Syriza, the “Radical Left” party in Greece, lost the July 7, 2019, election in a landslide. After four years in power, Syriza achieved…what? First, it administered austerity—that is, managed Greek capitalism in crisis—in a slightly more humane way than the right wing would have done. Second, it completed its transition to a non-revolutionary, not even radical, center-left party.
When Syriza won the January 2015 election that allowed Alexis Tsipras to become Prime Minister, many in the North American and European Left were euphoric. They were “intoxicated by the apparent path to power through broad, somewhat indiscriminate unity,” as News and Letters Committees wrote in “Greek Masses in Peril” later that year. It should have been clear, either from history or from logic, that parties that aim for revolutionary changes without a revolution end up going down this anti-revolutionary path and at best end up trying to prove that they can manage capitalism better than the capitalists. Now they seem to have developed amnesia about their euphoria. Those few who are not completely silent have issued unconvincing analyses that turn on the failure of Tsipras to follow their chosen path, even if chosen in hindsight.
That Syriza attempts to embody a form of anti-capitalist politics makes it the necessary object of revolutionary criticism. Its victory has been made possible by a worldwide movement, begun and inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions. Coinciding with the Georgia prisoners’ strike in the U.S., this world movement is profoundly anti-racist, cross-cultural and international, as well as anti-capitalist. It is the reason why Syriza’s base is made up of workers, feminists, youth, environmentalists and LGBT people, the many voices that made themselves heard in the 2011 occupation of Syntagma Square in Athens. At such a time of ferment, revolutionary thought will either rise to the moment and develop further, or it will die.
The people who have carried on the spirit of Syntagma Square by organizing mutual support, by organizing against the Greek fascist party Golden Dawn, and by asserting their own voices as women, youth, workers, LGBT, immigrants, environmentalists and internationalists are those best-placed to move beyond the failings and blind spots of Tsipras and others who may fall short of asserting human liberation as the ultimate goal. It is they who command our deepest solidarity.
Syriza’s betrayal of the masses became totally clear in July 2015, when, as I wrote in News & Letters, “Greek voters overwhelmingly rejected a new austerity package in a July 5 referendum called by the Syriza government. After campaigning for a No vote, Syriza quickly turned No into Yes by agreeing to conditions very similar to those the voters rejected.” (See also “After the referendum: The ongoing Greek crisis.”)
Now Yanis Varoufakis, the Finance Minister for Tsipras until that betrayal, heads a new party that won a few seats in the Greek Parliament. Some of the Left are ready to hitch their wagon to his star, but his ground is also anti-revolutionary, as he made obvious when he joined the Syriza government four and a half years ago.
Podemos in Spain takes that same pragmatist-populist ground, which was laid out in postmodernist language by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Once celebrated as on track to win Spanish elections, Podemos has been fizzling, while the right-wing Vox party is growing. Left populism has proved to be no answer to capitalism’s crisis and its festering right-wing populism.
In fact, the devolution of revolutionary to revolutionary-without-revolution to capitalist electoral party has a long and storied history. It goes back to the Social Democracy of the Second International, which promised to meet imperialist war with general strikes that would paralyze the warring capitalist states—until the day the actual first world war broke out, and most of the Second International parties backed their own belligerent governments and their demands for “labor peace,” that is, no strikes or opposition by the workers and their organizations. PASOK, the socialist party, picked up that legacy in Greece, and dutifully administered austerity for a period after the 2008 economic crisis. Now Syriza has moved from being PASOK’s radical critic to its imitator and replacement. That is the inevitable path for pragmatist-populists who are rudderless without a philosophy of revolution, and thus end up gravitating toward state power instead of the movement from practice, the actions and thoughts toward liberation by the masses from below.