Eric Chester gives his interpretation of recent events in Greece and the lessons to be learned.
Recent events in Greece mark a turning point in the ongoing crisis of global capitalism. The Greek people are confronted with the stark choice of accepting a crippling austerity project or rapidly advancing toward a new society. For socialists in Scotland and the UK, there are lessons that need to be learned, both in terms of the limitations of reformism and the illusion of a united Left.
The Troika and Syriza
Syriza came to power on a straightforward platform. Previous governments controlled by pro-business parties had accepted a series of demands made by the troika. (The troika is made up of representatives of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission, an executive body of the European Union.) In a period of five years, the troika’s program of cutbacks had brought the Greek economy to a point of near total collapse, as the official unemployment rate surged to 25%, social services were shredded and real wage plummeted. For the technocrats of the troika, this was an unpleasant but necessary cure. They remain firmly convinced that Greek wages and social services are out of line with those that can be sustained given the global competition from low-wage countries.
Syriza promised voters that it would stand up to the troika, and, in particular, to the German government, which dominates decision making within the EU. Once creditors understood that Greece would not accept any further austerity measures and was prepared to risk the break-up of the EU, the troika would back down and negotiate a more favourable deal.
Once elected, Syriza proceeded to put into practice this strategy. For several months, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipiris and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, since replaced, went from meeting to meeting, cajoling and threatening. The end result was an imposed settlement that is even worse than the one that was first offered. After all the bluster and rhetoric, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel called Syriza’s bluff and the Greek government, allegedly composed of ‘Radical Socialists’, caved in to the demands of international capital. In the end, Merkel and the German government were prepared to see Greece leave the European Union rather than compromise. Syriza had totally misread the situation, its platform a tissue of wishful thinking.
Reformism and the Broad Left
Watching the Greek crisis unfold has been both sobering and educational. Syriza’s unshaken belief in the European Union is entirely mistaken. Although Greece’s current economic woes are rooted in the global economic crisis, membership in the Eurozone has made the situation far worse. The entire concept underlying the European Union, bringing countries together that differ widely in their economic development into one economic unit that could compete within the global economy, was faulty. It has never made sense for Greece to be tied to a currency dominated by the Germans. This fundamental defect could be hidden while the world economy was on an upswing, but once the downturn took hold countries such as Greece were bound to be mired in crisis.
Syriza not only believed that the European Union could be reformed, it also was convinced that there was a way to a more equitable society within the constraints set by a globally integrated capitalism. Of course, all of the tendencies within the Syriza coalition claimed they were socialists and yet the those in the majority argued that socialism was a distant goal impossible to be achieved in the here and now. As pragmatists rooted in their view of what could be achieved in the short-run, they felt they had to accept the best possible set of reforms. Thus, socialism was reduced to an empty slogan, while the programs and strategies that were actually followed took as an implicit assumption that capitalism can be changed step by step. The collapse of Syriza is indicative that this strategy of reformism is bound to be a failure. There is no path forward within the limits set by global capitalism. The choice is either move to socialism as quickly as possible or continue to spiral downward.
There Is an Alternative
Tsipiris has defended his acceptance of the troika’s demands by insisting that there was no alternative, an argument very similar to that made famous by Margaret Thatcher. Yet during the last election, Antarsya, a loose coalition of radical organizations, presented an alternative. Its activists argued that Greece should immediately break with the European Union, repudiate the debt and begin bringing the means of production under social ownership and workers’ control.
Greece would have broken with the global capitalist system and set itself on an entirely different course. For such a program to succeed, Greece would have had to soon be joined by other countries, beginning with those confronting a similar economic crisis, such as Spain, Portugal and Italy. This would have been a risky and uncertain course and yet accepting the troika’s demands can only lead to more misery, with no end in sight. Socialism can not be built in one country, but only as part of an international movement. Still, one country has to start, to be the inspiration for others.
From a Scottish Perspective
The Greek experience raises key questions for the Scottish Left. Within a year, the UK will be holding a referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union. All three of the mainstream parties have made it clear that they will be advocating that the UK remain within the EU. Only UKIP rejects the EU, and this for xenophobic reasons.
There is still time for the radical Left to develop a network that can oppose membership in the EU for the correct reasons. The Greek experience has exposed the EU for what it truly is. We need to stand for a European federation of socialist states, while opposing the EU as an undemocratic superstate that further binds countries into the global capitalist system. As socialists in Scotland, we should be strengthening our ties with Greek radicals such as Antarsya that reject Syriza’s capitulation to the troika, as well as with other radicals throughout Europe that share our perspective. We can stand together in our opposition to the EU and in our desire to build a different kind of Europe.
Recent events in Greece also bring into question the recurring effort to form a united Left. Syriza emerged out of a loose coalition and contained a variety of tendencies. We can now see that their supposed unity covered over fundamental differences in political perspective. Those who believe that capitalism can be reformed and those who are convinced that only a revolutionary transformation can bring an end to capitalism have diametrically conflicting viewpoints. During the recent election, the Left in Syriza submerged its politics in order to maintain a spurious unity and went along with a program they should have known was illusory. Now that the effort to bluff the troika has collapsed, the underlying differences have come to the surface and the coalition has begun to disintegrate.
Revolutionary socialists in Scotland should be heeding the lesson of Syriza. Instead of building a political party of the broad Left, we need to create networks and organizations that can present a clear radical socialist politics, while joining with others in actions that express our defiant resistance to the current system.