Sunday 20 March 2016

The Inside Story of Syriza’s Capitulation to the European Union

This is an edited extract and summary of a much longer interview in New Left Review with Stathis Kouvelakis, a former member of Syriza’s central committee and one of the leaders of the party’s Left Platform. He is now a member of Popular Unity after resigning from Syriza in the aftermath of the Greece’s handling of the financial crisis.

The interview provides a fascinating insight into what was going on at the time, and the full version is well worth a read.

The Evolution of Syriza

The Tsipras leadership made very clear and, in a sense, very tough decisions in that summer of 2012, about the party’s line and about the type of party they wanted. First, they needed to turn a coalition of disparate organizations into a unified party; this was quite widely recognized, and there was no real disagreement about it. They also wanted to use the unification process to transform the culture of the party and its organizational structure at a very deep level. Instead of a push to recruit people who’d been active in the social mobilizations of the period, the aim was to open the gates to the sort of people who want to join a party when they think it has a serious chance of accessing power—clientelist mentalities and habits are very deeply rooted in Greek society, including in the popular classes; there’s a type of micromanagement of social relations.

Kouvelakis says that many of these people were from a PASOK background, the nominally social democratic party whose actions had contributed hugely to the crisis when they were in power, often practising corruption. He then goes to say:

Turning Syriza into a leader-centred party was the second aspect of the process. The aim was to move from a militant party of the left, with a strong culture of internal debate, heterogeneity, involvement in social movements and mobilizations, to a party with a passive membership which could be more easily manipulated by the centre, and keener to identify with the figure of the leader.

The inner-party restructuring went together with the rightward drift. From the summer of 2012 onwards, the position on the euro was transformed into a constant display of fidelity to the Eurozone. This was expressed in Tsipras’s trips to mainstream institutions, mainly in the US—the Brookings Institute and so on….Second, from 2012 onwards, the type of political practice favoured by the Tsipras leadership didn’t move beyond parliamentarism….At this point the Tsipras leadership also started building bridges to people in the core state apparatuses—military and diplomatic circles—and began to indicate their loyalty to the fundamental tenets of the Greek state.

Domestic Policy

There was an unprecedentedly low level of legislative activity. No more than ten or twelve bills were passed in that first period. Most were positive, but they were very limited: a minimal package to deal with the humanitarian crisis, about one-sixth of the package announced in the Thessaloniki programme, including reconnection of electricity, but targeting only the most desperate cases; the €5 entry ticket to go to hospital was scrapped—a widely hated Memorandum measure.

In a few cases, Left Platform ministers could pursue some initiatives. For instance, Lafazanis blocked privatization of land around Piraeus and of the national power company.

Greece’s obsession with the Euro

First, one shouldn’t underestimate the popularity of the euro in the southern-periphery countries—Greece, Spain, Portugal—for whom joining the EU meant accessing political and economic modernity. For Greece, in particular, it meant being part of the West in a different way to that of the US-imposed post-civil war regime…Having the same currency as the most advanced countries has a tremendous power over people’s imagination—carrying in your pocket the same currency as Germans or Dutch, even if you are a low-paid Greek worker or pensioner—which those of us who’d been in favour of exiting the euro since the start of the crisis tended to underestimate.

Even now, after five years of some of the hardest shock therapy ever imposed—and the first imposed on a Western European country—public opinion is still split on the issue of the euro, although now with a much narrower majority in favour of staying in.

Second, in contrast to the position of Sweden, Denmark or the UK, for Greece quitting the euro would be extremely conflictual, because it would mean breaking with the neoliberal policies of the Memoranda. If you are serious about this, you have to be prepared for a confrontation. From 2012, when Syriza emerged as the largest opposition party, poised for government, it was clear that Tsipras didn’t want that fight, which is why he switched to a stance of staying in the Eurozone. Syriza’s original position was summed up by two slogans: ‘No sacrifice for the euro’ and ‘The euro is not a fetish’, which left open the question of how far to go in confronting the Eurogroup and the Troika. But this line was shelved soon after the June 2012 elections.

In the summer of 2015 it was Tsipras who used the argument of fear—that exiting the euro would mean chaos. In early June, after the Eurogroup rejected the Greek terms, which had already been intended as a capitulation, the Syriza Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos was asked by Paul Mason what would happen if Greece left the euro. He replied that it would be a return to the 1930s—the rise of Nazism! Tsipras himself used the image of collective suicide. What such statements reveal is that, for the Syriza leadership, exit was unthinkable—a black hole. It was outside their cognitive mapping, alien to their strategy which had already ruled out the possibility of an all-out confrontation.

Tsipras the Leader

Tsipras’s personal staff were beyond the control of anyone in the party. So was the Commission for the Programme—essentially dominated by the Commission for the Economy, led by Yannis Dragasakis…Dragasakis wanted his hands completely free. He knew he couldn’t put the programme he really wanted down on paper, because the party wouldn’t accept it—but he was the most open in saying the only option was improved management of the Memoranda framework.

