Extended version of talk delivered in Chicago (April 2013)
If I had been told four years ago that I would be here in US today – as a delegate of my party – to talk about SYRIZA I would have thought that it was a joke. But, if this prediction had been considered far stretched no one could possibly conceive what would have been going on in Europe today.
The title of this event is: SYRIZA: what is it and what it isn’t? The reason for this question is that SYRIZA managed to become a leading political formation in Greece two years after the beginning of the IMF policies. So, the focus of my presentation will be on SYRIZA, on its political route and action that will help us approach the question of the title and the following equally interesting question: why SYRIZA and not some other political formation?
I am not going to focus on the dispute regarding the effects, the results and the alternatives of the memorandum policy or the future of eurozone and the handling of the debt crisis in Southern Europe. However, I will present several aspects of the current social and political situation in Greece as the context in which SYRIZA was and is obliged to deploy its political action.
Specifically, what I am going to do is to present some moments of the historical path from which SYRIZA mainly comes from. In doing so I am going to pinpoint these features that played an important role in the rising of SYRIZA today as a leading political formation. So the first question I will attempt to answer is “where did SYRIZA come from?”. The second question will be “what did SYRIZA do from 2010 till today”, that is, how did SYRIZA manage to transform the potentiality of determining the course of things into an actuality. And the third question will be “what is SYRIZA doing today?” as a continuation and upgrading of what made SYRIZA what it is today on a more demanding level of political fight.
Let me tell you from the beginning SYRIZA’s predicament: Today, we are in the middle of a multi-facet global financial crisis whose most critical aspect is the debt crisis in eurozone. At the center of the European version of the crisis is Greece and in Greece through a tough and ongoing class struggle a small left party was appointed by the people to come to the fore and play the crucial role of the political expression of its active resistance, its needs and hopes. So, all of a sudden, the course of things in such a crucial historical moment are connected to some extent with the workings of this small left party that before the crisis was just struggling to redefine a left strategy for the defense of people’s rights today, towards a dignified, democratic, non-suicidal post-capitalist society tomorrow. With this in mind let’s proceed to the first question.
Where did SYRIZA come from?
SYRIZA was formed as a coalition of the radical left in 2004. Several organizations of the left (Maoists, eurocommounists, Trotskyites etc) and radical ecology participated in it while the biggest party of the coalition was Synaspismos. Synaspismos was formed in 1992 from several splits of the orthodox communist party1.
The break with the communist orthodoxy
I will briefly say a few things for the first serious split since it determined the physiognomy of the current of the left that SYRIZA comes from. In 1968, during the dictatorship, in the middle of persecutions and exiles a split took place in the communist party. Two communist parties were formed: the orthodox one which supported Soviet Union and the communist party of the interior which was critical to Soviet Union and it was oriented towards the current of eurocommunism together with the Italian and other communist parties in the western Europe. Ever since the hostility of the orthodox communist party towards the other one has been permanent until today. The renewing communist party lost the hegemony in the left from the orthodox communist party after the fall of the dictatorship and in the dawn of the third Greek Democracy the renewing communist party didn’t manage to be an important political factor (except the youth movement in which it always had influence due to mainly cultural reasons, it was more open to new currents of thought and life etc).
Renewing communists and Europe
It is interesting to note that the renewing communist party was in favor of the entrance of Greece in the European Economic Community (EOK) – an exception in the left since from orthodox communists to centre-left social-democrats they all were against – considering that the participation in the European environment guarantees democracy and national integrity while at the same time it was thought that strategically the Greeks are part of the European people. The fact that it was mainly an economic union of the European capitalist elites was considered part of the battle Europeans should give together inside the newly born Community.
So, it is not strange, and surely not a lie as our opponents claim in Greece, that SYRIZA – the political expression of this current of the left – deploys today a European strategy for the debt crisis in Greece. Of course the reasoning today is somewhat different. In a nutshell I would say that the key idea today is that the interdependency of the economies together with the superior financial and political firepower of global “markets” suggest that there is no way a small nation can stand up and prevent its enslavement when at the same time nothing similar is happening around it. So, the need of a common strategy of the European nations is totally necessary.
