by Colin Fox • Book review: The Syriza Wave – Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left by Helena Sheehan. Published by Monthly Review Press, £16.99 • In the decade since the banking crisis wrecked the world economy tens of millions of people in Greece, Ireland, Spain, Italy and Portugal have been pauperised by austerity and thrown into despair.
This new book by the Irish Marxist academic and activist Helena Sheehan examines the meteoric rise and catastrophic collapse of the one radical left party that had a chance to change all that, for the Greeks at least.
I was in Athens on Burns Night 2015 at the invitation of Syriza (The Coalition of the Radical Left) to witness their victory first hand and I will never forget the euphoria of that balmy January night as thousands cheered the election of Europe’s most left wing Government since the 1930s.
They won on a profoundly anti-capitalist manifesto which promised to challenge the ‘Masters of the Universe’ who had caused the financial collapse. It was heady stuff.
In Glasgow a month earlier I had met Stelios Papas a veteran Greek communist militant and resistance fighter. Stelios spent half the year with his Scottish family and the other half heading Syriza’s International Department in Athens.
Syriza, he told me, was a fusion of the old Left and the new. Here was a party with a long socialist hinterland elected to challenge 21st century capitalism.
Their programme, known as the ‘Thessaloniki Declaration’, set out their intentions; to revoke the punishing Memoranda agreed by previous Greek Governments, to restore jobs, pensions, the national minimum wage and essential public services to previous levels, to end corruption and to compel the oligarchs to pay taxes and end their evasion.
Syriza carried the hopes of a nation. Their victory represented an exceptional success for socialists worldwide.
And yet as Helena Sheehan outlines in her book, all those hopes were dashed within weeks as Syriza failed to achieve any of their aims just as spectacularly. She recalls Alexis Tsipras’s insistence in Dublin in 2014 that ‘We are not Ireland. We will resist.’ He didn’t. Events were to conclusively show Syriza grievously underestimated its enemies.
Expectations in them were high back then in January 2015. Greece’s economy was in ruins. The country was bankrupt and threatened to bring down the entire Eurozone.
It had the second biggest per capita debt in the world. Incapable of paying it back repeated Greek Governments had taken out further loans [on ever more punitive terms] simply to pay the earlier ones. The consequences were catastrophic.
Youth unemployment stood at 70 per cent, evictions and homelessness put beggars onto the streets alongside rioters and looters. Ten per cent of the population emigrated. Suicide rates soared and a sense of a society unravelling engulfed the nation.
Into this maelstrom stepped Syriza whose rise was as much to do with the complete collapse of the traditional Left party, PASOK, as Tsipras’s ability to build a coalition of Leftists or present a programme capable of capturing the imagination of desperate people.
Their politics were high on rhetoric as Helena Sheehan’s book reveals but inadequate to combat the goals of the ‘Troika’ [ECB/IMF/EU]. If the Left lives by George Lansbury’s famous maxim ‘Better to break the law than break the poor’ Syriza didn’t!
Urged by the party’s Left Platform to leave the Eurozone in favour of a Greek currency Syriza’s leaders rejected this view feeling that a country which imported 80 per cent of its foodstuffs and raw materials could not use a currency no one wanted or expect credit lines.
Their fight against the Troika was a total mismatch. The power imbalance was insurmountable. Sheehan accuses Syriza of having no Plan B i.e. leaving the Euro and returning to a Greek currency. In truth they had no Plan A! What they did was implement worse cuts than PASOK or New Democracy ever did.
The referendum of September 2015 was the final straw for many. That adventure killed off any credibility Syriza may have retained. Defaulting on a $1.8bn repayment they called a Referendum over the terms of the Memoranda with the Troika and won a resounding No/’Oxi’ vote.
But Tsipras, clearly now at a political dead end, turned round and agreed terms inferior to those offered to him two days previously.
Such was the ridicule that greeted the news that Harvard Law School awarded him their 2015 prize for the worst negotiating performance of the year. One disgusted Syriza MP went further telling Parliament ‘We are now engaged in a brutal class war—with our own leaders’.
Thousands of Syriza members who had been euphoric in January followed his lead and also resigned from the party in disgust.
Recording all this Helena Sheehan concludes ‘Syriza is no longer a laboratory for hope for the left but a cause for despair’. Few would disagree. Syriza today is a byword for shame on the Left. No one mentions them, certainly not with pride.
Nevertheless this is another Greek tragedy rich in lessons about power and what is involved in confronting it. Every socialist should study it closely.