Video and report: Syriza’s victory and the left in Europe

Sheffield Left Unity organised a meeting on the question of “Syriza’s victory and the implications for the left in Europe”. The meeting was addressed by Joana Ramiro, LU national council member and Morning Star journalist.

This report of the meeting first appeared in the Weekly Worker:

Saturday March 14 saw a healthily attended Left Unity Sheffield public meeting, held under the banner of our new student society at the University of Sheffield. Joana Ramiro, Morning Star journalist and LU national council member, spoke on Greece and what the election of Syriza poses for the left across Europe. Since this was the first such meeting, it was good to see more than a dozen comrades coming along. This resulted in an interesting and comradely debate, which was pursued further in the student union bar afterwards.

Comrade Ramiro’s own recent experience in Greece at the time of the election made for a wellinformed introduction. Comrade Ramiro gave what she described as a very sympathetic, but not uncritical, view of Syriza, and what the left takes to be ‘the Syriza model’, and she sought to focus more on prognoses than diagnoses. She recounted the inspirational atmosphere of the victory rallies following the election, illustrated by a video. Part of the accomplishments, she commented, achieved by the rise and victory of Syriza lay in the field of public discourse – the opening up of a space to talk about austerity and how it “doesn’t have to be a reality”. This was a part and parcel of a generalised political fluidity – both within Greece, where established parties have fallen from great heights, to be supplanted by apparent newcomers; and more widely, particularly in those southern European states which are at the sharp end of austerity: witness the rise of Podemos in Spain. It was this fluidity that transformed Syriza with such rocket speed from an alliance getting 5% of the vote to a party forming a coalition government.

She stressed that simply dismissing Syriza as a “populist party” that promises things it cannot possibly deliver does not properly capture the fact that its rise has led to a heightening of classconsciousness amongst all sections of society. However, she also stated that to some extent Syriza’s support did seem to be part of a “clientelist” attitude – I give you my vote and you give me something in return – and also the plain and simple attraction of something new to vote for, something seemingly fresh, unstained and untainted in comparison to the old parties.

Lastly, Syriza had offered real and immediate – even if in practice only minor – improvements to people’s lives: comrade Ramiro stated that getting the electricity switched back on, keeping your job and putting food on the table were concerns more immediately felt by many Greek proletarians that the “far away” issues of the European Central Bank, the euro and so on. Looking towards the future, comrade Ramiro declared that despite the criticism being levelled at the party’s leadership – more bitterly and more vocally from within the party than from anywhere else – it was essential nonetheless to see that “the hope of Syriza” is kept alive. It was her view that the April trials of Golden Dawn members could potentially play a significant role in determining the political atmosphere.

Additionally, there are also the elections this year in Spain and Portugal, which may alter the international situation according to the outcome, but also according to the support accorded to the local, Syrizalike, anti-austerity parties in those counties. In the debate later on the comrade added that playing ‘wait and see’ for these elections was basically now the only strategy that Syriza has. She finished by asking, rhetorically, if we in the UK needed our own Syriza, and wondered if this was a possibility.

Tina Becker was first in to reply strongly in the negative to both questions. Of particular importance to her was the entire problem of ending up “managing the system”, especially on the basis of immediately felt desperation rather than a movement for international socialism, which then leads you to inevitably disappoint your supporters. The supposed novelty of Syriza was no such thing, she said – it originated from the old left, especially the ‘official’ communist left. For comrade Becker, if Syriza shows us anything positive, it is the fact that the left can work together, and engage in open and public debate and criticism without for one moment either splitting the party or stopping it from fulfilling its other activities. It is a severe negative, however, that such unity has been forged on the basis of reformist illusions about the possibilities of taking office in a single country.

For Jamie Tedford the difference between Greece (or Spain, or Portugal, etc) and the UK was so great that we should not expect a Syriza-style party to take off here – he added that the distinct lack of achievement on the part of the British left should not lead us to suspend our critical faculties when it comes to Greece.