As I said before, several other splits and coalitions took place until 1992, the year in which Synaspismos the biggest party of today’s SYRIZA was formed by the union of the parts of these various splits of the orthodox communist party2. The orthodox communist party remains until today a hard line traditional communist party. The initial strategic goal of Synaspismos was the progressive modernization of Greece. Because of the neoliberal advance during the 90’s the party gradually radicalized and around 2000 the strategic aim of socialism with democracy and freedom appeared again in its documents.
The influence of the party was marginal before crisis: 5% in 1993, 2,9% in 1996 failing to pass the limit of 3% and have seats in parliament, 3,4% in 2000, 3,2% in 2004 (as SYRIZA), 5% in 2007 (as SYRIZA), 4% in 2009 (as SYRIZA) before the crisis. However there are some crucial moments for its physiognomy during these years that explain in part why today it is a leading political formation.
Political left in the era of the “End of History”
The first crucial point is its existence and endurance through these 20 difficult for the left years. It is hard to exaggerate the magnitude of the importance of the political left in general and today in particular for the people’s interests. There was a determination of the left people who comprised the party to maintain its existence even though it wasn’t clear why and for what. There was already an orthodox communist party and a social-democratic party covering all the preferences of either the revolutionaries or the moderate supporters of the left. What did Synaspismos have to offer?
From the beginning, the core idea was that in the 20th century both of these left traditions failed and Synaspismos took on the task of shaping a new methodology, conception, and organization for the left transcending creatively these traditions. In reality, there was always an internal tension between poles attracted to these two traditions rendering internal conflicts a permanent situation. The endurance of the party and its gradual radicalization could not be taken for granted. Let me remind you that I am talking about the period immediately after the formal fall of Soviet Union that symbolically enacted an ideological tsunami that swept every emancipatory vision and voice of resistance to the logic of profit and competition.
The logic of profit and competition was the end of history, the destiny of humanity. Humanity was convicted with celebrations and happy faces to the most irrational, counter-productive and destructive logic of organizing a human society, a direct insult to our dignity and rationality. And we had to be happy about it especially in the developed western countries. The psychological pressure of the huge failure of the 20th century, the seemingly pointless status of any fight from now on, the attraction to the other more powerful traditions and so on render the endurance of this current of the political left even in its marginal size literally an achievement.
A new relation with the movements and the youth, the unity of the left and a new political culture
The second point is its openness to social processes and movements. The core idea here is that the political left has not an a priori vanguard role. Even though political left structurally represents social resistances on the political level and through this structural function enforces their impact and even though it has a wider perspective that doesn’t mean that it has the proper line in each occasion. The vanguard role should be justified by hard work inside social movements, through an honest effort these movements to be effective, accepting as positive different perspectives that may grasp aspects of social reality the political left may not be in touch with, working with them on an equal basis and so on.
The anti-globalization movement and the global and European social forums in which SYRIZA was nearly the only Greek left political force that participated was a crucial shaping experience for us and a valuable training in this new relation with other movements and collectivities was. So gradually the members of the party were trained to this new methodology and the local branches developed in time real connections with local movements, they were part of every big mobilization through the years. As a result, the spontaneous mistrust towards political parties gradually didn’t include SYRIZA which was becoming in time something different in people’s minds.
The gradual distance from the rest political spectrum had ‘negative’ moments as well. A majority of people never understood why a small political party opposed the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004 and the building of a new stadium for the biggest soccer team of Athens several years later in defense of the environment, the fiscal stability of the state and a different model of development with obvious negative results for its popularity. That’s why it is a total lie that today SYRIZA supports every demand in a populist way in order to benefit from the tragic situation in Greece as our opponents suggest. This was a strange attitude, one which didn’t conform to the widespread conception that the parties are basically trying to gain popularity. SYRIZA was becoming something different.
Let me point out that Synaspismos and SYRIZA were open to the social workings not always in a conscious way. The renewing communist origin and the idea that the left must be reestablished together with the difficulties for the left during this period created serious difficulties. The local branches were feeble our impact at the central political stage was weak and hard to distinguish and so on. However, these disadvantages surprisingly added up to a crucial advantage: the party was amenable for changes, for new influences, an organization in which the active resistances form below could affect it. So the organizational weakness – among other things of course – rendered this party the only party that was in contact with the social workings and this is one of the main reasons why today is at the center of the political life in such a crucial moment for the people. I think this is something we should examine theoretically regarding the organizational status of the political left in the future.
