What Can American Leftists Learn from the Success of SYRIZA?

by The North Star on June 16, 2012

By Richard Estes, anti-authoritarian activist and blogger

Even now, the significance of SYRIZA’s success in the recent Greek parliamentary election is not well understood. While leftists bicker over whether SYRIZA is reformist (ones senses the ghosts of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Italian Communist Party (PCI) lingering in the background), Greek workers are beginning to sever past political relationships under the pressure of the brutal austerity being imposed upon them. They are gravitating towards radical left parties, with SYRIZA in the forefront. In May, these parties received a combined vote unprecedented in post-war Greek history. On June 17, these parties are likely to receive even more votes, perhaps so many that SYRIZA will have the opportunity to form a leftist, anti-austerity government.

The geography of Greece’s May 6, 2011 election results

While we await the election result, SYRIZA has already accomplished something that years of anti-authoritarian confrontation on the streets of Athens has failed to do: it has terrified the neoliberal elites of Europe. Along with the contemporaneous election of Socialist Party candidate Hollande in France, SYRIZA is forcing these elites to confront the prospect of a reinvigorated left if the European Union and the International Monetary Fund continue to insist upon austerity. President Obama perceives the peril as well, as he is trying to persuade German Chancellor Merkel to relent in her opposition to measures that could marginally ameliorate the crisis.

SYRIZA, more accurately described as the “Coalition of the Radical Left”, first emerged as a national electoral participant in 2004 after various components of the Greek left acknowledged that they could work together against neoliberalism despite other differences. It is arguably the most successful organization to emerge out of the anti-globalization efforts of the late 1990s, if one measures success by its survival and expanding base within the Greek electorate. Starting in 2004 with over 3% of the vote, it has consistently increased its share of the electorate in subsequent elections, garnering a second-place finish with nearly 17% of the vote and 52 members of the Greek parliament in the May 6 elections. With this most recent breakthrough, it now has a European, if not global, voice, as most recently demonstrated by media coverage of SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras’ trip to Paris where he condemned austerity as a catastrophe for Europe.

Georgios A. Papandreou, leader of the neoliberal “socialist” PASOK

It is easy for anti-authoritarians of both the Marxist and anarchist kind to dismiss SYRIZA. We all know the arguments: the electoral process is a sham, SYRIZA will get co-opted, capitalists will exploit SYRIZA to legitimize this ongoing reorganization of the global economy to the detriment of the working class. I know them because I have developed a similar perspective about the U.S. political system, especially after the brazen embrace of finance capital by Obama after running for president as a progressive, reformist candidate. Upon hearing these objections, one imagines Tsipras attending Davos, participating in a forum with George Soros and Gerhard Schroeder, with Bill Clinton praising him for his intelligence and pragmatism.

Perhaps, this will happen, perhaps not. But this perspective about SYRIZA is narrow and misguided.

Regardless of the future of SYRIZA, there is much to be learned from its experience. SYRIZA has been able to attract the support of working class and some middle class Greeks, and continues to do so. It is an example of a relatively inclusive political organization that, because of its focus upon the intensifying economic distress of Greeks, has become more and more influential. It speaks to the reality of daily life in a society where people are struggling to survive, with a program consciously designed to alleviate their suffering. Not surprisingly, there are those on the left who malign this program as “reformist.”

If only I, and millions of other Americans, could be “victimized” by such reforms! We would be living in something akin to a Scandinavian-style social democracy, which, while beset with its own contradictions, would constitute a substantial improvement in living conditions. But this is a digression that accepts the boundaries of this cramped debate about SYRIZA in relation to participation in the electoral process. Instead, the lack of any political formation in the U.S. comparable to SYRIZA is the much more pressing problem. If Americans are confronted with an economic collapse comparable to what has transpired in Greece, how will they respond? A cursory examination of recent American history suggests that many will accept right-wing populist explanations for their predicament, as they have often done since the late 1970s. U.S. radicals should therefore look to SYRIZA for guidance as to how to achieve unanimity around an economic program that engages millions of Americans already impoverished by austerity. Such an effort is not necessarily in conflict with anti-authoritarian practice.

For example, the late Colin Ward advocated an inclusive form of anarchism that could assist in this endeavor. Ward believed that there was a perpetual struggle between the centralization of power and its dispersal through people and organizations capable of fulfilling the needs of society non-hierarchically. He identified strongly with the lived experience of people within their communities and proposed policies that prioritized their ability to address their problems themselves. He refused to wait for revolutionary conditions for the creation of anarchist institutions and conceded that a world dominated solely by anarchist practice might be a sterile one.

One of the most striking aspects of Ward’s vision was his refusal to stereotypically dismiss large parts of the population as being inherently hostile to anarchist principles of social organization. Where others saw weeds, he found hidden flowers. It is an attitude that is lacking among leftists in the U.S. While many in Occupy have made efforts in this direction, there is still much to be done. There is an urgent need to find points of  agreement within a pluralistic world of participation.

If SYRIZA had not done so, it would be moribund today.This is the essential concept that we must grasp from SYRIZA’s success.

Such an effort requires a willingness to communicate directly with people that is now almost absent in the U.S., a willingness to speak with them candidly and without preconditions about their social experiences. This is the promise that still remains within Occupy, even after its suppression. If fulfilled, we could develop support for a program of economic intervention and demilitarization that empowers people to govern their own communities, and thereby take a small step towards the implementation of Ward’s vision.

