The Socialist Workers' Party and Syriza

Submitted by AWL on 17 March, 2015 - 4:35 Author: Martin Thomas

On 26 February 500 demonstrators marched in Athens denouncing the Syriza-led government’s deal with the Eurogroup finance ministers and demanding that Greece repudiate its debt and quit the EU.

Some of the demonstrators — not on the initiative of the organisers, it seems — smashed up shops, set cars on fire, and threw molotov cocktails.

The organisers were Antarsya, the left coalition in Greece in which SEK, by far the most important group outside Britain linked to the SWP here, is a leading force. Antarsya, in coalition with a left-reformist pro-EU-exit group, scored 0.64% in Greece’s January election, up from its 0.33% (on its own) in June 2012, but down on its 0.72% (also on its own) in 2014’s Euro-election.

The 26 February demonstrators’ slogans must have been meant as demands on the Syriza-led government, since Antarsya raised no call for a workers’ government, or for any different government.

Repudiating the debt and quitting the EU — i.e. going for a “siege economy” in Greece, plus hoping to negotiate terms for credit with Russia and China, which might be willing to pay cash to win a geopolitical ally — would not make the Syriza-led government revolutionary or working-class. It would certainly crash the Greek economy and pauperise and dismay the workers who voted for Syriza.

The alternative is not to obey eurozone rules at all costs. A workers’ government in Greece would almost certainly be forced out of the eurozone unless it could elicit great working-class movements of solidarity and struggle across the zone to bend or change those rules.

Mind you, if conditions existed for a workers’ government in Greece, then conditions would probably also exist for those great working-class movements. And if not, with even minimal astuteness and luck, the Greek workers’ government could at least extract some concessions from the eurozone as it was forced out.

And the workers in Greece would have come to understand, through a process of struggle, trying out alternatives one by one and going beyond them, and what Lenin in 1917 called “patiently explaining” among themselves, that the economic damage inevitable from euro-expulsion could be worth going through in order to establish their power and their dignity and a bridgehead for a Europe-wide workers’ revolution.

The Antarsya demonstration was far from the only way to express opposition to the Syriza-led government’s bad deal with the eurozone leaders (or its coalition with the right-wing Anel, or its vote for a right-winger as President of Greece). Revolutionary socialists inside Syriza, like the Internationalist Workers’ Left (DEA), have criticised the deal clearly, and emphasised the need for independent working-class struggle, by “patiently explaining” within the Syriza membership and Syriza’s wider working-class support.

On 18 November last year, Socialist Worker wrote: “The struggle in Greece has made it clear to many workers that Syriza doesn’t have the answers. Anti-capitalists [i.e. the SWP’s Greek sister group, SEK] relate to this audience partly by standing against Syriza in elections. In Britain the balance of forces is very different. So the Socialist Workers Party wants to unite with left reformists and others to form a left alternative”.

In line with that argument, more recently the SWP has presented the TUSC coalition (run by the Socialist Party and the leaders of the RMT rail union) within which the SWP is running a few candidates on 7 May, as the beginning of that desirable left-reformist coalition in Britain. “When you see Syriza win the elections in Greece, the message that needs to go out from all of us is, if they can vote against austerity there, why can’t we vote against austerity here?” (Charlie Kimber, 27 January).

Kimber is right that TUSC is about revolutionary socialists pretending to have “broad”, minimal, anti-cuts politics (rather than outright calls for a workers’ government) in the hope that will win votes. His argument is that in Britain things are not “clear to workers”, so that’s the correct ploy here; but things are different in Greece.

There (so the SWP argument goes) workers had already (last year) seen through Syriza. So it was right to dismiss the possibilities of arguing within Syriza’s structures, even though they are much more open and of course represent vastly more than TUSC’s.

The fact that Antarsya chose to run not as a distinct revolutionary pole, but in coalition with Mars (no more revolutionary than Syriza, only anti-EU), and that the Greek workers to whom Syriza’s failure was supposedly so “clear” voted Syriza into office and gave Antarsya only 0.64%, should have made the SWP rethink.

Instead, it has made it dissimulate.

