Lessons of the Greek Tragedy

By Dimitris Konstantakopoulos

Greek and European political elites are the mere tool of gigantic historic forces transforming the whole region. They are the object and not the subject of History. Most European politicians have neither the intellectual capacity, nor any interest and desire to realize what they are really doing! The case of Tsipras and SYRIZA is more interesting, because they represented at some point a privileged “moment” of History. They seemed to hold in their hands a rare, historic opportunity, to become subjects of Greek and European history. They spoiled it.

SYRIZA: From “Radical Left ” to “Radical Neoliberalism”

It was back in 2011, Papandreou was still Prime Minister, when I had a long talk with Tsipras at his office, on a building overlooking the Constitution Square. At this time, I remember, he was interested in establishing contacts with Russia and also with Cyprus. (Already a year later he was more interested in establishing contacts with the USA-Israel axis). He was looking for the new ways for his party and himself, as a new leader, “to do something”. As the discussion came to the situation of the country, I told him: “The ball will come to you”.

I mean that the responsibility for the country could come to SYRIZA. To say this in 2011 seemed a crazy fantasy. Nothing in the horizon would permit to make such a prediction. If I dared it, it was for two reasons. As I believed this country has already embarked on the road of “Weimar course”, referring to the last three years of the Weimar Republic (1929- 1933). It received an external financial attack (unsustainable debt as unsustainable war reparations in the German case) and it was applying exactly the same policy of the German Chancellor Bruenning.

George Soros called it a “death spiral”. This situation rapidly destroyed the economic conditions for the reproduction of the Greek social formation and the institutions of the nation-state and of parliamentary democracy including Greek political system. The two main parties ruling in Greece since 1974 did not seem able or willing to resist this course. It would be only natural for society, for the Nation, to ask for a way out, to trust whatever political subjects they could probably find. SYRIZA, for various reasons, was the main candidate.

Tsipras looked to me with great astonishment and bewilderment. I would wait him to ask me why I think so. But he did not. He looked at me and told me: “We can’t” (to handle the problems of the country).

He was somehow right, but he was also reflecting a general tendency in a modern Greek history. Most leaders of the country after its independence did not really believe its own forces, they were always tending to look outside the borders for support, something one may only partially explain with objective reasons.

Tsipras was right because neither he personally, nor his party had the slightest preparation to get the responsibility of the country, or they had the personnel necessity for that, much more to face the enormous challenges and the enormous foreign pressures Greece was facing in 2011. But the real question for a political leader (or a party) is not to answer such questions. It is to do everything he can to prepare himself, his party, his country for the “tasks” which History puts in front of him. Unfortunately for him, and for all of us, Mr. Tsipras is characterized by a tendency to adapt, in his mind and imagination, the problems he faces to what he feels and he can face. Reducing the challenges is good for your psychology and can sustain an (unfounded) optimism, but it can also have catastrophic consequences. Unfortunately, the problems do exist independently of what we think of them.

SYRIZA: a Peculiar Bureaucratic Left

SYRIZA has been a conglomerate of various tendencies of different origins, supposedly “orthodox” Stalinist, eurocommunist, maoist, trotskite. We say supposedly, because one has to question both the meaning of such terms today and also the degree any of the cadres adopting such ideas really believe in. Faced with the danger of extinction, all those parties, organizations and tendencies have formed a loose confederation, based rather on various general leftist ideas, than on concrete political goals. They never thought seriously about the power.

SYRIZA has never been a really mass, popular party. It was a federation of bureaucracies. Its leaders and cadres were not the product of any particular social and political struggle. Their role was to manage the ideological, political and organizational heritage of different parties and organizations of the Greek communist Left, which had represented in the past a huge force in the country. (The other party trying to do the same thing was the Communist Party).

