The Rise and Fall of Syriza: Finding a New Way Forward for Greece’s Radical Left (2/3)
Syriza is the culminating expression of the long history of the Greek left, says author Helena Sheehan
Sharmini Peries: Welcome back to The Real News Network, we are discussing, “The Syriza Wave: Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left” by professor Helena Sheehan. Welcome back.
Helena Sheehan: Thank you.
Sharmini Peries: So, in our first segment, we of course discussed the academic engagement with Syriza and those who supported Syriza from the get go and then the departures of some of them. But in this segment, I want to talk about the movement. And you describe with great detail the Syriza movement. And the word Syriza itself means root, referring to some radicalization of a political moment in this case.
And so for us, describe to us how the movement grew and then what happened to it.
Helena Sheehan: Well, it’s one of these things where, where do you start? I mean, Syriza is part of the whole tradition of the Greek left, so where do you start the history of that? So it comes from the Communist Party, which played a really core role in the resistance to Nazism during the war. It was at the forefront of the left during the Civil War, at the forefront of resistance all the way through all of the struggles against the military dictatorship and all that.
And Syriza has its roots in all of that. So it’s part of this long struggle of the Greek left. It took a critical position in relation to the communist movement in 1989, 1990, ’91, where that was … There are a whole series of debates in the whole international left, which resulted in it breaking away from the Greek Communist Party.
But it’s been an integral part of the Greek left through all this period. Though prior to the election of 2012, it was only at 4%, so it responds to the needs of the people of Greece to have some kind of alternative to all of the other parties in the political spectrum, including KKE, the Communist Party that a lot of people turned from other parties from whom they’d voted and voted for Syriza.
But it’s part of a long difficult history, not just that magic moment in 2012 where it leapt onto the international stage in a big time.
Sharmini Peries: What’s a distinction between the KKE and Syriza, because KKE does quite a bit of organizing and lots of labor unions affiliated with this party and that’s a traditional Communist Party in Greece.
Helena Sheehan: Yes.
Sharmini Peries: So, what is the difference?
Helena Sheehan: Well, the KKE is a very traditional Communist Party. People say it hasn’t really quite come to terms with the end of the Soviet Union, but some people have the impression that it’s a lot of old people who haven’t come to terms with the times and haven’t really paid any attention to anything that’s been happening in the years since.
And that isn’t true, it’s a very formidable party and it’s not all old people. There are people in it at every stage of the life cycle and they recruit very heavily among young people. They have strong roots in the trade union movement and in the universities. They contest university elections and sometimes top the poll’s university elections.
But the problem is, they’ve become too rigid. I think the primary problem with the KKE is their relationship to the rest of the left and particularly their relationship with Syriza at this particular juncture in Greek history. They may say, “I told you so, Syriza was as bad as anything we ever said it was.” But I think that in a way that could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I think they’re responsible for some degree for the fact that that happened. I believe that if they took a more constructive approach, not liquidated and became part of Syriza, but if they had forged a more constructive relationship with Syriza, it would’ve pulled Syriza more to the left and perhaps contributed to a much better outcome.
Sharmini Peries: Now, were they a part of the coalition of the Syriza parties initially?
Helena Sheehan: No, but way back, before 1990, they were a part of the coalition that was Synaspismos. And that’s also another reason why some people who became Syriza left the KKE, because the KKE broke away from that coalition.
They weren’t always so inward looking and sectarian as they’ve become now. But I feel more sad than anything else, I really would like the KKE to play a more constructive role in relation to the rest of the left.
Sharmini Peries: Now when you see demonstrations in Athens, you see KKE organized and in their formations and their flagpoles …
Helena Sheehan: They are fantastic on the streets. They’re fantastic that way.
Sharmini Peries: They look absolutely fantastic in what you see or expect of a traditional Marxist party.
Helena Sheehan: And they’ve all these good old rousing songs. They’re fantastic on the streets.
Sharmini Peries: And are there not ways in which Syriza could be more constructively speaking with them? Is that a possibility or that doesn’t exist?
Helena Sheehan: Well, during this crucial period from 2012 to 2015 and even before that, Syriza actually took a very constructive position with respect to KKE. The blame for that is on the side of KKE. In fact, I was at, and I talk about this in the book, I was at a really fantastically interesting meeting in Zakynthos in September 2013 where there had been a teacher’s strike and it was going into a general strike.
And there was this big meeting that lasted until well after midnight where all the different forces of the Greek left on the island, but not just the organized left, just lots of people who were teachers and parents involved in the teacher’s strike.
And so we’re planning this march for the next day, and so, people were saying, “Why can’t we have one march, because this is the way it’s always been.” The KKE, under the banner of their trade union front, PAME, have one march, and then everybody else, the entire spectrum of the Greek left under Syriza, and all the other unions, the big general unions, both in the public and private sector all have the one march together. And then they have theirs separately.
