Six weeks ago, when Syriza formed a coalition with the Independent Greeks a common view among my friends was that this was Syriza’s first betrayal and that others would inevitably follow. The story was familiar; outside government, Syriza had promised to do politics differently, including granting 100,000 migrant children in Greece full citizenship, tearing down the refugee camps and rehousing the people in them. It would be the greatest challenge to Fortress Europe in a generation. But electoral parties are no different, the pressure of keeping in office always moderates reformists. And by joining with the racists of the Independent Greeks, Syriza was indicating its willingness to compromise on everything.
This pessimism was always unconvincing. After 40 years of left-wing parties exercising ever greater efforts to show how little they differ from the press-business neoliberal consensus, paling their flags an ever lighter pink as they went, Syriza is very clearly a different sort of project. And it was never going to be exhausted merely by its first, incomplete, compromise.
Being short of a majority in parliament, Syriza had no real option but to do a deal with someone. The KKE had already refused an alliance, foreshadowing its present position which is to vote with New Democracy and PASOK. The only other option, the River, was a party of neoliberal enthusiasts for cuts; on the central issue facing Greece – austerity – the Independent Greeks were Syriza’s only possible allies.
And there are many different kinds of alliance. Such was the Parliamentary arithmetic (Syriza only needing two votes for a majority) that Tsipras had no need to water down on his commitments. This was reflected in his party’s deal with the Independent Greeks, where the two parties agreed to vote for migration policy along party lines (ie Syriza will get these measures through without needing the Independent Greeks’ support).
Far from dropping its promises, Syriza has renewed its commitments, on citizenship, and on the camps. The migration minister is Tasia Christodoulopoulou, doyenne of Greek migrants’ lawyers – the equivalent in England of giving our unreconstructed CLR James-ite Ian Macdonald the job. Indeed even the wretched four-month bailout deal has given Syriza additional reasons to maintain its promises to migrants. Precisely because its economic programme has become harder to implement, Syriza has needed to show that its social programme remains undiluted.
At this point, the voice of conscience intrudes. Isn’t the whole point about left-wing governments (or, at least, those worthy of the name) that they make no compromises, and in particular they do not, under any circumstances, make an alliance with conservatives or racists?
It may be helpful to review at this point some of the compromises that the party most often cited as a comparison, the Lenin-era Bolsheviks, made with its enemies. Brest-Litovsk, the recruitment of Tsarist officers to senior positions in the Red Army, one-man management in industry, the NEP, the Rapallo peace treaty under which the German military hosted its research facilities in tanks and chemical weapons on Bolshevik soil. The pamphlet in which the Bolsheviks drew up a balance-sheet on their experiences drew the inevitable conclusions – “to reject compromises ‘on principle’, to reject the permissibility of compromises in general, no matter of what kind, is childishness, which it is difficult even to consider seriously. A political leader who desires to be useful to the revolutionary proletariat must be able to distinguish concrete cases of compromises that are inexcusable and are an expression of opportunism and treachery.”
Some of the Bolsheviks’ compromises went deep. As Isaac Babel pointed out, long ago in Red Cavalry (and as Brendan McGeever has shown again in research which, when it makes it into print, should be compulsory reading for anyone nostalgic for a time which never existed), these compromises included in 1918-1919 leaving local Soviet power in many areas in the hands of people who were murderously anti-Semitic. This approach proved temporary because the Civil War finished and there was then a struggle within the fragile Soviet regime to purge itself of these elements.
So, a compromise with conservatives or racists is always unwanted and undesirable (means and ends always interconnect), but may be necessary as a temporary device provided as a minimum that it is the right making the principal compromises and the direction of travel is towards liberation.
Panos Kammenos, the leader of the Independent Greeks is no outsider, having been an MP for New Democracy for 20 years and a former minister for the shipping industry. The majority of its MPs were recruited like Kammenos from the anti-bailout wing of New Democracy, although they have had at least one MP come over from PASOK. The party is fiercely nationalist, and enthusiastic about the Orthodox church. Its racism expresses itself in two ways, first, in a hostility to migrants, and second, in a tendency to explain the Greek debt crisis in terms of banks, and therefore Jews, who stand in familiar anti-Semitic trope as the imaginary, physical embodiment of all that is wrong with finance as opposed to industry.
Just as Syriza has profited from “pasofikation” (ie the dramatic collapse of the main party of the centre-left, in conditions where it ceased to offer its voters anything), the Independent Greeks seem to have their own plan to become over 5-10 years the main party of Greece’s political right. They act as if they believe that austerity will ultimately be cancelled, and that all the parties which attempted to enforce Greece’s debts will wither. One of the Independent Greeks’ key proposals is therefore to investigate the terms under which during the second half of the 2000s New Democracy agreed to a massive increase of Greece’s debts, and to prosecute the ministers responsible. A deal with Syriza, from this perspective, is merely the means to an end: the complete reconstruction of the Greek political system and the defeat of New Democracy, after which it will be left vs right politics as usual.
