Radical left Greek party SYRIZA didn’t win the election Sunday but did come in second with a highly respectable 26%. They did this by grassroots organizing over several years. (The center-right New Democracy Party won with 30 %.) But Syriza, which was scarcely more than a blip a few years ago, is now assured of being a political force in Greece (and the Eurozone, assuming Greece stays in it) for the foreseeable future. The New Democracy Party may be ruling Greece, but the strong showing by SYRIZA will be a persistent thorn in the side for the neoliberal agenda of austerity in the Eurozone. Even New Democracy says terms of Greek bailout will need to be renegotiated. This is almost certainly due in large part to SYRIZA and their opposition to neoliberalism.
How SYRIZA rose to power is an instructive tale for organizers regardless of their politics. After all, more than a few organizers on the US right read Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and then applied them to their own organizing. Videographer James O’Keefe who took down ACORN cites Alinsky as a major influence. Alinsky’s rules aren’t left-wing or ideological. Instead they are about how to build community power into political power, because politics at core is about getting power and then using it. That’s precisely what SYZIRA has done.
SYRIZA began in 2004 as a coalition of thirteen left-wing radical groups, including the Green Left, Democratic Socialists, and various communist factions. They united around shared objectives while realizing they would have differences on other issues. This was crucial to their success. Genuine coalitions realize their members will have differences on non-core issues. But the goal is always to focus on core issues, in this case opposition to anti-terrorism legislation and against the dismantling of pensions and social security.
They were also a real coalition, composed of genuine member groups who often would squabble before arriving at a path of action. This is healthy. This is what politics should be about. Contrast this with U.S. anti-war coalitions like Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) and Not In Our Name (NION) which were controlled by Marxist parties. ANSWER was run by Worker’s World Party (WWP), then by Party for Socialism and Liberation (a split from WWP.) Revolutionary Communist Party was behind NION.
But the Marxists, although believing deeply in the antiwar cause, mostly saw the front group as a way to recruit for the party. This invariably leads to moderates and everyone but party members being blocked from positions of power. But mass organizations can’t be built unless you genuinely let the masses in. Front groups like these generally fail because they are pretend constructs. Groups like SYRIZA can thrive because they are fluid enough to have real roots in real constituencies.
For a while it looked like the Green Party could maybe do what SYRIZA has done. But the fatal flaw in the Green Party is overreliance on a consensus system of governing. Jo Freeman explains the problems with a consensus system in her classic essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” She wrote it in 1971 as the feminist movement was moving out of meetings in living rooms and into the streets and legislatures. Her primary point is that once a group gets beyond a certain size and not everyone knows each other and is congenial, that consensus no longer works. Worse, consensus can be gamed by a determined few who can block most anything from happening. California Green Party politics are particularly afflicted with this and vicious internal fights (one has been going on for a decade now) have paralyzed it.
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.
Every grassroots organizer regardless of their politics should take this to heart. Grassroots organizing must be inclusive and it must concern issues that people care about. People should be encouraged to join and to participate. Hidden agendas or blocking people from becoming leaders because of doctrinal differences will only hurt our cause. Instead, we need to attract and recruit members from all walks of life with no preconceptions about who they might be or might not be. Contrary to the misconceptions of too many urban lefties, there are plenty of left-wing rednecks who live in rural areas (and of course there are hardcore right-wingers in Berkeley, CA too).
So, grassroots organizers need to look everywhere for recruits and to genuinely allow them to be part of the organization. That’s how grassroots power grows into political power. SYRIZA has shown the world how to do it.
The North Star’s roundtable: