Alexis Tsipras - between radicalism and realism

According to Tsipras, one choice is available to Europe today: either persist in the neoliberal impasse, or choose democracy.

Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza, visits a self-managed factory in Thessaloniki, Greece. Demotix/Konstantinos Tsakalidis. All rights reserved.Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza, visits a self-managed factory in Thessaloniki, Greece. Demotix/Konstantinos Tsakalidis. All rights reserved.

Alexis Tsipras, the President of Syriza, has been doing a lot of travelling recently, to the Americas, and was in London on March 14-15 to give two public speeches and meet representatives of the media and the Labour party. I went to listen to him at the London School of Economics, better known for its neoliberal instincts these days (Friedrich Hayek taught there for a long time and Anthony Giddens, a former director, developed his ‘Third way’ Blairite vision there), than as a left wing institution (Sydney Webb, a socialist economist founded it in 1895).

Alexis Tsipras, though, has the wind in his sails. He is not a great orator: he reads his speech, though it is true that he is speaking in English. The audience, despite being for the most part made up of adherents of the president of Syriza, reacts very little throughout the speech. Tsipras is a warm and direct person in the intimacy of private conversation, but in front of the auditorium, he comes across as an ordinary politician.

Three things grabbed my attention: 1) Tsipras insisted on the necessity of again establishing democracy against the ‘powers of the oligarchy’ in terms of social justice and equality. 2) He took great care to construct a speech which stepped away from the usual rhetoric of the traditional radical left (particularly anticapitalist elements). Alexis Tsipras was a militant in the KNE, the youth wing of the Greek Communist Party (KKE). However, neither the rhetoric, nor the thrust of his argument were typically Marx-inspired. 3) The speech took great care to avoid difficult questions: what would Syriza do if it came to power? I ask myself what Tsipras’ personal goals are. If he was the prime minister, would he try to construct a left wing majority aiming to make a radical break from the policies imposed by the Troïka?

According to Tsipras, one choice is available to Europe today: either persist in the neoliberal impasse, or choose democracy. In the democracy camp, there are people who aspire to a fairer and freer world, while in the neoliberal camp, there are banks, the financial world, and supranational institutions (Troïka, The EU) as well as national governments. The Greek leader suggested, “To get out of the crisis, Europe must make radical democratic choices”. Alexis Tsipras puts an emphasis on popular involvement and mobilisation, and feels that Syriza can be the catalyst for this popular mobilisation to make Greece evolve into a socio-democratic society.

In Greece’s current socio-economic predicament, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect an indignant speech. It was necessary to wait until the Q&A session to hear Tsipras describe the dramatic situation in the country. He did it in an almost dispassionate manner: a sixth year of recession (Morgan Stanley predicts a seventh), a 20% contraction in the economy since 2008, a 30% decrease in salaries and pensions since 2009, an unemployment rate of near to 30% (nearly 60% in the case of young people) and hundreds of thousands of graduates leaving the country. The politics of austerity have reduced benefits, deregulated the labour markets, and pushed back a welfare state that was already limited. Tsipras, in chorus with the radical left in Europe, confirms what the European people have already understood: austerity politics are not intended to reduce the public deficit, but to attack the welfare state to ensure greater profit margins for capitalists.

In his introduction, Tsipras clearly defined the ‘austeritarian’ political objectives in Greece and Europe: “Why are European governments pursuing these policies of austerity? Their real objectives are different to those that they publicly state: they are in fact seeking to create a new economic environment in which the labour market will be even more deregulated and reliant on cheap labour. The pursuit of the privatisation of public services is of course the order of the day.” 

Syriza and the Eurozone

Tsipras considers that the question of leaving the Eurozone wouldn’t come up under a left wing government. On the one hand, Syriza is not in favour of it. On the other hand, Tsipras feels that the Greek crisis is above all a crisis of the European Union. Accordingly, Greece leaving wouldn’t solve anything. On the contrary, it would aggravate the overall European situation. Tsipras says that this provides considerable negotiating power: the Eurozone will save itself along with Greece or it will perish. When an audience member asks him what he would do if Angela Merkel refused to restructure the debt, he replies with aplomb: “No one is opposing Merkel at the moment. It would be interesting therefore to see how she reacts, when for the first time a member state stands up to her.” According to the Greek left, Hollande is simply a ‘yes man’ to the German chancellor.

How would a Syriza government go about resolving the question of Greek debt? We are touching here on one of the most sensitive political points. At the time of last June’s elections, the party insisted on the fact that it would abrogate the mandate imposed by the Troïka if it came to power. Syriza hardened its position shortly before the election. This radical line bore fruit as Syriza leaped from 3.3% of the vote in 2004 to 16.8% in May 2012 and 26.9% a month later (which is more or less its current standing in the polls). This radicalisation did not scare the middle class and popular electorate that deserted PASOK en masse. It’s clear that amongst the Syriza leadership there has been an evolution from this position. In an interview with the New Statesman the day after his LSE conference, Tsipras did not confirm that a left wing government would refuse to honour the debt. He preferred to talk about a “renegotiation” of the debt with the banks, on the understanding that a portion of it could be written off (“haircuts”). The debt won’t be cancelled, but a left wing government will demand a longer repayment period. This repositioning constitutes a fundamental evolution of Syriza’s views on one of the key questions surrounding Greece’s future.