SYRIZA was trying essentially to become a credible “protest party”, surviving in the parliament by capitalizing social dissatisfaction to reproduce its apparatus and supporting strongly human rights, including the rights of immigrants. When the big crisis of PASOK in 2007 pushed a lot of center-left voters to them, they were rather frightened, not willing and not knowing how to handle the situation. They refused to open their doors to newcomers and to transform themselves into a mass democratic movement, granting to the newcomers equal rights and a role in forming the policy, out of fear that every tendency and micro- bureaucracy inside the party would lose its influence, positions and the benefits associated with it. By all this they “re-send” voters they were approaching to George Papandreou’s PASOK (SYRIZA has been transformed into a model for many European leftists, after 2012, who thought that Tsipras found a magic solution to get the left into central politics. Some of them unfortunately don’t understand what is really happening in Greece. As I explained once to an Irish leftist militant full of blind admiration for the new “SYRIZA model”, if people would begin to jump from their balconies in Ireland, probably their organization would win a large percentage in the elections. But I am doubt if it would like it).

In the rank and file of the party and also in the wider circle of people who believe in the Left you find a lot of really excellent, self-sacrificing and competent people. Once, Vasilis Nefeloudis, veteran leader of the Greek communist movement and one of the nobler personalities in it, was asked by a journalist: «During your decades of participation in the movement, you should have known a lot of important personalities…” Nefeloudis answered: “Yes. In the rank and file”

The majority of the party cadres and especially of party leaders of the Left represent a very special class of bureaucrats. Most of them are making for years a living out of the party, directly or indirectly. They have been sometimes, not very often, active in social struggles, but party discipline was always the first virtue. Most of them have not “tried” themselves in the field of a competitive professional career. You don’t find inside SYRIZA many workers, peasants, young people or unemployed.

The intellectual “production” of the party was near zero for decades, as it happens with all political and “intellectual” class in Greece and in Europe. With rare exceptions, one has to go back to the ‘60s and ‘70s of the last century to find really interesting ideas. The program of the party was more or less the same, election after election, a long and boring list of wishes for a just, more democratic, equal and ecological society. There was no idea in it who and how could realize all that. The bureaucracy of the Left included people marginalized in a very peculiar way, with very little grasp on both the actual reality of the country and the international situation. They avoided reality as much as they could. Realities which were clearly outside their mental schemes and which would provoke them more headackes, if they tried to do something with them.

Nobody in SYRIZA and very few people outside it have ever been predicted that the country could become a target of a debt war, or, at least, face some kind of very serious problems, out of the constant deterioration of its macroeconomic indicators, its deficits and competitiveness. They were campaigning for constant increases in salaries and social benefits, like a trade union usually does, but nobody was advancing ideas how to find the money. The party avoided carefully to analyze in a radical way the particular “cleptocratic subsidized by EU” form of Greek capitalism, out of fear of alienating social strata profiting from parasitic economic functioning, tax evasion, or privileged access to state or social services. It was named “radical left”, but in reality, as I once told to Tsipras himself, it was the most conservative and most believing instinctively (without saying it) to the virtues of European capitalism place I knew in Greece (except maybe the “orthodox” Communist Party!).

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SYRIZA had also a very confused and contradictory attitude towards Greek foreign policy, the Cyprus question, the international role of Greece and the problem of foreign dependence of the country, and also a very confusing attitude towards nation and globalization. It never criticized in a serious way the European edifice, or the terms of the Greek integration into the EU and eurozone. The party even voted for the Maastricht Treaty. There were of course important critical voices inside it, but there were also old communist cadres who changed their blind faith to the USSR to an equally blind faith to the EU. And the rule inside SYRIZA was never to discuss seriously about differences, in order to keep the unity of the party (and the benefits of this unity)! For some leftists Europe tended subconsciously to substitute somehow for socialism. Anyway, after the death of Andreas Papandreou (1996), and in reality even before, nearly all Greek political elite was doing its best to follow EU (in economic policy) and NATO (in foreign-defense policy), with one limited exception, during the premiership of Karamanlis (2004-9).

