Syriza: what to watch for

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Up at the League, says a friend, there was last night a brisk discussion as to whether what had happened this week in Greece was already the Morrow of the Revolution, which shaded off into a forthright statement by various of the comrades on their views as to the nature of a revolutionary government.

Continues our friend, all things considered, the discussion was good natured for if comrade Tom was sitting at the back with his face in an expression of utter scorn, at least the remainder of the seven people present did not always attempt to speak together, as is the custom when persons are assembled together for any social occasion. The hall was not wholly empty, the building not wholly unlit, and the situation of the apostles of Humanity not too unpleasant. One of the company, says our friend, began by explaining that the Syriza government had achieved more reforms in a week than the Labour Party here has managed in 40 years, drawing in particular on the government’s stated intention to increase the minimum wage, restore sacked cleaners, and sack the ministries of their neo-liberal advisers.

Now it was hardly expected that those present would agree with each other’s opinions, but that comrade was followed by her neighbour Sam: a man of celebrated revolutionary sentiment. His riposte was that governments of the left or in his language “reformists” (a term uttered only with a clearing of the throat) came and went, and that Syriza should be watched with the greatest caution. Reminding those present of the story of the Ox and the Flea, in which the latter, the perennial advocate of another country’s militant cause, claims half the credit for the great work done by the former, he concluded with a muted call on those present to observe, “Let us watch it for a month”, he said, “we can but wait and see…”

If we can but watch, albeit in a spirit of solidarity, what should we be looking for?

There is a common analysis on the left which explains the success of Syriza in terms of the depth of the social movements in Greece, in particular the very large number of general strikes, in comparison to Britain where enthusiasm has been drifting out of the movements since early on in the Coalition, when the students were physically beaten of the streets and the unions failed in their joint strikes in defence of pensions. In this explanation, the large social movements are the prior cause of Syriza, and the modest movements here the cause of our weakness.

One problem with this approach – in terms of understanding Syriza –  is that the relationship between what used to be called party and class must always first be established and can never be assumed. In particular, it would be wrong to underestimate the barriers that had to be crossed so that the leaders of Syriza, who as recently as 2009 were only the third-largest party on the left in Greece with a mere 4% of the vote, could become the unifying force they are now generally perceived to be.

A further difficulty comes when you start to see social movements as (say) merely the base and the party as merely the superstructure, with the movements providing the money, activists and voters on which the party relies. Such a metaphor implies that the structure takes without giving and the base gives without anything being returned. Yet there must be an extent to which Syriza reshapes its supporters: it provides an explanation as to who is to blame for Greece’s crisis and how the crisis can be solved and a strategy combining elections, negotiations with the EU, etc, all of which has an impact on the movements. It structures the issues they campaign about, and to whom they protest and how.

Given that Syriza is now in government, I want to see if it will enact reforms which pave the way to more powerful social movements. This ought to be the point at which a reforming administration earns its name. When Barack Obama was elected as American president in 2008, this was down to the millions of people for whom the importance of having an American President was an overriding priority. The main policy achievement of his administration – greater healthcare – may have all sorts of strengths but it is almost wholly devoid of any feature that might enable new social movement activists to emerge from it. This puts Obama in contrast to his obvious predecessor, Roosevelt, whose New Deal contained a large number of measures which were likely to strengthen the movements on which the Democrats were based. The Wagner Act gave workers collective bargaining rights, assisting the great sit-down strikes which forced the car industry to conceded union recognition. The Works Progress Administration gave work to left-wing writers, musicians, artists, etc. The New Deal was so successful at deepening the movements on which the Democrats were based that it established them as the natural party of government in the US for thirty years; Obama by contrast has failed to strengthen the social movements which sustained him.

A further question is whether Syriza will take steps which enable the movements to retain a degree of independence rather than merely co-opting them – either into Syriza or the state. Co-option can take place inadvertently, as for example, after the October revolution, when the Bolsheviks saw themselves as the party of workers’ (“Soviet”) power. Within six months, the Civil War had begun and by winter 1918-1919 a huge proportion of the working-class activists on which the party was based were fighting in the Red Army. By this point, the historic potential of Bolshevism had not yet been exhausted, but there was no meaningful sense in which unions, soviets or co-operatives were in control of the state – tens of thousands of activists had been killed and the social movements of the working class were vastly weaker than they had been.

The right hope is that Syriza must accede power to the movements without expecting anything in return, and while this notion of what you might call the unselfish state (unselfish in its relationship to the movements) sounds paradoxical, there are clues that the party might understand the need. For example, the removal of barriers outside Parliament is a small but important suggestion that Syriza welcomes protests against its policies, and even encourages them in order to discipline it in government.

I want to see if Syriza will enable a turnover in the power relationships constituting the state. If you think for example of the last decade in Venezuela: Chavez’s plan was to achieve state control of the oil industry and use its income for social and economic development. From early on oil revenues were spent on social programmes (“Missions”) in health, education, land redistribution and housing which were always intended to benefit the poor and indigenous majority. A key question was whether the Missions were going to be simply conduits to reward loyalty to the state. It was an attempted coup by the old order which caused the regime to become radicalised, and a very different project emerged in which, although still part of the state, the Missions were now intended to represent a grass roots democracy – ie a different kind of relationship between the people and the state.

Given who Syriza has just entered coalition with, I will look to see if there are going to be measures which illustrate the weakness, or the power, of Syiza’s partners. For example, if the Coalition holds good to its promise to grant citizenship to migrant children born and raised in Greece, this seems in complete kilter to everything the racists of Anel stand for. But of course there will equally be pressure – votes in Parliament which can only be won in return for the sorts of small compromises whose ultimate effect is to denude a left-wing party of the things which once made it worthwhile.

The one point at which Syriza seems most interesting is in its commitment to renegotiate the Greek debt, beginning when the last bailout ends, which is only next month. Immediately, Greece will have to borrow £22 billion euros (to cover debt repayments in 2015 and 2016) with the immediate prospect of either of the likely lenders – the EU and the IMF – demanding that Syriza in return concedes the very policies (eg an increase in the minimum wage) on which it was elected. Syriza has attempted to position itself as a combination of the mild and the militant: keen to talk, opposed to an EU exit, but determined to concede nothing of substance. Its plan B, such as there is, is to overstep the heads of the negotiators and to speak to the people and then the leaders of Europe. This helps to explain why Pablo Iglesias Podemos’ leader was present at quite so many Syriza election rallies: if Podemos wins the Spanish elections, he will be a key ally. Even if he does, if the election drags on till December (as under Spanish election laws it may do) it may not come soon enough to resolve negotiations starting in February. Faced with an impasse, will Syriza turn to the people, ignoring investment strikes as Chavez did after the 2002 coup?

So long as this possibility remains open, events in Greece will be worth watching – because if Syriza does turn to the people of Europe to put pressure on their behalf – at that moment, much more will be required from us than mere observation.

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