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Can Corbyn learn from the Greek tragedy?

Jeremy Corbyn and Alexis Tsipras, of Syriza.

July 10, 2019   6 mins

“We lost nicely,” said the enigmatic text I received from a Greek government minister on Sunday night. Syriza, a party whose full name means “coalition of the radical Left”, crashed out of power after trying for four years to implement an austerity package mandated by the European Union and the IMF.

It had tried to shield the old and poor from the worst of it, but at the cost of taxing the middle class, the rich, and the country’s vital tourist trade. It met the targets of the European Central Bank, privatised the ports and airports, played an exemplary game in international politics, and spent more of its GDP on Nato commitments than any other member.

In the end, many of its supporters stayed at home, while the far-right vote switched back to the conservatives, and Syriza lost power – scoring 31.5%, compared with 40% for the centre-right New Democracy party.

For the some on the far Left, the fall of Syriza government is the termination of an embarrassment. Alexis Tsipras led the party to power in 2015 on a promise to resist austerity but after a few nail-biting months was forced into abject retreat, with the country’s banks closed, chaos on the streets and vital services only a few days away from failure.

For me, however, there are positives to take away that have implications for the entire project of the global Left. First, Tsipras showed that with a clear narrative, a message of hope and some competent advisers, the far-Left’s project can work in government. The oligarchy, whose two-party system (Pasok and New Democracy) collapsed, expected Syriza to be amateurs: in fact they brought professionalism and openness to an endemically corrupt and chaotic state.

Second, by being radical in opposition, and refusing to give up radicalism even when forced into retreat, Syriza and the wider Greek Left defeated one of the most violent and open fascist threats in the European continent. Its conservative predecessors had tolerated Golden Dawn’s infiltration of the police, and murderous violence on the streets. Without a Left prepared to risk taking power, Greece would have degenerated into a battleground of populisms.

Third, Syriza supplanted the traditional Greek social democratic party Pasok as the “natural” party of Left government. Its spokespeople, pundits and aligned senior journalists now inhabit the Greek airwaves and cultural life.

Finally, the shock of seeing the Left in power has changed – for now – the behaviour of the Greek conservatives. They were forced to exchange ageing playboys and oligarchs for politicians who look cleaner and more restrained.

On the downside, the experience of the 2015 “Greek Spring” proved beyond doubt that, within the Eurozone, the political space for a radical Left government will always be constrained. You can defy the Maastricht rules on public finance – as Italy’s Matteo Salvini is doing now – but if you do so in combination with a radical shift of power and wealth towards the people, the coercive force of the central bank will be used against you.

To understand where the radical Left goes next, you have to understand how modest its achievements have been outside Greece, and how its enemy has changed.

In Spain, the advance of Podemos-Unidos, an alliance of traditional communists with the new “horizontal” activist movement that sprung up in 2011, has stalled. After scoring 14% in April’s general election, its leader Pablo Iglesias is now forced to be a junior and inconsequential coalition partner in the socialist-led government. The same rough arrangement applies to the Left Bloc in Portugal – currently polling 9%. In Denmark, another electoral pact between the far-Left and social democrats has put the latter in power.

In Finland, a general shift to the Left has put the radical Left Alliance into a broad governing coalition with Greens, Social Democrats and Liberals. Germany’s Left Party, born out of the former ruling communist party, survives on around 9%, and plays a leading role in the “Red-Red-Green” government of the Berlin region.

In general, overtly anti-capitalist Left parties have peaked below 20% as the memory of the financial crisis fades, while a shift to the Left by traditional social democrats has stemmed their own decline.

But the political forces emerging out of the 20thcentury Left face two new challenges: the so-called Green Wave, which has swelled the electoral support of Green parties everywhere; and a growing electoral threat from far right or overtly racist parties, some of which are building support among the working class communities where the Left used to be strong.

Syriza, Podemos and the rest prospered after 2008 because their politics, and to an extent their style, resonated with the mood of anger as deep austerity followed the bailout of the banks. Faced with a crisis of consent for democracy, the rule of law and human rights, the whole Left – including both Marxists and social democrats – is being forced to make choices it wanted to avoid.

The first hard choice is between redistribution and saving the planet. Orthodox Left doctrine tells you this does not have to be a choice, and that the challenge of rapid decarbonisaton should be an opportunity for the Left to sell – indeed to converge around – its well-worn projects of state direction and intervention. But to capture the imagination of the young people involved in the US Sunrise Movement, or Fridays for Future in Europe and Extinction Rebellion here, the order of precedence has to be clear.

In future, Left-wing parties will need to look and sound like they care about the planet more than anything else – and the truth is, our tradition has not always done so. The closer you remain to the traditional working class communities which prospered during the carbon era, the harder it is to walk the walk when it comes to zero carbon.

