Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Stathis Kouvelakis explains Syriza's drift and unavoidable break-up

S. Kouvelakis (source)
In an absolutely must-read interview at Jacobin magazine, Stathis Kouvelakis (Left Platform of Syriza) explains from an insider viewpoint the how Syriza became trampled in its own naivety, the key role played by Yannis Dragasakis (vice-prime minister), the turning point of the referendum and the intention by the Left Platform to reclaim the party in a situation that is one of absolute breakup. 

The interview is way too long to be pasted here in full but I will quote some key passages re-sorted according to my best criterion:

The referendum

... the Left Platform’s leader and minister of energy and productive reconstruction, Panagiotis Lafazanis said that the referendum was the right decision, albeit one that came too late, but he also warned that this amounted to a declaration of war, that the other side would cut off the liquidity and we should expect within days to have the banks closed. Most of those present just laughed at this suggestion.

... what is absolutely clear is that [the referendum] unleashed forces that went far beyond those intentions. Tsipras and the government were clearly overtaken by the momentum that was created by the referendum.

... it is a complete illusion to pretend that the referendum didn’t happen. It did happen, and it’s clear to both international public opinion and Greek society that Tsipras is betraying a popular mandate.

Revelations from the referendum: class, youth and nation

Even relatively mainstream commentators recognized that this was the most class-divided election in Greek history. In working-class districts you had 70 percent and above for “no,” in upper-class districts you had 70 percent and above for “yes.”

This is the first moment since the crisis that the youth in its mass actually made a unified statement. Eighty-five percent of those from eighteen to twenty-four voted “no,” which shows that this generation, which has been completely sacrificed by the memorandum, is very aware of the future ahead of it and has a clear attitude with regards to Europe.

... the third dimension is certainly that of national pride. This explains why outside the big urban centers, where the class lines are more blurred, in the Greece of the countryside and small cities, even there the “no” vote won a majority.

The post-referendum suicide

At that meeting [with all the bourgeois pro-Troika opposition parties, freshly defeated in every single province] you saw an extraordinary thing happen: the head of the victorious camp accepted the conditions of the defeated camp. This, it has to be said, is something that’s unique in political history. I don’t we’ve ever seen this before.

... the government immediately took those initiatives to deactivate the dynamic that was emerging with the referendum. And this is why hours after the announcement of the final resort, this meeting of all the political leaders was called, which fixed somehow an agenda entirely different from that expressed by the “no” vote.

The content of this new agenda was that whatever happens — that was of course already there in moves inspired by Dragasakis made the week before — Greece had to stay in the eurozone. And the most emphatic point of the joint statement signed by all the political leaders — with the exception of the Greek Communist Party (KKE), who refused to sign, and the Nazis, who were not invited to the meeting — was that this referendum was not a mandate for a break but a mandate for a better negotiation. So from that moment onwards the mess had been set.

Varoufakis plan B and Dragasakis' veto

... Varoufakis says that a small team of people around him worked during the week leading to the referendum on an alternative plan including state control of the banks, issuing of IOUs and disconnection of the Greek central bank from the Frankfurt ECB, so on a sort of gradual exit. But that clearly came too late and was rejected by nearly all the rest of the economic team of the cabinet, by which he essentially means Dragasakis. And Tsipras, of course, validated that decision.

Tsipras' poser strategy

[Tsipras] thought that by appearing as a loyal “European,” deprived of any “hidden agenda,” he would get some kind of reward. On the other side, he showed for some months a capacity to resist to the escalating pressure and made some unpredictable moves such as the referendum or travelling to Moscow.

He thought this was the right mix to approach the issue, and what happens is that when you consistently follow this line you are led to a position in which you are left only with bad choices.

Behind Tsipras: Dragasakis

... we have to distinguish two elements within the government. The first is the rightist wing of the government led by two of the main economists, essentially Dragasakis but also Giorgos Stathakis. And then the core leadership, Tsipras and the people around him.

The first group had a consistent line from the outset — there was absolutely no naïveté on their part. They knew very well that the Europeans would never accept a break with the memorandum.

This is why Dragasakis from the outset did everything he could not to change the logic of the overall approach. He clearly sabotaged all the attempts for Syriza to have a proper economic program, even one within the framework that had been approved by the majority of the party. He thought that the only thing you could get was an improved version of the memorandum framework. He wanted his hands completely free to negotiate the deal with the Europeans, without himself appearing too much at the stage, he succeeded in controlling the negotiation team, especially once Varoufakis had been sidelined.


... [blocking any 'Grexit' style option] was the obsession more particularly of Giannis Dragasakis — he made it impossible to make any moves towards public control of the banks. He is the man of trust actually of the bankers and sectors of big business in Greece and has made sure that the core of the system would remain unchanged since Syriza took power.


And then you have the other approach, that of Tsipras, which was indeed rooted in the ideology of left-Europeanism. I think the best illustration of that is Euclid Tsakalotos, a person who considers himself a staunch Marxist, someone who comes from the Eurocommunist tradition, we were in the same organization for years.


What we also clearly saw in that period is that the government, the leadership, became totally autonomous of the party. That process had already started (...) but now it has reached a kind of climactic level.