Moreover, on the one hand the existence of the orthodox communist party reminded us all the time what we should never forget, the path we should never follow again, and on the other hand the neoliberal transformation of the social-democrats reminded us all the time that there is no way to compromise in an honest and functional way with the neoliberal orthodoxy. For us, thankfully deprived of these illusions there was only one way: to move forward towards a new left identity even though we didn’t know where to head. We were convicted to invent the path as well.
Another important point is that Synaspismos deployed a strategy for the unity of the left. The basic reasoning was that all versions of the left were defeated, there was no point of arguing who was less wrong, and that all versions of the left should join their small forces in order to build a new left. SYRIZA was the outcome of a long and painful (the defeated has nothing else but his faith so it wasn’t easy to move beyond it) effort in this direction. Thankfully, this line of unity inspired and organized again what we call “the people of the left” the ones that didn’t belong to a specific existent organization. This was a crucial wager for us since there was no luxury for the left to leave one part of its militants inactive. It is interesting to note that the components of SYRIZA were those parts of different traditions of the left (Maoists, radical ecologists, Trotskyites, even orthodox communists and of course nearly all the versions of eurocommunism) which participated in the workings of the anti-globalization movement. Other organizations from the same traditions which were indifferent for these workings didn’t respond positively to the idea of unity. Similarly, the orthodox communist party was hostile to all these workings, and never accepted the rest of the left as an ally.
Another, crucial point was the active role of Synaspismos in building a European political alliance of the left apart from the social workings in the European social forum and the European trade-unions. Today there is the Party of the European Left which is a small but existent political formation of 27 parties plus 10 more as observers from 24 countries. It is of extreme importance to have this European political expression of the left today in the dark days where the nationalistic feelings lurk in European societies and fascism is threatening once again the continent and despite its obvious feebleness against the neoliberal hegemony. It is the only European political formation that really cares for the common future of the European people, an indication of the pathetic situation we are today in Europe.
One last point is the strong connection with the youth, a connection which came through the movement. In 2006-7 SYRIZA supported the huge fight of the student movement against the constitutional change of transforming the university education into a commodity, a hopeless fight because of the widespread political consensus in favor of the change due to the neoliberal hegemony. SYRIZA clashed very hard with the political establishment at the central political stage, supported with no reservations the movement, from the inside with its small but very active and inventive forces and from the outside organizing more than 100 social events in all over the country in an effort to make the rest of the society supportive of the movement. After 10 months of fighting in the end the movement was victorious, the consensus dismantled and the change was rejected.
In December of 2008 the murder of a schoolboy by a police officer in Athens ignited an uprising of the youth, an outburst of violence and rage, all over the country. School students literally surrounded police departments, collisions with the police were extended and the riots were out of control. At the political level the whole political spectrum – even the orthodox communist party – unable to understand what is going on in Greek youth they focused on violence and they were hostile and derogatory about the youth and its lack of discipline and respect. SYRIZA refused to contend to such a simplistic narrative, it claimed that the outburst was a symptom of a social pathology with political causes, it accused the political establishment for the deadlock of the youth and while it didn’t justify any form of violence SYRIZA was trying to hear what the youth violence was trying to say. SYRIZA was accused of being sympathetic to violence the slanderous attack was coming from across the board, by the media, the political parties and so on. That was a scene from our future, the one in which we live today.
Last but not least, the appointment at the leadership of the party in 2008 of Alexis Tsipras who was at the time 34 years’ old shield off the connection between SYRIZA and the youth. Not so much in a symbolic way which is of course important but mostly because at the leadership there was a young man who by definition, because of his own living experience, brings at the highest political level the predicament of a generation that has no future. He is a member of the “lost generation” of the media. The determination of SYRIZA to defend the youth and today everyone who wants to have a future was embodied in a solid way in the leadership of the party.
So, just before the debt crisis and the outburst of the neoliberal revolution SYRIZA was a small but peculiar party. It was characterized by strategic radicalization, sensitivity to social workings, presence in social movements, political determination against neoliberalism and the political establishment, commitment to the unity of the left and to the need for a new left identity.
