The Rise and Fall of Syriza: Finding a New Way Forward for Greece’s Radical Left (1/3)
Author Helena Sheehan details her experience with Syriza, a Greek coalition of radical leftist groups, from its victory at the polls in 2015 to its surrender to the austerity measures it once promised to stand against
Sharmini Peries: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Syriza, a coalition of left parties in Greece, shocked the world when it rose to power and formed a government in 2015. The media reported this with terror in their eyes, that a Marxist communist party had taken over Greece. In 2015, Greece was in the midst of a massive debt crisis, which was threatening to bring down the entire eurozone. The act of voting for Syriza was an act of defiance by the Greek people, who had been humiliated by the debtors and had to endure extreme austerity measures. A new book, The Syriza Wave: Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left, seeks to explain the Syriza phenomenon from her perspective of an outsider. The author, Professor Helena Sheehan, is in our Baltimore studio today. Welcome, Helena.
Helena Sheehan: Thank you, Sharmini.
Sharmini Peries: Helena Sheehan is a professor emerita at Dublin City University, and she is an academic philosopher, historian of science, and writer who was a former nun. Lots of interesting background. I could do endless segments with you. We could talk about many things, but I welcome you, and I thank you, and I thank you for this book.
Helena Sheehan: Thank you, Sharmini.
Sharmini Peries: This book, for me, being an outsider like you to Greece, who followed this Syriza history with such intensity, and who was there at a very critical moment after the referendum in July 2015, you’ve managed to capture this historical moment of Syriza so well, when the Syriza movement actually became a moment. I think that is what I appreciate the most about it, because I think that not only me but the world was following it. I want to ask you, what gave you the impetus to write this book, and what made you capture that moment so well? A lot of Greeks themselves who were part of this movement say that this is one of the most important books because it captures their reality so well.
Helena Sheehan: It’s nice to hear that. I was an outsider to Greece, but I was not an outsider to the international left. As somebody active on the left in Ireland and elsewhere, I always looked at what I was doing within a broader framework. I was always particularly interested in the Greek left from the time I started going to Greece a few decades ago. I already was a supporter of Synaspismos, which was the precursor of Syriza. When Syriza really crashed into the limelight of the international news agenda in May 2012, when it shot up and did unexpectedly well in the election, and when another election was going to be happening in June 2012 that looked like they could win, the whole world was watching. Not only the international left, but the whole world was watching with various degrees of hope and trepidation and fear at what might happen in Greece.
I was at a time in life when I was free to look at this more closely than other people. It was a very privileged position, being a professor emerita. I had a reasonable pension. I could come and go. I didn’t have to mark exam papers anymore or go to a lot of meetings, so I was free to come and go. I was really fascinated because it was not only a place where the left could possibly win, but it was a place where the kind of left that I especially wanted to win would win, because for me, Syriza was special because it was a synthesis of the old and the new left, the best of the old and the new left, I believe.
It came from the communist movement, from Marxism, but it was also radically open and engaged with the new social movements, not only of these times but of the last few decades, feminism, ecology, all of that. It was a synthesis of all of these progressive movements in the broad left party that I always wanted to see happen, the sort of party I wanted to be part of forming in Ireland, as well. I wanted to really devote myself to feeling the pulse of this to see if my perceptions of it really checked out and to share my perceptions with other people.
Sharmini Peries: What makes you say Syriza is a Marxist party? Is Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, a Marxist?
Helena Sheehan: I think he was. It comes from Marxism. The people who formed Synaspismos, which was the biggest faction of Syriza, came from the Communist Party, from KKE. They left the Communist Party for many of the same reasons that I too left a communist party, that is, a more critical version of the significance of the communist movement. I identified with them in that way, but yes, the people who made Syriza happen, who built Syriza all of these years, were Marxists, and Alexis Tsipras was a Marxist. A lot of the new influx to Syriza, especially since 2012, weren’t necessarily Marxist. They were left, but they hadn’t really engaged in a very thorough study of Marxism or anything like that. You didn’t have to be a Marxist to be a member of Syriza. It wasn’t defined as a Marxist party, but Marxism was a very strong stream, even the dominant stream, for the formation and success and history of Syriza.
Sharmini Peries: Many Marxist academics were following Syriza, yourself, our own Leo Panitch who we know, the minister for education initially, who was Aristides Baltas. These are all Marxist philosophers, thinkers. Our intensity and engagement with Syriza had a lot to do with needing a successful party in power that can govern and wanted to provide lots of advice and leadership and guidance to make it a successful example for the world. We were also watching it with that curiosity and engagement. Do you feel that those sentiments of support and sometimes critical support still remain for Syriza?
