Antonis Davanellos: Five years after the Syriza government and the referendum (part 1)

In 2015, the Syriza party’s (the Coalition of the Radical Left) electoral victory in Greece, in the wake of dozens of one and two-day general strikes and a vibrant set of social movements, raised the prospects of a “rupture” with the Eurozone and the opening of a continent-wide confrontation with austerity in the wake of the Great Recession. But it was not to be. Syriza Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras pulled back from a clash and set the party on a path to accommodation with the bankers and a set of brutal attacks on Greek workers. 

Antonis Davanellos is a leading member of the Greek socialist group International Workers Left (DEA, by its initials in Greek), one of the organizations that co-founded SYRIZA in 2004. He was a member of SYRIZA’s Central Committee and its smaller political secretariat until the resignation of the party’s Left Platform following Tsipras’ betrayal.

In Part 1 of this article, published in Viento Sur and translated by No Borders News, Davanellos analyzes  the development of Syriza, including the internal power plays by party leader Alexis Tsipras and his inner circle in the run up to the party’s 2015 electoral victory. Part 2 examines Tsipras’ decision to override the July 2015 people’s referendum in favor of signing an austerity Memorandum with European creditors and the subsequent right-ward drift and split in Syriza as well as lessons for how revolutionary forces can operate within broader left political parties and formations to prepare for inevitable conflicts with reformist forces.


After the 2019 elections, when conservative Prime Pinister Kyriakos Mitsotakis succeeded Alexis Tsipras as head of the Greek government, a “new normal” appeared as a smooth continuation from the previous government’s mandate.

After four and a half years under the Syriza ruling party that insisted on calling itself “the Radical Left,” the capitalists of Greece felt safer than during the 2015 panic when they rushed to transfer tens of billions of euros abroad. The Third Memorandum (an economic austerity pact with the so-called Troika: the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) was implemented, relative social peace was imposed, and neoliberal reforms were reinforced. Now privatizations enjoy the support of a vast majority of parliament, precarious labor relations have shot up to record levels among the member states of the European Union (EU), and Georgios Katrougalos’s pension reform (most recently the former Syriza Minister of Foreign Affairs) established the bases for a complete transformation of the social security system along the path of the famous three pillars system.

The last agreement that Tsipras made with creditors, which was shamelessly described as “an exit from the Memoranda,” predetermined the future path: all the laws and regulations that were voted under the dictates of the Memoranda were declared sacrosanct, requiring that creditors agree to any future modifications as a precondition. Budgets with ruthless surpluses to be set aside for debt payments became mandatory for a long period of time. Economic and social policy was placed under “reinforced supervision” by the Troika until the year 2060. Even moderate social democrats, such as Nikos Christodoulakis from the social democratic PASOK party, are frustrated with this “straitjacket” and publicly declare that this course is an unrealistic dead end in the context of a serious international economic recession.

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These actions taken by the Tsipras government help us understand the 2019 election results. Popular disappointment and the decline of social movements formed the basis for Mitsotakis’ political-electoral victory at the head of the conservative New Democracy party. The same factors also explain how SYRIZA maintained its electoral support at 31 percent in the absence of a massive alternative pole of attraction to its left.

These actions also help us understand the political direction of Sryiza’s deep transformation, recognized by Alexis Tsipras himself. Many commentators speak of “Pasokification,” the transformation of Syriza into something akin to the traditional PASOK social-democratic party. This is not exactly correct. Syriza’s social-democratic mutation is almost complete, but it is happening at a time when social democracy is no longer a political current that manages the aspirations and illusions of the working class in a reformist way. It has become a current that converges with traditional conservative parties, mutating towards social-liberalism both in Europe and in the rest of the world. So, the current model for Tsipras is not Andreas Papandreou, founder and historical leader of PASOK until his death in 1996, but Emmanuel Macron.

The enormous political power amassed by Syriza’s core leadership around Alexis Tsipras – a fortified party within the party – was not the product of his own skills, political views, and tactics (at least not primarily). These facts cannot be understood if we do not take into account the explosion of social resistance during the years 2010 to 2013.

The storm of working-class and popular mass opposition to ruthless austerity prior to Syriza’s 2015 electoral victory demolished PASOK and dealt a serious blow to New Democracy, a far-right mainstream party, creating a political vacuum in the regime. These gaps often form the basis for new Bonapartist phenomena in history.

