It would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but a party of the radical left is on the cusp of power in an EU country. The latest opinion polls indicate that Syriza will triumph in the Greek national elections to be held on Sunday and although it may not win an absolute majority in parliament it would (assuming it can find coalition partners) certainly be the dominant force in any coalition government that emerged.
Unsurprisingly the imminent prospect of a left government committed to breaking with the brutal reign of austerity has alarmed the powerful within and beyond Greece. In a thinly veiled attack on Syriza, for example, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, recently warned Greeks about electing ‘extreme forces’ into power and suggested, rather in the manner of a threat, that they ought to consider ‘what a wrong election result would mean for Greece and the eurozone’.
But what’s remarkable about this is that, for all the warnings of ‘extremism’, Syriza’s demands are in fact rather modest and indeed eminently sensible. At the core of its programme are pledges to negotiate the cancellation of 50 percent of Greece’s crippling debt, lift austerity and boost growth and employment through public investment. These proposals are accompanied by a range of measures designed to address what Syriza rightly calls the ‘humanitarian crisis’ in Greece such as promises to provide free electricity and subsidised meals and housing for the poor.
Given the economic and social catastrophe that austerity has visited on Greece—over 25 percent unemployment, an economy that has contracted by a quarter, wages and pensions slashed, soaring rates of homelessness, suicide and infant mortality—these are hardly outlandish or utopian proposals. They pivot on the simple, obvious truths that the national debt is unpayable, that austerity is generating nothing but misery and, further, on the rather basic ethical demand that every citizen should have enough to eat, decent housing and access to the basic resources that will allow them to live with dignity. There is nothing extreme about this—indeed, surely the real extremists are those who insist on further austerity, further hardship and humiliation for ordinary Greeks.
It is precisely the moderation of Syriza’s stance, however, that has attracted fierce criticism from other left wing groups. The Greek Communist Party (KKE) for example denounces Syriza for ‘opportunism’ while the Front of the Greek Anticapitalist Left (Antarsya), though much less sectarian than the KKE, refuses to combine forces with Syriza, arguing that the latter’s programme is insufficiently radical. Internationally too, there’s no shortage of left critics issuing dire warnings in relation to Syriza’s ‘reformism’, convinced that all it aspires to do is to manage, rather than seriously challenge, the system. Even among many of its supporters there is a general consensus that Syriza ‘is not as radical as we would want’ and that backing it in the forthcoming election represents a necessary reining in of the left’s political ambitions under current conditions.
These criticisms are mistaken, however, for three closely related reasons.
Firstly, it is not at all clear what serious alternative most of these critics propose. In fact, for many of them the underlying dispute with Syriza is not so much over the details of reform proposals as it is with the party’s very intention to form a government within the political institutions of the capitalist state. Such a strategy, they warn, leads inexorably to betrayal since any party that seeks to utilise capitalist institutions will become trapped within the logic of the system. But years of intense social struggles in Greece—including mass demonstrations, occupations of government buildings and more than 30 general strikes—have failed to stop austerity, much less usher in socialist transformation. It is clear that social mobilisation in itself is not enough and that the question of political power must be confronted. Greek workers require a political instrument to lead in actually implementing their demands.
In this regard many of Syriza’s Marxist critics invoke the need for soviet organs of workers’ power. The obvious problem here, however, is that in circumstances where such organs show little sign of emerging even after years of intense social struggle such invocation remains entirely abstract—it is, for the time being at least, wishful thinking rather than the identification of a serious, concrete alternative in the here and now. Indeed, typically, such critics cannot specify in anything but the most hand-waving and vague terms how such organs of workers’ power might possibly emerge. Syriza, however, grasps that the struggle as it currently is requires a government of the left that utilises existing political institutions and, for all the undoubted risks, problems and dilemmas that this will bring, are prepared to take on this responsibility. As such, only Syriza proposes a serious and concrete plan to confront the urgency of the situation in Greece. In comparison, many of its leftwing critics seem to me to offer little but evasive posturing which of course offers little of practical value to people currently struggling to feed their families and pay their rent—this, indeed, is one reason why the KKE and Antarsya will struggle to win more than derisory shares of the vote in the forthcoming election.
Secondly, Syriza’s proposed reforms correspond to the immediate needs and demands of ordinary Greeks—for jobs, better wages, affordable food and housing and so on. Indeed it’s precisely because of this correspondence that Syriza’s programme has resonated so successfully with Greek voters, bringing the party to the brink of office and thus putting imminent, real change on the agenda in a way that ostensibly ‘radical’ but wholly abstract revolutionary demands with little political traction never could.
Thirdly, it’s clear that, for all its sober pragmatism, Syriza’s manifesto is likely to bring it into direct confrontation with the forces of domestic and international capital. It’s certainly not a programme for the management of capitalism on capital’s terms. A Syriza government is likely to face intense hostility in the form, for example, of serious capital flight, bank runs, an ‘investment strike’ and threats of withdrawal on the part of multinationals together with various methods of blackmail and obstruction on the part of the EU. It will also face a dangerous struggle within the Greek state itself—not least in relation to an unreliable and hostile police force in which more than half of all officers voted for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in the 2012 national elections.
It’s likely, then, that on taking office Syriza will, very quickly, be faced with a stark choice: either to renege on its commitments in the face of powerful opposition or to press ahead, which will mean being prepared to take counter-measures to defend its initial reforms: cancellation of the debt, nationalising banks, expropriating closed factories. Of course there’s nothing inevitable about which of these two options Syriza will choose, but given the popular hopes generated by its promises, to retreat on its core commitments would certainly be to consign itself to future electoral oblivion. Much here would depend on mobilised mass support seeking to push the government on and to force it to stick to its promises—indeed a Syriza victory on Sunday will probably unleash a new wave of popular struggles.
The key point here is that determined, consistent implementation and defence of Syriza’s pragmatic election promises is likely to lead to measures that go far beyond the party’s current objectives. We could say that Syriza’s apparently modest programme conceals an inner dynamic of radicalisation.
The very possibility of this dynamic however is rooted in the moderation of the initial demands—in the way in which these articulate the everyday concerns of the mass of the Greek population. What anti-capitalist forces operating within Syriza grasp is that revolutionary social change must emerge from ordinary people’s collective experience of the way in which modest, common sense measures to improve their lives and defend their dignity run up against the limits of what the current order will allow. This experience thus reveals the system’s essential inhumanity—in a sense we might say its extremism—and demonstrates concretely, in a way that abstract declarations of ‘the need for socialism’ simply do not, the imperative to push beyond capitalist limits in order to secure the very basic conditions for a decent and humane society.
Ed Rooksby teaches politics at Ruskin College in Oxford and is a member of Left Unity.