By MARTY GOODMAN
On election day, Jan. 25, working people in Greece stood up to the bloodsucking European banks and said, “No more!” The 36.3% vote for the SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) party made it the highest vote getter in a crowded field. For the first time in many decades, an ostensibly anti-capitalist party won a national election in Europe. The election victory raised hopes in many countries, particularly among youth, for a showdown with Europe’s rulers.
Post-election analysis showed that SYRIZA was the first choice of Greek workers, receiving 35% to 40% in the Athens area, where some one-third of Greeks reside. SYRIZA’s new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, pledged an end to austerity and the dictatorial rule of the big banking institutions known collectively as “the Troika,” which has brought misery to millions of Greeks.
Because SYRIZA was 2% short of a necessary majority, its leaders felt compelled to ask the right-wing populist Independent Greeks party (ANEL, with 4.8% of the vote), which maintains its opposition to the “moratorium,” to form a majority government.
ANEL is a racist, anti-immigrant, homophobic capitalist party that supports NATO, a sore point for many Greeks who remember Western aid to Greek dictatorships, much of it from the U.S. Incredibly, the ANEL leader, Panos Kammenos, was given leadership of the Defense Ministry!
An election night crowd of 5000 celebrated outside the parliament building in Athens, the nation’s capital. In Spain that night, a joyous crowd of 10,000 poured into the streets of Madrid to show their solidarity with SYRIZA. The SYRIZA message resonated with Spain’s fight against poverty and joblessness, a condition that affects much of Europe, particularly in the South. The Madrid demonstration was called by the newly formed left-of-center Podemos Party, which will challenge the neoliberal People’s Party in an election later this year.
Today, unemployment in Greece is over 25%, comparable to the aftermath of the 1929 U.S. stock market crash. The economy has shrunk 25% in the last five years. Unemployment for youth is a devastating 50%. Public jobs have been slashed; the minimum wage has been cut by more than 20 percent. Half of the Greek people live in poverty. There’s a lack of electrical power for thousands without jobs. Homelessness is rampant. The sight of people eating out of garbage cans is not uncommon.
Greece is a member of the 28-member European Union (EU) and trades in its currency, the “euro.” The EU was established formally in 1993 as an imperialist alliance of European states. The German government is its most powerful member, rigging conditions in favor of the northern EU nations over the less prosperous South—Spain, Italy, Greece, etc.
Greece is way behind in its loan payments. Tax arrears have reached $65 billion, rising by nearly $1 billion a month. The new SYRIZA government needs to pay out about $19 billion in several payments, with the main deadlines in March, July, and August. Greece is in line to receive an over $6 billion loan installment in May, in time to meet the $6 billion of repayments that are due in July and August—or possibly to default. Everything depends on the Troika’s satisfaction with the implementation of SYRIZA’s economic plan.
Default could lead to an exit from the EU or “Grexit,” as it is often called, leading to a crisis of the EU as an institution, not to mention a far deeper crisis within Greece itself. Prime Minister Tsipras has pledged to stay within the EU, although left critics of Tsipras within SYRIZA argue that not using the Grexit threat was a major capitulation.
The Troika represents the European bankers and their politicians, who have economically ravaged Greece with a massive bank bailout that went mostly to pay off bad (that is, crooked) loans. The Troika’s financial elite consists of the European Union (EU), the European Central Bank (ECB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF is the enforcement arm of the U.S.-dominated World Bank, despised worldwide for imposing its starvation economic plans on millions—often at gunpoint.
Some 80% of Greek debt is in the hands of the Troika; the deal is commonly referred to as the “memorandum.” Extravagant weapons purchases, the highest percentage of any government in Europe, and the waste lavished on the Olympic Games, only added to its debt. Greece now has a national debt of $270 billion, 177% of its yearly Gross National Product, the highest in Europe.
Greece’s bank bailout was similar to the $16 trillion bailout by George Bush and Barack Obama in the United States, virtually none of which went to help working people. Both bailouts were funded mainly by working taxpayers as hundreds of billions in both countries went to pay off inflated price tags on bank loans and rip-off deals.