You have to read SW’s coverage since the election very closely to gather that in Greece it demands that the Syriza-led government should not even have bothered to try to mobilise workers across Europe to put pressure on eurozone leaders to make concessions, but should instead have sent Brussels a letter: “We quit. We’ll do our best with the drachma”.

When SW has mentioned the euro issue, it has in fact modified its attitude into something more rational: that the Syriza-led government should be willing to risk expulsion from the eurozone, and use that willingness to force concessions from eurozone leaders worried about domino effects. This is as different from positively demanding EU exit as organising a picket line and being willing to face police attack is different from beating yourself up without troubling the cops.

“This [the fact there was no ‘or else’ in his stance] undermined Varoufakis’s negotiating position. The fact that he ruled out ‘Grexit’ — Greece leaving the euro — in advance meant he had nothing to threaten the Eurogroup with. The German government, by contrast, let it be known that they were willing to contemplate ‘Grexit’. They may have been bluffing — a forced Greek departure from the euro would have sent shockwaves through the global financial system” (Alex Callinicos, SW, 24 February).

Mostly, SW has limited its critical comments on the Syriza-led government to the general thought that parliamentary victories and diplomatic negotiations cannot, by themselves, without grass-roots working-class mobilisations, win big gains. The casual reader would not guess that this was the same SW which thought months before that Syriza’s inadequacy was “clear to workers” in Greece, and whose co-thinkers are even now organising small but strident demonstrations in Athens to demand an immediate siege economy.

“Syriza win means hope has arrived in Greece”. “Workers have fought austerity with general strikes, occupations and protests. They feel that Syriza’s victory reflects that struggle” (unsigned, 27 January).

“It’s hard to overstate the historic significance of the election victory of the radical left party Syriza in Greece last month.... Some 32 general strikes alongside occupations of city squares and mass protests threw Greece into turmoil. Syriza’s advance from a relatively marginal party to challenger for government in barely two years was a product of these mass movements... Revolutionary socialists should celebrate the new government’s victory and support the progressive measures it takes” (Alex Callinicos, 3 February).

“Syriza’s election victory represents a mortal threat to this [Merkel’s neo-liberal] project” (Alex Callinicos, 24 February).

The SWP can cope with the tasks of revolutionary socialist politics when all that requires is general shouting about the virtues of militancy and anger. When it requires strategic intelligence and patient political argument, the SWP flops from one pose to another.

As is so easy to do, Paul McGarr, a leading SWP activist in the National Union of Teachers, recently sent an email meant only for a few SWP comrades to a broader e-list.

There was nothing scandalous or shameful about the email. In fact, it’s useful because it spells out SWP union strategy more clearly than usual.

Recommending that SWPers back a fringe meeting planned for NUT conference at Easter, McGarr wrote: “It’s Alex [Kenny, a key figure in the soft left of the NUT Exec]/Kevin [Courtney, the union’s deputy general secretary (DGS)] trying to pull together people from STA, CDFU [the two soft-left groups] and Broadly [the right wing] who they think can be win to “organising agenda” and marginalise those in Broadly — e.g. [Ian] Grayson — who do not share this view — and in process also trying to keep us [SWP] at a bit of arm’s length... but best way to deal with that is to pile in and seek to shape it...”

Apologising later, McGarr spelled out his perspective more: “to unify everyone in the union who shares... the organising agenda... while drawing a line against those... who do not share that vision, such as those who challenged Kevin in the recent DGS election...”

The “organising agenda” is the conventional wisdom, by now, of almost every union official, and only dedicated search would discover a few old right-wingers prepared to say that they do not “share that vision”. The challengers to Kevin Courtney in the DGS election were, from the right, Ian Grayson — and, from the left, Patrick Murphy of Lanac and AWL.

It’s official. The SWP’s strategy in the unions is to unify a “centre-left”. That’s what has led them to back the incumbents in the NUT and CWU, defer to the ruling Democratic Alliance in PCS, etc.

Unite is the exception because general secretary Len McCluskey speaks at show events for the SWP’s splinter Counterfire rather than for the SWP. So, there, the SWP backs the tiny Grass Roots Left.

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