Helena Sheehan: If I knew what happened, I would still do it all again. People often ask me that, if I saw what way it would unfold, because the people that I trusted, the people who gave me the affirmation that this was the kind of party I believed it was, were pretty much who I thought they were. Other people who were quite influential in Syriza were something else, but I don’t think that my hopes and the investment that all of us in the international left made in it was displaced.
Of course what happened was extremely disappointing, and people made various choices. Some people decided to stick with Syriza no matter what, whereas I took a more critical position. I aligned myself very much with people who broke away from Syriza. Syriza is a very different thing now after July 2015 than it was, but I think that affirming the memory of what it was is something important to do, no matter what it is that it’s become.
Sharmini Peries: Speaking of people who broke away, one being somebody who endorsed your book, Costas Lapavitsas, and Stathis Kouvelakis, and others, also strong, very committed Marxists, where are they at in this moment?
Helena Sheehan: They’re still there trying to find a way forward. Lapavitsas of course concentrates on the economic alternative, and he’s played a very important role all through this. I think he didn’t play as important a role as he could have had the leadership of Syriza taken him more seriously at that crucial time in 2015. He was a Syriza MP, but he was marginalized, and his expertise didn’t come into play in the way that it might have. Stathis Kouvelakis is still there writing a book on Marxism, engaging with it in his way, but there’s a dispersion of forces, unfortunately, because they both stood for election in September 2015 along with many other fine comrades for Laiki Enotita, Popular Unity.
To me, it was almost as disappointing a moment as July 2015 was, when in September 2015, they failed to break the threshold to get into parliament. I found that astonishing, but I knew why it happened, or at least some of the reason why it happened, because I was in Greece again during that election. So many people told me that they voted for Syriza in January 2015, they voted Oxi in July 2015, and they swore they would never, ever vote again.
Sharmini Peries: Tell us what happened to the people that actually said that, that they will never vote again.
Helena Sheehan: Most of them, they’re just struggling to put their own lives together. They’ve abandoned the careers that they envisaged for themselves. They think that they’re doing very well if they can put together three jobs that are way below their level of qualifications and somehow get 800 euros a month.
Sharmini Peries: Where is Popular Unity?
Helena Sheehan: It’s struggling. It’s still there. These are very fine people. They’re still there. They’re still struggling to build an alternative party of the left. They’re still there in all of the protests. They’re still there in the general strikes and in all the progressive things that are going on. Some of them can’t really afford to do it full-time as they once did. They’ve had to get other jobs, but they give very much of themselves to it.
Sharmini Peries: As we read through this book, it’s very evident that you had a very close relationship with the leadership of Syriza. Do you still have those connections, and what are they saying to you?
Helena Sheehan: I do. I still speak to a very wide spectrum of people who were Syriza, and also people on the Greek left who were never Syriza. I haven’t stopped. Some of the people who took my position will no longer talk to people who stayed with Syriza, but I didn’t take that position. There was a launch of my book in Athens in April, and the people who spoke at it represented a wide range of the Greek left. Michalis Spourdalakis, who is still a member of Syriza, spoke at it. Aristides Baltas came to it. I still speak to them. I haven’t spoken to Alexis Tsipras. I never spoke to Dragasakis and Pappas and some of these people. Dragasakis is the deputy prime minister-
Sharmini Peries: Yes.
Helena Sheehan: … and Pappas is Tsipras’s right-hand man. I believe that Euclid Tsakalotos, who’s the current finance minister, is a very conflicted person.
Sharmini Peries: Because he also comes from a Marxist background.
Helena Sheehan: He does, and I think he’s very conflicted in the role that he’s playing. I think he’s doing a rather bad job. Somehow he’s sought his way through thinking that it was needed.
Sharmini Peries: How are the insiders rationalizing this continued negotiations with the Troika and the driving the population of Greece into the pits of hell?
Helena Sheehan: There are different strategies. People like Leo Panitch and Michalis Spourdalakis, Aristides Baltas, at least they speak straightforwardly. Their argument was that although this is a terrible disappointment, they were forced to do it, and nevertheless with them enforcing the memorandum, it wouldn’t be as bad as if other people were doing it. I don’t accept that. Other people, such as Costas Douzinas, Slavoj Zizek just talk awful nonsense often. As a philosopher, I think that this sort of philosophical obscurantism, justifying absolutely whatever Syriza might try to do, is awful nonsense and is totally unjustifiable.
Sharmini Peries: All right. Enough of the Marxist academics and philosophers and their support for Syriza, those who supported it and those who now have fallen out with Syriza. Let’s, in our next segment, discuss what happened, what actually happened. I think that’s another moment that you capture so well in this book, explaining to people not only the suffering that the people were going through but mostly what was happening to Syriza at the time. Join me again, please.
Helena Sheehan: Right.
Sharmini Peries: Thank you for joining me here on the Real News Network, and please join me for part two.