So and that repeats itself on all these islands and the other towns in Greece, the way you’ve probably seen it in Athens. So people were saying, just ordinary people were saying, as well as other people in that, “Why can’t we have one march?” And the people in KKE were saying, “Oh, somebody in Synaspismós said this and that 25 years ago.” So they said no.
So my friend in Syriza, Nicholas Potamitis said, “What would you do if we came to your march?” And they didn’t answer it. And the KKE guy said to him after, “That was very clever of you to say, ‘What would you do if we came to your march?'” and said, “Why don’t you come to our march?” So the next day, that’s what we did.
We all marched to their march and we all marched together. And it was fantastic. So it was one kind of moment, but it’s always been Syriza reaching out to them and often being rebuffed. So Syriza are not to blame for that.
Sharmini Peries: Do you still now, today, given what’s going on in Greece consider Syriza a revolutionary party?
Helena Sheehan: I do not. I did. The aim of Syriza was to forge a transition from capitalism to socialism that would not be sudden, that would not insurrectionary. Something that would form a realistic path about, “How do we get from here to there,” because a lot of people who are revolutionary haven’t really thought that through very clearly.
And I was very impressed by people in Syriza and the way they were thinking about that in a way that I felt it needed to be solved. But I think that they’ve taken a path now, which is leading in the opposite direction. Not that that’s what they intend and not that there aren’t still people in Syriza who want to find a path from capitalism to socialism, I accept their good faith, some of them, not all of them.
But I think that they’re accelerating every oppressive thing that’s been imposed on the Greek people. They’re accelerating the expropriation. I don’t accept this word ‘austerity,’ because I grew up Catholic and austerity was clean, disciplined living, and a thing you accepted to do yourself. Not a thing that the most wealthy people in the world who have everything they could ever want without doing a day’s work impose on other people who have less than they need and still work hard.
So it’s been this intensifying expropriation. And it’s necessary no matter how small a step to begin to reverse the expropriation, but presiding over the intensification of that expropriation is not a road to socialism.
Sharmini Peries: The plunder that’s going on off Greece …
Helena Sheehan: That’s a good word for it, it is plunder.
Sharmini Peries: … And the fire sale that’s going on, and the way in which Greek national assets are being sold away in order to finance the debt, I have never met a more educated population collectively about what’s going on in Greece. People can articulately speak about the economic context, the realities, and the language that highly educated people use in order to describe what’s going on.
Helena Sheehan: True, they can. You’re correct, that’s true.
Sharmini Peries: And I’ve spent years and years and years in Venezuela working with President Chavez and part of the Chavista movement and so on where a population was getting educated in the same way. But when I arrived in Greece and talked to ordinary people about the debt crisis, details of it in terms of the banking crisis, in terms of mortgages, they were highly literate in terms of the political economy, of what was going on in the country.
Helena Sheehan: Yes, yes, this is true.
Sharmini Peries: With such an aware movement, conscious population and citizenry, members of Syriza’s governing party must be waking up every morning. They can’t pull the wool over the eyes of this population, they know exactly what’s going on.
Helena Sheehan: They live in a different way now, those people who are still in Syriza. A lot of them can’t walk the streets freely. People that are Syriza MPs can’t walk down the streets of their own constituencies freely. Tsipras doesn’t move around Athens or anywhere in Greece the way he once did.
He has elaborate security around him, the Syriza security, he said he wasn’t going to have around him. Some of them live in a relatively isolated way now because there is so much anger and resentment from this highly educated and very angry population.
So they live very different lives now after July 2015 than they did then. And many of them are people who are deeply, deeply, deeply conflicted by what they’re doing. I’ve lived a long life now, I’ve become fascinated by people’s mechanisms of self-justification. And some people have strong mechanisms of self-delusion as well.
But I think that the best people that I know that are still in Syriza are really deeply conflicted and see the contradictions.
Sharmini Peries: And what do they say to themselves, that there will be a moment in which they will come out of this and will be able to do what they had promised?
Helena Sheehan: Yeah, that’s what they say. I can’t see it because they’re moving in the opposite direction. I can’t see it, I think that that was the moment where they could’ve reversed the trajectory. It actually would’ve been very difficult.
See I think what the first they had to do was to suspend payments to the debt. Not even say they weren’t gonna pay the debt, just say, “We are suspending payments of this debt because we need this money to fulfill our promises,” to implement the Thessaloniki program, for example.
Sharmini Peries: And explain what that is before you move on.
Helena Sheehan: It was a modest social-democratic program, actually, to just reverse the expropriation, to stop cutting pensions, stop cutting health service, and begin to restore money. And to do that, they had to suspend payments to the debt to run the Greek state and to fulfill those rather modest promises.
Sharmini Peries: Alright, let’s take up this question in our next segment, which is, one of the reasons that there was such great interest in what was going on in Greece is it gave so much hope to the left. And let’s put those moments and the learnings from Greece in the larger context of the rise or the state of the European left in our next segment.
Helena Sheehan: Okay.
Sharmini Peries: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.