The first serious defeat of Syriza’s left – not only that of the Left Platform, but that of a broader environment that ended up leaving the party in 2015 – was its inability to guarantee collective democratic control over Syriza’s decisions and actions as a party. This outcome was the result of a long period of struggle, it accelerated after the 2012 elections and reached its climax in the 2013 Party Congress. The emblematic points marking this defeat were: the autonomyof the presidential guardwithin the party, the autonomyof the parliamentary group from party, and the establishment of “inaccessible” intra-party mechanisms (such as the Program Committee, etc.) just before 2015.

In the current debates on the radical Left, it is important to remember that complete autonomy for the circle around Tsipras was achieved under the banner of a party belonging to its members, this slogan was used to attack the organization and mechanisms of internal party tendencies and the structured functioning of the party. As has happened before in the history of the workers’ movement, an assault on structured, democratic functioning was not aimed at achieving direct-democracy but at creating an unchecked power with the party.

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The political project of this nucleus of power around Tsipras, during the period in which it established its autonomy, was the complete reversal of the Syriza program, including decisions on which the party based itself from the 2013 Congress. As Nikos Filis, a famous Syriza comrade who stayed in the party after 2015, used to argue before 2015, the cornerstone of Syriza’s policies would be to tackle the issue of debt.

The competing positions stemming from the political confrontation – within Syriza and within the entire left – over how best to challenge Greece’s debt are well known. All the points of view that were then discussed maintain their importance in the field of theory. But the crucial point that linked Syriza (except for a small right-wing current) was the cessation of debt payments and a moratorium on the return of the principal and interest. This option would preserve remaining available public funds and provide a left-wing government with the ability to unilaterally organize class politics in support of the working class. This policy might lead a left-wing government into a de facto war of position against creditors and the Troika (IMF, ECB and the EC). This alternative clearly assumed that the European working-class movement and left would be tasked with supporting a rupture in Greece. The importance of this last factor has normally been underestimated in subsequent balance sheets, and I think that this is a major mistake. It was proven that German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem understood the threat of “contagion” from the Greek crisis better than the left itself, and that is why they adopted a completely rigid strategy during the negotiations, aimed at killing any alternative to austerity from the start.

In his memoir, Yanis Varoufakis reveals – and now everyone knows – something that was then only discussed by a tiny fraction of Syriza: that the small leadership group (Varoufakis mentions Tsipras, Deputy Prime Minister Yannis Dragasakis, and State Minister Nikos Pappas) had elected well before 2015 to act as a battering ram to eliminate intra-party politics. No collective body of Syriza ever approved the government’s turn commiting to pay all debt installments “complete and on time” (per the agreement of February 2015) or the de facto recognition that a left government must limit its political activity to negotiations with creditors. This change was objectively accompanied by other major reversals.

Disputes over the immediate program of actions that Syriza promised during the election campaign in 2014-2015 are well known. In the so-called Thessaloniki Program, commitments that would improve the situation of the working and popular classes (raising the minimum wage and pensions, restoring the Collective Contracts, abolishing taxes on small properties) coexisted side-by-side with new ideas that supposedly would ensure a kind of easy and peaceful exit from the crisis, a return to growth, and a “productive reconstruction.” Examining this program in detail, one could see that it was full of holes. What gave this program a certain political dynamic was the promise of unilateral actions to be taken by a left government aimed at reversing austerity. Indeed, if a left-wing government chose – or was forced, under pressure from party members and social movements – to raise wages and pensions immediately, then all the little wishful soap bubbles in the program (such as the Development Investment Bank or the famous production complexes that were supposed to transform Greek capitalism) would be shown to be out of place and out of time. 

Unilateral actions, such as the cessation of payments, would have direct political consequences: they would have made the viability of a left-wing government an issue of immediate interest to the working and the popular classes and would define the relationship between the government and the ruling class as a confrontation. This is why the ruling circle around Tsipras avoided acting on this internal party agreement at all costs. It was not easy. I still remember what took place in a joint session of the Syriza parliamentary group with the party’s Political Secretariat: it was here that Dragasakis suggested for the first time that the promise to raise the minimum wage should not be understood as an immediate agreement, but something that should be undertaken “in the course of the four years of the mandate” the party won in the January 2015 election. The room froze. Many members who would not think of defining themselves as the extreme left expressed their opposition. Dragasakis left the session without defending his point of view. And yet, this was the policy that was imposed under a series of political blackmails inside the party. But it also took place in the context of a retreating working-class movement, a movement that took less interest in playing an active role, while more and more desiring to “delegate” responsibility for solving the crisis to candidates in the elections, and later to the Syriza government.

[For international news and analysis from working-class, oppressed peoples, and socialist points of view, read No Borders News.]

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