The defeat of the left, and the recomposition in Greece

The Greek ruling party, Syriza, won a convincing victory in the national election held on 20 September, winning 144 seats, down from the 149 seats won on 25 January. Prime minister Alexis Tsipras resigned last month to make way for the poll after he signed a third memorandum with the country’s creditors. That agreement will deliver the harshest austerity yet experienced.

The calling of the election precipitated a significant split in Syriza, with more than two dozen rebel MPs forming Popular Unity (LAE by its Greek acronym). The new organisation also drew in 11 other organisations of the far left beyond Syriza’s membership as well as two significant factions of Antarsya, an anti-capitalist electoral front of a few thousand members. Yet it achieved a disappointing 2.9 percent of the vote – short of the 3 percent threshold required for parliamentary representation.

In contrast to the hostile reaction to Syriza’s victory in January, media commentators and establishment figures across Europe are lauding Tsipras’ victory as testimony to brilliant political acumen. They cannot believe their luck.

However, the abstention rate was a record 45 percent. Cynicism with all politicians runs high, and will tar the entire left, not just Syriza. Tsipras’ crime against the people is not only the imposition of austerity and betrayal of the party program, but destroying the optimism that was unleashed earlier this year. Hope ran high after Syriza’s election in January. There was an expectation that the new government would resist signing up to more austerity. The disappointment with its failure to deliver on that is palpable.

Many people now believe that there is no alternative to capitulation and suffering.

Unlike in January, the celebrations by what remains of Syriza’s active membership were confined to the official tent. Party members reportedly were singing “Bella Ciao”, the song of the Italian resistance. It had been sung by thousands in Syntagma Square on the night of the tremendous “Oxi” rally and victory celebrations on 5 July after the historic referendum to reject the blackmail of the troika. What’s to sing now? A lament for the pensioners, for the unemployed, for the public servants whose lives will be squashed by the new “cash for reforms” measures?

How to explain Syriza’s re-election after so bitter a betrayal?

First, Tsipras ran on the basis that he was the lesser evil to New Democracy. He had at least distinguished himself by standing up to the European establishment before the final backdown, as complete as it was. So there is a residual loyalty to Syriza.

Second, there is a deep resignation that the people’s struggle was not strong enough to stand against the terrible pressure the European ruling classes brought to bear. This could be shifted only by the power people experience during struggle. But the great mass struggles of years past have receded.

Third, the election was held before the new austerity measures bite, although pension cuts and the VAT increase were passed in July.

Fourth, the timing of the election was calculated to hamper LAE’s ability to build its forces and profile. The group took what it could out of Syriza, and there may well be more to come, but its base is still small. In this context, it was always going to be difficult.

Fifth, talks between Antarsya and LAE failed to materialise into a united front for the elections. Their combined vote would have elected anti-austerity candidates. Accounting for why this unity was not forged will be part of the broader evaluations of the left’s strategy and tactics.

Finally, the left could not escape the effect of the prevailing disillusionment with politics, which is a result of both Syriza’s capitulation and the retreat of mass struggle. LAE might have been tarnished by association with Syriza, even though its core had fought the party leadership and split on a principled basis. However, the fact that Antarsya’s vote increased by only 6,000 reflects that disillusionment is broadly based and doesn’t plague just one section of the left.

Popular Unity

Despite the election setback, LAE represents a significant recasting of the left and has made strides in building on the collaboration between different forces in recent struggles, most notably during the referendum campaign.

However, there were problems within LAE arising from its hasty formation as an electoral coalition without a constitution, branches or elected leadership. These were exacerbated by the actions of the dominant Stalinist faction, the Left Current. Decisions were often taken unilaterally by a small group around Panagiotis Lafazanis. This repelled activists who were wary of replicating the culture that emerged in Syriza – where decisions are made by an inner circle around the leadership.

The political emphasis of LAE’s campaign was also problematic. The central committee of the Internationalist Workers’ Left (DEA by its Greek acronym) a revolutionary group within LAE, argues:

“[F]aced with the pressure from our political opponents, who argued that obedience to the European leadership is obligatory, we overemphasised support for an exit from the euro zone. At some point, this necessary part of our overall argument was singled out and raised above a more general program of organising a united class movement against austerity and an anti-capitalist program towards socialist emancipation. That was a gift to Tsipras and the mass media, who looked for every opportunity to slander us as the ‘drachma left’.”

The Red Network, initiated by DEA as the left within Syriza’s Left Platform, has become a pole of attraction for people outside the Left Current. The network’s influence has grown because people remember the arguments its members have been making since January – arguments that were not popular but which proved prescient. Since the split with Syriza, Red Network members have been able to cohere a wider layer of activists around their arguments about LAE’s orientation. They have also been important in reaching out to layers beyond the ranks of the Left Platform. Their joint work, over many years, with social movement activists outside Syriza facilitated this.

Rebuilding resistance

The terrain of campaigning now shifts away from elections and toward resisting implementation of the agreement in workplaces and neighbourhoods. Committees of “No until the end”, established in the weeks after Tsipras signed the agreement, are important in this. However, the situation on the ground will be incredibly difficult, given the cynicism and despondency.

Lessons from experience are often bitter, but they are the ones that won’t easily be forgotten. The experience of the government of the left – its election, strategy, capitulation and the split – is yet to be fully worked through. The debates now will be had as people and organisations draw up their balance sheets. These debates will be a necessary part of creating a political front capable of rising to the challenges of the coming period.

[First published at]