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Will SYRIZA become the left-wing reformist party that will inspire the left across Europe?

Recently, I’ve been reading a few articles from International Socialism, a UK-based journal associated with the local SWP, that discusses various issues from a socialist perspective: from current affairs, to internal disagreements of the left in the UK, to international issues and various other topics—the unifying characteristic of the articles is their political outlook.

Time and time again, I read articles that exemplify SYRIZA. It seems that SYRIZA is taken as the example that ought to inspire socialist movements across Europe. The mainstream perception of SYRIZA is that it is a reformist left-wing party that managed to gain mainstream support, driving people away from PASOK, the so-called socialist party that is now part of the neo-liberal coalition government.

Various disagreements arise over whether the SYRIZA-model is appropriate (interesting discussion here). The debate is full of analogies: PASOK is treated as analogous to Labour and SYRIZA becomes what the left in the UK ought or ought not to potentially become. The debate is whether a left-wing party should be reformist or whether it should be revolutionary; whether it is a good idea to tone down one’s rhetoric (like SYRIZA), hoping to attract more voters, or whether the parties of the left should proceed with their revolutionary work without making such compromises. Essentially the debate is one of whether to change the system from within, being evolutionary (meaning change through the state), or to overthrow it, being revolutionary. The debate of course is not black-and-white, there is room for manoeuvre—Ed Rooksby in a recent article in Socialist Review explains the in-between variations.

I don’t want to comment on this specific debate, as I have a lot to read before having an informed opinion. Also, I want to avoid the risk of (further) misrepresenting the different sides.

My gut-response would be to give the example of communist AKEL in Cyprus, which followed a reformist agenda and failed to progress any of the causes of the left. In fact, AKEL’s presidency reinforced the right, which succeeded in government in 2013 and is gladly enforcing a harsher version of Troika’s austerity policies. If AKEL’s presidency had to be described with a single phrase, it would be that the it failed to manage capitalism whilst failing to reform the state. Usually it should be either the one or the other: you either introduce redistributive policies and abolish others that treat the rich preferably, in which case you are accused of not managing capitalism well, or you introduce policies that sustain the neo-liberal status quo and you get accused of not instituting socialist reforms. AKEL, to the disappointment of many that voted for it, failed in both.

What the British commentators I have come across don’t seem to consider is the genealogy of PASOK voters that now make up the electoral basis of SYRIZA. People that cashed-in their involvement in the revolutionary movements of the seventies by taking public posts or accepting jobs and other ‘favours’ from the party. PASOK was, after all, the ruling party for the most part since 1981, in governments where appointments and promotions were made based on partisan attachments.  Populism and clientelism was the foundation of the relationship of the party and the voter. In this context,  the leaders of PASOK promised wonders, delivered cooked statics, corruption and elevated nepotism to an art form.

I don’t know what policies will SYRIZA institute once in government. I don’t think that the British commentators know either. SYRIZA is a coalition of different movements of the left, with the bulk of their electoral basis being ex-PASOK voters. I am afraid that political mentalities don’t change that easily and that SYRIZA risks becoming the new PASOK. Tsipras’s unwillingness to engage in serious political discussion, to present an outlook of how he would govern and how the relationship with the EU and the Troika will change, attracts that sort of voter that was once persuaded by the  late populist PASOK leader Andreas Papandreou.

There are very persuasive responses that one can make to this. The middle-class in Greece used to include the largest segment of the population and made up the electoral pool of PASOK. That middle-class no longer exists. The people that once comprised it, are now part of the working class, since their income, standard of living and job security has declined substantially. In order for a party of the left to become mainstream, it needs to win the people that make the new working class and also attract people from what is left of the middle-class. A strong socialist agenda would alienate many of these potential voters. It is only after SYRIZA becomes a ruling party (as opinion polls show) that it will be able to show its true colours.

I don’t have something to respond to this so I will close today’s post by reiterating what I said above. (1) That the commentators should be aware of the electoral basis of SYRIZA and the dangers that  PASOK mentality poses to the future of the party. (2) To remind them that SYRIZA is a coalition of people and groups of various backgrounds that want different things; thus, homogeneity within the party should not be assumed. (3) That it is not self-evident that SYRIZA will be the same left reformist party once it gets into office.

What party would I support had there been elections today? SYRIZA, in order to maintain a level of surprise (read: hope). The policies of the current and previous governments are on a path to further austerity, more poverty, more suicides and more stimuli for the far-right. We know that ending. We have seen it again.

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