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An aspect of the rise and break-up of the Syriza administration remains largely unexamined: Syriza was an experiment in left unity. The proposition was that if all leftists united behind an agreed programme, a left government could be elected. Leaving aside the need to enter into coalition with a right wing, anti-austerity party, the unity approach seemed to deliver. However, Greece is now in worse shape than when Syriza and its right wing partners came to power and Syriza has split. This outcome was predictable, if not downright inevitable. There were two related flaws from the outset. Firstly, there was the untruth (a clumsy term but it covers belief, lie and fantasy) that a government could end austerity without negative consequences and secondly, there was the belief among leftists that unity could encompass those who were essentially uncompromising. It was clear from the outset that an end to “austerity” could not be achieved and because compromise would be out of the question for components of the alliance, it was to be expected that Syriza would split.

Syriza sought election by offering to confront Greece’s lenders and secure deliverance from onerous bail-out conditions. So far, so populist and citizens voted for it in numbers sufficient to make Syriza the largest party in parliament. The rest of the Syriza election programme seems to have been virtually ignored.

Shortly after the government was formed a different tune was heard and there were reasons to be optimistic. Confrontation was out; deals and compromise were in. The time seemed to be right for Greece to assume leadership of the growing support for a more Keynesian Europe.

It has never been fully explained how the optimism too quickly drained away in acrimony. Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, was insistent that Greece wanted to pay her debts and yet the descent into nationalism and simple anti-austerity “principle” happened.* These months reversed a modest economic recovery and pushed reform of European fiscal policy off the agenda. Then after the farcical referendum and the subsequent bailout deal the chasm between left reform and left revolt became impossible to ignore.

That chasm is a problem on the left and it cannot be papered over; it makes left unity impossible. In recent decades most leftists have abandoned revolution in any meaningful sense of the word but they’ve also worked to keep their distance from what they deride as mere social democracy. In refusing to join with the century-old tradition of those socialists who work on reforms through the parliamentary structures of the liberal state, they create the paradox of wanting revolutionary change without a revolution.

The tendency to underestimate that refusal to cross to the other side of the Marxist tradition is at the root of left unity wishful thinking.

In Greece the ironically named Popular Unity has walked off to oppose Syriza. Their aim remains to end austerity by taking Greece out of the deal with creditors. They exhibit, however, what might be termed revolutionary honesty because they now talk of leaving the Euro if necessary and of rebuilding the country.

The Greek experiment with Left Unity may have done lasting damage to the very idea of Left government in that the economy was damaged without producing any real change and without pushing through left reforms.




  1. Mr McCaffery, thank you for your comment and your insight into Syriza and Varoufakis. I agree with much of what you say. Are you Dublin-based? You might like to come to the launch of my book on 14 October. Do you know Neni Panourgia’s book on the Greek Left (“Dangerous Citizens”)?
    Best wishes
    Richard Pine

    • Colum McCaffery
    • Posted September 8, 2015 at 11:38 am
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    • Reply

    Richard, I was on nodding acquaintance with you in RTE. My pic. appears on my Facebook page:

    • I had forgotten the RTE connection. How come you have studied the Greek situation so closely?

  2. I haven’t studied it very closely. The Syriza phenomenon was a hot topic among the Irish left. The argument was that a left programme could be agreed giving a considerable degree of left unity and that this would be popular, leading to the election of a left government. I didn’t find the argument plausible. C.

    • Well, January did produce a Left government, but as you rightly say, the cracks in what was, after all, a party welded together of 13 differing aspects of the Left, simply couldn’t hold together for long – here everyone is surprised that it held together as long as it did. The paramount question now is: can Syriza re-establish itself as a centre-left party and get enough votes to be first-past-the-post on 20th? If not, you can say goodbye to any more Left-ish governments for the foreseeable future. It was a miracle that in such a bourgeois country the Left came “from nowhere” to actually win an election, for the first time in Greek history. And a subsidiary question is: will Popular Unity get into parliament at all? and if so, will they be able to offer a meaningful opposiyion? RP

  3. My one quibble is terminological. I found the Syriza programme to be very firmly leftist rather than the familiar centre left. Anti-Austerity or opposition to bailouts cannot be the criterion which divides left and right; Syriza’s right wing coalition partners shared that position. C.

    • I agree, and the almost entirely communist (but not KKE) composition of Syriza showed that there is a calibrated scale of communism, at least within Greece. Tsipras’ end of the scale has now inevitably been forced to acknowledge the imperatives of dealing with the Greater Powers. He didn’t realise that at first, hence the disastrous referendum (or rather his mishandling of it).
      I know people in KKE who are out-and-out capitalists – their reasons for membership have nothing to do with ideology, but are very considerably to do with family history versus political history – i.e. they were excluded, victimised, segregated and KKE offered them a home.
      Read Neni Panourgia, “Dangerous Citizens”
      The single imperative positive achievement was the election of a government that was not bourgeois, not connected with any of the parties that caused the crisis, and, as far as we know, “clean”. I think we have to be very glad that that happened, whatever the fallout will be after this next election.

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