Post-Modern Stalinism

The question of democracy inside the party was always in the centre of the ideological identity of SYRIZA. But, in reality, the practical functioning of the party, especially under Tsipras, was more or less a kind of “post-modern” Stalinism. At the opposite of classic Stalinist parties, you could say whatever you wanted, but it was rarely taken into account in any way! Tsipras was (and continues) taking all main political decisions alone, with the help of only two personal friends of him, Pappas and Flambouraris, and of a variable geometry of different circles of advisors. The Political Secretariat was functioning more as an administrative organ or a formality, than as a political center of the Party, as for the Central Committee was a “parliamentary type” loose debate forum. The tendencies operating inside SYRIZA have accepted this mode of functioning either sometimes out of a notion of “party discipline”, or in exchange of a share of party power. The rank and file and the people at large never got serious information about what was going on in the more important subjects, like for instance negotiations with Creditors.

When Tsipras signed the capitulation and the third memorandum with the Creditors, betraying the verdict of the referendum, but also all party decisions, he did not even bother to convene any party institutes to explain what he is doing. He did not ask for some kind of approval, in spite of the fact that a majority of the members of the Central Committee had publicly disagreed with the agreements signed and asked for the convening of the CC. Tsipras behaved as the party was his own property. But this behavior was, to a large extent, de facto accepted, more or less, by the vast majority of the cadres who were in disagreement with his policies. Even when he signed the final capitulation, the reactions were extremely mild.

We should underline at this point that, without such a completely undemocratic functioning of the party, the final capitulation of SYRIZA would be just inconceivable, simply impossible. It is not the first time in Greek history that such things happen. It also would be simply impossible for the victorious national-political revolution of 1943-44 led by the CP, one of the greatest in European history of the last centuries, to lead to a bloody and terrible defeat of the leftists in 1949, if the Communist Party was not led in a completely centralist, undemocratic way by three (absolutely incompetent) bureaucrats, appointed by Moscow and, after 1945, by Zahariadis (also an appointee of Komintern).

Through the Kremlin Britain found a way to control and destroy its opponents in Greece, as Stalin decided the country belonged to Britain. It would be also much more difficult for PASOK to degenerate so easily, after coming to power, if it was functioning in a more democratic way. But after the death of Andreas Papandreou, under both Simitis and George Papandreou, direct foreign influence on PASOK leadership took decisive extent. Unfortunately, history has a desesperating tendency to repeat itself!

To complete this SYRIZA “portrait” we would be unjust not to notice its big advantage in comparison with the two main parties ruling Greece, as it was not massively corrupted (and, sometimes, directly dependent upon foreign powers), as it happened with the other governing parties (PASOK and ND). It was also a force defending (more or less) democracy and human rights. One could think that its adherence, at least verbally, to the values and ideals of the Left, also the existence of a large rank and file of rather honest, patriotic and thinking of the general good people, would be also an obstacle to treason and an impulse to become a really radical force. Maybe another leader could succeed in that, but such hopes proved to be an illusion in the concrete circumstances. When it faced the temptations of power benefits and especially the force of the Creditors, SYRIZA has melted down, like the other Greek parties before it.

Why SYRIZA Came to Power

SYRIZA took power in spite (not because) of its characteristics. There were four reasons for that. And it would never come to power if anyone of them was absent. First, the collapse nearly of the whole political system of the country, as a result of the “Weimar process” we described earlier. Second, the personality of Tsipras himself. Third, the fact that Tsipras had the intelligence to adopt the most radical ideas circulated in Greece during the period 2010-12, ideas produced outside his own party (but not the capacity or will to assimilate them or draw the necessary conclusions). The fourth factor was the remaining “moral advantage” of a Greek Left.


Greek Left was, historically, an unprecedented, absolute political failure, but in the same time its militants and partisans had shown an unbelievable, surhumaine heroism and self-sacrifice, defending their motherland against the German occupants and then resisting under terrible persecutions. During the civil war some of the communist and even non communist detainees were imprisoned and put in front of dilemma “to sign a declaration denouncing the Communist Party and go home or to be executed”. Thousands of them preferred to get executed.

The rivers of blood, the enormous courage and pain of these militants, the frustration of a whole generation in which there was the first raw Greek post-war poets and composers, like Mikis Theodorakis, was able to transform into superb verse and music. This tradition has been also a kind of “ideological”, “moral passeport”, facilitating the quest of SYRIZA for political hegemony. By the way, it is only now, that the moral advantage of the Greek left may probably come to an extinction, due to the capitulation of SYRIZA and the role this party and its leaders have accepted to play.