Syriza is also envisaging a return to popularity of two aid mechanisms: the first is a sort of revived Marshall plan and the second is inspired by the London Agreement signed in 1953. The latter laid out the remission of a portion of the debt incurred by Germany between the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and 1945. With the remission of the debt, Syriza would take on the task of stopping the decrease in salaries and pensions. They advocate an increase in the minimum wage, readjusted to the pre-crisis level. At the LSE, the promise to crack down hard on tax evasion brought on applause from the audience. Tsipras then moved on to one of the few genuinely radical proposals in his speech: the socialisation of the banking system, to make it function as a public service, rather than for capitalist profit. 

Alexis Tsipras repeats untiringly that Europe is facing a “structural crisis of capitalism and its neoliberal model”. Would the measures taken to restructure debt enable the recovery of the economy and a rapid increase in salaries? Would it represent an anticapitalist step towards socialism? Nothing is less certain. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine a country today that would accept the putting into action of a new Marshall plan. The geopolitical and economic conditions at play today are not comparable to those at the beginning of the Cold War, against a background of Soviet competition. Further, a partial cancellation of this Greek debt, comparable to that accorded to the German debt has not happened. The inflexibility that the Troïka and Germany have so far displayed does not inspire optimism.

Syriza is proposing a political platform that is still vague and ill-defined. The social support measures, which are full of good sense, are placed in a framework of radical reform. There is no plan for the reform of capitalism that comes out clearly, particularly within the fiscal and institutional straitjacket of the Eurozone.

Tensions at the heart of Syriza

One mustn't be too surprised at the ‘realist’ evolution of Syriza. This party, like the Front de Gauche in France, is a confederation of parties from the radical left. Synaspismos, led by Tsipras, is the majority partner. After a radical streak in 2004 when Alékos Alavános took control of the party, Synaspsismos has been moving to the centre for a number of months. Standing alongside Synaspismos - the Coalition of the Left, the Green movement, a group that sprung from the KKE, there are several small groups from the Greek left: The Greek Communist Organisation (KOE), The International Worker’s Left (DEA), Kokkino, from a Trotskyist tradition (it means ‘red’), the Anticapitalist Political Group (APO) and also the Green and Renewal Communists (AKOA), which came out of the old Greek Communist party. Just as with the Front de Gauche, the cohabitation between these diverse groups is a source of tension and disagreement. The differences between the groups at the heart of Syriza will be likely to increase as the prospect of victory becomes more concrete. On the one hand, Synaspismos - particularly the group around Tsipras - seem to want to move the organisation in a more ‘realist’ direction; certainly compatible with keeping Greece in the Eurozone. At the time of the national conference of Syriza, from November 30 to December 2, 2012, Synaspismós and the different parties (KOE, AKOA, Roza, ex-members of PASOK) got 75% of the delegates’ votes. The groups collected around the left wing, DEA, Kokkino and APO have 25% of the votes. This significant minority is concerned at Tsipras’ move to the centre.

The left wing of Syriza reproaches Alexis Tsipras for having already sought compromise with the institutions of finance capitalism. His recent journey to Washington incited an emotional response from the left. Tsipras met representatives of the State department, and assured them that Greece would remain a member of NATO if Syriza came to power. He also met representatives of the IMF. His speech at the Brookings Institute, a centrist think tank, was also seen as an attempt to project the image of a respectable and pragmatic head of state. Some bitterly reproached Tsipras for an opportunistic statement in this speech “I hope that I have convinced you that I am not as dangerous as some people think.” The Greek anticapitalist left isn’t far from thinking that Alexis Tsipras is already inhabiting the role of a social-democrat Prime Minister.

It’s clear to see that Alexis Tsipras’ journey to power is not a walk in the park, and Greek hell is paved with good intentions. One thing is certain, Alexis Tsipras will have to decide between the radicalism of the 2012 election campaign and the new impulse to curb this radicalism. In reality, the direction a potential Tsipras government would take will largely depend on the combativeness of the Greek social movements and the economic situation in the Eurozone at the time.

Thanks for translation go to Tristan Summerscale

 The original article was published in French in Mediapart, a Paris-based online publication. Twitter: @PhMarliere

About the author

Philippe Marlière is a Professor in French and European Politics at University College London (UK). Philippe blogs here and here, and tweets @PhMarliere.

He is a regular contributor to Le Monde, Le Monde diplomatique and The Guardian.

His major publications include:

La Social-démocratie domestiquée. La voie blairiste (Aden, 2008)

La Mémoire socialiste. Sociologie du souvenir politique en milieu partisan (L’Harmattan, 2007)

La Troisième voie dans l’impasse. Essais sur le New Labour et Tony Blair (Syllepse, 2003)

Social democratic parties in the European Union. History, organisation, policies (Macmillan, 1999) 

Jean Jaurès et son discours à la jeunesse (La Nacelle, 1995).