Thoughts on Greece, Syriza and its left critics, Part 2

This is part two of a three-part series. See part one here.

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” – Karl Marx

“What childish innocence it is to present one’s own impatience as a theoretically convincing argument!” – Frederick Engels

If any of us wants to judge the conduct of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Syriza in their negotiations with the Eurogroup (the finance ministers and heads of state that make up the Eurozone) in July, a close look at the concrete situation in Greece and Europe is necessary. At the core of any analysis is an examination of the distribution of power among contending class and social forces, the larger socio-economic matrix in which these forces collide, and the parameters and limits of social change.

That may seem obvious and not require mentioning, but I’m afraid it’s a method some on the left seem averse to and thus avoid.

But this omission inevitably leads to speculative and abstract thinking which then tacks in the direction of 1) sweeping and negative judgments of classes, people, and parties who fail to “measure up” to what are considered moments of “transformative” possibility, and 2) grandstanding to show off one’s radical temper and credentials.

This may make for good political theater complete with righteous indignation at “opportunities squandered.” But once the noise in the room subsides, it becomes apparent that beneath the militant bluster and sharp criticism of those who are doing the heavy lifting in difficult circumstances, something is missing. And that something is a reliable framework for making such evaluations – not to mention constructing a politics that has the potential to bend, even rupture, the structures of exploitation and oppression to the advantage of working people and their allies.

Which brings me back to Syriza and its leader Alexis Tspiras. Any fair evaluation of their role must ask: What is the concrete situation in which they govern? Is the playing field level between Syriza and its ruling class adversaries? Or does one side have an advantage, and if so, how much of an advantage? Does each side have the same to lose? Is Grexit – Greece quitting the Eurozone – a realistic option? And if so, is an orderly exit possible? What solidarity can be expected across Europe and globally?

What about Tsipras?

Tsipras didn’t go into the negotiations with the leaders of the Eurogroup in Brussels with his eyes closed. As numerous interviews show, he was well aware that the balance in political, economic, and institutional power overwhelmingly favored his opponents sitting in the political and financial centers of Europe. And he knew that the objective of his main adversaries, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, was to cut the new prime minister and Syriza – a party of the left – down to size, while imposing another round of harsh measures on the new Greek government in exchange for some financial assistance.

Nevertheless Tsipras still hoped that the large “no” vote of the Greek people in a referendum a week before the negotiations began might give German leaders reason to pause, to reconsider their draconian bargaining posture, and maybe, just maybe, consider some form of debt relief.

Or, alternatively that the vote would nudge France and Italy, as well as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to show some backbone and stand up to the German capitalist juggernaut.

When neither happened, Tsipras had to know that the “jig was up” and that he (and the Greek people) would have to accept a punishing settlement and a humiliating defeat. Which is what happened.

Upon returning to Athens, Tsipras said as much to the Greek parliament. He didn’t prettify the settlement. But he also made the point that there was no good alternative.

If the negotiations (or “waterboarding” as one observer called it) had any redeeming virtue, it was only in the fact that it laid bare for the rest of Europe the exploitative, unequal, anti-democratic, and coercive relations that are at the core of the structure and practice of the European Union (EU) and Eurozone.

Greece and the Eurozone

Unsurprisingly, not everyone was happy with what they heard. The main criticism coming the left was that Tsipras should have had a plan B. And for most of these critics, plan B amounted to leaving the Eurozone, which is a monetary union of 18 of the 28 countries of  the EU, that use a common currency – the euro – and abide by a set of common rules.

Tsipras, however, rejected this option as an unmitigated disaster.

And he has a point. For Grexit to be a realistic alternative it has to rest on more than the ideological disposition of its advocates. They have to demonstrate that the majority of Greek people supports such a course of action; that Greece has the necessary economic wherewithal to withstand the economic firestorm that will inevitably and immediately come with an exit; and, finally, that sustained and substantial solidarity, including material, can be expected from the rest of Europe.

But none of these conditions can be met.