Past always matters. The Greek communist left have commited all the political mistakes they could do in the ‘40s, permitting the transformation of a victorious revolution into a tragic defeat. This is what condemned the Greek CP into a permanent crisis after 1945 and the left into political marginalization, with all the repercussions such a marginalization, and the constant need to defend a “line” nobody understood, had on the mentality of its leaders and cadres. In fact, these leaders were not so unhappy with their marginal political role in the country as they were tought by their own experience that power games are rather “unhealthy” and difficult for them, so it was after all much better just to rule a party than to face the dangers of the open politics. Russia had anyway decided that Greece belongs to the British (then American) sphere of influence, so they thought there is not really room for the left power politics.

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For decades the untold line was “don’t bother with power, much more with some kind of socialism, just try to help establish and strengthen a democratic state”. The only exception was in 1989, in the wake of Gorbachev’s “counter-reforms”, when the Left made a coalition with the most reactionary right in order to dismember PASOK. It has been understood as an opportunistic game by people and condemned again the left into marginalization.

Tsipras (and the Nation) Comes in the Fore

It was Tsipras who changed this game asking to govern the country. He was able to do it, because he had a big intelligence, a communication charisma and an enormous personal ambition. He did not feel himself restricted by the political (and also moral and ideological) traditions of the previous generations. In fact he represented a new generation doing its “revolt” against the old generation of party cadres and leaders. But this was not so innocent, as he represented a post-1989 generation and after 1989 you could hardly find many people really believing to some form of socialism. His main political education was inside the Communist Youth apparatus, an unparallel school of political intrigue and the incarnation of the superiority of organization over politics. (“Cadres decide everything”, as Stalin put it in his famous formula). His political and general culture was very limited to put it mildly. By the way it was his greater advantage in the beginning, because he could look around and grasp easily new ideas, he was able to speak normal Greek and he was not in need to try to conciliate what he said and translate his sayings into the strange codes of “orthodox Marxism” or the jargon of the Left of 1930! But soon this proved to be also a huge disadvantage, as he lacked the way to incorporate those new ideas he was receiving and adopting into a coherent system of his own, except for the “quest for power” system, and he lacked also any “protective” walls, thus becoming also vulnerable to manipulation. Tsipras was right to feel that the old Left and its representatives were absolutely not compatible with the needs of the situation. But he had not much of his own to replace them.

SYRIZA did not understand what was really happening in Greece with memorandums and Loan Agreements. In the beginning of the crisis, it was speaking of the debt as a “dragon”, an invention of the ruling classes to frighten people like small children. It was critical intellectuals and new movements, like the Movement of Independent Citizens, inspired by MIkis Theodorakis, which produced the first analyses of this memorandum and what it really represents for democracy and the national sovereignty independence of the country.

In 2011, Tsipras adopted, against the resistance of his main economist and future economic architect of the 2015 capitulation, Yannis Dragasakis, the analysis produced by Independent Citizens of the importance of introduction of the British Law and foreign courts into the debt problem. Нe defended those positions in a great speech he made in the parliament. In doing that he crossed, without fully understanding the meaning or the consequences, a Rubicon. The British Law was a question which had to do with the country, a “national”, not a strictly “class” subject.

In doing this, he put himself and his party in the position of defendor of the Nation, thus giving himself the means to claim, for the first time after the decade of 1940, for the left the hegemony, by reconciling his own, very confused on this subject, political current with the very notion of the Nation. This notion unavoidably such a deep crisis was going to wake and bring to the fore. This is the most valid in the context of a Greek nation, the project of which bears, in its very center, during ten centuries, the notion of resistance, to use the term introduced by the great Greek Marxist historian Nikos Svoronos.

It was also the initiative of Independent Citizens that an international appeal was circulated at the end of 2011, an appeal which came to be known as “appeal of Mikis and Glezos”. It was the first and for a long time the only effort to put the Greek question into its real European context. It laid the basis for the international role and prestige of Tsipras and SYRIZA.

