The lessons of Greece: the failure of reformism

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras just announced he will step down. He has lost his parliamentary majority and Syriza is split, with left leader Lafazanis announcing the formation of a new party, Popular Unity. Speaking in a televised address last night, Tsipras stated that the Syriza government would tender its resignation and call an election. Tsipras said Greeks still have struggles ahead of them, but that Greece is “determined to honour” the latest so-called bailout package. What does this mean?

That package, worth 86 billion euros — $96.3 billion — carries severe conditions in the shape of a new set of “reforms” dictated by the Troika. After a stormy debate in parliament, the Greek government accepted swingeing tax increases, massive privatizations and vicious spending cuts. It signifies the complete abandonment of everything that Tsipras promised the people of Greece when he was elected on 25 January.

Everybody in Greece knows what these policies mean: more cuts, more falling living standards, more unemployment, more despair. And for what? After five years of savage cuts, the accumulated debts of Greece have grown from 125% to 185% of GDP and are now heading towards 200%: a truly astonishing success! And of all the bailout money given to Greece: only ten percent goes to Greece. The rest goes straight into the coffers of German and other European banks.

It is clear even to a blind man that Greece can never pay these huge debts. In private (and even in public) the bourgeois economists admit this self-evident fact. Yet they continue to squeeze the Greek people and push them beyond the limits of human endurance. No more cuts can be imposed on Greek people without the risk of provoking a social explosion.

The radicalization of the masses in Greece was shown very clearly in the July referendum, when the Greek people voted massively to reject a new bailout package based on more austerity. But having mobilized the masses and won a huge victory, the leaders of Syriza immediately waved the white flag of surrender and gave in to all the demands of the European creditors.

This shameful capitulation has caused widespread disappointment and provoked a wave of resignations from the Party in recent weeks. The initial mood of shock and disorientation has turned to fury as the harsh reality of the new policies has become clear to the people. This is what is behind the split in Syriza and Tsipras’ call for new elections.

Reformist blindness

In January Greeks elected a Syriza government, promising an end to austerity. But if you accept limits of capitalism you must accept the laws of capitalism. That means you must manage the crisis of capitalism, and this inevitably means imposing austerity on the working class while handing over vast amounts of public money to the bankers and capitalists.

latuff-greek-memorandumIn their reformist blindness Tsipras and Varoufakis believed they could persuade Merkel and the other European bourgeois to make concessions to Greece through negotiations. But as we predicted, the negotiations went nowhere. The European bourgeois were determined to crush Syriza. Otherwise it would have to set example for anti-austerity parties in other countries, such as Podemos in Spain, to follow.

Faced with the implacable opposition of the leaders of the Eurozone, Tsipras called a referendum. That had the effect of mobilizing masses behind the government. The Greek people were prepared to fight against austerity. If Tsipras were a Marxist he could have used the movement to change society. He would have called on the workers to occupy the banks and then nationalized them.

He could have made an internationalist appeal to European workers to follow the example of a socialist Greece. That could have been the beginning of a militant mass anti-austerity movement throughout Europe – the only way to force Merkel and the others to retreat. But as a reformist, Tsipras did not even consider such a possibility. Instead, he thought he could use the referendum result as "leverage” to get a better deal. In the end he got an even worse deal than the one that had been resoundingly rejected by the people of Greece in July.

Now the government that was elected to oppose austerity is preparing to carry out savage cuts. This has inevitably plunged both Greece and Syriza into a deep crisis. Tsipras, who was extremely popular not long ago, is now deeply discredited before an important section of the population. This was reflected in a crisis of the leadership. Under such conditions it was impossible for Syriza to hold together for long. Even before a formal split occurred, Tsipras was already basing himself on the bourgeois opposition parties because he had lost control of his own party.

What will an election solve?

lafazanisPanagiotis LafazanisThe reason why Tsipras has called the election so soon is that he hopes there will not be enough time for the new party – launched by the Left Platform leader Panagiotis Lafazanis – to get off the ground. It's not clear how much support Popular Unity might take from Syriza. But it is clear that Lafazanis will attract support among many people who are angry with Tsipras.

