What About the Greek Communist Party?

What explains the Greek Communist Party's stance toward Syriza and the euro crisis?

A 2012 rally of the Greek Communist Party. Maximilien Nguyen / Flickr

Recent developments in Greece are reshaping the country’s radical left. Most of the discussion has centered on Syriza and its failure to tackle austerity, as well as the growth of left opposition within (and now outside) the party.

But not much serious attention has been paid to the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and its stance during the past month or so. Without understanding the KKE, however, it is difficult to draw conclusions about what the strategy and tactics of the Greek anti-austerity struggle should be going forward and what future electoral options might look like.

Part of the problem is that what is currently unfolding within and around Syriza (as well as around the much smaller Antarsya) is not really affecting, or being affected by, the KKE. The separation lines between the two parties have remained profound throughout the crisis, especially as far as the KKE is concerned.

At every milestone in the negotiations, the KKE has reaffirmed its insistence that a left government within the confines of the bourgeois state is impossible — the very antithesis of the Syriza experiment. According to this logic, a left-wing party can either assume executive office and contribute to further exploitation and social injustice within the bounds of capitalism, or it can forget government office and concentrate on the long-term project of organizing for a socialist revolution outside the halls of power.

The KKE sees a controlled exit from the eurozone (“Grexit”) as an illusory option if it lacks “a complete program and strategy of collision” and if there hasn’t been a “fight for getting the tools of development in the hands of the working class, the people.”

In this view, returning to a national currency without a social revolution is beneficial only to the bourgeoisie. Absent this revolution, both remaining in the euro with memorandum-imposed austerity and returning to the drachma are unacceptable.

What the KKE proposes instead is socialization of the means of production and a centrally planned restructuring of the economy. It calls for planning that is scientifically organized and geared toward satisfying all popular needs — for example, free health care, full employment, free education, culture, and sports.

The Syriza alternative, the KKE has argued since the February elections, is no alternative at all: it puts the interests of capital before those of the Greek people. Syriza is thus seen not as a party of multiple tendencies, but as a monolithic structure full of reformists incapable of being won over to any truly anti-capitalist program. The recent split of Popular Unity from Syriza by itself proves this assessment wrong.

What is at issue here is not the KKE’s assertion that capitalism is a dysfunctional system that cannot be fully reformed with parliamentary measures (many in Syriza and Antarsya share this view), but how to behave when this system, which is supported by immense propaganda mechanisms and the interlocking of financial institutions, is attacking ordinary people in an increasingly vicious way.

The KKE, unlike many of its sister parties in Europe, dismisses the notion that “non-reformist reforms” are necessary to build support and social consciousness. And it doesn’t seriously consider the current balance of electoral and social forces in the rest of Europe, which shapes, limits, and constrains the degree and cogency of radicalism in Greece.

Unsurprisingly, the KKE approached the July 5 referendum with utopian undertones. The party called for a “blank vote,” which was subsequently widened to include abstention. It framed the referendum as an unacceptable dilemma, in which any possible outcome — either a new memorandum or bankruptcy — would be against the interests of the majority of the Greek population.

In fact, the referendum was a milestone, for several reasons. It widened the democratic procedure for the first time in Greece’s relations with the European Union; it opened the possibility of an exodus from the asphyxiating climate of the negotiations; it allowed for the cultivation of further solidarity between the Greek people and the rest of the continent; and it spurred significant popular mobilization and activity on the Left, which subsequently took the shape of another political party.

The KKE’s decision to reject the referendum had immediate consequences. Above all, the party could not help rebut the dangerous pro-austerity, pro-Yes rhetoric that the national media and the forces of the old party system disseminated in an attempt to shift public opinion.

These ridiculous claims could have been more easily refuted if the KKE had joined the debate. Refusing to co-lead the No forces, the KKE shied away from joining the social struggle that arose between the working class and the petty bourgeois strata on the one hand, and the banks, the private media, and the upper classes on the other hand. This class fissure was evident everywhere, from personal polemics inside the Greek Parliament to exchanges with EU leaders to the attire at Yes and No rallies.

The KKE has stuck to its sectarianism post-referendum, leaving it to the government and the opposition to argue over whether the new agreement is better or worse than the previous one. The epicenter of this debate could be shifted if the Syriza left (and Antarsya) were joined by the KKE in opposing the imposition of austerity tout court and challenging the myth of a “better memorandum.”

In doing so, the party has missed a great opportunity to explain the practical means by which Greece could dispense with the euro — or, as the KKE would have it, leave the EU altogether. Indeed, the KKE’s programmatic positions in favor of “socialism here and now” are predicated on the feasibility of such a strategy.

In no recent issue of its theoretical journal, Communist Review, has the KKE tried to demonstrate (or refute critics of) the feasibility of Grexit. When the debate within Syriza’s intellectual circles around the possibility and desirability of Grexit was developing in 2009–2012, the KKE refused to engage. And neither did it recognize the quasi-revolutionary nature of the circumstances that would be encountered and of the measures that would have to be implemented in such a scenario.

This is odd, because some of them are echoed in KKE manifestos — complete state control of the private banks and the central bank, imposition of capital controls and price controls, reversal of privatizations, and higher taxes on the wealthiest 10 percent and on church property.

The KKE leadership has shown itself to be relatively unconcerned with the party’s level of electoral support in Greek society. It’s not afraid of losing the 4 to 6 percent that forms its core base, yet it would also be happy to climb into double-digits if Syriza disintegrated in anarchic fashion.

Still, during the past months the KKE has hurt itself more than any other party. As a result of its referendum stance, it has not been able to act as a credible left opposition and parlay this role into numerical and organizational growth. The party, after all, cannot claim to be the rightful vehicle of the disappointed parts of the “no” vote.

It can now be plausibly argued that, for the party leadership, the KKE is becoming an end in and of itself. And if this is the case — that party organization and identity are now seen as sacred things that are better, more pure, and more destined for eternity than the rest of the anti-austerity forces — then the fetishization of the party is the best explanation of the KKE’s most recent behavior.

Keeping distance from Syriza serves the purpose of self-protection. However, it is one thing to refuse governing alongside Syriza; another to organize street protest and solidarity initiatives on one’s own terms; and yet another to sustain extreme detachment in a climate of a clear social and political polarization. In its most vulgar aspects, the obsessive antagonism during the past few months towards the other parts of the anti-austerity movement can be seen as a sort of self-idolization.

The battalion-like structure of the KKE, its wide and dense local branches, the reproduction of its historical symbols, and a culture of conspiracy act as suppressors for expansion and “contamination.”

First expressed as an ideological concept in the process of Rifondazione Comunista‘s opening to the movements in the late 1990 and early 2000s, the term contaminazione marks an important dividing line between Communist and post-communist or new left parties. It demarcates them according to their propensity to allow reciprocity in ideological influence, towards as well as from other entities with similar goals.

This is inextricably linked to how sound a party — especially its leadership — conceives itself to be in terms of theory and social wisdom, compared to other currents.

Given this stipulation, a serious (and according to some an unworkable) challenge is at stake for the Greek Communists: to overcome the psychological confines of their own partisanship. As the possibility of Grexit (on the creditors’ side) looms large, progressive forces could use all the help they can get in the struggle against austerity.