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  • A protester raises Greek flag in front of the parliament during a rally.

    A protester raises Greek flag in front of the parliament during a rally. | Photo: Reuters

Published 3 August 2015
What lessons does the Greek cul-de-sac hold for left strategy more broadly speaking?

Recent commentary on Greece is multitudinous, varied, and rich. however few have looked beyond specifics for more general issues lurking within.

Consider the PT in Brazil, the Bolivarians in Venezuela, and Podemos in Spain, as well as Syriza in Greece. For that matter, consider many smaller organizations and movements in a multitude of places. The common issue goes like this.

Suppose they/we are in position to take initiative and act in a manner that will impact a large constituency. Should we do it? 

One issue that arises, of course, is whether the proposed decision would be worthy and also facilitate to further worthy gains. If not, we obviously avoid it. But taking the Syriza case, I think we can tease out an additional general issue easily enough. Syriza was elected to reduce the hardship afflicting the Greek population. They faced the Masters of Europe. They negotiated. They struggled. They conducted an exemplary referendum. But the Masters didn't relent, and Syriza wound up facing a choice.

Do we exit Europe, affecting our whole population and perhaps the world as well, or do we accept a new set of conditions like what we have been fighting against, influencing the same constituencies, but very differently?

We know the population voted for us to win better conditions. We tried, but we did not convince, cajole, or coerce the Masters of Europe to curtail austerity. Do we now jettison our stated aims, sign a barbaric agreement under extreme duress, and even ourselves implement the imposed draconian terms while simultaneously preparing to fight back when able? Or do we stand tall, tell the Masters to go to hell, and then withstand the tumultuous pressures and pains that ensue, as we seek a desirable future?

Tsipras's answer was to sign the new memorandum. Beyond that we don't know his intentions (though, with each day, evidence suggests they aren't what I would hope for). We do know for sure, however, that he says the agreement was horrible and that he was forced to sign it.

So what's the controversy? Many Greeks, both inside and outside Syriza, have deemed Tsipras' choice not a capitulation to pressure, but a sell-out. They feel that Tsipras should not have signed, and then if the Masters did not surrender, should have exited. They say the population would have rallied to the cause and endured the derivative horrors to finally emerge much better off.

Tsipras, in contrast, says the population was against Grexit when it elected him and that all the polls show that it is still against Grexit, so he had no mandate to take the exit step, and therefore did not.

So what is the issue that transcends the case? It is this: Assume a left decision-making entity (Syriza or whatever) believes with great confidence that a particular choice is highly advisable for people's well being and future prospects. Assume also that its constituency does not (yet) agree. What path forward for the entity (Syriza or whatever) is warranted and desirable?

In a well established desirable society, Tsipras is without question correct. It would be authoritarian to have a party, or a government, or even a movement, act contrary to the will of its own constituency. It troubles me that the anti-authoritarian left castigates Tsipras for not making a top down choice contrary to his constituency's preferences without providing the slightest indication why they think imposition from above would be warranted in this case but horrid in others. Is the reason that the anti-authoritarian choice simply didn't correspond to their preference?

More generally, we can ask what should happen when a representative organization - a government, party, union, movement or whatever - finds itself wanting to do something for its constituency which its constituency as well as broader circles of affected people have indicated they don’t (yet) want?

I think there are rare circumstances in which it becomes necessary to violate the constituency's will, but these depend on the decision-making entity, such as Syriza, having information that the constituency lacks and having had insufficient time to clarify for them, etc. In most cases, instead, it seems to me that abiding the constituency's will, while also emphasizing the contrary opinion one has, all while trying to promote that contrary opinion and organize support for it, is the best path.

Greece is complicated. The referendum made it seem to many that abiding the will of the majority, avoiding Grexit, was, instead, denying the will of the majority. An odd case. Still, Syriza's actual error was that during months of negotiations the public was not sufficiently educated as to the realities and possibilities and organized to deal with them.

If Syriza's members, were overwhelmingly earlier or now touring the country and Europe as well, tirelessly raising consciousness, if Tsipras was praising the left opposition but calling on it to organize the population and was taking the lead himself in grassroots organizing endeavors, if the government was vigorously getting ready to use its resources, including the army, to alleviate pains brought on by austerity and later to facilitate exit, all these acts and more that one might think of, would be really good signs consistent with Tsipras's motives having been anti-authoritarian but also steadfastly anti-austerity. To explicitly and forthrightly indicate an anti-austerity, pro-self-management, goal would cement the claim. Hopefully these positive trends will emerge and grow.

On the other hand, signs that we are seeing reported, however vaguely - such as murmurings about prosecuting Varoufakis, threats toward dissidents, and especially not yet prioritizing organizing means of resistance within Greece as well as support throughout Europe, are, sadly, inconsistent with anti-austerity having been a dominant motive. Hopefully these negative trends will diminish and disappear.

More broadly, regardless of our evaluations of the implications of this or any choice, to cavalierly dispense with the importance of not imposing decisions from above without first amassing support for them risks taking a wrong lesson from the events.

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Greece

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