First of all, polls and interviews show the Greek people aren’t ready to bail out of the Eurozone. Public opinion in Greece has been consistently and emotionally attached to membership in the European Union and the Eurozone. The “no” vote on the referendum prior to the Brussels smackdown was both a rejection of austerity and an insistence that a new path, anchored in debt relief and sustainable growth, be found within, not outside of, the Eurozone.

To the extent that Grexit is a realistic option, it is, ironically, an option for Germany, not Greece, in this sense: Germany, with its powerful economy, deep financial reserves, and nearly unchallenged voice in Europe, doesn’t fear that a Greek exit would trigger a financial breakdown across Europe.

Indeed, Schauble floated the idea that Greece should be expelled from the Eurozone for a year or two after which it could, if its financial house was deemed back in order by the Troika (European Central Bank, European Commission, and IMF), apply for readmission.

With German leaders saying they basically did not care if the Greeks left the Eurozone, Greece’s bargaining position effectively collapsed. It became an easy target for the Germanic capitalist bully to teach all of Europe a lesson.

If, as the German leaders believed, chaos spreading to the rest of Europe was very unlikely in the wake of a Greek exit, the same couldn’t be said for Greece. No one knows exactly what a country’s exit from the Eurozone would look like. It has never happened so far. But what can reasonably guessed is that it wouldn’t be pretty for a poor country like Greece.

It’s one thing for the restive British to consider leaving the EU and quite another for Greece – a small country at the bottom of the food chain in Europe – to quit the Eurozone. Its resources are meager and it doesn’t possess anything close to an integrated and modern economy. And this is more so today than when it entered the EU 14 years ago.

Let’s face it: if Greece were to give the finger to the Eurozone, its credit markets would freeze up and its banks would be thrown into deeper crisis. It is almost certain that inflation would spike up as the price of imported goods would skyrocket. Exports, meanwhile, might become more inviting, but that isn’t automatic by any means. Investment, private and public, would go south for sure, while business and consumer savings would take a hit. And the crisis of everyday living would spread and deepen.  

No “sugar daddy” for Greece

If there is a “sugar daddy” ready to step in and fill the breech upon Greece’s exit from the Eurozone, it is still a well-kept secret. Cuba on its exit from the grip of U.S. colonialism had the Soviet Union to assist it, but Greece has no such benefactor waiting in the wings.

It is simply wishful thinking, therefore, to believe that after a short period of pain and privation, a dynamic developmental path would somehow assert itself and whisk Greece out of the kingdom of hardship and plunk it down in the kingdom of plenty.

Finally, any viable exit strategy from European institutions has to include sustained and substantive solidarity actions of the left, progressive, and working class movements in Western Europe and North America. But so far that hasn’t developed. In fact, the various detachments of the working classes and people across Europe (and worldwide) are in most instances fighting from defensive positions against the austerity policies of their own governments and the EU. The challenges to the regime of austerity and neoliberalism across Europe haven’t been sustained or successful yet. If they had, the dynamics of the current struggle between Greece and the Eurogroup and Germany would be very different.

This undeniable reality should give some modesty to the insistent claims of some on the left outside of Greece that Syriza should show some chutzpah and choose a policy of “rupture.”

To criticize Tsipras and Syriza, therefore, for their failure to Grexit seems more than a little quixotic and fanciful to say the least.

Now no one should interpret this to mean that remaining in the Eurozone is a good option. But the fact is that the Greek people are not choosing between a bad and a good alternative. Their choice is between which is the least painful and which might position them over the medium term to see some light at the end of the tunnel.

The Greek Communist Party (KKE) and some others on the left want to hear none of this. The choice between staying or leaving in their view is a false one. The only alternative in present circumstances is a socialist revolution, they say. Anything less than that isn’t worth considering.

Reality-based strategy

But here’s the problem: There is no evidence that the Greek people favor such a course of action. If the Greek people are ready to overthrow the system, it escapes me. Then again, I’m thousands of miles away. But I do know this: it can’t be based on the voting strength of the KKE in parliamentary elections. At last count it received about 5 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections, and if polls are accurate, its vote will be about the same in coming elections in October.