And the academics:

Tsakalotos said he was very disappointed by the low level of the discussion [in the European institutions]. In the interview to the New Statesman, Varoufakis says very similar things about his own experience, although his style is clearly more confrontational than Tsakalotos’s.

From this it is quite clear that these people were expecting the confrontation with the EU to happen along the lines of an academic conference when you go with a nice paper and you expect a kind of nice counter-paper to be presented.

I think this is telling about what the Left is about today. The Left is filled with lots of people who are well-meaning, but who are totally impotent on the field of real politics. But it’s also telling about the kind of mental devastation wrought by the almost religious belief in Europeanism. This meant that, until the very end, those people believed that they could get something from the troika, they thought that between “partners” they would find some sort of compromise, that they shared some core values like respect for the democratic mandate, or the possibility of a rational discussion based on economic arguments.

The whole approach of Varoufakis’s more confrontational stance amounted actually to the same thing, but wrapped in the language of game theory. What he was saying was that we have to play the game until the very, very, very end and then they would retreat, because supposedly the damage that they would endure had they not retreated was too great for them to accept.

But what actually happened was akin to a fight between two people, where one person risks the pain and damage of losing a toe and the other their two legs. 

Death trap

... this whole negotiation process by itself triggered passivity and anxiety among the people and the most combative sectors of society, leading them to exhaustion. Before the referendum the mood was clearly, “We can’t stand this kind of waterboarding process anymore, at some point it has to end.”

This is something personally I hadn’t foreseen. I thought the pace would be quicker. I hadn’t foreseen that this process of being increasingly trapped in this absolute deadlock lasting for so long, limiting enormously our own room for initiative.

Today's vote

... all the MPs of the Left Platform will reject the new memorandum in the next vote, this has already been announced.

The most symbolic and crucial vote will happen now. Last week’s vote was a vote on the proposals for the negotiation. The next vote, which will determine the future of Syriza and the country, will be the vote on the agreement signed on Sunday. And I think the information I have so far is that the vote will be absolutely clear, and in the popular memory will be the real parallel with the famous May 2010 and February 2012 votes, when everybody was looking at each individual, each individual MP, to see how they would vote in this occasion.

Syriza is breaking up

At this stage, what I can say is that the decision of the Left Platform is to reclaim the party and demand a party congress. I think it’s quite clear that this U-turn of Syriza has only minority support within the party.

Of course, we all know that bureaucratic manipulations of party procedures are endless and display infinite capacity to innovate. However, it is very hard for me to see how the majority of Syriza members could approve of what has been done. Essentially the leadership will ferociously resist the call for a congress. We’ll see what happens, because the statutes allow us to call for a central committee meeting and so on.

But objectively, the process leading to the disintegration of Syriza has already started. Syriza as we knew it is over and splits are absolutely inevitable. The only issue now is how they will happen and what form they will take.


There are all kinds of initiatives from beyond the ranks of Left Platform to react to what is happening. Already we know that the tendency of the so-called Fifty-Three (the left wing of the majority) has disintegrated, and there will be major realignments on that side. The key thing is for us to act as the legitimate representation of the No camp, the anti-austerity camp, which is the majority in Greek society and which has been objectively betrayed by what is happening.

Some lessons learned

A comrade sent me a message saying it is true the Syriza government has succeeded in making the EU much more hated by the Greek people than anything Antarsya or KKE has been able to accomplish in twenty years of anti-EU rhetoric in that field!


Obviously the strategy of the “good euro” and “left-Europeanism” collapsed, and many people realize that now. The process of the referendum made that very clear, and the test went up to its extreme limits. This was a tough lesson, but a necessary one.


Clearly, the Left Platform could have done more in that period in terms of putting forward alternative proposals. The mistake is even clear because the alternative document itself was there, there was just internal hesitation about the appropriate moment to release it.

We had been neutralized and overtaken by the endless sequence of negotiations and dramatic moments and so on, and it was only when it was already too late, in that plenary meeting of the parliamentary group, that a reduced version of that proposal was finally made public and started circulating. This is clearly something we should have done before.


We could say, in hindsight, that some sections of the Greek left that were less tied to party politics could have taken a Podemos type of initiative, or perhaps more realistically, a Catalan CUP-type of initiative with sectors perhaps of the far left but of the more movementist tenor.

But, once again, there were no such sectors ready to do that. Everyone was much too linked to the limitations of the existing structures, and the only attempt to redistribute the cards failed to materialize, in this case because the weight of traditional ultra-leftism proved too strong.

But what else?

What was the other option? Having passed the test of that decisive period, both KKE and Antarsya have proved, in very different ways of course, how irrelevant they are. For us, the only alternative choice would have been to break with the Syriza leadership sooner. However, given the dynamic of the situation after this crucial bifurcation of the late 2011 to early 2012 moment, that would have immediately marginalized us.

The only concrete result I can see would be to add a couple more groups to the already ten or twelve groups constituting Antarsya, and Antarsya instead of having 0.7% being at 1%. That would mean Syriza would have been offered entirely on a platter to Tsipras and the majority, or at least to those forces outside the Left Platform.

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