The international nature of this crisis shows that the capitalist system, an inhumane system based on private profits, remains in deep trouble. It is a huge laboratory for European and international capital to see how far they can push working people into a hole.
The international capitalist crisis reached a head in Greece beginning in 2010, with the shock waves of the recession and the first Troika loan of about $100 billion. Public spending was slashed, public workers fired and taxes increased in accord with the Troika’s austerity plan, i.e., spending cuts and massive poverty. What followed were dozens of general strikes of mostly short duration and innumerable protests, some resulting in death.
Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, SYRIZA’s chief negotiator with the Troika, called the misery imposed on Greece by Europe’s banks, “Fiscal waterboarding that has turned this nation into a debt colony.” Even the establishment journal Financial Times called Greece a “quasi slave economy.” Corporate media prefers to shift discussion of the Greek crisis away from the ruthless, corrupt banks to a discussion of “debt” and “over-spending.” Greeks are even slandered as “lazy.”
Capitulation to the Troika
Unfortunately, for all the celebration over the SYRIZA victory, including a 100,000-strong solidarity march in Athens on Feb. 11 in support of SYRIZA during negotiations, the SYRIZA leadership agreed on Feb. 20 to a four-month extension of the bailout, something they had categorically rejected during their election campaign. In negotiations they sought “a bridge” lasting six months.
Despite the “reasonable” demands from SYRIZA, the Troika showed no meaningful flexibility The European capitalists wouldn’t budge, hitting the middle-class SYRIZA leadership right in the jaw. They discovered that there are no reasonable, humanitarian capitalists—just the bottom line! Meanwhile, Greek banks are losing $1 billion a day in so-called capital flight by nervous capitalists.
The Troika was re-named “the institutions” in the February agreement to take the sting out of the deal for working-class Greeks. Later, Yanis Varouflakis, who calls himself an “erratic Marxist” and who served in a previous capitalist government, bragged that he had employed “vague language” to entice the Troika into a deal. It was a hollow boast. Every step of the way the Troika will oversee the implementation of the loan and then determine whether to disburse funds!
The austerity deal is a threat to jobs and wages and poses the potential threat of further privatizations of public institutions, although SYRIZA says there will be no new privatizations. SYRIZA agreed that it would meet all obligations to its creditors “fully and timely.”
The deal outraged some 10 members of SYRIZA’s Left Platform, who voted against it in a Central Committee meeting. A World War II national hero of the Greek Resistance against the Nazis, Manolis Glezos, now a SYRIZA parliamentarian, wrote in his blog, “I apologize to the Greek people because I took part in this illusion.” There will be a vote in parliament sometime soon.
Socialists say, “cancel the debt” as the only method to get out from under the boot of the Troika! And nationalize the banks in order to stem the flight of capital funds from the country.
What does SYRIZA promise?
SYRIZA’s current platform does not advocate socialism, contrary to what some may believe. Moreover, it is a considerable come-down even from its 2014 “Thessaloniki Program,” which vaguely looked to the possibility of nationalizing the banks and ex-public services and utilities in strategic sectors such as railroads, airports, mail, and water. The program also called for restoration of the minimum wage (up to 751 euros, a 30% raise); the restoration of all labor laws and of collective bargaining; a 12,000 euro tax-free threshold; free health care for the uninsured; abolition of socially unjust taxing; free electricity for 300,000 households; and a program for 300,000 new jobs in the public and private sector.
But even before the Feb. 20 deal, SYRIZA began to shift to advocating policies that are more to the liking of the world’s capitalists. Today, there is no more talk of nationalizing the banks; instead, it calls for banks to run on sound commercial-banking principles. Privatizations that have not yet been launched will be reviewed.
SYRIZA agreed to raise minimum wages in a manner that “safeguards competiveness and employment prospects,” and in consultation with its “partners.” It will identify cost-saving measures through a thorough review of expenditures; review spending for non-wage benefits across the public sector; and control health costs while improving the quality of medical services and granting universal access. It will take measures to unify and streamline pensions.
