Greece: Mass anger, left gains shows urgent need for united front

May 19, 2012
SYRIZA supporters, including leader Alexis Tsipras (centre with fist raised) celebrate their electoral breakthrough.

The sensational outcome of the Greek elections on May 6 in which SYRIZA, a coalition of left-reformist and radical left groups, came second to right-wing New Democracy (ND) with nearly 17% of the vote, came on the back of the catastrophe being imposed on the Greek working class.

It is being forced to pay for the crisis of Greek and European capital.

This catastrophe has resulted in Greek workers and pensioners, already on some of the lowest wages and social security entitlements in Europe, having their incomes directly cut by as much as 40% over the past few years.

The “debt crisis” this austerity is supposed to pay for is the debt accumulated by Greek capitalists and the endemically corrupt state. One important part of this debt was caused by the state buying billions of dollars worth of military rubbish via NATO in recent years.

See also:
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The key issue has been the “Memorandum”, the brutal wage- and job-cutting package imposed on Greece by the “troika” of the European Union (EU), European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. It aims to squeeze workers and poor to “pay back” German and French banks.

The two main parties of the past few decades, ND and the one-time vaguely social democratic PASOK, helped impose this memorandum. As a result, ND cashed from 33% to 19% of the vote and PASOK from 43% to 13%.

Combined, the vote for left-wing, anti-memorandum parties was about 27% ― 17% for SYRIZA, 8% for the sectarian, Stalinist Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and 1.9% for the Front of the Greek Anti-Capitalist Left (Antarsya), a smaller coalition of radical left organisations.

A further 6% voted for the Democratic Left, a right-wing split from SYRIZA that wants to soften the austerity package but believes total rejection will get Greece kicked out of the EU (which it sees as a fate worse than death).

If these left-leaning votes are counted, one third of the electorate voted for parties associated with the traditional communist movement in one form or another.

This is a higher result than the huge 25% vote for the United Democratic Left (the front group for the then illegal Communist Party) in 1958, that sent shock waves around Western capitals.

United front opposed

In a “Year Zero” situation for the literally hungry masses, they handed their votes to SYRIZA first and then the KKE, with a mandate to take power, reject austerity and restore their livelihoods.

Yet the Greek left seems unable to form a united front for the salvation of the people.

The responsibility for this lies mostly, if not entirely, with the spectacular sectarianism of the KKE, which has point-blank refused to join a united front with SYRIZA. More than that, the KKE has refused to even talk about it.

It is a quasi-reenactment of Stalin’s Third Period disaster in Germany ― when the German Communist Party was ordered by Moscow to refuse any joint work with the German Social Democrats against Nazism. The Social Democrats were declared “social fascists”, allowing the Nazis to walk into power unimpeded.

The KKE denounces SYRIZA as social democrats who will inevitably sell out. For anyone aware of modern Greek history, the idea of the KKE having some principled left position opposed to collaborating with social democrats or even right-wing forces is a joke.

There are criticisms that can be made of the program of SYRIZA's leadership group, but as a whole the coalition is far to the left of the German Social Democrats of the 1930s ― let alone the neoliberal “social democrats” today.

The only revolutionary policy in this situation is to form a united front with SYRIZA around the most immediate needs of the working class, and work with the radical left in SYRIZA to help ensure it remains on a left path.

But in all the mass movements against the class war imposed by the rulers over the past few years, the KKE has joined only actions it organises. It has vigorously denounced militant actions by any left forces outside its control. For all its “left” rhetoric, it has deployed its cadres to effectively act as marshals defending the state against actions by enraged and militant protesters.

SYRIZA's left momentum has been partly helped by the split of its most right-wing, social-democratic component into the Democratic Left.

This more right-wing section was the only section of the left the KKE has ever actively collaborated with. The KKE has also collaborated with ND and PASOK. In other words, the KKE has collaborated with everyone but the left.

Greek left’s history

The KKE has played a large part in Greek politics since its historic role leading anti-Nazi resistance in World War II.

When the traditional Communist parties internationally began to split after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and a radical new left rose, the Greek party also split.

The majority remained pro-Moscow and was called KKE (Exterior). A more critical wing loosely aligned with the Eurocommunist current was called KKE (Interior). The dominant party eventually dropped the “Exterior” tag and is now known just as KKE.

However, the KKE (Interior) suffered its own right-left split in the 1980s, due to the contradiction between the reformist dynamic of Eurocommunism and the left-radical dynamic of the new left and anti-Stalinist critique.

The left had the majority, and so kept the name KKE (Interior). The right minority split and formed the Greek Left (EAR), dedicated to a “modern left discourse” that junked “old” ideas like class struggle.

The KKE drew closer to EAR and in 1989 formed the Coalition of the Left and Progress (Synaspismos, the Greek word for “coalition”) to stand in elections. It received a respectable 13% of the vote (most of it gained by the KKE’s historic working-class base).

The core of EAR today forms Democratic Left.

With no party emerging strong enough from the 1989 poll to form a government on its own, and in the context of PASOK's hyper-corruption, Synaspismos agreed to take part in a coalition government with the neoliberal ND.