Mike Martin, who is close to the Socialist Equality Party, launched a withering assault on those who build up false hopes in Syriza and other such parties, including Die Linke, Podemos and so on – the immediate capitulation by Syriza over its central demands did not bode well at all. He ridiculed the idea that Alexis Tsipras was in some way being clever in attempting to seek reparations from Germany for the period of Nazi rule in Greece. That was merely a form of Greek nationalism that sought to displace the role of capitalism as the source of the country’s woes. It was noted that Syriza’s alliance with the rightwing Anel party and the talk of redeeming “national pride” was consistent with the party’s Eurocommunist origins, and it had led to some extremely retrograde decisions: eg, giving Anel control of the defence ministry.

Responding to these first comments, comrade Ramiro said that as a revolutionary socialist she agreed with most of what had been said, but sought to explain that there were reasons why Syriza was behaving as it was. It was acting defiantly as a non-revolutionary but “anticapitalist” party and, like it or not, Syriza remained the only choice that the Greek people could have made in the elections, given their predicament and the other options on offer.

Responding to Mike Martin, she argued that, as a populist party, it was necessary for Syriza to play up to nationalism to a degree – perhaps inevitably, there is a feeling amongst the mass of the population that Greece is being oppressed as a nation: hence Tsipras’s talk at the victory rallies of ending “national humiliation”. Personally, she hoped that the election of other Syriza-type parties, committed to the welfare state and against austerity, would create a sort of social democratic internationalism across Europe. This was not what we want, just as simply opposing austerity is not what we want – but it would represent a start, just as opposing austerity and providing some minimal improvements to people’s lives is a start. This ought to put into perspective the fact that Syriza has fallen far short of its main aim, and even those of its Thessaloniki programme.

I argued that, far from representing the starting point for further advance, Syriza had in fact exhausted its potential, that the model itself had reached its limits and could go no further than the impasse it was trapped in and the disappointments brought in its wake. By allowing desperation to push it into forming a government on the basis of the myth, spread by both anti-EU ‘left’ and pro-EU ‘right’ in the party, that it could stop austerity, Syriza could go no further. I agreed with comrade Tedford that conditions in the UK were simply too different at present. Despite vicious, targeted austerity, the Tory government continues to run a huge budget deficit, and has not come close to implementing the full extent of the austerity it had declared as its programme, despite the brutal effects, the privatisations, the waves of benefit sanctions and so on. (If the Tories win again, however, I would expect a renewed impetus for more cuts, in terms of pace and depth.) It also seemed to me that arguing against simple ‘austerity’ was totally insufficient. The whole left poses opposition to austerity as the main issue, but no groundswell of support has come our way. Only by standing for socialism, rather than banking on some supposedly quicker, easier, proxy method, and accepting that aims and methods are intrinsically linked, would we achieve real change.

Ben Lewis argued that, regardless of whether Syriza had declared itself to be the new model, large sections of the left had in fact held it up as an example to be followed, and this was already being disproved. He disputed a point of comparison that comrade Martin had made between the Syriza capitulation and that of the Second International in 1914, saying that unlike those parties Syriza had never declared itself a revolutionary party which stood on the basis of Marxism, so that its actions could hardly be seen as a betrayal in those terms.

He accepted that there was often a false dichotomy between ‘fighting austerity’ and ‘managing the system’ and that every small improvement in the conditions of the proletariat can increase our strength and fighting capacity, as well as our morale. However, he warned that there was an insidious logic to acclaiming small improvements as a supposed “starting point”. This can quickly become the lesser-evilism that we see in the Labour party door-stepper at election time, who hates the rightwingers in charge of the party, but knows that fundamentally “It’s us or the Tories – and we’re not quite as bad”. The winning of gains depended not on forming a reformist government, but on organising and strengthening the working class in opposition, said comrade Lewis. Positive reforms are only usually conceded when the ruling class fears that working class action will lead to something worse, and such concessions further strengthen our class. The key questions then, for him, are those of government and opposition, and of building a wider movement in Europe.

During the informal discussion that followed later, comrade Ramiro lamented the childish inability of the left in Britain to debate and interact like parts of the European left, commenting less than favourably on some of the responses printed last week to the Communist Platform’s seven questions for candidates in the LU internal elections, and praising our publication of them. Thus, despite her, shall we say, opaque view on Syriza, there was more than a little common ground.

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