Then, the Independent Citizens were also the first, following the logic of the analysis they were doing of the Greek problem to launch the slogan for a national and social liberation front “from Kammenos (anti-memorandum right) to Antarsya (far left)”, which provided the political basis for the alliance of SYRIZA with “Independent Greeks” of Kammenos, against the strong opposition to this idea from nearly all currents of SYRIZA.

With all this and in spite of the absence of any serious economic proposals or program for the country, except the opposition to the neocolonial regime, Tsipras and SYRIZA came very close to win power at the elections of June 2012 and they could probably win them. Tsipras was able to inherit all the dynamics and the capital created by two years of street and ideas struggle against the neocolonial regime and to use it as the political capital of his own party. For the next two and a half years, Greeks would more or less wait for a electoral victory of SYRIZA in the next elections to save themselves and their country.

SYRIZA in Front of Reality

If you were watching Greek television in the evening of elections of June 2012, you would see something very strange. The winner, Antonis Samaras, was in really bad shape – he entered the hospital immediately after. The loser Alexis Tsipras was extremely happy. Both felt the real situation in the country and what waits a Prime Minister. “The bomb must not explode in our hands”, were the first words Tsipras told me when I saw him some days after the elections.

But, unfortunately, a deep psychological mechanism (and also the mechanism inherent in tragedies) makes often people meet exactly what they most fear and try to avoid.

In summer, 2012 Tsipras had to get a choice and he did it. The one road was to try to create a political, social and international subject able to begin the hard struggle for the salvation of the country. Nobody could know if that would succeed. It was a road full of uncertainties, enormous risks and difficulties. The other was to try to get power for power, using “conventional” communication techniques, maneuvering in the situation, trying to do his best in an empirical way, trying to find “strong friends”, as he perceived them and hoping that everything will fix by itself. During the last long discussion in autumn of 2012 I told him that he had to explain frankly to the people the tragic situation of the country. “You can’t promise much except food, shelter and medicine for Greeks and justice in the distribution of sacrifices“, I told him. “If you are going to lead the drive of the country to find once more its independence and stand on its feet“.

“If I tell what you say, I will never win the elections”, he answered me.

He was wrong, as the referendum of the 5th of July 2015 proved. But even if he was true, why then the Left had to win elections? Why the Left has to promise things it cannot provide, why it is in its interest to try to apply a catastrophic policy which will finish it as a political force after humiliating it?

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Obviously, the Left have no reason to do that. But probably so many people waiting to become Ministers and advisors, to manage the state or solve one or the other problems have reasons to attempt it.

From summer of 2012 until the tragic summer of 2015, Tsipras remained verbally faithful to the anti-memorandum, anti-colonial promise which helped him become a protagonist of Greek politics. He entrusted the realization of these ideas to people who did not understand and did not believe them. He used also massively, as advisors, people from the inner circle of George Papandreou, a milieu known for being under heavy foreign influence, in a degree Greek politics had not seen after the period of the military junta.

SYRIZA did not make any serious effort to elaborate any serious program. It did not make even any serious effort to acquire a really massive character, the bureaucracy being afraid of losing its (unjustified) role by opening up to new people, probably more competent than they were. On the international level SYRIZA did not do much to develop the necessary global contacts and alliances including a great movement in Europe, not just in solidarity, but conscious, if possible, of the vital character for all Europeans of the “battle for Greece”, only the first chapter of a War which will determine the fate of the whole continent. Even misoriented people abroad were speaking of austerity. To kill a country and its democracy, isn`t it just an austerity!

Such a policy betrayed also the unwillingness of middle class Greek strata (as also of the ruling classes), from where the SYRIZA leadership has came and transferred its mentality into politics to believe the nation in the reality of the radical character of the war waged against Greece and the Greek people. They betrayed also the unbelievable illusions about the role of Europe and of the United States that characterized especially the current leadership of SYRIZA (one of them even characterized Obama as a sort of Martin Luther King, the others were putting their hopes to mobilizing Lagarde or Dragui against Merkel!).