Despite this, it still seems likely that Syriza will be the party with the most votes, although it will lose a lot of support. But the alternatives on the right are even more discredited. After getting 27.8% of the vote in the January election, the right wing New Democracy party now regularly polls below 20%.

If Tsipras gets enough votes he will probably form a coalition with Pasok and To Potami. However, it is not even sure that Pasok will win any seats in the new parliament. And if Syriza gets less than 20 percent, Tsipras may have to form a coalition with New Democracy. That will surely be the kiss of death for Syriza. In any event, what will emerge will be a weak and unstable coalition and a government of crisis that will probably not last long.

The stage will be set for an intensification of the class struggle, characterised by an increasing polarization to the left and right. The political centre represented now by Tsipras can solve nothing. It will begin to disintegrate. There will be a growth of the KKE and the Popular Unity on the left and Golden Dawn on the right.

The present situation is pregnant with revolutionary potential. What is lacking is a genuine revolutionary leadership that can offer the masses a way out of the crisis. The Communist Party (KKE), despite ultraleft sectarian tactics - and partly because of them – will inevitably gain support after Tsipras capitulated. The Communist Tendency of Syriza, which has consistently opposed Tsipras’ capitulations and advocated socialist policies, is gaining the ear of workers who are in the process of breaking with Syriza, and also members of the KKE.

Comrade Lafazanis must be given credit for standing against the capitulation of the leaders of Syriza. But his policies offer no real alternative. He advocates leaving the Euro, but at a certain stage it is probable that Greece will be ejected from the Euro in any case. However, on a capitalist basis this would only lead to an even deeper crisis, a collapsing currency, hyperinflation and further falls in living standards.  Inside or outside the Euro and the EU, there is no solution to the problems of Greece on a capitalist basis. Serious problems demand serious solutions.

The only way that the Greek people can take control of their destiny back into their own hands is to put an end to the dictatorship of the bankers and capitalists – not only the ones in Berlin and Brussels, but also the ones in Athens. It is necessary to expropriate the bankers, shipping magnates and the rest of the parasitic oligarchy that really rules Greece. Only in this way will it be possible to plan the economy in a rational way, abolish unemployment and homelessness and create the foundations for a really just and democratic society.

The crisis of Greek capitalism can go on for years with ebbs and flows. One unstable coalition will follow another, with violent swings on the electoral plane to the left and to the right that will last for some time before a final solution can be found – either in a revolutionary or a counterrevolutionary sense.

But in the last analysis the Greek and European bourgeois will demand an end to what they see as “chaos”. They will say: “there are too many strikes, too many demonstrations and protests on the streets. We demand order!” If the Left offers no way out, it could eventually prepare the way for a Bonapartist regime in Greece. However, even a reactionary Bonapartist regime would be unstable. It would not solve anything and probably would not last long. It would only prepare way for an even greater revolutionary upheaval, as we saw in 1974. The Greek workers have revolutionary traditions and long memories. Let us recall that the Junta that lasted from 1967 to 1974 was overthrown by a revolution.

The European crisis

The crisis of European capitalism is revealed in its starkest form in the weaker capitalist countries like Spain, Portugal and Greece, where the process has gone further than anywhere else. But Spain is only one step removed from Greece and Italy is only one step removed from Spain. The dream of a united capitalist Europe has been shattered on the rock of austerity.

More than two decades ago we pointed out that it is impossible to unite economies moving in different directions. On basis of boom, some semblance of unity could be maintained for a period. But on basis of economic crisis all the old national antagonisms have re-emerged. Powerful economic centrifugal forces are tending towards breakup and these forces are growing stronger all the time.

The impact of the Greek crisis will be felt far beyond the borders of Greece. Across Europe there is a fear that the policies of austerity will not be a temporary adjustment but a permanent attack on living standards. In countries such as Greece, Portugal and Ireland these policies have already resulted in deep cuts in nominal wages and pensions without having solved the problem of the deficit. Thus, all the sufferings and privations of the people have been in vain. Everywhere the poor are poorer and the rich are richer.