But SYRIZA was a political alliance of the left with crucial disadvantages. It was and still remain to some extent a small organization, its local branches were feeble SYRIZA wasn’t able to mobilize the masses, there were internal frictions and disputes in a problematic way, being part of the existing society some of its functions reproduce current social and interpersonal pathologies, classical bureaucratic phenomena appeared from time to time etc. SYRIZA was and it is an entirely normal organization of entirely real people.
What did SYRIZA do from 2010 till today?
When troika together with the political and economical establishment declared war against the Greek people, SYRIZA gradually became a tool at the hands of the people. The transformation of SYRIZA into a political tool for people could not be taken for granted. It was a political victory of the left during a very hard fight, it was a successful outcome of various parameters: first of all, the existence of political left sensitive and respectful to the social processes, second careful analysis of the on-going crisis, third political choices and decisions based on this analysis, fourth an almost childish and for that reason crucial defense of fundamental values like dignity, democracy and so on against the inhuman logic of profit – that cracked in the face to some extent its commonsensical appearance and for this reason caused slanderous attacks against SYRIZA by the powerful media, almost entire political spectrum in Greece and the whole European political personnel – fourth active and respectful participation, support and defense of social resistances and movements like the square-movement, fifth political interventions and political aims at the right time with the proper way (close to the consciousness of the people), sixth the determination of the left people in Greece to name just a few. It is a political victory of extreme importance since I don’t want to think what the situation would be in my country today without a political expression of people’s fights, needs and hopes.
After two years of hard fights, political collisions and social frictions, two years of strikes, riots, local movements, spontaneous uprisings and the overthrow of the 1st pro-memorandum government (a 2nd one was formed from the same parliament from three parties and a banker as Prime minister) on May and June of 2012 the battle became purely political during the elections. 11 months earlier on July of 2011, right after the uprising of the square-movement, SYRIZA a party of 4% decided that its goal is to form a social and political coalition that would attempt to seize power. Even though it sounded to all of us like wishful thinking nevertheless the urgency of the dramatic situation of the people rendered any other strategy pointless. According to our analysis, the new austerity measures of June of 2011 rendered the economical destruction of our country irrevocable and the situation extremely dangerous. There was no time to lose.
11 months later SYRIZA launched its electoral campaign positing the goal of a left government. The political clash was unprecedented the slanders against SYRIZA, the threats to the people, the lies and the propaganda took the shape of an extreme biopolitical experiment. A big variety of methods and means were used in order to manipulate the population and distort the obvious: that the austerity policy destroys people’s lives. At the first elections the experiment failed. According to the electoral system it was extremely difficult for the two major parties which together took 77% of the votes in 2009 not to form a government since they would only need together 37% of the votes. SYRIZA from 4% went up to 17% taking the second place and the pro-memorandum parties took together 32% (19% and 13%). The result was a huge victory for the people the domestic establishment couldn’t form a neoliberal government.
During the second elections the establishment upgraded its attack to SYRIZA and to the people, SYRIZA didn’t respond effectively and a third pro-memorandum was formed (supported by three parties New Democracy/conservatives 29%, Pasok/social democrats 12%, Democratic Left/centre-left 6,5%) which continues steadily the same destructive course despite its promise for renegotiation between the two elections. SYRIZA took 27% of the votes and 71 seats in the parliament and it is today the leading political formation of the opposition.
The situation in Greece today
Greek society is rapidly dismantling the last 3 years, official unemployment will soon reach 30%, youth unemployment 60%, working legislation is literally vanished, salaries, pensions and other forms of people’s real income have been cut around 50%, the working conditions are fully subjected to the employer’s intentions without any sort of negotiating force on behalf of the employees, tax raise is mainly focused on low middle class and the poor, public sector is decaying because of the targeted cuts in public spending unable to provide elementary social protection, public health and education are severely and fatally hit and the catalogue of the disastrous neoliberal achievements could easily go on for long.
The economy is not only shrunk by 25% of GDP within the last three years but it also shows signs of collapse. So, the financial crisis in Greece is universal and it seems irrational – if we adopt a more innocent stance towards the financial strategy of memorandums – to keep up this route.