When Tsipras went to address what was, in a way, the real audience—the representatives of ruling circles in Europe and the US—the logic of what he was saying was: ‘Look, I’ll lay down my radicalism, of which you are rightly afraid, but in which I don’t genuinely believe. I see things differently now, and I’m ready to be a nice boy, much more reasonable than you think—but I should get something in return.’ He really believed he could get something—that was clear.

The result, you could say, was objectively the worst political betrayal perpetrated by any contemporary left-wing force—certainly in Europe.

Perhaps one could compare Tsipras to Achille Occhetto, the Italian Communist Party leader who liquidated the whole tradition of the party. Occhetto visited NATO headquarters in Brussels and said, ‘This is the centre of world peace.’ He visited Wall Street and said, ‘This is the temple of civilization.’ 

These are things no social democrat, or even a conservative, would ever say. The Italian Marxist Constanzo Preve made the point that former left-wingers who disintegrate internally tend to stop believing in anything.

Tsipras, who built his entire political position on a pledge to abolish the Memoranda, now becomes their loyal servant.


Varoufakis is a more complex figure. As we now know, he was doing things behind the scenes that showed he had an awareness of the need to go beyond what was being said in public. At the same time, he signed up to the 20 February 2015 agreement, constantly defended it and was the first to make statements, as early as February 2015, saying Greece should adopt 70 per cent of the Memorandum. He bears a lot of responsibility for what happened. Nevertheless, he had a clearer perception of the situation and was keen to adopt a more confrontational attitude within that framework—and in fact this was why Tsipras chose him. Tsipras sensed that, even if it was pure theatre, some such stance was necessary if only for purposes of legitimation, or possibly for getting some concessions, and that Dragasakis would be quite incapable of playing that role. He needed a more flamboyant figure like Varoufakis.

The Referendum

As for Tsipras, the one certainty we have is that he only thinks about tactics. There are two possibilities, not mutually exclusive. The first is that he thought he could get what he said: a further sign of popular support to improve his position in the negotiations. The question posed would be sufficiently vague—No or Yes to the Juncker package—that it wouldn’t raise the issue of rupture with the euro. He must have imagined this would take place in a relatively controlled and calm atmosphere—clearly he completely underestimated the effect of bank closures, shortage of currency and so on, when the ECB upped the pressure by cutting off the emergency funding mechanism to the banks. The tension rose suddenly that Monday, 29 June, with the banks closing. At that point it was clear, I think, that Tsipras either wanted the Yes to win, or a very narrow margin for the No.

The second possibility is that he had already taken the decision to sign up to the Third Memorandum, but needed a display of bravery up to the last moment, to legitimize it—so that he could say, ‘You see, I’ve used all the weapons I had, and I couldn’t get more than this; there is no alternative.’ So, those were the intentions.

Lessons for the European Left

First, that it’s impossible to fight austerity or neoliberalism within the framework of the existing monetary union, and, most likely, of the EU as such. A rupture is indispensable. Second, the political practice of radical-left parties vitally needs to articulate parliamentary politics with popular mobilizations; when the second is lost, the first becomes weightless, and actually reinforces the ongoing collapse of representative politics. Third, a proper reinvention of a broad, anti-capitalist vision of society is needed—neither a return to the old recipes, nor a mythical tabula rasa.

It was predictable that defeat in Greece would send a negative shock wave across the rest of Europe. Though there are other factors involved, I think it played a role in Podemos saying they won’t break with the euro, not even with the Stability Pact, and revising their position on the debt. Currently, they’re not even setting a break with austerity as a condition for collaboration at government level. Iglesias says that the point is to rise above the shoulder of PSOE and orient the hand of social democracy to the left. The Portuguese have drawn a similar conclusion; there the impact of Syriza’s defeat is even more apparent. I can understand that the deal struck by the Left Bloc and the Portuguese Communist Party with the Socialists was to some extent a tactical move, because the right had lost its majority in parliament, and there was a demand to allow the Socialists to take over—otherwise the right would once again be in command.

But it’s a fundamental mistake for formations of the radical left to agree to a line that is merely complementary to social democracy. We don’t need radical-left parties to make deals with social democracy to limit foreclosures, raise the minimum wage by €50, cancel some redundancies in the public sector, and so on. If we really think that’s the best we can get, we should operate within the framework of social democracy, and try to obtain some concrete improvements. But for a political current that supposedly has an alternative vision for society, accepting this as the horizon can amount to giving up on that vision.

That’s the danger that the remainder of the radical left faces in Europe now, after Syriza’s failed attempt: the danger of giving up on the very idea of more radical change. But not everyone draws the same conclusions. Mélenchon has organized discussions in Paris about the need for a Plan B—I think he has drawn more correct conclusions from the Greek case, and denounced Tsipras’s capitulation. He is now talking openly about the necessity for all the parties of the European radical left to make alternative plans which do include the option of leaving the euro and preparation for full-scale confrontation. There is a similar conference in Madrid initiated by the left of Podemos—Anticapitalistas and other forces on the radical left in Spain, which also include part of the Catalan radical left, and so on. So, there are forces who are drawing the relevant conclusions.

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