Greece has been one of the countries worst affected by the economic slump since 2008. It has also been where left-wing responses to the slump have been strongest.
Lesson one: industrial action alone does not provide an adequate working-class answer to capitalist crisis. Greece has had over twenty general strikes since 2009. They have been important as gestures, as rallying calls, as signals, and in galvanising social forces which Syriza later benefited from. But they have not won anything.
The problem is not just that they have been 24 or 48 hour actions rather than indefinite general strikes. An indefinite general strike can produce a socialist outcome only if it is an ancillary to political action (uprising, etc.) by a socialist political party winning majority support and able to form a workers’ government.
Short of that, an indefinite general strike may win concessions on particular issues. In some conditions, that will speed political radicalisation, as with May-June 1968 in France. However, if that indefinite general strike comes not as a “general rehearsal” (as in May-June 1968), if it comes as the last throw of a period of radicalisation, and if there is not adequate political follow-through, then even if the industrial action wins concessions its effect may be to start a retreat, by convincing workers that even their most extreme actions cannot triumph (examples: the September 1920 factory occupations in Italy, the 1936 general strike in France).
Lesson two: in today’s capitalism, nationally-limited strategies will not work. The Syriza government elected in January 2015 could have forced concessions from the eurozone leaders only if it had become the pivot of a wave of working-class mobilisation across Europe, with common cross-European demands. When they looked close to electoral victory in summer 2012, the Syriza leaders made some small efforts to help along such mobilisation, addressing rallies in Paris and Berlin. In 2015 they went to Paris and Berlin only to talk to the finance ministers, and appealed to the European working class only to hope for their success in negotiations.
Meanwhile, the revolutionary-minded Antarsya continued to marginalise itself because its leading slogan was the replacement of the euro by the drachma, based on vague and untenable speculations that this replacement would somehow generate a wave of socialistic policies. It would not. Probably a workers’ government pursuing socialistic policies would at some point find itself expelled from the eurozone, and having to coin a separate national currency, but that is an entirely different dynamic from the supposition that a new separate national currency in and of itself has socialist merits. Much of the left inside Syriza also let itself be boxed into drachma-versus-euro (under the guise of “break with the lenders”) as its frontline policy; the Popular Unity Party formed by the ex-Syriza left has tied itself to the drachma as its lead policy, and has consequently won only a small fraction of Syriza’s former constituency.
Lesson three: an internationalist working-class strategy in Europe is entirely different from a strategy of haggling and negotiating within the existing structures of the eurozone. After summer 2012, the Syriza leaders dropped their small gestures towards cross-Europe mobilisation; let their talk about building Syriza into an active mass party dissolve into very little; and increasingly focused on winning electoral victory on a promise to negotiate a better deal with the eurozone leaders. By the time of Syriza’s January 2015 victory, its leaders had already narrowed down its program to that of relief from austerity won by negotiating a better deal (and the eurozone leaders knew that, and so knew that if they stalled then Syriza would in the end accept a bad deal). So by then, a poor outcome from the experience of Syriza government, if not exactly the outcome we have seen, had been made very likely.
Lesson four: socialist politics can be developed only by independent working-class mobilisation, not by nudging existing institutions leftwards.
The Syriza leaders’ decisions after January 2015 for coalition with the small right-wing party Anel and for a “moderate” right-winger as president sealed the locks on the pre-programmed slide to a poor outcome.
This is not a matter of abstractly counterposing immediate full socialist revolution (which Syriza could not have won majority support for in early 2015, and could not have carried through anyway at that point). Possible, if the Syriza leaders had stepped back, or been made to step back, from their drift of the couple of years leading up to 2015, was the creation of a workers’ government which would have proceeded step by step to mobilise the working class, facilitate workers’ control and workers’ defence groups, enable rank-and-file organisation within the largely conscript army, taken punitive measures against the peaks of the Greek bourgeoisie, nationalised the banks, and negotiated with the eurozone leaders on the basis of cross-European mobilisation and a pause in debt repayments.
If the left in Syriza had been strong enough, the movement could have sharpened and grown sufficiently to win a decisive confrontation with the Greek bourgeoisie and “deep state”, inevitable if the pro-worker reforms continued to roll ahead, and thus to open up socialist revolution.
But even if not, even if such a workers’ government had later lapsed back into being only a reform government within bourgeois limits, its reforms would have inspired new confidence and mobilisation, and shifted the parameters for politics thereafter.
Lesson five: the revolutionary Marxists must focus on transforming the historically-developed labour movement, rather than on vain attempts to build “their own” little labour movement on the side. Syriza was not (despite some efforts to describe as such) a brand-new formation come from nowhere: it developed from the evolution of the historical mainstream of the organised working class in Greece, which was around the Greek Communist Party and its mutations. But the revolutionary Marxists who intervene in those historically-developed labour movements must develop the essentials of their own “party”, whether it is described formally as “party” or only as “faction”, “tendency”, etc. They must have rigorous and sharp policies, tight organisation, and the energy and confidence to give them capacity for rapid and cohesive independent initiative when needed.
The left in Syriza was right to be in Syriza. But its message was too blurred, its sense of urgency insufficient, its organisation too diffuse. Instead of seizing on such things as the majority opinion of the Syriza Central Committee against Tsipras’s capitulations, and waging a bitter fight to win the Syriza majority from Tsipras, it went for an “amicable divorce”.
Lesson six: if the left scares the bourgeoisie without decisively acting against it, then the threat of right-wing reaction redoubles. After Syriza’s debacle, Golden Dawn, a street-fighting fascist party of a timbre different from the electoralist Front National in France and similar far-right groups, has consolidated itself as the third party in Greece.
We must work, especially in the Corbyn movement, to promote discussions of the lessons from Greece and their relevance for Britain.