The Return of the Radical Left

15. 3. 2017

The decline of support for the mainstream parties both left and right is the dominant trend in European politics. It’s hard to judge whether the majority of Europeans is shifting to the left or to the right, but what is obvious is that almost nobody is left in the center.

On Sunday, January 25, 2015, on the seventh year of the economic crisis in Europe, for the first time since the end of the Cold War radical left has won the parliamentary elections in an EU member state. The next day Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras has been sworn in as Greece’s next prime minister by president Papoulias, whose term in office will soon end.

How radical is the Greek left is one of the most heatedly discussed questions these days not only in Athens, but also in Brussels and Berlin. Trying to figure the answer out, analysts, journalists and the like are looking into every bit of detail they can get about the new naughty kid on the block. Rather tellingly, Tsipras used to have a picture of Che Guevara in his office. But this has recently changed. Accidentally, or—as those who know him somewhat would guess—in an attempt to gain respectability, he decided to renovate his office space and to replace the Che Guevara portrait with a boldly colored painting depicting two bulls facing off. Now, what is in the mind of the bull on the left?

A less than century ago the left used to be radical. It believed in the working class, nationalization and socialism. It sympathized with Moscow and blamed Washington for the ills in the world. The radical left believed in revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Today the radical left strongly denounces the dictatorship of the capital and the rising social inequality, but not much more. “What we offer is a Keynesian program with redistribution attached, with some Marxist view of the world,” confesses one of the economic advisers of Tsipras. But if you look at Syriza’s economic program in a somewhat historical perspective, and compare it with the program of the François Mitterrand’s government of 1981, for example, it will begin to look less radical than we thought. It stands for what was the European consensus just 40 years ago. It is simply that economic realities, perceptions, and orthodoxies have shifted in the last decades, and the European Union of 2015 is not the European Common Market of 1981. Political observers are convinced that the survival of the euro depends on narrowing the economic choices of the national governments and respectively of the voters. Today, it seems, this bit of the European economic orthodoxy is backfiring in Greece so far. Thus the key questions today are whether Greece will stay an exception, or whether will it inspire a leftist wave in the politics of the European South, and how will the election of a radical left government in Greece affect the current policy consensus in the EU.

The Greek Example or the Greek Exception

The decline of the support for the mainstream parties both left and right is the dominant trend in European politics since the outset of the economic crisis. It’s hard to judge whether the majority of Europeans is shifting to the left or to the right, but what is obvious is that almost nobody is left in the center. While the crisis has led to further Europeanization of the policy making, the opposite process of nationalization of political sentiments is observable all over the continent. In Western Europe the scapegoats are the immigrants, in Eastern Europe it is most often the Roma and foreign investors. It is also clear that while in the creditor countries of the North (Germany, Austria, Netherland, Sweden) the protest vote tends to benefit right wing populists, in the debtor countries of the South (Greece, Spain, Portugal) it is the left that mobilizes the angry voters.

Greece is the ultimate victim of the crisis. Greek economy has shrunk 25 percent since the onset of the crisis, which is comparable to the losses suffered by Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Greece’s public debt today is 175 percent of the GDP and rising, which leads to despair in people and to social disintegration. In the last years the Troika composed of the IMF, European Commission and ECB in fact governs the country, thus adding national humiliation to the economic pain. So how could we be surprised by Syriza’s victory?

However, the success of the radical left in Greece could not be explained by the economic crisis only. What makes Greece different from most of the other European countries is its tradition of political radicalism. Consensual politics was always unfamiliar to the Greek democracy born out of a civil war and sustained through oscillation between ugly clientelism and unashamed populism. The populist left is traditionally strong in the country. It goes back to the resistance against the Nazi occupation and the regime of the colonels of the 1970s. The electoral victory of Andreas Papandreou’s Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASSOK) in 1981 was among the very few successes of the populist left in European politics in the days of the Cold War. Many in Greece today tend to view Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the Syriza, as the heir to this ideological tradition.

Greek Left was always visible in the European radical traditions. It is enough to walk through the still surviving leftist second hand bookstores in Paris and London in order to remind ourselves of the critical role played by Greeks like Cornelius Castoriadis or Nicos Poulantzas in articulating the positions of the radical left. Alexis Tsipras and Syriza come from this milieu that is openly anti-capitalist, vaguely Marxist and vocally anti-American. Unlike the Podemos leaders in Spain who were strongly influenced by the successes and failures of the Latin-American left in the last two decades, Greek radical left stays in the tradition of the European leftism of the 1970s. It hates not only the economics but also the culture of neoliberalism with its excessive individualism and consumerism. It echoes some of the frustrations of the anti-colonial movements on Europe’s periphery. And when it comes to the European Union, Greek radical left cannot get out of its profound ambiguity. They do not see the EU as the project of the Left but at the same time they are realists enough to understand that Greece can only lose by leaving the Eurozone or the European Union.

