Greece’s Left Needs to Unite Behind an Alternative to Syriza
Syriza’s surrender to the troika in 2015 continues to hang over Greece’s radical left. With general elections coming this spring, it needs to break out of its impasse — and create a real alternative to the country’s permanent austerity regime.
Greece’s political trajectory since 2010 has been highly distinctive — and in many ways paradoxical. The country’s various governments have included parties across nearly the entire political spectrum, ranging from the far-right LAOS to the supposedly “radical-left” Syriza. Despite this diversity, successive governments have rigorously implemented one same set of policies, dictated by three Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) agreed upon with the country’s lenders, and designed by the infamous troika (the European Commission, International Monetary Fund, and European Central Bank).
The only political rupture that took place was exactly the opposite of that demanded by the powerful popular mobilizations that marked the first half of the 2010s. The Greek people’s vote in the July 2015 referendum saying “No” to the austerity plans was turned into “Yes” by the then ruling Syriza government. It subsequently proceeded to entrench the neoliberal regime that it had earlier committed itself to end.
The results of that surrender have vindicated the predictions of those who had resisted the policies of the MoUs and the political decline of Syriza.
Despite the limited recovery of the last two years, Greece’s GDP is now at least 20 percent lower than its precrisis level, a loss that will not be covered for many years to come. The public debt is huge (nearly 180 percent of the GDP in 2022), and its monetary value continues to balloon. Greek wages are the fourth lowest in the EU. Poverty is well entrenched across broad social layers. The young are confronted with the prospect of mass unemployment, precarious jobs, and emigration. According to the recently released data from the 2021 census, the country’s permanent population has fallen by 3.5 percent in a decade and entire regions are being depopulated (Western Macedonia -10 percent, and -7 percent in the Peloponnese).
Following the sweeping privatizations of the last decade and the creation of several supposedly “independent authorities” to run Greece’s economy — in truth, institutions directly monitored by the EU — the Greek state has lost crucial tools of policy making. The constraints of the third MoU, signed by Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza government in 2015, will shackle the country until 2060. Even if Greece does reach the end of the term of severe formal supervision imposed by the MoUs, it continues to exemplify the post-democratic condition of advanced neoliberalism, in which the notions of popular and national sovereignty are devoid of any meaning.
The current state of the Greek political system is the best guarantee for the continuation of the country’s decline. The right-wing New Democracy, led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has been in power since 2019, and is pushing a radical neoliberal and authoritarian agenda, further entrenching the results of the shock therapy of the preceding decade. The main opposition party is Syriza, which is trying to regain power with vague promises that would leave the existing policies essentially intact. And how could things be otherwise, given Syriza’s own record in government?
The Greek Communist Party (KKE), while still a significant militant force, remains unfortunately stuck in the same sectarian rut that it has followed for years, despite some timid openings in the field of social struggles. This is a dead-end that leads the KKE to a peculiar sort of political passivity and electoral stagnation, disguised by radical rhetoric.
MeRA25, the movement created by Yanis Varoufakis, has shown considerable ideological radicalization in recent years. But, as we shall go on to explain, there is no indication that this force can provide the necessary political answers on its own.
Finally, the extra-parliamentary left is deeply weakened and seems unable to overcome its chronic fragmentation. So far, it has proved unable to articulate a discourse that could reach a reasonably wide audience.
In short, the political outlook of Greece is far from inspiring at present. The trauma of the historic 2015 defeat has not been healed and overcoming it will require a great deal of effort.
It is certainly encouraging that during the last two years there has been a revival of social resistance, with some remarkable strike actions and struggles against authoritarianism and police repression. But these actions remain fragmented and defensive. Moreover, historical experience shows that social movements, although vital to social change, are not able to offer a comprehensive alternative to the country, especially after a historic defeat on the magnitude we have seen in Greece.
Political intervention is necessary to break the deadlock.
To be credible, any alternative political proposal from the Left needs to address the entire spectrum of the forces resisting the course adopted by the country’s elites during the past decade. It must formulate policies that respond to the burning problems of Greek society. The quagmire faced by the country is so deep that only broad social and political alliances can address it.
For such a political proposal to have any hope of success, it must have at its core the convergence of the forces of the radical left.
Now, “radical left” is a term which, after Syriza’s humiliating capitulation in 2015, has rightly lost the appeal it once had. Nonetheless, the radical left still refers to the broad range of political actors that does not postpone the overthrow of Greek capitalism to a distant future but seeks to achieve it in today’s conditions. This is precisely the space from which there emerged the political forces who threatened the Greek bourgeoisie’s dominance and challenged the country’s participation in the European Monetary Union during the 2010s. By its very nature, the radical left includes both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary entities and movements. It is puerile to regard the objective of achieving parliamentary representation as a lack of political radicalism, as some seem to be thinking in Greece.
The first step, therefore, is to bring together those radical forces, giving them a strategic and not merely an electoral perspective. Such a move could quickly give new impetus to social struggles and open the way for broader political change. The long-term objective would be to enable the radical left to act as a catalyst for the broader alliances that Greece desperately needs to get out of the quagmire.