The agreement with the Troika makes it clearer than ever that working people should not support SYRIZA’s capitalist government.
Break the coalition with ANEL!
Allowing the right-wing pro-capitalist ANEL to share the government with SYRIZA will ensure that basic demands of the working class can never be met. The rights of immigrants, national minorities, women, and LGBT people will be sacrificed to ANEL’s reactionary precepts.
As the Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky warned, hitching the workers’ movement to a capitalist government can only end in disaster, never socialism. Examples abound of these multi-class governmental coalitions, often known as “popular fronts”: Spain and France in the 1930s, Indonesia in the 1960s, Chile in the 1970s, Haiti in the 1990s, etc. All ended in massive defeats at the cost of many lives.
The wild card in Greece is the fascist goons of the Golden Dawn Party (6.3%), whose racist attacks on immigrants and leftists have made them notorious. Their tactics and goals are modeled on the racism and anti-Semitism of Hitler’s Nazi Party. Six of its leaders were out of the race, imprisoned for running a “criminal organization.” Ever seeking to divide the Greek working people into “them” and “us” with anti-austerity rhetoric, Golden Dawn remains the third largest vote getter. Formed from within Greek police units, GD is a deadly enemy for the labor movement to confront and defeat in the streets. Lawyers and court suits cannot eliminate the menace of fascism.
After the 2013 murder of the popular radical rapper, Pavlos Fyssas, by Golden Dawn killers, a united front of most of the left marched 30,000 strong in Athens. However, SYRIZA took part in few anti-fascist mobilizations.
A united mass workers front is desperately needed in Greece. Without decisive action against Golden Dawn and a winning strategy against capital on the economic front—such as mass marches, strikes, occupations, and nationalizations—the stranglehold of international capital will not be broken and the fascists will be emboldened.
Greek workers need jobs, and the youth needs a future, free of the Troika and its own corrupt ruling class. While fighting for reforms shoulder to shoulder with other Greek workers, class-conscious worker activists must strive to build a mass party with a revolutionary socialist program. Only socialist revolution, properly organized over time and led by a revolutionary party, can defeat international capitalism and its collaborators!
It is time for workers and activists in all countries to actively support the struggle in Greece. In the United States today, as we defend union rights, fight for the $15 an hour minimum wage, defend the environment, and protest killer cops, international solidarity will pay off in the end. Their fight is our fight!
SYRIZA: A closer look
SYRIZA was founded in 2004 and its fortunes have jumped sharply from its humble beginnings. SYRIZA’s founders, like Tsipras, came from rightward splits from the Communist Party (KKE) of the 1980s. Known as “Euro-communists,” they were mainly followers of latter-day Stalinism practiced by figures such as ex-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. Euro-communists advocated a gradual strategy to achieve socialism—when they bothered to mention it at all—to be achieved in the dim future and primarily through the ballot box.
The Euro-communist tendency has melted away over decades as radicalized European workers found it too tame and too willing to join corrupt capitalist governments, losing much of its identity as radicals. SYRIZA today is led mostly by intellectuals, frequently in universities.
SYRIZA’s ties to the working class are mostly ideological, with estimates of union influence at just 5% to 10% and concentrated in the public sector more than in private enterprise.
SYRIZA is unique, however, in that it consists of a coalition that includes Trotskyists, Maoists, and anarchists from the Greek Occupy movement, as well as Euro-communists. Collectively, this radical wing constitutes the “Left Platform” within SYRIZA. The Left Platform is about 30% of SYRIZA’s Central Committee and has nine ministers in the new government.
A study of SYRIZA voters indicates that 31% identify themselves as socialists, 11% as “anti-capitalists/anti-authoritarians,” 11% as social-democrats, 8% as communists, and 6% simply as leftists. Yet, for a party that won 2,250,000 votes, its membership is only 35,000, a dangerous weakness that is attributable to a focus on elections and not on building a fighting party on the ground.
Photo: Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras leads SYRIZA supporters in march.