Given the rigidity of the U.S. electoral process, it is likely that such a movement will invariably grow outside the electoral process. SYRIZA is a coalition in a country with somewhere around 11 million people. In other words, Greece has about twice the number of people as the San Francisco Bay Area. Hence, any effort to replicate SYRIZA in the U.S. would require a daunting organizational effort, one that would require incomprehensible amounts of money and volunteer time. But SYRIZA remains an example of what is possible if people organize within a reasonably sized community. Any effort of this kind should be measured by a simple standard: the extent to which it expands participation with a recognition of the inherent violence and inequality of American society.

Finally, there is the immediate practical question of what will happen if SYRIZA wins the election and forms a government. We can anticipate that the response of the U.S. and the European Union will be one of destabilization, consistent with past practice in 1970s Chile, 2002—2005 Venezuela and, of course, Greece itself in the late 1960s.  While the prospect of a military coup appears implausible, we would be naïve if we dismissed the possibility out of hand.  The International Monetary Fund and the European Union have already, as a condition of providing financial assistance, required Greece to transfer much of the authority over the economy to them. If faced with the failure of this approach for the imposition of austerity, they will have to turn to more coercive alternatives against a rebellious populace. They may have no choice but to accept a Pinochet solution to impose labor discipline. Our response must be one of international solidarity with the people of Greece until the coup is reversed.

The North Star’s roundtable:

1. “Party-Building in the 21st Century” by Louis Proyect

2. “Another Occupy Is Possible – and Necessary” by Chris Maisano

3. “What Can American Leftists Learn from the Success of SYRIZA?” by Richard Estes

4. “Lessons for Socialists, From Occupy Boston to Greece” by Doug Enaa Greene

5. “A New Socialist Left Emerged” by Billy Wharton

6. “SYRIZA: Lessons for the Grassroots” by Bob Morris

Next installment of The North Star’s roundtable: “Lessons for Socialists From Occupy Boston to Greece” by Doug Enaa Greene

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street June 19, 2012 at 9:59 am

“Given the rigidity of the U.S. electoral process, it is likely that such a movement will invariably grow outside the electoral process. … any effort to replicate SYRIZA in the U.S. would require a daunting organizational effort, one that would require incomprehensible amounts of money and volunteer time.”

I think that we have a lot of the constituent elements that could form a real left party here, the problem is that these elements are largely separate from one another: Occupy, the socialist left, the anti-authoritarians, the nonprofit/NGO community, fed up Moveon.org/DailyKos liberals, oppressed people, union members, efforts like the Green Party, the Working Families Party, and now the Justice Party. This division is probably best illustrated by the fact that in 2012 the left vote will be split in four or five directions, Obama getting the lion’s share, and the remainder going to the Greens, Anderson of the Justice Party, and then two or three socialists.

I guess the point I’m making is that people are already spending a lot of time and what little money on various efforts that could help constitute an American electoral equivalent. They’ve rigged the electoral system against us because precisely because they know that movements that don’t make a bid for power within the existing state are a lot easier to smash and buy off. Look at what they did to the 60s left.

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Richard Estes June 20, 2012 at 3:43 pm

I’m not dogmatic on the question of party building, because I think that the debate between social democrats, leninists/trotskyists and anti-authoritarians is based upon outdated assumptions (maybe I will write about that soon).

I am, however, concerned about whether party building becomes an end in itself, as has happened in the past. If someone, or some people, want to form a party, or run for office, with the emphasis upon giving expression to the distress experienced by many Americans, as Peter Camejo did, I respect that, because electoral participation can be an effective means of communicating a left perspective to more and more people. Personally, I doubt whether we can bring about a left transformation primarily through participation in the electoral process (the post-war PCI approach, which has influenced South American efforts), but that doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that it shouldn’t be attempted at all. Things don’t happen along a historical straight line, such an effort could result in unanticipated benefits for the left, even the anti-authoritarian left.

Beyond this, there is the question of how such an effort should be pursued. As you know, SYRIZA and the Left Front are not really parties as we have come to know them. Instead, they are open coalitions in which various participants are allowed to debate policy initiatives, with an emphasis upon the creation of a consensus platform that results in the broadest possible participation. Doug Greene’s article is very instructive about this, and should be read by anyone who believes that the left must, at some point, participate in the state’s electoral process. This is very different from the hierarchical decisionmaking processes that have characterized the modern political party. It could serve as a model for bringing the various groups and people that you mention together. For me, it is obvious that they are not going to embrace an effort that is either overtly or covertly manipulated by an insider elite group.

There is also the question of the relationship of the party to the street, as described in a Socialist Worker article about SYRIZA. SYRIZA aspires to electoral success, but not at the cost of severing its bond with those who, through direct action protest, have confronted the neliberal state for years. Of course, this is a difficult relationship to navigate, but it must be done, because the alternative is the creation of social democratic party co-opted by the state as happened with the SPD and the PCI. For example, there has been a sit-in at Lakeview Elementary School in Oakland for what is now the 4th day, and the participants are organizing a summer session for the children of the neighborhood inside the school. Any legitimate left party building effort would support these kinds of actions, regardless of possible short term electoral consequences.

Lastly, as I stated in response to Proyect’s article, there is the problem resulting from the poverty of political discourse in the US. It is for this reason that I am dubious about a party building effort at this time, but, leaving that aside, any such effort that does not confront this directly will fail.

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