Syriza’s success, its transformation from a marginal coalition in the beginning of the crisis (its only ambition then was to get more than 3 percent of the votes and to enter the Parliament) into the biggest political party in Greece is directly linked to Tsipras’s unconditional support for all kind of anti-austerity protests that swept the country in the last seven years. Syriza succeeded to convince a lot of Greeks that its electoral victory equals regaining the political sovereignty of Greece and the resurrection of Greek democracy. It is worth pointing out that the Greek electoral system also makes it easier for a radical left government to emerge, rather than in Spain for example, because it allows the winner of the elections to gain 50 premium seats in the Parliament which makes it possible for a party that wins around 38 percent of the votes to end up with parliamentary majority.

The way it frames the major political conflict in the country prove that Syriza is a classical popu- list party. It sees the conflict as a clash between the people (and here the Greek left includes also immigrants and other underprivileged groups) and the corrupt oligarchy that has been running Greece in the last decades. Syriza resurrects two of the distinctive features of the militant social democracy of the pre-war period, namely belief in the primacy of politics over economics and communitarianism.

What makes Syriza very different from any other party of the radical left in Europe is that it has succeeded for the moment to take on its side all key constituencies of the traditional left— the workers, the unemployed, and the radical intelligentsia. Tsipras is the new leader of the Greek political left, and not simply the leader of the new left.

Fears and Hopes

Syriza is not calling for a dictatorship of the proletariat. It does not come from years of underground activities. Its leaders did not spend their best years in prison. Should the Europeans fear its coming to power?

The reaction of the Greek middle class signals fear. Regardless of the fact that for the first time since the beginning of the crisis Greece has stepped out of recession, in the week prior to the elections Greek banks faced massive withdrawal of deposits. Businesses not only fear that left populism will destroy economy, but they also fear Syriza’s lack of governing experience. The fact that the radical left was never in power in the last 40 years convinced many to vote for them, but it is also the reason why the Greek middle class strongly mistrusts Syriza. The return of intellectuals into electoral politics is one of the distinctive contributions of the radical left. What the radical left brings to government when it comes to economic policies are some passionate academics who wrote inspiring books, but who are better at formulating problems than solving them. What also bothers many middle class Greeks is the lack of cohesion in Syriza—a difficult coalition composed of different left wing groups that have spent more of the last decades fighting each other than working together. The fear is that Syriza’s government will destroy recent achievements in terms of tax collection and efficiency, made by the pro-austerity government of Samaras, and it could additionally polarize Greek politics, thus increasing the popularity of the fascist Golden Dawn party. Analogies with Weimar Germany are on everybody’s mind.

But while Greek business community is in panic, the attitudes in Europe towards the impact of the political change in Greece are much more nuanced. For different and even opposite reasons European politicians see in Syriza’s victory a great chance for moving the EU in the direction they favor.

The critics of Merkel-inspired austerity paradigm hope that Syriza’s victory will be the turning point in Brussels’ response to the economic crisis. It will force Berlin to recognize the destructive social and political consequences of the current policies and will lead to more flexibility in implementing financial criteria adopted in the beginning of the crisis. In their view the EU is already moving in this direction (the QE of the ECB being the best example) but it will be the fear of success of the far left or far right that could convince Berlin to endorse the new reality without losing face. Some European reformers are encouraged by Syriza’s readiness to tax the Church, the shipping industry and the oligarch’s owned media and in their view the victory of the Radical Left is the best chance for genuine reformation of Greek society.

The Merkel camp also sees an opportunity in the Greek vote. They believe that if Syriza’s government agrees to implement the conditions of the Bailout Memorandum of the Troika, this will be the best proof that there really is no alternative to the current economic policies. Because if even the radical left realizes that the alternative to Merkel equals committing a suicide, then nobody could press for further softening of the austerity measures. And if the new leftist government decides to reject the memorandum, this will be a godsent opportunity to expel Greece from the Eurozone and to prove—the painful way—that the alternative really is a suicide. Greek economy would be hurt so bad that nobody in their right mind would be interested in replicating the experience. And what makes the situation so different than the Greek exit crisis of 2012 is that now the Greek exit would not threaten the eurozone.

What is now clear is that Syriza’s victory put under pressure the core matrix of the EU architecture, namely “policy without politics in Brussels and politics without policies on the national level,” the unwritten law that European voters should either accept the fact that in the framework of the EU they could change governments but not major economic policies, or they have to be ready to leave the Union.

In the case of Greece it is the government of the radical left that will have to make this difficult choice and prove that it and it alone can dismantle the oligarchical model of Greek politics. At this stage Syriza insists to be the executor of the will of the people, but the difficulty comes from the fact that the majority of Greeks both want their country to stay in the eurozone and reject the very Memorandum that allows others to tolerate Greece’s presence in the eurozone.

So here is another definition of the radical left today: it is not radical because it comes with new radical ideas, but because it is facing radical questions and unlike some of the centrist parties, for the left it will be more difficult not to answer them. And when everybody is focused on Syriza’s economic policy, the question remains what will be the foreign policy of the radical left. For example, can sanctions against Russia survive now that Tsipras is the new Prime Minister of Greece?

Ivan Krastev

Ivan Krastev is a Bulgarian political scientist. He is president of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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