In terms of the effects on people’s lives we have extended poverty, 400000 families with no income of any form, increase of homeless, suicides, faints of underfed school students and deaths due to lack of proper medical care, increase of drug use, flourishing of organized crime and delinquency, rapid expansion of neonazism mainly in youth but not only (the neonazi party golden dawn is already a parliamentarian political party and the polls show that it is the third political force with 12%), upsurge of violence (domestic violence, bullying, racist murders of immigrants, attacks against homosexuals, leftists and so on), terrorist activity, widening of malnutrition etc.
In this social context the basic strategies of life and the standard cognitive maps of people – the ones of consumerist, spectacular capitalism that were dominant before crisis in Greek society – have collapsed leaving the people totally disoriented and terrified. Having being immersed in the ideological coziness of the previous years they do not have the resources to create a meaningful narrative of what is going on. At this point nationalism, racism and Nazism offer valuable ideological back up to the ruined neoliberal consensus through “explanations” that do not affect the neoliberal logic. Extended disaster and lack of means of handling it shapes a very fragile social condition. Anger and rage give their seats to depression and withdrawal and vice versa while the fall is accelerated.
SYRIZA is struggling to create new meaning, awareness and social practices according to its values and logic with results that do not correspond to the magnitude of the problem. It is trying to transubstantiate the negative feelings and the apolitical outbursts into a positive stance, political effectiveness and organized fight which are requirements in order to face the superior firepower and the determination of the neoliberal revolutionaries.
Needless to say that the effort to upgrade the political and social consciousness of the fighting people is understood as a two way process through which the left is also learning how to be useful in the new conditions. The left tries to merge with this new kind and largely inconsistent social availability through active and respectful participation, support and defense of social resistances and movements like the square-movement.
It is obvious that from the point of view of people’s interests, Greek people are already in a humanitarian crisis and existential deadlock. Of course, from the point of view of neoliberals there is no such a thing, their criteria do not include human dignity. Painful but necessary restructurings are taking place despite resistance, a brave new society, disciplined to the norms of markets is being deployed, a new type of individual is being born the one who construes himself as owner of human capital whose decisions are determined strictly by the logic of profit and competition and his tragic fate in case of losing in it is purely his responsibility, no mercy is there for him (there is no mercy in capital’s logic) and there is nothing to be done for him.
In any case, Greek people are in the middle of a tragic and forced transition, we are oscillating painfully in a borderline dark area: we cannot go back to the previous dominant paradigm. With neoliberalism we are falling into an abyss of undignified life with no prospect and with unknown final outcome. Is there a way out? Is there a compass to show us a direction? Is the left in position to contribute to this urgent demand?
The political situation and SYRIZA today
The third pro-memorandum government apart from continuing steadily the disastrous memorandum policy is trying to affect the negative change of the balance of social forces by launching a far-right attack to the people and the left: civil war rhetoric, brutal police repression, authoritarian mode of government, defiance of democratic institutional function, tolerance and indirect support to neonazi activity etc.
At the same time, the mass media owned mainly by oligarchs who are responsible for the fiscal derailment devote themselves to slandering against every section of the people who dare to resist and especially SYRIZA. We are accused of supporting terrorism, violent acts and criminal activity, of working for dark forces who want to destroy Greece, at the same time we are pawns of Obama, we obey Ms Merkel and we are fooling poor Greek voters etc.
On the one hand, the strategy of tension aims at opening a gap between SYRIZA and conservative sections of the masses, and eventually turn them against the left. This strategy tries to undercut the possibility of SYRIZA to form a left government.
On the other hand by accusing SYRIZA that it belongs to the political establishment the aim is to cut SYRIZA off the resisting part of the people, the movements and the rest of the left and by doing this to transform SYRIZA into a toothless political personnel unable to threaten the domestic establishment and the broader neoliberal European strategy of austerity. For the crucial feature of SYRIZA is that it combines the possibility of forming a government with the strong connections with the resisting part of the people.
This strategy of tension in order to block SYRIZA from widening its influence and the shrinking of democracy in order to implement a blatantly disastrous policy for the majority of the people causes serious frictions to the democratic constitution of the state.
The strategy of tension push desperate people to fascism, neonazis infiltrate the police and the army and they determine the social trend, the logic of “law and order” replaces the rule of law, police brutality and arbitrariness is taken to be a commonsensical regularity, the parliament is practically inactive, the corruption is becoming the necessary tool to make things happen in such a mess and the general atmosphere in the country is that civil and political rights are a luxury that it cannot be tolerated anymore.