All of which underscores the fact that communists like the rest of humanity have to live in the world as it is. They can seek succor in Marxist Leninist texts (but the question is how to interpret these for today) and the notion of socialism’s inevitability (a very problematic claim if not qualified and reconstructed), but neither can substitute for a reality-based elaboration of program, strategy, tactics, demands, and political initiatives.

The final chapter in the riveting saga that is playing out in Greece and Europe hasn’t reached a denouement. Just as it was premature to think that the “no” vote in the July referendum in Greece heralded a new day for that beleaguered county, it is also unwise to conclude that the latest negotiations (or really, the hazing of Tsipras) in Brussels bring to a conclusion this savage confrontation. German capital and its acolytes won this round, and won it decisively. But not so decisively that white flags of surrender are flying in Athens.

Moreover, the Greek elections next month will once again put the future of the country into the hands where it belongs: the hands of the Greek people. In going to the voting booth they will have the opportunity to support one or another party and their respective path to extricate Greece from its present troubles.

Syriza and the left

Obviously, in calling a snap election, Tsipras hopes Syriza will be able to expand its representation in Parliament and its influence in society. People on the left should hope for its success.

Syriza is not your garden variety social democratic party that was ascendant in the last half of the 20th century. Many of its leaders and members were part of the KKE up until 1991, while others come from other traditions on the left. Marxism and socialism are part of its vocabulary and figure prominently in its analysis and direction. And notwithstanding recent political setbacks, it retains transformative aspirations.

Its rise a few years ago is part of a necessary process of reconstitution of the left in the wake of the historic defeat of communist, socialist, and working class movements in the 1990s. Its defeat will not create more favorable conditions for the left to emerge in some newly packaged, strengthened, and “pure” form in Greece or elsewhere.  

The recent decision of a group of Syriza’s members of Parliament to form a new organization on a “more radical ground” certainly has an appealing ring to it. But one has to ask: Will the division of the left strengthen the hand of the Greek people in their fight against austerity, or weaken it? If experience elsewhere is of any value, it seems the latter is more likely.

Now what?

At any rate, while anything is possible when the Greek people go to the polls in two weeks, it is likely that they will once again show no desire to exit the Eurozone.

Instead, they will probably choose to “stay put,” but not passively, not in a supine position. All evidence suggests a closely contested election. If Syriza prevails, its mandate from the Greek people will be to create as well as take advantage of whatever space exists in the present situation to defend popular democracy, living standards, and national sovereignty.

Meanwhile, the left across Europe has a responsibility to step up the pressure on the Troika, to exploit the cracks appearing between the IMF and the other capitalist “institutions,” and to open up new fronts of solidarity. Securing debt relief is of crucial importance.

If at some point an exit from the Eurozone begins to look like a necessary course of action, it has to be the result of a conscious decision of a majority of the Greek people. Only they have that right. It can’t be the fancy of any party no matter where it sits on the political spectrum.

Why? Because in the event that they exit the Eurozone, the Greek people will surely experience some difficult days (to say the least) and they may well feel buyer’s remorse. That doesn’t necessarily constitute a major problem. But what would is if they feel, based on the hardship that they will inevitably endure in the short and medium run, that they have been sold a fraudulent “happy days are here again” bill of goods about leaving the Eurozone. If that happens politics could quickly take a sharp turn to the extreme right.

It is natural to look for a quick fix to the crisis in Greece and Europe, but there probably isn’t one in present circumstances. In the end, a strategy that stands a chance of lifting Greece and its European neighbors out of the current economic crisis necessitates a relentless and united struggle to qualitatively shift the balance of forces in Europe as well as Greece. Such a shift would create the conditions to enact – not socialist revolution – but radical economic and political reforms and replace outdated and anti-democratic structures of governance in Greece and Europe.

While Greece is a tiny country and Syriza a new party of the left, their success in overcoming the current crisis would give fresh momentum, confidence, and experience to people in Europe and worldwide, including the United States, who themselves yearn for a world in which peace, substantive equality, sustainability, solidarity, and humanism are at the core of daily living.

Photo: Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza. Joanna/Flickr


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.