Leftists give credence to Syriza’s ‘anti-austerity’ claims

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In Greece the triumph in the January elections for the left-wing Syriza party produced a pleasing symmetry in the response of the right and left of the political spectrum. In the UK, from the right, the Times declared “Far-left firebrand races to victory”, joined by the Daily Mail’s “Shock waves across Europe as the far left sweeps to power in Greece”.

In contrast to the scaremongering of the right, leftist groups welcomed Syriza’s coming to office. In Germany Die Linke were delirious (26/1/15) “Greece has experienced a truly historic election day. We rejoice with you …It is a great achievement SYRIZA has accomplished. As a pluralistic and modern leftist party you’ve managed to become the voice of millions. People give you confidence because you are consistent and honest, and because you give them back their pride.” In France, the NPA (the New Anticapitalist Party) (10/2/15) agreed “The victory of Syriza is an extremely positive event. It will help to loosen the grip of austerity that caused a fall in living standards of the Greek population…. At the European level, it is a defeat for the governments of the right and left who keep repeating that there is no alternative to austerity and the destruction of social gains.” In the UK, the Socialist Workers Party (27/1/15) followed suit: “Voters in Greece delivered a resounding rejection of austerity … Radical left party Syriza stormed to victory while the mainstream parties were left humiliated.”

It’s true this Right/Left pattern of demonisation/celebration was not perfect as some right-wingers also queued up to salute Syriza (and not just for their coalition with the far right ANEL). Marine Le Pen of the French Front National was “delighted by the enormous, democratic slap in the face that the Greek people have delivered to the European Union”. Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party saw the election result as “a desperate cry for help from the Greek people, millions of whom have been impoverished by the euro experiment.”

The reason for citing this range of views is because this is a classic range of the different expressions of bourgeois ideology. The Right warns that a change in Greek economic policy will disrupt other economies in Europe, and maybe even have an impact on the functioning of capitalism beyond. The Left portrays Syriza’s ascendance as evidence that an ‘alternative’ capitalism is possible, and is glad that there is a newly emerged social force in which people have confidence.

One dissident voice on the left is that of the French group Lutte Ouvrière. In an article entitled “Showdown after the victory of Syriza” (18/2/15), while expressing some familiar sentiments (“workers expressed their anger by voting for Syriza” etc) it is also very critical. “Tsipras and Syriza have never questioned the capitalist order. They do not claim to fight, much less seek to overthrow it. They are completely on the terrain of the bourgeoisie.” Also, in a country where “anti-German sentiments are widespread … Syriza fights on the terrain of nationalism and emerges as  champion of Greek national independence.” However, in the final analysis, LO do not reject the defence of Syriza: “There is an objective need to be in a position to fight in solidarity with the government of Tsipras when it sticks to the measures favourable to workers that it has promised and against it if it turns its back on its promises.” LO holds out the possibility that a capitalist government in Greece under Syriza could somehow act in the interests of a class other than the bourgeoisie.

Various ways of managing the capitalist crisis

The position that Syriza has taken is as part of the political apparatus of the Greek capitalist state. It is subject to the same pressures as bourgeoisies elsewhere, and it is no surprise that Syriza, very soon after coming to power, started to make many of the concessions that it had previously set itself against. As a coalition it started as the offspring from splits from PASOK and the KKE (both of which have had periods in power, the former over many years, and the latter once in coalition with the conservative New Democracy). As a party vying for power it was situated on a capitalist terrain, differing from others only in the manner in which it expressed its nationalism, in the particular emphasis of its state capitalist economic policies.

For the leftists to depict Syriza as some sort of alternative is utterly fraudulent. Just before the election, a group of 18 distinguished economists (including two Nobel Prize winners and a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee) wrote to the Financial Times endorsing aspects of Syriza’s economic policies: “We believe it is important to distinguish austerity from reforms; to condemn austerity does not entail being anti-­reform. Macro­economic stabilisation can be achieved through growth and increased efficiency in tax collection rather than through public expenditure cuts, which have reduced the revenue base and led to an increase in the debt ratio.” The letter appeared under the headline “Europe will benefit from Greece being given a fresh start”, clearly seeing the advent of Syriza as potentially beneficial for European capitalism. As a commentator in the New Statesman (29/1/15) put it “Syriza’s programme … is mainstream macroeconomics. The party is merely planning to do what the textbooks suggest.”

And so, following the textbooks, Syriza negotiated with Greece’s European creditors, in the first instance to extend the bailout and its conditions until 30 June. While there were demonstrations on the streets of Athens against this, in the German parliament Die Linke were voting along with the government parties. Usually they have voted against the bailouts because of the austerity measures that have been imposed as a condition of funding. This time they claimed that it was ‘out of solidarity’ with Syriza. Die Linke’s leader told the German parliament that “Now you’ll see that a leftwing government can achieve anything.” Anything, that is, that fits in with capitalist socialist relations and the pressures of the economic crisis.

In a recent debate in London between a leading member of the SWP and Stathis Kouvelakis from Syriza’s central committee, the latter is quoted (Socialist Worker 3/3/15) as saying “‘32 general strikes and hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets haven’t succeeded in defeating a single measure.’ Syriza ‘provided the political imagination that was missing’ and translated these movements into a ‘challenge to power’. And while Syriza’s demands are moderate, Stathis reminded the audience that the Russian Revolution of 1917 began with calls for ‘Peace, Bread and Land’” It is true that the general strikes in Greece have been staged by the various union co-ordinations in Greece, and as such proved an outlet for workers’ anger against the austerity measures imposed by the ND/PASOK government. They ensured that opposition to austerity was contained and diverted. The ‘political imagination’ that Syriza has provided involves taking its place in the apparatus of the capitalist state. It is not a ‘challenge to power’ but a participation in the domination of capital and the exploitation of the working class.

References to 1917 are potentially risky for any leftists to make. The reality of revolution and the participation of revolutionaries within that process tend to expose the postures of such as Syriza. The Russian Revolution not only threw up demands such as those of ‘Peace, Bread and Land’, it was also characterised by Lenin’s theoretical work on marxism and the state, the April Theses, and State and Revolution. A cornerstone of marxism is that the state exists because of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. In this it is appropriate for Syriza to take its place in the capitalist state and for other leftists to conjure up illusions in what state capitalism can do. Car 5/3/15