The Rise and Fall of Syriza: Finding a New Way Forward for Greece’s Radical Left (3/3)
Syriza’s influence on the European Left: there is popular aspirations welling from below, but Syria has also had a negative effect on the European left says author and historian Helena Sheehan
Sharmini Peries: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m talking to Professor Helena Sheehan about her new book, The Syriza Wave: Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left. Thank you again for joining me. Greece and what Greeks were going through and the entire debt crisis and the negotiations with the Troika, the European banks in Germany, and the whole involvement of the European Union in all of this and the threat of Grexit, all of that meant that Europe itself was under threat, because whenever we talked about the Greek debt, it was posed to us as: If Greece fails, then the entire European Union would fail. But it was also happening poised with the rest of the European left. Put the Greek struggle in the context of the European left and what else is going on at this time.
Helena Sheehan: I think that the European left is still struggling with what I would call the Syriza effect. That ranges or has ranged from how the failure of Syriza has been thrown at those of us in the left elsewhere during general elections. I’ve written in the book about how it played out during the Irish general election in 2015, when people said, “Look what Syriza has done to Greece. Don’t elect the equivalence of Syriza here.”
But I think that’s even the least of it. I think the bigger problem is this sense, not only among the left but the populations to which we are appealing, is that there’s no alternative. I think that that has reinforced for many people the sense that there is no alternative. I think that’s a very hard thing for us to combat, because although we can talk about the choices that Syriza did or didn’t make, but the big part of the story is the weight of power that was exerted against them, because they really did want to be something different than what they became. They wanted to do something different than what they did.
We have to think very seriously about that power and how it was exercised, and it was exercised in a different way. The EU had hidden behind this mask of a bland technocratic discourse for quite a long time, but during those negotiations, from January to June 2015, that mask came off. The gloves were off, and they exercised their power in a really blatant and brutal fashion. I think that’s affected a lot of people’s sense of how great is the power exerted against us, but a lot of people’s resentment against the EU, and it possibly was a factor in the Brexit referendum, though I think the main impetus for the Brexit referendum came from other forces.
Sharmini Peries: Three things I want you to touch on. The Irish managed to ride the crises and come out of it and come out of the debt crisis, whereas Greece sunk deeper and deeper into debt and austerity. At this moment that you were just describing, we also had Podemos rising up in Spain, and they were looking towards Greece and said, “If Syriza could succeed and if the Greek people could succeed in resisting the Troika and the European bloc, then there’s a possibility of the rise of the left in places like Spain.”
Now we’re looking at Corbyn, although they’ve decided in the UK to leave the Union. However, the rise of Corbyn to power says to us that there are large populations in these places that really want a more radical government who’s willing to push back on neoliberal policies. What do you make of that, and have you lost the Greek example altogether in this scenario?
Helena Sheehan: For the moment we’ve lost the inspiration of the Greek example. Greece has a negative effect on the European left at the moment. I think the left in Spain and Ireland and Portugal did suffer to some extent from the Syriza effect in those general elections, not fatally, certainly not fatally. As for Ireland, I think that the recovery isn’t as great as our centrist politicians try to make the world believe. However, there has been a modest recovery, even to the point where the government have begun implementing restoration in public pay and pensions. The trade union movement still has to fight every inch for it, but that has begun to happen. But at the same time, there is a crisis of homelessness, there’s a crisis in our health service. But the difference is that Ireland wasn’t in the same place as Greece at the start of the crisis. Ireland was actually undergoing a boom, whereas Greece was already on the edge of crisis. That is one thing that explains the difference.
I also think that the Troika played it differently with Ireland and Greece. I think Ireland was supposed to be the good debtor. You cooperate, you don’t make trouble for the Troika, and see how well it goes. Whereas Greece was the bad debtor. They made trouble and resisted, and look how much worse they are for that. That’s been the Troika narrative about Ireland and Greece.
But the Irish left is growing. The Irish left is on the upgrade. We’ve had two general elections in 2011, 2016, where the older parties, which could form governments up until now, have had a more and more difficult time forming governments. Neither can form a government on their own. Each one was a more radical overturning of Dáil Éireann. We have small parties in the left getting elected, a lot of left independents. It’s been a huge shakeup, and it’s not just electoral policies. It has this ripple effect. If you’re elected to the national parliament, you have to be on the mainstream media. You play a different role in the national discourse altogether. We have large movements on the streets. We have not only protests. We have resistance, civil disobedience when it came to the introduction of water charges, which is just one cut too far. The Irish left is growing, but we have to assess the weight of power exerted against us.
What’s happening in Britain, it’s the most meaningful general British election in my lifetime, and I think it’s very interesting. It’s interesting, the whole Sanders phenomenon here. These are gray old men. They’re old leftists. They’ve been around for ages without people paying too much attention to them. And it’s not actually primarily about them. They’ve played a role being the forward face of something that was welling from below, something that wanted to get away from these sleek, bland, blow-dried politicians that really stood for nothing in particular, clustering towards the center. These men have been the forces of popular aspiration and a genuine turn to the left and for setting this global system on a new trajectory.
I think that when Corbyn first stood for Leader it was just, “Oh, we have to have somebody on the left contesting this. It’s your turn. Probably come last.” Even when this general election was called, all the mass media, not only in Britain but in Ireland and elsewhere, were saying, “This is going to be a Tory landslide. How big is it going to be? How many seats are Labour going to lose? And then the next heave against Corbyn.” It’s not like that. It’s not like that.
Sharmini Peries: I understand there’s a three-point spread right now.
Helena Sheehan: Yes. It’s absolutely amazing. Who knows? That’s within a margin of error. Look at what polls have predicted and the way elections happened. It’s all very volatile. I think that is the most promising thing happening just at this moment.
Sharmini Peries: Your thoughts on what’s happening with Podemos in Spain?
Helena Sheehan: They’re still there. They’re still trying to define themselves. I was happy that they stood in the last election with the United Left, which includes the Communist Party. They’ve rolled back a little bit on this neither left nor right rhetoric, which I didn’t like very much. A lot of people say the words right and left don’t mean anything anymore, but I think they do. I think that it stands for a way of addressing the nature of the system itself and taking a position in relation to it, and I think we have to struggle for that term, because Podemos actually is obviously on the left, and in this way it’s allied itself more with the traditional left in a way I think is quite healthy. I wish them well. Anyway, any party like Podemos that has that degree of support is a spectrum and has real arguments and is part of a real struggle.
Sharmini Peries: One quick, 60 seconds. If you could have Prime Minister Tsipras here, what would you say to him?
Helena Sheehan: You shouldn’t have done it. You should’ve taken a different path.
Sharmini Peries: Moving forward?
Helena Sheehan: For Greece? I don’t think Tsipras is going to lead the next thing that happens on the Greek left. My greatest hope along the political spectrum of the Greek left is ex-Syriza, not just Laiki Enotita, but the combined forces of ex-Syriza. At the moment they’re in disarray and they’re demoralized, but I think they have the potential to build something new.
Sharmini Peries: I thank you so much, Professor Helena Sheehan, for joining us.
Helena Sheehan: Thank you.
Sharmini Peries: I wish you all the best with your book.
Helena Sheehan: Thank you.
Sharmini Peries: It’s a must-read if you’re interested in the Greek left and the European left. It’s really a wonderful book for all of us. Thank you so much.
Helena Sheehan: Thank you.
Sharmini Peries: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.