When it comes to the far-right threat, the Left should be on firmer territory. The very prestige of parties such as Podemos, Syriza and Die Linke rests on the leading role their communist predecessors played in the struggle against fascism in the 1930s. But today’s far Left is reluctant to make the big tactical change their grandparents’ generation made when faced with Hitler and Franco.

In the 1930s, faced with the rise of fascism, Stalin ordered Western communist parties to form “Popular Front” coalitions with liberal and conservative parties. By 1936, those governments controlled both France and Spain. You could even argue that the spirit of the Popular Front animated Attlee’s decision to join Churchill’s wartime coalition in May 1940.

But leaders like Pablo Iglesias in Spain, or Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, have invested so much personal energy in fighting the liberal centrist parties that they cannot bring themselves to make the same kind of overt, strategic change of priorities. And there is no Stalin to bang their heads together.

As a result the strategic hopes of the global Left now lie with two veteran leaders who have chosen their own long march through the institutions: Jeremy Corbyn here and Bernie Sanders in the USA. Whereas Syriza had to destroy Greek social democracy in order to replace it, Corbyn and Sanders chose to take over their respective centre-Left parties.

But Corbyn and Sanders face effectively the same dilemma as the rest. To enact a radical programme they need power; to gain power they need a story of hope to energise the poor, competence enough to mobilise middle class voters and – for the youth – to look and sound like climate change is their number one priority. Like Tsipras, they need to jettison the most extreme “anti-imperialist” obsessions of some of their activists.

And as Tsipras discovered, doing all that only gets you into office. Once there, you have to take on the real power: the financial markets, hedge funds, oligarchs and organised criminals who believe they can make and destroy governments at whim.

The sheer scale of the climate crisis will, as the 20th century recedes and the IPCC’s decarbonisation targets become pressing, change the priorities of the Left. The far-Left is now either in reluctant coalition with its social democrat and Green allies, or resisting even that. For me, the 21stcentury equivalent of the Popular Front would be an alliance of all forces prepared to commit to spending the hundreds of billions we’ll need to combat climate change, plus the absolute defence of democracy and the rule of law, plus the reversal of austerity. The renationalisation of energy and transport infrastructure is implicit in any radical plan to halve net carbon over the next ten years.

Paradoxically, the most tactically adept Left politician on the planet remains Tsipras, though he is despised by Mélenchon and publicly avoided by Corbyn. Tsipras just survived a four-year crash course in the language of priorities and came out with 31.5% of the vote (with a further 8% actually going to parties to the Left of him). Above all he made a government of the far-Left thinkable, in one of the most polarised democracies in Europe. That’s what I think the minister meant by “losing nicely”.

Paul Mason is a journalist, film-maker and author, most recently of Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.


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Russell Caplan
Russell Caplan
3 years ago

Another way of looking at Syriza and its defeat is that of the all too evident betrayal by the Left of its base once in power. It is also misleading to characterise Syriza as the ‘radical Left’ after it had betrayed the people’s vote in the now infamous referendum that saw Tsipras and his circle of corrupt politicians force out those genuinely leftwing politicians who opposed the sell out. The Syriza leadership under Tsipras rather than make it more palatable to elect leftwing governments has made it now even harder. They have left a bitter experience for people to reflect on, in some ways even worse than the Social Democratic sell outs they replaced. The extent of the cynicism in their behaviour after the referendum on the Troika’s demands is enough to turn people away from putting their trust in politicians of the Left who claim to represent the people’s will. In the case of the referendum the people’s will could not be clearer. People have only to read Varoufakis excellent account of how this corrupt cohort of Syriza leftovers from the original Syriza betrayed the trust of the people. He refers to the whole sorry, sordid affair as one of lions led by donkeys. And the question posed by Mason ‘Can Corbyn learn from the Greek tragedy?’ has been sadly answered not without ill conceived prompting by Mason. Regrettably Corbyn failed to learn from the Syriza debacle and abandoned his political wit regarding the EU referendum under tremendous pressure from the likes of Mason and our current Labour Party leader with disastrous consequences. While there are of course differences in terms of Corbyn’s integrity compared to that of Tsipras, nevertheless Labour under Corbyn’s leadership repudiated a pledge to honour the result of a referendum. This conveyed a terrible message that even under radically different leadership there is no real difference in listening – ‘they say one thing but do the complete opposite.’ Tsipras and Syriza were of course so totally dishonest and knew they were because they did not have the courage it takes to lead a revolt against the EU establishment that was pauperising the Greek people and killing some of them. Corbyn’s behaviour over the EU referendum was more one of confusion and trying to hold different currents within the party together. But the net result is not very different from Syriza.