The idea of European integration has been shattered. In the negotiations with Greece, Germany behaved like the conductor of an orchestra, calling all the shots. The French bourgeoisie, theoretically Europe’s second in command, had to bow its head meekly while Merkel haughtily rejected all their concerns and objections. Here we see the crude reality behind the smiling mask of “European solidarity”. In their treatment of Greece the German bourgeois are acting like the worst kind of usurer. "You can't pay your debts? Sell your furniture! You have already sold your furniture? We'll throw you onto the street!"

The crisis of reformism

protestIn the period that followed the Second World War, Labour and Social Democratic parties carried out many reforms. These parties enjoyed a level of support that gave them a degree of stability. But that period is now finished. So deep is the crisis of capitalism that the bourgeois cannot even tolerate the continuation of the conquests of the past, let alone permit new reforms. The crisis of capitalism is therefore also the crisis of reformism.

The fictitious character of bourgeois democracy is being exposed in minds of millions by recent events. Of what value are popular referendums and elections if the big powers and banks disregard them and take all the decisions in the end? The hollowness of the cherished illusions of reformism and Social Democracy has been cruelly revealed throughout the continent. Things are speeding up and happening in many countries at the same time: a generalized process.

The rise and fall of parties and leaders is like a barometer that reflects rapid shifts in the consciousness of the masses. Sometimes it takes decades for a party to lose its mass base. But under present conditions it can be a few years or even months. On basis of events, Syriza, a relatively new formation, rapidly displaced Pasok. But in these times, new formations can also rise and fall rapidly. Mass organizations that have been in existence for decades, even generations, enter into crisis and split, even disappear.

Up until recently Pasok was the main party of the Greek working class. It has now been largely destroyed as a result of its betrayals. It was tested and found to be wanting. The result was the collapse of Pasok and the rise of Syriza. But very quickly Syriza itself has entered into crisis. It was the decay and degeneration of the Socialist and “Communist” parties that led to rise of Syriza and Podemos. Looking for a way out of the crisis, the masses put to the test one party after another. The old leaders and programmes are analysed and discarded. But Greece has shown that these new formations in turn, if they do not break with capitalism and adopt clear socialist policies, can also vanish as rapidly as they emerged. Such is the nature of the present historical period.

In Spain we have the rise of Podemos. In Britain we now see the Corbyn phenomenon. All this is an expression of a deep discontent in society that is seeking a political expression. We see the same basic process in all other countries. The masses are striving to find a way out of this nightmare. They look from one party and leader after another, discarding one after another into the dustbin of history. There is a growing anger against political elites: against the rich, the powerful and the privileged. This reaction against the status quo, which contains the embryonic seeds of revolutionary developments, can last well beyond the point where the economy begins to register signs of improvement.

A growing number of people no longer believe what the politicians say or promise. There is intense disillusionment with the political establishment and in political parties in general. Those parties that are elected and betray the hopes of the people, carrying out cuts in violation of election promises find themselves rapidly discredited. Political leaders who were very popular because they seemed to stand for a change end up being despised and detested when they end up repeating the same discredited policies of the past. What has happened to Tsipras is a striking example of this.

Objectively speaking, this is very favourable for the Marxists. The present situation offers big possibilities to those prepared to seize them. But far bigger possibilities will open up in the coming period of storm and stress. This is not a normal crisis. Sharp changes in consciousness are implicit in the situation. In such a moment routinism, the kind of mental laziness that clings obstinately to the formulas of the past in completely different conditions, would be fatal for the revolutionary tendency. We must learn to expect the unexpected.

Sudden and sharp changes in the objective situation demand correspondingly sharp tactical turns. The Communist Tendency has announced that it has joined the Popular Unity. Under present conditions that is the only correct decision. We are confident that the Communist Tendency will continue to build its forces, winning and educating new cadres who will enable it to grow together with the developing Greek Revolution.

London 21st August, 2015.