The promise of history: Syriza and the future of the left

For years Greek radicals wondered what it would mean to win, writes Kostis Karpozilos. Now the question is whether winning is enough

June 5, 2015
13 min read

History saturated the atmosphere on January 25, 2015. The jubilant crowd that had gathered to celebrate the rise of Syriza to power greeted Alexis Tsipras with the slogan ‘now the time of the left has come’. Memories of past struggles blended with hope and the new prime minister followed suit, fuelling the great expectations of the day. ‘Today, the Greek people wrote history’ were his opening words, promising a new epoch not only for Greece but for the European project as a whole.

For the first time in the post-1989 world a party of the left in Western Europe had risen to power, directly challenging the dominant European Union policies of financial austerity and undemocratic practices. Dizzy with success the Greek left called the peoples of Europe to arms. The night of the Greek elections promised to change the course of European history.

Three months later, the promise of history is in limbo. The rise of Syriza to power has not signified a decisive step towards the resolution of the Eurozone enigma. Neither the revolution that segments of the left had hoped for nor the catastrophe that mainstream commentators had predicted has come to Athens. Greece remains at the epicenter of protracted deliberations amidst a climate of precarious stability, while the Greek government has lost its initial élan. The dominant European forces remain dominant and the alternative proposals of Syriza have not reshaped the austerity agenda. What we are witnessing now is the cautious realignment of the Greek government towards the demands of the European Union authorities. In the best-case scenario the Greek government will avoid a humiliating capitulation, but even so it will have definitely fallen short of its promises.

Taking these developments into account, the left should revisit its intrinsic belief that the lights in the European sky precede an impending storm. Since 2009 it is the European elites who have set the tone and rhythm of events, effectively postponing the apocalyptic moment that the European left has been waiting for. Contrary to historical examples of capitalist crises, societies have not witnessed a sudden meltdown or a shocking bankruptcy. Instead European societies have been slowly disintegrating under the pressure of a financial depression that gradually transforms everyday conditions and shapes even alternative responses. The rise of Syriza to power might seem an abrupt development, but actually it was not. It took almost three years of constant and protracted decline of the ruling parties for the left to prevail.

A map not redrawn

Syriza’s situation demonstrates the core of the problem of the European left: the crisis of the Eurozone and the return of the social question to the foreground has not produced a new European political map. The expectation that growing inequality will bring political radicalisation and the resurgence of the left has failed. With the exception of Syriza, the left has not succeeded in transforming popular discontent and the rise of social movements into a new political paradigm that can effectively challenge the dominant forces within the European Union. In the 2014 Euro-elections results were mediocre to say the least for the Italian, German and the French left, while the recent British elections and the apparent stagnation, and inconsistencies, of Spain’s Podemos demonstrate the problem further. In this context, a possible failure of Syriza – either in the form of a governmental collapse or, worse, capitulation – will have detrimental consequences for the European left, since it will illustrate the limitations of its challenge to the dogma that ‘There Is No Alternative’.

Within the disheartening political map of Europe, defined by ruling neoliberal and reactionary forces, any effort for a progressive national solution is doomed. This is particularly true for countries in the European periphery. In the 1990s the celebrated ‘Greek miracle’ of unprecedented growth was founded on a structural transformation of the national economy, encouraged ideologically and financially by the European Union. The decline of agricultural production and the decline of small and medium-scale industries was greeted as a sign of modernisation, while Greek capitalists transferred their activities to the Balkans, taking advantage of low wages and a lack of regulation.

This structural transformation became evident in the last few years. Even though mainstream media focus on the transfer of personal savings to foreign banks, the hidden parallel universe of ship-owners and elites that traditionally evaded taxation has readily transferred its financial activities beyond the borders. As the historian Christos Hadziiossif has underlined, this shift explains the paradox of a national elite that has not given any assistance to the governmental efforts for the restoration of the national economy. Deprived of allies in the European Union, Syriza’s agenda for national reconstruction within the European Union is deadlocked.

The stalemate is reflected in the reluctance of Syriza to enact the much-anticipated internal reforms aiming to alleviate the burden of austerity. The fundamental promises of raising the minimum wage to 750 euros, big-business taxation and large-scale employment programs remain unimplemented. Trapped in a suffocating financial reality, the government has limited resources to take immediate measures against the humanitarian crisis.

At the same time, the problem is not strictly a financial one. Syriza came to power aiming to promote a new paradigm of social organisation and political participation. Despite some important steps – as in the case of granting citizenship to second generation immigrants – the overall picture is bleak. The grassroots movements that flourished during the early years of the crisis are silent and municipal authorities elected on anti-austerity agendas have not succeeded in creating alternative local politics. On a broader level the lack of initiative is sometimes striking: the new government has not moved forward with liberal reforms that would signal a visible change, as for instance in the case of State and Orthodox Church relations, same-sex civil unions, or simply putting an end to the expensive militaristic parades on national holidays. These alarming developments reflect Syriza’s decision to avoid thorny questions, but also the resurgence of conservative forces within the Greek left that distort the concept of a new beginning.

No win-win answers

The gap between expectations and reality relates to the contradiction that underpinned Syriza’s electoral success. Even though much of the European left focused on the radical tendencies within Syriza, the transformation of the party’s rhetoric was much more important. In order to convince voters that the catastrophic propaganda of the right was unfounded, Syriza overstretched a promise of radical change without considerable cost. According to Syriza’s strategy, the dominant powers in the European Union were eager to accept that the austerity program in Greece was not working because it was irrational. Therefore, they would welcome a new agenda for the exodus of Greece from recession, appreciating at the same time that Syriza had abandoned the radical proclamations of the past in favor of a noble compromise. This mind-soothing reasoning appealed to the Greek public. Recent polls have demonstrated that the vast majority of Greeks want the country to stay in the European Union. Therefore Syriza’s promise sounded like a win-win situation: the end of austerity with Greece in the Eurozone.