This right-left coalition was to “cleanse” Greek society of corruption, apparently associated entirely with PASOK, until new elections at the end of the year.

However, these new elections were inconclusive. Synaspismos, which scored a lower vote after its working-class base punished it by swinging back to PASOK, agreed to form government with ND and (a presumably cleansed) PASOK.

Synaspismos was held hostage to a neoliberal program. ND won a later election outright.

The KKE’s coalition with ND led to a split, including most of its youth organisation, which strongly opposed this class collaboration.

These forces formed a new left-communist party named New Left Current, which is today one of the key components of the radical left coalition Antarsya, alongside Trotskyist and left environmentalist groups. They have never had anything to do with KKE since.

The KKE (Interior) also opposed the coalition governments, leading to a partial convergence with KKE dissidents. Today, this group is part of the constellation of radical left forces in SYRIZA.

The KKE withdrew from Synaspismos. EAR, keeping the name Synaspismos despite it no longer being a coalition, drifted closer to PASOK, which had sought to “cleanse” its image from the stench of corruption by embracing neoliberal policies.

Left differences

Meanwhile, the KKE withdrew into its neo-Stalinist shell. In 1995, the KKE, suddenly “rediscovered” that Stalin was supposedly one of the greatest Marxist thinkers, and began glorifying Stalin's infamous 1930s purge.

There seemed little logic to this turn aside from protecting the KKE's members from contamination by the rest of the radical Greek left ― consisting of a dizzying constellation of Trotskyist, Maoist, anarchist and other far-left groups ― and justifying its refusal to work with them.

A key difference emerged on the left towards the European Union.

Synaspismos viewed membership of the EU as essential and part of Greece’s process of “modernisation” that could benefit the left in terms of progressive social policy.

The KKE, however, made withdrawing from the EU a shibboleth to use in its struggle to keep its relevance.

The obsession with withdrawal tends to look in a nationalist direction; it converges with the KKE’s view of Greece as a colony of Western imperialism, rather than a mini-imperialist power in its own right.

Int he earl 1990s, the KKE took decent anti-nationalist stands on some issues, such as over Macedonia, but later in the decade the KKE adapted to rabid Greek nationalism.

By contrast, the radical left tended to oppose a capitalist EU but counter-posed to it a Europe run according to the interests of workers, immigrants and the environment.

This is a perspective of increasing connections between working-class struggles across Europe, of a united European working class to fight back against the united offensive of EU capital.

As SYRIZA central committee member Haris Golemis explains, rather than “the dilemma that Greece should either accept the present political and economic framework of the EU (as supported by the PASOK and ND) or voluntarily get out of the Union”, SYRIZA believes that “struggles and disobedience at the national level should be coordinated at the European level for the refoundation of Europe”.

Golemis says the Greek crisis shows that “developments even in a small country of the Southern periphery can create a ‘butterfly effect’ so strong that it can shake European decision-making to its core”.

Despite the more right-wing positions put forward by Synaspismos, it had the advantage over the KKE of greater openness internally. This allowed many people well to the left of Synaspismos leaders to find a home in a relatively large group that was still officially called a “coalition”.

This created a dynamic within Synaspismos that conflicted with the right evolution of its leaders. The left-leaning elements of Synaspismos valued cooperation with the more radical left outside the group to counterbalance the evolution of right-wing leaders becoming PASOK-lite.

Throwing itself into the anti-globalisation movement further broadened the base of Synaspismos.


In this context, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) was formed in 2004 between Synaspismos, its dominant and most reformist part, and a range of small parties to its left. These groups came from a range of backgrounds, including Trotskyist, Maoist, left-environmentalist, and splits from the KKE and PASOK.

Viewing SYRIZA today as simply an extension of the old right-moving Synaspismos misses the point entirely.

From the start there was tension between the Synaspismos leadership and its radical left allies. This led to the election of Alekos Alavanos, who strongly supported the alliance with the radical left, as president of Synaspismos.

The rise of current leader, Alexis Tsipras, who has a long tradition of non-sectarian militant activity, is a further step in this direction.

The tensions inside Synaspismos were resolved when the old right-wing leaders split to form Democratic Left in 2010. What remains of Synaspismos is solidly wedded to the radical left currents, which maintain a strong left pressure on Synaspismos leaders.

The KKE is under pressure from its ranks and supporters due to the rise of SYRIZA. Despite its hardened sectarianism, the KKE has often stood out as a militant force in labour movement politics, as long as it remains under its control.

Many among its militant base are unlikely to look kindly on the party playing this sectarian game when the objective need for the left to unite for power has never been greater.

An opinion poll conducted by Alpha TV less than a week after the May 6 elections indicated SYRIZA’s vote would rise from 17% to 25% in new elections, which are now scheduled for June 17. This would make it easily the biggest party, ahead of ND which is expected to hover around 20%.

By contrast, the KKE vote dipped from 8.5% to 7%, and the Democratic Left was down from 6.1% to 4.9%.

