Greece: after the austerity vote

Stuart King from Lambeth Left Unity gives his view.

Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich

Leonard Cohen

The Greek parliament has passed the austerity programme demanded of it by the Troika – the EU, IMF and ECB – by 229 votes to 64. This is a serious defeat for the anti austerity movement that brought Syriza to power last January.

The result of this programme are well known: a further €13billion will be taken out of the economy as Greece is forced to run a surplus to pay interest on its debt pile, a massive privatisation programme is being introduced with €50bn of state assets transferred into an EU controlled holding account to be sold at their whim, the starting pension age is extended to 67 years, VAT rates will rise to 23% on many commodities and services, much legislation protecting workers right will be swept away and Syriza will have to repeal many of the social measures it introduced in the last six months to protect the poorest from the ravages of austerity – unemployment will rise, poverty will rocket.

And all legislation and its implementation will be overseen by officials of the Troika, effectively taking the running of the country out of the hands of the Greek government. Greece has been reduced to a semi-colonial status in the EU.

Defeat from the jaws of victory

Only nine days previously Syriza had won a resounding victory in the referendum with a massive No vote rejecting the Troika’s austerity programme. This victory shattered the forces arguing for a Yes vote with the leader of the main conservative party New Democracy resigning after the vote. Yet within hours Tsipras, the Syriza prime minister, had gone cap in hand to the opposition to present a common austerity programme to the Troika for approval. The opposition could not believe its luck.

Tsipras’ excuse was that the EU had a “gun to their heads” and that the alternative, breaking with the euro and repudiating the debt would be worse. The question that has to be asked is why therefore bother with five months of negotiations? Why stand on an election platform which promised the Greek people an end to austerity? Why go to the country with a call to vote No to austerity? If there was never an alternative to going along with the Troika’s demands why take the Greek people through five months of promises and disappointment?

Of course there was an alternative but it would have meant confronting the demands of international capitalism. It would have meant putting forward a clear alternative to the Greek people, and to the Troika, as to what would happen if more austerity was insisted upon. Breaking from the euro, declaring a moratorium on the debt, taking over the banks and issuing a new currency, establishing a monopoly of foreign trade, taking control of shipping, transportation, ports etc and developing an emergency defensive plan for the economy faced with an inevitable financial blockade. It would have meant an international appeal, to the working class of Europe, to any supportive governments to stand by Greece against the dictats of the markets. It would have meant taking real measures in favour of socialism and establishing a real workers government.

Could Syriza have carried the mass of Greek people in such a struggle? Quite possibly given the enormous support for the government, the deep roots of Syriza in the everyday struggles and the alternative on offer of continuing austerity and loss of sovereignty. It was a question of leadership and persuasion, leading the Greek people through the process of a fruitless struggle with the troika and convincing them of a socialist alternative.

The Syriza leadership did none of these things. Instead it has reneged on its platform and promises and joined with the right wing in Greece to implement austerity. This is why the defeat is likely to be a major one because if the government is allowed to implement these measures it will destroy Syriza as a party.

The war is not over

There is an opposition to the current leadership’s course. It comes from within Syriza and most importantly from the workers and youth who were the backbone of the resounding no vote. The question is, can this opposition be rallied, offered a new direction from the one being pursued by the Syriza leadership?

The Left Platform (LP) and others in Syriza have opposed the collapse before the Troika, although it is depressing that only 32 Syriza parliamentarians voted against the austerity package, compared to 109 who voted for. The LP itself delayed too long in putting its alternative to the party and fighting for it, as some of its members now admit. They allowed the Central Committee to be sidelined and decisions to be made by a tiny inner cabinet around Tsipras.

The reaction of one of their leaders to the austerity vote is not encouraging. Panagiotis Lafazanis, the energy minister, declared that despite their opposition to the deal they would continue to “support the government” – a government committed to pushing through the most severe and regressive austerity measures.

If the opposition is to be rallied within Syriza and on the streets the LP must adopt an intransigent attitude to an austerity government, refusing it any support. They should be rallying the base of Syriza against the parliamentary fraction, calling a special congress, organising action on the streets, putting themselves at the head of a movement trying to minoritise the Tsipras leadership and if necessary breaking with the party. Anything less will compound the disillusion and depth of the defeat.