For such an effort to have positive results, especially in view of the protracted electoral battles that will take place in Greece in the coming months, there is a need to discuss the difficulties, disagreements, and issues that must be clarified. And the most fundamental issues have to do with the position and role of MeRA25.
Those that reject the shortsighted realism of opting for the “lesser evil,” as well as the comfort of sectarianism, should focus on the course followed by MeRA25 in recent months, and the debate launched by the recent interventions by Varoufakis.
MeRA25 narrowly managed to gain a parliamentary presence in 2019, but since then it has gradually shifted in a more radical direction, clarifying crucial aspects of its political outlook. Its leader now acknowledges that the EU cannot be reformed, hence it is necessary to have a break with its institutional framework, including the economic and monetary union. Varoufakis supports Greece’s withdrawal from NATO and opposes any involvement in the war in Ukraine. Furthermore, he has proclaimed a strategic aim of achieving liberation from capitalist relations and all forms of oppression.
MeRA25 combines these positions with an agenda put forward by some of the most significant global movements of recent years: feminism, LGBTQ+ activism, environmentalism, anti-racism and anti-fascism, and the defense of democratic rights and civil liberties.
This combination has acquired a certain coherence, leading to a gradual reshaping of the overall profile and even of the internal composition of MeRA25, bringing it closer to the radical left. This is a significant indication that we are indeed dealing with a “transformation and radicalization” of MeRA25, as its leader puts it.
The issues to be clarified remain significant, however. These do not relate so much to the origins of MeRA25, i.e., whether it has sprung out of the historical core of the Left, as Varoufakis seems to think. Rather, the main problem seems to be the conception of politics espoused by MeRA25, with the specific organizational structure and the political practice that flows from it.
This conception, to put it briefly, tends to reduce politics to an exercise in communication, focused on the activity of its leader, supplemented by the energy of its parliamentary group.
What distinguishes MeRA25 from the radical left lies precisely in the absence of an organized social presence and systematic political intervention in fields of strategic importance for working people and oppressed groups across society. Its activities do not strategically target trade union actions, popular mobilizations, ferment in universities and local communities — that is, the sites where social resistance is formed and social battles are fought.
This relative absence inhibits the necessary convergence of MeRA25 with the radical left. But the absence could potentially work in a reverse way. If there is political will to achieve unity, the combination could be the trigger for creating a new dynamic political pole anchored in social struggles. Such a pole could subvert the entire political structure in Greece.
Such a convergence of the radical left clearly requires a serious programmatic foundation, a “common program of rupture,” as Varoufakis puts it. Curiously, however, he denies any positive reference to the left-wing alliance led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France (the Nouvelle Union Populaire Social et Écologique, or NUPES). Varoufakis downgrades this experience to a clever tactical move to deprive Emmanuel Macron of his parliamentary majority. But in truth things are much more complex.
The first round of the recent presidential election in France showed that Mélenchon’s France Insoumise was the leading force across the broader left by a very wide margin. The other left parties had no choice but to participate in a common slate on the basis of Mélenchon’s widely acclaimed program.
After painstaking negotiations, a comprehensive proposal was agreed that aimed to tear up the entire neoliberal framework created by the presidencies of François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron. The proposal explicitly mentions disobedience to the EU when necessary.
There were of course significant points of disagreement registered by the Socialists and the Greens. But in the end the powerful desire for unity among the popular base of the Left prevailed. There is a widespread feeling that the neoliberal management of French society is irrevocably bankrupt and a new intervention from the Left is needed.
NUPES may not have formed a single parliamentary group, as Mélenchon proposed, but it does have a common interparty body that meets weekly, and puts forward common proposals on all key issues (except foreign policy). This is one of the few successes of the Left across Europe in recent years.
The French experience shows that a left unity proposal aiming at winning a majority in society could become credible if it rested on the hegemonic position of its radical wing, combined with proper programmatic elaboration, and sustained by the experience of joint action in social movements and in “intermediate” institutions such as local government. If these conditions were satisfied, the requirement to act both “from above” and “from below” would go hand in hand, thus creating the necessary positions of strength in society.
The Greek radical left is still far from reaching this point. But the immediate objective is more limited. What is now at stake is an alliance of forces that span a narrower spectrum and carry a smaller electoral weight than in France, but still aim to form a hegemonic radical pole. This step is essential to prevent the left electorate from being trapped in the “lesser evil” dilemma, which, as recent experience has shown, is the safest rut to even greater evils.
On the other hand, the closeness of the programmatic positions among the potential forces on the Greek left is clearly greater than that for the French left. An agreement on a programmatic framework is feasible, especially to form an electoral program. The 7+1 points of MeRA25 on the burning issues of the moment, i.e., on meeting immediate popular demands, provide a relevant start. A more strategic programmatic convergence around a transitional program, promoting an anti-capitalist direction for Greece, would be the immediate next step.
The differences in political practice and the lack of a shared interventions in social struggles create real difficulties for the organizations likely to be involved. But these are not insurmountable. The days ahead are grim for Greece’s working people and the younger generations. The least the Left could do would be to create the conditions for a fresh start — drawing on past experience, but looking to the future.