Credit: Great Moments in Leftism. Reproduced with permission.
The challenge in writing about Greek politics for an Anglophone audience is explaining all the parties, groupings, maneuverings, cliques, vendettas, and outsized personalities in understandable terms, sacrificing just enough nuance for someone who can't read all the original speeches and policy statements in the original language, let alone discern the cultural signaling taking place underneath the surface meaning of the words spoken, to be able to discern the broad outlines of who is who and who stands for what. Under ordinary circumstances no one who is neither Greek nor resident in Greece has any particular reason for knowing Greek, so on the rare occasion that something happens there of global import, it's on those of us who know the language and culture to explain the significance. As a U.S.-born Greek-American, I can just barely drag my way through written language and my grasp of the cultural nuances is unreliable, so I am glad that Theodora Oikonomides has already done the basics for me. There are some aspects of her presentation that I might quibble with, but I have no disagreement with her conclusion, and so will begin there.
I am incensed – INCENSED – that SYRIZA chose to go for a coalition with Independent Greeks instead of repeat elections. I believe that people like Panos Kammenos – the raving, racist lunatic who said last week that that “Buddhists, Jews and Muslims don’t pay taxes” – should never, ever be given positions of power. Furthermore, accepting people such as Kammenos in a left-led government is playing with fire because it gives public and political legitimacy to his xenophobic, racist, antisemitic, homophobic views and Greece doesn’t need more of that when it already has a neo-Nazi party as its third largest political force.
So everything I wrote above is not arguments I agree with. I can see the reasons why SYRIZA chose this alliance, and I can see why it was the only possible alliance, but I think that, in the long term, it will prove to be the wrong choice.
With Theodora having drawn such a comprehensive picture of the political scene, I want to focus on the aspect that is proving most perplexing to leftists abroad, the unbridgeable chasm between SYRIZA and the KKE, the Greek communist party. As it happens, this is the area where I have the most disagreements with Theodora's summary. She writes, "To KKE, SYRIZA is public enemy number one, because they are a left-wing party that supports parliamentary democracy and participation in the European Union and the Eurozone." There is an apparent omission here of SYRIZA's reversal of their past opposition to Greek membership in NATO. This has been the aspect of their disagreements with SYRIZA that KKE has, wisely, emphasized in their English-language communications drawn up with an eye to the international far left. It is possible for sincere leftists to have differences of opinion on the tactical or strategic role of parliamentarism in the struggle against capitalism. It is possible, rightly or wrongly, for leftists to believe that the EU and the Euro are faits accomplis, given structures of the capitalist order within which we can struggle for the interests of the working class. It is impossible to believe that a reversal of position on NATO, from opposition to support, is anything other than a capitulation to imperialism.
So if, in the argument between SYRIZA and KKE, one wishes to judge things on the basis of judgement usually employed in schoolyard spats, of "who started it," then in the court of international left opinion KKE would appear to have the upper hand over SYRIZA, who have plainly betrayed fundamental principles for the short-term advantages of not alienating pro-NATO Greeks, and not immediately picking a fight with the U.S. and allied imperialist powers. (In reality, there are not many pro-NATO Greeks. To the extent that anyone outside the former governing elite favors NATO membership, it is out of a paranoiac fear of the Turks.) If one's knowledge of Greek political history extends no further back than the day before yesterday, one could erroneously draw the conclusion that KKE is a paragon of revolutionary intransigence, holding true to internationalist principles. This is not the place to recite the litany of historic betrayals that would disprove that view.
Suffice to say that, for Greek activists who have been protesting austerity, the KKE is largely seen as an enemy. They use their extensive trade union organization to keep the section of the organized working-class that is under their influence separate from any mobilization that is not under exclusive party control. On the rare occasion that their contingents do intersect with others, it is to crack the heads of so-called "provocateurs" in de facto alliance with the riot police. But let's be fair: The only reason no one lobs similar accusations against SYRIZA is because its activists do not make as credible goons as the KKE's. Consider what Paul Mason, a British journalist who is broadly sympathetic to the party, wrote on the eve of the election:
Syriza is not a mass activist party. In 2011 I saw some of its people – some of whom are now senior politicians – station themselves, arms linked, in the middle of a vicious fight between the riot police and anarchists.
It was a visible symbol of what the party is good at: passive resistance and the moral high-ground (and messaging). (Five last-minute thoughts about the Greek election)
This is a political approach familiar the world over, that of the "peace police". There is a difference in style: SYRIZA links arms, while KKE cracks heads. But in substance both strive to serve as the last line of defense between the militants and the cops.
So it is safe to say that, having entrenched themselves into a parodically pugnacious sectarianism, KKE would have rejected any coalition offers from SYRIZA. It's just that the about-face on NATO gave them an excuse that would sound plausible to non-Greeks. When the KKE claims to stand for a "workers' government," it needs to be taken not just with a grain of salt, but a squeeze of lemon and plenty of olive oil and garlic. As with the most bitter of horta, that's the only way they're palatable. When they say "workers' government," they mean "government of us, and only us."
One possible way around this for SYRIZA could have been to act as though they took the KKE at their word, and issue a public statement address not just to their leaders, but to the party as a whole:
"OK, you guys, you say you're for a workers' government. Look now: We can have one, just you and us together. We don't trust any of these capitalist parties. They're all crooks and half of them are fascists. You and we have had our differences, but the workers want unity. Let's find a way to work together."
Of course the KKE would reject. Probably. Personally, I think if the Tsipras leadership of SYRIZA had the combination of socialist principle and tactical nous to pull off an approach like this, they'd be a very different sort of political leadership, e.g., the kind who wouldn't have sold out to NATO in advance. Perhaps in that case the KKE leadership might not feel so secure in their splendid isolation, and there might have been a greater chance of success. But suppose they did reject, the next step would be to tell KKE:
"OK, you guys, then I guess we'll just have to call a new election. And you've just shown who the obstacle to unity is. And we're going to campaign hard in every neighborhood or village where you got even a single vote, and that's what we're going to tell them, that the KKE was fine with handing the power back to the crooks and the fascists."
I suspect that, just as this first election spelled the near demise of PASOK as a parliamentary party, a second round under those circumstances would have spelled the end of KKE, and SYRIZA could very well have won an outright majority. Is there a chance that it would not have worked? Yes: Theodora's post lays out some very plausible reasons why. Politics is risk. But I agree with her that even defeat under those circumstances would have been better, less dangerous in the long run (and perhaps the not-so-long run) than handing a portfolio to a hard-right pigfucker like Kammenos.
There have been many variations on the "workers' government" slogan in the last hundred years, but "workers' and pigfuckers' government" is an innovation that deserves to die rapidly in practice, before anyone dares inscribe it into theory.