The emphasis on the irrational character of the dominant neoliberal model had a self-assuring effect, but avoided the difficult question: what if the European elites are following a conscious plan that guarantees the material interests of the dominant economies? If this were indeed the case, then the left would have to think over its position towards the European Union. If the European Union structure does not allow space even for the slightest reform then the left should emancipate its political imagination away from the European Union towards a new European project.

In this line of reasoning though there can be no win-win situation, but a debate within the European left between notions of stability within the existing framework or envisioning a radical rupture with unpredictable consequences.

Power and the left

This dilemma underlines the necessity of a renewed discussion on the forgotten issue of the left in power. In the post-1989 period the European left in all forms and ideological variants witnessed a profound, and unprecedented, existential crisis that led in many cases to its decline and marginalisation. The left survived because it offered a critical analysis of the triumphant neoliberal agenda and highlighted the shortcomings of the promises of prosperity that flourished at the end of the Cold War. The sharp criticism of the existing world though was not followed by an analogous effort to propose an alternative one; the emphasis was on the possibility of a different social order (as in the case of the Social Forum slogan that ‘another world is possible’) and not its particulars.

In the Greek case the disassociation of the left from the question of political power in the 1990s was demonstrated in its decision not to participate in coalition governments led by the center-left Pasok. This was a difficult choice given the prevailing tendencies of the time, but proved to be of significance when the success story of Greek capitalism started to crumble. At that point Syriza muttered the forgotten words ‘the left in power’, offering a tangible goal that transformed popular discontent into a quest for immediate change. Even though many things have changed since 2012, the outcome of the 2015 elections ratified the successful choice of Syriza to address the forgotten issue of the left being not solely a force of protest, but a political force willing to fight for power.

Now, after the initial euphoria for Syriza’s historic success, the Greek left is confronted with a new set of questions. For years radicals were wondering what it would mean to win. Now that they have won they have to answer the much more complicated issue of whether winning is enough for an alternative.

A European project for the 21st century

For the left the solution cannot lie in the repetition of the past, in the promise of a world that no longer exists. Nostalgia was the prevailing mode in the early stages of the crisis, when the left repeatedly turned to historical analogies in the effort to convince Europeans there was a way out. Alexis Tsipras consistently drew parallels between the contemporary debt crisis and the question of postwar reconstruction and proposed a solution along the lines of that offered to Germany after the second world war. Announcing his candidacy for the European Commission via a short piece in the Guardian in November 2013, he called on Europe ‘to stop the shocking breach of human rights by reshaping the state, restoring growth and creating high-quality, stable jobs with the protections that have historically contributed to the European social model’.

If the left insists, as it has been doing for some time, that the alternative to austerity is a retreat to the seemingly harmonious epoch of the European social model then the prospects are limited. The Eurozone deliberations have proved that the politics of austerity had no reason to be frightened. The Greek left did not pose a threat to the European Union, but tried – unsuccessfully – to remind the European Union of values and financial paradigms that have been long defeated, as is evident in the social democratic parties in Italy, France, Britain and more importantly Germany.

It would be naïve to believe that raising the voice of the lost world of Keynesianism would push the European elites to step back from neoliberal policies. At the same time, it would be equally naïve to believe that if had Syriza a revolutionary agenda then things would be different. The important thing here is not a list of demands. It is whether these demands signify a vision for the future, and whether they can generate a movement of support that will lead the European elites to concessions under pressure.

The first step is for the left to discuss its position towards the European Union structures and to chart an alternative European project for the 21st century. This is not an academic discussion and it cannot be fruitful by simply returning to the anti-EU or pro-EU positions of the past. It should be an open debate that takes into account the post-1990s structural changes within the European Union and the experiences of political alternatives within this structure.

A second pillar requires the transformation of the abstract notions of internationalism into tangible aims: the parties and forces of the European left lack a common language and more importantly common and shared projects. The plethora of forums and workshops have not produced transnational social and political movements, while the trade unions’ federations are in most cases mere letterheads reminding of a glorious past. If the European left cannot address the question of wage differences across Europe or the issue of what Europe will produce in the 21st century, it is questionable if it will be able to challenge the dominant austerity policies or the reactionary Eurosceptic movements.

The final question relates to the organisational structure of the left. The remnants of historical institutions and the more innovative decentralised structures have both proven quite unsuccessful in encouraging active participation and commitment to the cause. The absence of debate on this question illustrates why the left has not succeeded in transforming itself into a dynamic force across Europe. The left should illustrate that it is capable of changing and combine the necessity of efficiency with democratic practices that make sense in the present and at the same time point to a different vision of what it means to be a citizen today.

Confronted with a historic crisis of capitalism, the left appears trapped in history: in its own history of failures and in the repetition of analysis and tactics that have no broader appeal. This is equally true for reformists and revolutionaries alike. The former dream of a retreat to the social contract of postwar capitalism; the latter dream a repetition of history based on the belief that the masses are always ready and just need the right kind of leadership. Both models have been tested across the European left and have failed. This failure is the elephant in the room.

The left of the 21st century should attempt a synthesis between a programme for the immediate future and a vision of a radically different world. The Greek left has a unique opportunity, in power, to promote this synthesis. More than once the representatives of Syriza have been confronted with the question ‘do you want Greece outside or inside the Eurozone?’ It is time for the left to reframe this question: do we want the Eurozone to look like Greece in the near future? If not, it is time for a radical project, encompassing reformist changes that will revolutionise everyday conditions not only in Greece but also across Europe.

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