To be honest, much of the responsibility for what has happened in Greece should be attributed to Tsipras himself. But it would be unjust to attribute all of it to him. In 2012, the Greek Left, its cadres, its leaders, its personalities were really shocked looking to the face of Power, something as they believed would not happen in their life. And this encounter changed them profoundly. In spite of being the descendants of those who built the Troian Horse, they did not know and did not understand that as bigger more unbelievable and unexpected is the gift Gods offer you, as bigger is the trap and the risk inherent in it. All of them were in great need of rereading Faust or The Portrait of Dorian Gray, but this was the last thing they were thinking to do.

The year 2012 came the Moment of Truth for the Greek Left, it was the year when the leading people of the Greek Left had to decide if they were really adhering to the ideas and values proclaimed all their life, making a political career and sometimes their living out of it, by trying to do their best to provide the people and the Nation with the possibility to save their country. Or they would prefer to behave in such a way as to maximize their personal and “fractional” egos, to get better posts and influence, waiting for the benefits of power and not taking unnecessary risks.

Most of them did a choice and this choice was reflected in their behavior. One significant exception was Panagiotis Lafazanis, who remained all this time afraid of power and deeply pessimist, as he always was. But he had not any credible alternative to propose, so finally he did not make any difference.

The Empire Enters Into the Equation

“The idea of an independent Greece is an aberration. Greece will be Russian or British. It should not be Russian. So it will be British”. This is what the Ambassador of her Majesty in Athens, Sir Lyon Edmunt, wrote to his government in London, summarizing western strategic attitude towards Greece in the modern times.

All we said before is taken into account, it would not be sufficient to help understand the political disaster of July 2015. Another factor had to intervene in the equation. Tsipras believed, or they made him believe, that he will find in a wing of the US establishment, in antagonism with Germany, an ally to face Merkel. Of course, in such a difficult situation it would be foolish not to try to do all the possible maneuvering between international forces. But to believe seriously that Washington would help the success of a Greek leftist government challenging the neoliberal order in Europe, was just crazy. Unfortunately it has often happened in History that much more experienced leaders than Tsipras facing very difficult situations had chosen to fall in similar traps.

A day after July 2015 capitulation, the vice president of the Greek government Yannis Dragasakis thanked publicly the government of the United States of America for the agreement signed, confirming in the most official way that it is still the law in Greece and in Europe. On the 27th of September 2015, the prestigious conservative daily “Kathimerini” published an article based on a telegram of the Greek ambassador in Washington. It became clear that the whole negotiating, communication and international strategy of SYRIZA was coordinated and even “guided” during all “negotiation” by Washington.

The capitulation of SYRIZA constitutes a triumph of the neoliberal order in Europe and of the USA, which may fuel the far right everywhere in the continent. It is a historic defeat of the European Radical Left, comparable maybe to the capitulation of European Social Democracy in August 1914. It is also a huge defeat for the idea of Europe and the biggest single political defeat for Germany after 1945. Berlin has imposed its terms on the poor and weak Greece, assuring the continuation of the destruction of the Greek people and nation. But it has proven to be a malign power for millions of Europeans. It spoiled the international political capital accumulated by Germans during the post-war decades.

The Greek tragedy will continue and very probably it will take even harder forms. Greek economy and society will continue their descend into inferno. The political “decapitation” of the anti-memorandum, anti-colonial political movement did not make to disappear the social opposition to this policy, an opposition even mechanically fuelled by the fact that people are destroyed every passing day in Greece. The possibility of a social revolt of some kind is very much with us, now that the possibility of a democratic and peaceful way out is not obvious.

All crises are also opportunities. The Greek experience is a hard lesson for all tendencies of European left and for anybody wishing to put into the question the neoliberal and dictatorial order reigning in today’s Europe. One must not doubt about the deciseveness and the nature of the financial totalitarianism he will face, sooner or later. He must explain to the people what is going on and why he is doing it. He must be decided to forget the “facilities” of the post–war period. He must return to the moral foundations of the Left in its beginnings.

Written in November 2015, published in December 2015 by Valdai Discussion Club