The leader of Greece's Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) Alexis Tsipras spoke in London on March 15 at a meeting organised by SYRIZA's London branch. SYRIZA came close to winning elections last year in Greece on a platform of rejecting austerity and making the rich, rather than working people, pay for capitalism's crisis. Below is abridged from the question and answer session after the meeting. The full version can be found at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, as can Tsipras's speech.
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Could you give us a few reflections on what we can learn from the left in Latin America and particularly the legacy of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela?
I was in Venezuela a few days ago. What impressed me was the tens of thousands of people waiting patiently to go past the remains of Chavez. They weren’t expressing grief waiting to pay their final respects, but were showing hope, resolution and determination. This signifies that for the last 14 years this process has been ongoing in Venezuela and is continuing.
This shows us that no social transformation or movement can be sustained without popular support. Chavez was accused by his opponents of being a dictator but I have not met many dictators who have won 13 elections in 14 years [actually 15]. For us it is clear proof that without popular support, it is not possible to carry out these reforms. This is what we can learn from the Latin American experience, and particularly Venezuela.
How can Greece create enough room to manoeuvre at the international level to resist pressure from the creditors, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union and follow an alternative path to austerity?
I am certain that austerity is not the way out of this crisis and, in fact, that it is the political aim of those who force it upon us. They are fully aware of that. They want to blackmail people with this enormous debt, which has been worsened by government policy, and by the threat of expulsion from the euro.
The clear aim is to create the conditions where the southern European belt will be a place of cheap labour and favourable conditions for exploitation. They have been confronted, so far, with no opposition from any of the governments from the south.
Instead, these governments are accepting every absurd measure that’s proposed to them. But once they have resistance from a government with popular support, the balance of fear will change, it would move to the other side of the battlefield.
People today are looking for a fundamental alternative, and that’s why there’s such enthusiasm about the SYRIZA project. Does SYRIZA understand that the only way to achieve the change you speak about in society is the abolition of capitalism?
What is certain is that the day after the victory of a left government, we won’t wake up to socialism. Socialism is not something that is achieved through a single victory or by decrees.
But the election of SYRIZA will not simply be a change of administration or government, it will be the change of a regime. It will create a paradigm of resistance that will give example to the other countries of the European south and periphery.
Undoubtedly the next day will be a very difficult day for us. We don’t have a magic wand to solve all of these problems. But the election of a government that serves the people will release a tremendous popular energy capable of transforming society.
This crisis which has overwhelmed us is not the crisis of one nation-state, it is much wider and more systemic. But if the Greek people vote for us, it can represent the beginning of the end of Europe as we know it.
We will not be alone in this fight. If we win the elections in Greece, but we don’t manage to create a wave in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and also Britain, to change Europe it will be a very difficult future for us. So that’s our aim ― to create an enormous wave of change in Europe.
Yes, we can present our socialist vision, but let’s also remember the experience of Chavez. When he came to power, he did not say to people “vote for socialism”, he said “vote for a real change in your life”.
Day-by-day he gained the people’s trust and day-by-day people believed that socialism was a good idea. They understood that socialism does not mean the Soviet Union and the other regimes but a system under which their lives will be better.
So this is our aim ― to make changes in the lives of the people. This is the way we will fight.
Is it euro or (former Greek currency) drachma?
So, here in Britain where you don’t have the euro, everything is ok? You don’t have austerity with the Cameron government? And you are happy about what is happening to your society?
I don’t believe that [the issue of having the euro or the drachma as Greece's currency] is a real dilemma. Right now everybody looks to SYRIZA and the Greek case. Not because we are more clever than others but because Greece is a systemic danger to the neoliberal structure of the eurozone.
If Greece wasn’t a member of the eurozone, of course some of you would be very sympathetic to SYRIZA, but I think that we would not be the centre of your interest. Why in June election last year was the fight not between SYRIZA and other Greek parties, but between us and the financiers, the markets in Europe.
The German Financial Times ran a front page story with my picture saying “the Greek demagogue”. And the article was in Greek! It was in Greek language to convince people in Greece not to vote for SYRIZA.
Why? Because they really feared the victory of SYRIZA in Greece, because we were a systemic danger to them. We are in the eurozone and the eurozone is a chain with weak links. If one link is broken, then the chain will collapse. They know this. And they know it would be a stupid strategy to lose this bargaining power.
We are not dogmatic. We know that, with the euro or the drachma, we would still have different political directions: austerity or anti-austerity. So, we believe that the crisis is not a Greek crisis but a European crisis. And to a European problem we try to find a European solution.
I don’t think that we could believe that we would have a socialist island in a globalised, neoliberal world. That’s why I think the solution is not to think that everything we have to do we have to do just in our own countries.
The solution is to act globally and to think locally. That’s why I believe in the power of the solidarity of the people. That’s why I believe that Europe is the field of the class fight.
That’s also why I believe that what happens in Latin America is important – even though it is very far away from us.
In Greece today there is Golden Dawn, a Nazi party, whose agenda is in a way accepted by part of the New Democracy party [senior coalition partners in government]. Is the struggle of SYRIZA not just an economic one but a struggle for democracy and a front against any such threat?
The first victim of the memorandum [that imposed savage austerity] in Greece was democracy itself.
They tried to implement these barbaric policies by avoiding the constitution and parliamentary rules. They said it was an emergency case and in these emergencies you have to avoid the constitution because we need to save Greece, to save society.
But every time they voted for measures to save something in Greece the only thing they saved were the banks. If the people have become poorer and poorer, how have they saved the country?
We have a humanitarian crisis and one result of these barbaric policies is the rise of the neo-Nazis. I think you can compare the situation in Greece today to that of Weimar Germany in the 1930s. We could learn and be wise from history. This is a real fear.
But at the same time, I want to say that the agenda of the Prime Minister Antonis Samaras government helps the neo-Nazis in their politics.
They are trying to change the agenda from the economy to the issues where they feel that they will beat SYRIZA ― immigration and security. But the only force that wins in this agenda is the neo-Nazis, because the people don’t trust the Samaras government that is implementing these austerity measures.
But I should say too that inside his party Samaras has also got some crypto-fascists!
Is SYRIZA willing to co-operate with other democratic parties of the left, like PASOK and Democratic Left, needed to make constitutional changes to keep Golden Dawn out of parliament?
I don’t believe this is a solution. I think, maybe, if we did something like that it would have different result: it would increase the support for the neo-Nazis.
I think the solution is to try to convince people that Golden Dawn’s ideas and actions are not the solutions to the crisis. It’s not an easy way, it’s a difficult way, but it is the way to do it.
The reason that they are growing is the austerity measures. Greek people were at the centre of the European resistance to fascism during the World War II. I don’t believe that suddenly Greece became racist ― austerity is the reason this dangerous minority has grown.