At the same time, the drastic cuts in public spending shake the administrative structure of the country weaken its ability to perform basic functions undermining vital operational features necessary for the sovereignty of the state.
So, in a nutshell, we have a dismantled society, a collapsed economy, a wounded democracy and a disorganized state. This is the context in which the left and the resisting, democratic and progressive part of the people should find a way to overthrow the domestic establishment and take the political power.
SYRIZA deploys a three-fold strategy: political fight to overthrow the government, social resistance to block the neoliberal policy (austerity, privatizations etc), and expansion of social solidarity networks for the restoration of dignity and moral of the people. After the elections we are also active in building social fronts against neonazism in neighborhoods, schools and workplaces.
In the case of social solidarity networks, we actively support local networks of solidarity (of food, clothing, medical care, culture, education etc) and we are contributing heavily in mediating information and resources among different areas of the country. There are today approximately 2500 initiatives of social solidarity in all over the country and 250 of them are self-organized from below. There are 40 social medical centers and pharmacies in which 13000 people have already been treated, 40 networks for solidarity in education, 15 cooperatives of an alternative model of organizing labor and production etc.
After the elections we are also working on our program, our negotiating strategy with the lenders, the first moves of the government, the productive reorganization of the economy, the checking of the humanitarian crisis etc.
At the same time we travel all over the world to present the situation in Greece, to present our analysis, proposals and strategy, to form alliances, to access the international field and to be ready to defend dignity and democracy on behalf of our people.
SYRIZA is moving toward its convention in the summer in which it will be transformed from a coalition into a unified party. Minor social-democratic forces that early on split from the memorandum orthodoxy are already part of the coalition and we hope that many other people will join us in the future.
SYRIZA has today around 30000 members (in 2010 it has 9000 members), 480 local branches, a central committee of 315 members and a coordinating committee of 37 members. There is also a smaller organ of 9 members responsible for handling urgent issues.
Today, after the tragedy of Cyprus the situation in Greece is extremely fragile, we stepping on thin ice so to speak, we are trying to upgrade social and political pressure on the government, to overcome the civil war rhetoric and practice of the government and unite the people and to fight pessimism and withdrawal of the people which is the best ally of the government.
Lee me conclude with a remark regarding the prospect of our success: apart from the fact that it is extremely difficult to define what success is in such a multi-parametrical situation, I would like to point out that even if there are one thousand reasons objective and subjective ones that justify the prediction that we are going to fail with equally many ways, it is given that never the situation was better. Whenever the left managed to determine the course of things and of history the success seemed always similarly extremely unlikely. So, there is nothing to complain about.
1 The left communist movement in Greece became a crucial political factor during the Nazi occupation of Greece. It contributed heavily to the formation of the National Liberating Front and its military branch the National, Popular, Liberating Army which were the main domestic forces against the Nazi occupation organizing the resistance, liberating territories, organizing life in these territories and so on. After the end of the great war there was a dark period in which the left was driven by its opponents in a civil war, it was defeated and since 1949 and for several decades an authoritarian, far-right wing, quasi-democratic regime was established. The communist party was proclaimed illegal, the left people were persecuted, there were sent in exile etc. Interestingly enough in the elections of 1958 and despite the regime of terror the United Democratic Left was the second biggest political force. The domestic establishment never accepted the left as the political expression of the democratic will of a considerable part of Greek people and in 1967 a dictatorship took over the mission of “saving” the Greeks from the communists.
2 In 1987, a new split of the euro-communist party took place, the right-wing won and renamed the party in Greek Left (the left-wing formed a new party). During the turbulent years of the perestroika the orthodox communist party formed an alliance with the Greek Left, which was named Synaspismos (coalition). Synaspismos participated in two governments from 1989 to 1991 so that scandals regarding the social-democratic government could be unraveled. During the fall of the Soviet Union the orthodox communist party was split and the hard liners took over the party. The other half of the communist party together with the Greek Left and part of the left-wing eurocommunists formed Synaspismos as a political party. So, Synaspismos, the biggest party of today’s SYRIZA was formed mainly from the split of the orthodox party in 1991, and most of the parts of the eurocommunist party. A small part that remained outside Synaspismos, entered eventually SYRIZA the coalition of radical left.