Why Syriza deserves our support

It’s an easy game to play from the stands. The truth of this old saying has been demonstrated by sections of the left across the world who know much better how to govern a country than do the only left party in Europe whose electorate has actually given it the chance to govern.

I am not talking about progressive Greek critics of the government’s attempts to address the crisis. In fact, the Greek Communist Party (KKE) has produced some very interesting critiques of what Tsipras and his ministers have been attempting to do. I agree with them that Grexit – withdrawal from the Euro – should have been the first step, rather than a last resort. But the fact is that the KKE put these views to the Greek people in the general election, and failed to convince enough of them that this was the best strategy.

What Syriza offers is very far from a revolutionary programme. Nevertheless, the victory of a socialist party which is critical of the ‘European project’ as it is defined in Brussels and Frankfurt, while not quite offering a bonfire of the EU’s vanities, is at least a glimmer of warmth and light in this freezing winter of neoliberal glaciation. They are demonstrating for all to see that ‘austerity’ is not simply about balancing budgets. It is an attempt to use the crisis as an excuse to roll back half a century of redistributive state policies.

Syriza’s response is one fully in keeping with its philosophy, which is essentially defensive, an attempt to return the state to its functions as defined by progressive social democrats – including Greece’s now moribund PASOK, the Bennite wing of our own Labour Party, and tendencies within ‘socialist’ parties in France, Belgium, the Scandinavian countries and elsewhere. It is also very close to the strategy long embraced by many Communist Parties - the French PCF, Italian PCI and even the old CPGB – working within parliamentary democracies. It is, in short, an attempt to reconstruct the state as a socially uniting force, not in the corporatist sense that has given us grotesque expressions such as ‘Social Partners’, but in a way which has in the past shown itself capable of uniting working people across divisions of ethnicity, tradition, religion, language, and the myriad ways the ruling class has found to divide us.

There are a number of reasons why electorates in some countries are turning increasingly to the far right, though the prurience of the media, who see fascism and its doings as a kind of political porno, tends to exaggerate this. In France, for example, while it’s true that the Front National has just had a very good election, it’s also the case that the third force in the ‘départements’ – roughly equivalent to county councils – for which people were voting remains the PCF and its allies in the Front de Gauche. I live in France, and have just spent a few days in Etampes, one of Paris’s most ethnically diverse outer suburbs, where my stepson and his wife and children now live. My 5-year-old half-Vietnamese granddaughter, who had only arrived in the country a few days beforehand, started school there on Monday and was made to feel very welcome by both teachers and other children. The school, which takes children from 2 ½- 6 years (when education is non-compulsory but free to all) up to 11 – looked from the children’s diversity  like a junior version of the UN General Assembly. Yet it was also a polling booth the Sunday before she started, in a town where the fascists took a third of the votes overall in the second round head-to-head (in this case with a candidate of the mainstream right wing UMP) which is a feature of the French electoral system.  

Of course, there are a number of possible explanations for this turn to the far right.  The European Union’s claim to be based on encouraging peace and harmony between peoples of every nations is close to the opposite of the truth. European Court of Justice rulings have created a situation in which workers from different countries can be paid very different rates. This can and often does mean that two skilled building workers or experienced care workers performing identical tasks can be receiving hugely different pay packets. The result is that they are less likely to see that their only way forward is solidarity, and more likely to notice and give significance to cultural differences. The Dutch or French worker is much more likely to buy into the far right’s anti-immigration message, while the migrant worker is going to feel that he or she is being sadly ripped off. Resentment is fuelled on both sides.  More hands around the throat than hands across the sea.

The problem is not solely the state’s refusal to take responsibility for righting such injustices, but its withdrawal from more and more areas of life. The virtual collapse of states in a number of developing countries presents an extreme example of the ultimate price to be paid for neoliberalism’s tendency to evolve into far right anarchism: education, health care, care of the elderly, basic and essential services of all kinds may be covered by the private sector, but only if you can afford to pay. For those who can’t, there will often be churches, mosques, and ethnic and cultural networks ready to pick up the slack. This means that people from different cultures can become deeply suspicious of difference, and is most certainly part of the explanation for the rise of deeply misanthropic versions of major religions. I have nothing to say against a church- or mosque-based organisation which offers education to children and others deprived of it by the state’s turning its back on them. My argument is that the need should not arise. Integration of diverse populations is perfectly compatible with respect for their different cultures, and it is absolutely necessary if constant tensions which find periodic violent outlets are to be avoided. It is a basic human need to feel part of something greater than oneself as an individual. Take away working class solidarity, remove decision-making powers from elected institutions, allow abdication of whole areas of responsibility by a state originally forced to accept them in large part by the manifestation of class solidarity outside and within those elected bodies, and you are left with nowhere to turn but inwards.  

Steve McGiffen is Spectre’s editor. This article first appeared in the Morning Star .