But could it be argued that, however sectarian the KKE may have been in recent years, it is right to reject alliance with what it considers a softer-left program?

The key difference here is the attitude towards the EU and the eurozone. The KKE demands immediate withdrawal and SYRIZA does not.

It may be argued that there is simply not enough common ground for a SYRIZA-led government, as the KKE expects any program to fail as long as Greece remains within this framework, and is right to not take part.


There are a number of problems with this argument. After the May 6 election, there was no possibility of a SYRIZA-led government with the KKE, as they simply did not have the numbers.

The issue is one of an attitude to collaboration. When SYRIZA approached the KKE after the election, the KKE simply told them to shove off.

If the KKE had a genuine left critique of aspects of SYRIZA's program, it should be actively putting it to SYRIZA as a basis for discussion to unite the left forces to take power on the kind of program necessary today.

The fact that the KKE is not even trying to do this reveals the bankruptcy of its sectarianism.

The difference between a united left that is capable of taking power after new elections, and a divided left where the idea of actually winning appears hopeless, may well have a big impact on how the desperate masses vote in new elections.

Also, given the broad nature of SYRIZA, many of its constituent groups actually agree with the KKE rather than SYRIZA's leader on the EU and eurozone questions.

On a host of other questions, these groups are far to the left of Synaspismos, even after its right faction left.

A healthy, revolutionary approach would be to seek a united front with SYRIZA, try to find minimum points of agreement to fight around, and in the process link up with the left groups in SYRIZA to keep pressure on its leaders to carry out radical program through ― and push it further to the left.

Radical left coalition Antarsya, which is not part of SYRIZA, is in agreement with the KKE on the “harder” position towards the EU (but without the KKE’s nationalistic version of this policy). But Antarsya has a good working relationship with SYRIZA, particularly with its more radical parts.

Though Antarsya’s vote was small on May 6, its 75,000 votes are hardly insignificant in an election where, given the actual life and death situation the masses find themselves in, they tended to vote for whichever left party they thought had the best chance of actually defeating the parties of their brutal class enemy.

The central points of SYRIZA’s program include: outright rejection of the memorandum; a renegotiation of Greece's debt, including abolition of “odious” debt; a three-year suspension of payments; abolition of all measures that have attacked the living standards of workers and the poor; heavier taxation of the rich; and a partial bank renationalisation.

As minimal as this program may appear, it is far too radical for the neoliberal EU establishment. If implemented in full, Greece will almost certainly get kicked out of the EU and eurozone anyway ― thus fulfilling the KKE’s agenda.

In fact, there are good arguments for doing things in such a transitional way. The same polls showing much higher support for SYRIZA, total hostility to the memorandum and continued devastation for the establishment parties, also show an overwhelming majority of Greeks opposed to cutting ties with the EU and the euro.

There are also good reasons for Greek people to fear the consequences of such a momentous step as withdrawing. The battle needs to be fought politically; clear alternatives need to be presented.

The KKE’s response that nothing will work except abstract “people’s power” may sound good to ideologues, but in the absence of actual organs of “people’s power”, this rhetoric is just left cover for abstentionism at precisely the time the left needs to offer an alternative program.

Sustained mass mobilisation

The main danger is not that SYRIZA would not quit the EU immediately, but rather the temptation for SYRIZA leaders to not carry through their own minimum program under the enormous pressure they would face from powerful interests.

It is thus all the more vital that the other major bloc on the left, the KKE, as well as smaller forces like Antarsya, are actively involved to keep the pressure on the side of SYRIZA’s ranks and smaller constituents to fulfill its program.

Above all, what is needed is sustained popular mobilisation to maintain that pressure, and to involve the masses directly in the process of bringing about such an enormous transformation.

The critique that SYRIZA simply wants to “occupy chairs” is being used as an excuse for abstention or sectarianism, but it is true that a part of the SYRIZA leadership does hold reformist illusions.

It is even more true that, whatever the nature of SYRIZA's leaders, the kind of full-scale anti-capitalist transformation ultimately needed to deal with this crisis cannot be carried out in the electoral arena alone.

The radical left in SYRIZA and Antarsya need to take the lead in ensuring continual mobilisation ― alongside the ranks of Synaspismos, the KKE, the trade unions and even the traditional base of PASOK, to demand a left united front to smash the austerity.

Such mobilisation would need to be sustained through the intensified crisis that would inevitably result from the collapse of the memorandum, exit from the eurozone and the cut-off of EU cash.

The KKE’s idea that it will gain from a “second wind” when the masses see the failure of SYRIZA is almost beyond comprehension in its sectarian reasoning.

A failure of the left to unite at such a crucial moment for Greek society risks opening the door to fascism, as a section of the masses swing right to find an “alternative” to the crisis.

The huge 7% vote for the neo-Nazi, immigrant-bashing criminal gang Golden Dawn on May 6, alongside the 10% vote for a right-wing nationalist split from ND, may be a signal of the future if the left cannot offer an alternative.

Those leftists who pave the way for this will be, and ought to be, judged harshly by history.

[This article is abridged from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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