English writers tend to compare them to UKIP, but they are in other respects more akin to the kinds of far-right “independents” that became the third power in the House of Commons between 1918 and 1920, in a period of intense paranoia about German power. To understand their appeal you may recall the inventor and champion of middle-class life but serial debtor, Caractus Potts, in his war with the Vulgarian (i.e. German) Baron Bomburst. Beneath the castles of the Baron’s power are the children of the poor, held in debt bondage through the medium of the (Jewish) childcatcher. The secret of German power, it follows, is its hold over the debt. If only the Baron can be captured, the children will go free. But who will defeat the Baron? You could scour Ian Fleming’s books (or those of his predecessors Erskine Childers or John Buchan) for an answer but you will find none.
Kammenos’ thinking suffers from the same weakness: the Independent Greeks are furiously anti-austerity, and blame Troika, and behind them “Germany”. During the negotiations, they were if anything harder against compromise with the Eurozone than Syriza. In contrast to them, Syriza has an idea of how to renegotiate the balance of forces within Germany – by encouraging the election of anti-austerity parties in Spain, Portugal and Ireland, and by promoting anti-austerity leftists in Britain, German, etc. The Baron can be defeated in other words, by the German Left Party, or (beneath it) by the German working class. Short of switching Greece’s client status to some alternative backer wealthier than Germany, Kammenos has no equivalent plan. His racism, in other words, constantly limits the desire for national independence which is his party’s rationale.
Syriza’s strategic thinking in response to the Independent Greeks appears to be as follows. The tasks facing the left (which remains a minority) remain too large for the social forces available. Therefore, the left has to try to split the right into two parts, a first with which it is possible to work, and a second (New Democracy, Golden Dawn), who are or will be beyond the pale. The Independent Greeks are sufficiently robust allies, not merely because they are committed to anti-austerity politics but because their social base reflects above all the influence of the Orthodox church, which has a very wide but very shallow hold over large parts of the Greek people and even dispossessed classes. If the recomposition of the left happens on the terms that both Syriza and the Independent Greeks want, Syriza predicts, the destruction of both Pasok and New Democracy, will not just result in the replacement of one old left-right rivalry with a new one (Syriza versus the Independent Greeks), it will also lead to a shift between left and right, with the future balance of powers foreshadowed by Syriza’s present hegemony in the coalition (it has 12 times as many seats as the Independent Greeks). Syriza will win because it will prove to have been the better fighters against austerity – and the (limited) polling evidence to date appears to be that it, rather than Independent Greeks, has been winning the most voters from New Democracy since the election.
An obvious attraction of this thinking to those of us outside Greece is that is a strategy for dealing which the right which envisages a victory over it. As such, it has an advantage over our usual way of thinking in which the right represents a significant social layer (the petty bourgeoisie) which has a static position of utter hostility to the workers’ movement, and whose racism is permanent and unsatisfiable. We have an idea that if this class throws up outlier parties, they may become so unpopular that we might isolate and physically defeat them. But we have seemingly no conception at all of how to go beyond a situation where they are not outliers but more respectable, and we (rather than they) are the unpopular minority.
Now the fact that a party has a plan does not mean that it is guaranteed to succeed. The gamble (as it is best characterised) risks treating the “left” and the “right” as if they were objective political realities rather than temporary relationships. Precisely because Syriza has had some success in quarantining off the bad parts of the right, they risk over-using the tactic. You can see this danger when it comes to the pending prosecution of the leaders of Golden Dawn, Greece’s neo-Nazi revivalists, with their base in the police and their 5% of the vote.
Critics of Syriza to its left have taken umbrage at Syriza’s suggestion that elected Golden Dawn MPs should be released from custody to attend votes in Parliament suggesting that Syriza is extending too much deference to the right, and warning that Syriza may be cooling as to the prosecution itself. At this distance, it is impossible to know whether they are right about the prosecution itself (which is necessarily in the hands of the judiciary rather than the politicians) or these are the exaggerated fears of people who have committed themselves in advance to the narrative that Syriza will betray its supporters. But Syriza’s friends should be watching closely and urging the government to take no steps which help the fascists.
There is a second area where the alliance with the Independent Greeks bears a risk; and it is in terms of Syriza’s analysis of its problems with Europe. Because they are advocates of simple, conspiratorial thinking, the Independent Greeks tend to explain all of Greece’s difficulties simply in terms of “Germany”. Here they risk bolstering some in Syriza for whom neo-liberalism in Europe is a German phenomenon, and all sorts of alliances (with the United States or Britain or with Italian or French technocrats) remain potentially open. The alternative tentatively emerging within Syriza, which gives the greatest weight to explaining the balance of forces honestly to the party’s supporters, is incompatible with that sort of fantastical thinking.
The alliance with the Independent Greeks remains a difficulty, then; even if it is not yet the fatal germ against which Syriza’s original critics warned.