarsya suggest that we are still in the phase of open crisis. But I think that there is potential for more positive, especially since beneath the surface of the “new normality” (one of the catchphrases of the new government), new dynamics of protest and struggle will emerge, creating the ground for the recomposition of a new radical left in Greece.

GS

What specific contribution does this book make to the wider wave of studies on the Greek crisis, published over the last decade?

PS

I think the most important thing with this book, which includes texts written in 2014–15, is what it attempts to combine. There are texts dealing with the economics of the Greek crisis — i.e., as a crisis of Greek capitalism in the context of the crisis of European integration. But there are also texts dealing with the social aspects and the dynamics of social and political contestation and protest, and texts opening up the debate on radical-left strategy.

The idea was to treat the Greek experience as an experimental site in order to study the dynamics of the crisis, the unprecedented protest movements and a political crisis that had strong elements of a crisis of hegemony. This was an opening for the forces of the Left to pose the question of political power and, consequently, at least in my opinion, the open question of a revolutionary strategy today.

Most of the texts were written before the Syriza leadership’s capitulation during summer 2015. But they point to both the possibilities that were open and the spectrum of contradictions, strategic deficiencies, lack of political and theoretical preparation, and inability to create conditions for a new historic bloc that led to this defeat. And we are still paying the consequences of this.

There exist many Marxist traditions or currents in Greece, but in this particular book, we tried to get together people working within different traditions of Marxism. So we have different approaches from the field of the Marxist critique of political economy (the texts by Stavros Mavroudeas, George Economakis, Maria Markaki, George Androulakis, Alexis Anastasiadis, and Ioannis Zisimopoulos), and we also have different approaches to the analysis of mass movements and protests. Eirini Gaitanou has an approach influenced by György Lukács, whereas Angelos Kontogiannis-Mandros has a more Gramscian approach.

We have also tried to combine different disciplines. This is why we have an important contribution on the transformation of labor law by Giannis Kouzis and an analysis of the EU’s authoritarian turn by Yiorgos Vassalos. And that is why we also have a very important contribution by Despina Paraskeva-Veloudogianni regarding Golden Dawn. Especially in strategy, we opted to have different approaches. We have people representing a position coming from within the debate in Syriza before its rise to power (including former finance minister Euclid Tsakalotos, in a text cowritten with Christos Laskos, who left Syriza in 2015). But we also have people coming from the anti-capitalist Left (such as Spyros Sakellaropoulos and Alexandros Chrysis). In short, we have various theoretical backgrounds from classical Marxism, to Gramsci, to Louis Althusser, to Lukács, along with contemporary debates on social theory.