Lessons for Left Unity

We should quickly draw some lessons from this defeat. We were all enthused by the victory of Syriza. We rightly joined in the solidarity movement, developed close links with Syriza in Britain and joined the delegations to Greece. But we developed at a leadership level a too uncritical approach, basking in the glory, declaring Syriza our “sister party” and asking too few questions, about its internal democracy for example. Even after the vote for austerity we resisted open criticism of Syriza’s actions.

This is partly because the events in Greece raise uncomfortable questions for those in Left Unity who have based their strategy on the idea that we can build a broad anti-austerity party to the left of Labour along the lines of other Left Parties in Europe.

The first such party to come to power on its own, Syriza, has shown that such a party, even where it has real roots in the masses and coming out of a mass movement of resistance, has been unable to take even mild reformist measures against austerity in favour of the workers. In fact it has collapsed before international capitalism in a few months. And no one should think Britain would be any different for a left government. We would face the same market onslaught, bank runs, media campaigns and IMF strangulation, in or out of the EU.

We have to rethink our strategy even though we are a long way from power. Capitalism in a crisis will not allow any serious reforms in the interest of the working class without using all its levers of power to remove a left government. Any socialist party, any workers government, will have to take anticapitalist measures from day one to survive. We have to be honest with our militants and supporters, and above all with the working class, about what type of party we are trying to build, an anticapitalist not a reformist one, or we will quickly go the way of Syriza.

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6 responses to “Greece: after the austerity vote”

  1. John Penney says:

    You raise a lot of very important points about both Syriza and our Left Unity “public propaganda positioning” on both Syriza in particular and the potential of radical reformism in general to achieve significant socio economic reforms.
    Hopefully we will adopt a much more critical analysis of Syriza on the back of its leaderships manifest betrayal of its election manifesto, its overall reform programme and indeed its entire justification for existing.

    Although the Syriza Left Platform currently have the appearance of a shellshocked passenger on a runaway train, we in Left Unity must from now on openly support the Syriza Left opposition and other radical anti Austerity Left elements within and without Syriza, and make a clear break with the Tsipras leadership circle. A circle soon likely to purhe its radical Left and form some sort of “National Unity Government” with the Centre Right , to push through the most vicious Austerity programme/sell off of national assets yet seen in Europe.
    On the issue of how our radical Left Unity strategy relates to the Syriza disaster. I would advice caution in reacting to the Syriza failure by adopting all the old maximalist “its all out all European socialist revolution – or nothing” nonsense that some of our ultraleft Left Unity member sectlets will now try again to foist upon us.

    In the UK context – ie, a large, wealthy economy, with internationally significant political and economic weight, there is not only still a large political space for a radical transformative socialist party – as the current success of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for Labour Leader demonstrates, but there is still considerable room for manoeuver by a radical Left party to achieve significant reforms to benefit the working class .
    Beyond a certain point of course the reaction from capitalism would produce direct conflict with the capitalist class domestically and internationally – just as Syriza has found out so painfully.
    The point for Left Unity is to aim be a broad radically transformative socialist party , but one which grasps that ours has to be a long term “transitional” strategy which plans for and accepts that the bounds of purely reformist advance are distinctly finite, and that for any serious socialist party in this historic era, eventually the fundamental fork in the road between retreat/collaboration and revolutionary socialist advance will be reached. In the UK though, such a confrontation is a long way off – indeed forever delayed if we don’t first build our party into a serious electable mass party on the basis of radically transformative, but essentially “reformist” demands and campaigns.

  2. Pete b says:

    “anti capitalist” or “radically transformative, but essentially reformidtr eformist. These are oppossing concepts to the identity of left unitys politics. I think the debarkle of the tsipras leadership in greece should surely end this affiliation to tsipras. In my view he will come to be known as a sell out! No theorification by leftist theoreticians will be able to rehabilitate him, or his record. From there we have to look to left platform and anistazia. Clearly to politically retreive the situation will require general strijes, occupations, and street protests. The youth and students, and the working class have to retake the initiative.

  3. Bob Walker says:

    Why is it that when someone puts forward a Socialist argument they are classed as ultra left. Reformist parties have never changed the system and never will. The Labour Party even if J Corbin is elected leader will not change the Capitalist system.
    I would also like to say that in the past I have called for a no to the E.U. and been called a Nationalist.What happend to Greece should show us that you wont change the E.U. from within

  4. Stuart King says:

    John I am not sure you are right about there being “more space” in Britain for a radically transformative socialist part than in Greece. Britain too has a huge debt and because our economy is highly dependent on the City, hedge funds, international property speculation etc it is highly dependent on the international markets. A socialist government would be extremely vulnerable to an engineered stock exchange plunge, property price collapse, a run on the banks which would quickly threaten or destroy the middle classes wealth and potentially drive them to the right. It’s a mistake to believe that Greece is somehow “exceptional” in a globalised market.

    Nor do I agree that a “radically transformative socialist party” can just put forward reformist demands. Clearly we should have a manifesto both for reforms and anticapitalist change as two linked parts of the same programme. The problem with Syriza surely was that it put forward “essentially ‘reformist’ demands and campaigns’ – to remain within the eurozone at all costs, rely on negotiation, take no measures against the bank run engineered by capital, all of which demanded anti capitalist solutions which should have been part of Syriza’s programme.

    And I am not saying we should have a pure communist programme but as you say it is possible to have a transitional approach that both addresses the everyday demands and reforms desired by militants in the struggle (against the anti union laws for example) and link them to the necessary anticapitalist goal that we are fighting for.

  5. John Penney says:

    We actually seem to be in agreement on the main issue here Stuart, as I may differ with you on some details, but agree entirely with your final paragraph.

    The whole point about “transitional” radical reformist demands and policies is that in relatively high profit , relatively stable, capitalist periods , the demands for a high quality Welfare state, or for control and limits on the behaviour of the banking system, or to aim for full employment, are in themselves merely “reformist” demands (in that they in no way in themselves overthrow the capitalist system or its state). Today however , in a global capitalist crisis, any government intent on seriously implementing such “reformist” policies would meet an ever increasing capitalist hostile response – similar to that unleashed on the Syriza government to break its will to resist the Troika’s demands. Therefore a serious radical Left government will , in implementing radical “reformist” policies enter into a developmental process which will inevitably eventually bring it , and the working class, to the crossroads of retreat/collaboration or moving radically leftwards to a higher level of struggle – against capitalism itself. A Left Unity long term strategy which doesn’t fully take this on board is merely setting up yet another radical Left party doomed to capitulate as soon as the going gets tough.

    I maintain though, in opposition to your view, that in the UK there is indeed more time and more political space than existed in Greece over the last 5 short years as Syriza built itself on a confused radical anti Austerity but uncritically pro Eurozone programme, to build a serious radically transformative socialist party on the basis of transitional demands and policies. The problem with the Syriza leadership’s political mindset was, and is, that they have proved to be fundamentally, not tactically, entirely bourgeois reformist – totally unwilling to move onwards, leftwards, from mere anti Austerity politics to the required next stage , ie, a much more politically clear anti capitalist struggle built around Grexit and a raft of radical nationalisation and working class mobilisation measures.

    However, at this stage of our much less severe UK crisis trying to build a mass avowedly revolutionary socialist party is , as you say, simply a no hoper.

  6. Patrick Black says:

    I think we need to be very careful about how we compare the situation in Greece and the situation in Britain.

    Britain is one of the richest imperialist powers in the World with a very bloody imperialist history in terms of it’s involvement with Greece, it’s post second World war intervention in the Greek civil war (1945-49) on the side of the fascist right wing and Monarchist forces and support for the fascist Greek Generals during the Coup years (1967-1974).(Interesting that the British media is loathe to dig too deep in exposing the links between the British monarchy (Prince ‘take the fucking photo’ Phillip)and reactionary monarchist and fascist forces in Greece (past and present) never mind the depth of connections between Edward VIII, The British ruling class and Hitler, Mussolini,Franco et al.)

    Greece is now treated as a colony within the European neo liberal super state,a neo liberal laboratory and has been made an example of for the last five years. Cameron’s Tory Government fully supports the present extreme Austerity measures read political and economic restructuring and privatisation.What the ruling class regard as necessary in one situation isn’t necessarily what they regard as necessary in another.

    Our solidarity needs to be with strengthening the anti austerity movement here in Britain linked with giving whatever support we can to the movement in Greece in coordination with the anti austerity movement in the rest of Europe and beyond.

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