Many volumes will be written over the coming years about the rise and fall of SYRIZA, but the immediate lessons are simple.
Capitalism is sustained in part by the Left
From European social democrats supporting imperialist slaughter in World War One, to the French Communist Party winding down the General Strike in 1968, to the Communist Party in the US pushing labor peace and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two, to SYRIZA rescuing the euro with Greek austerity, many Leftists have helped stabilize capitalism and defend war for over 100 years. With the euro teetering in the balance, it took Europe’s most radical government to save it. There is always somebody waiting in the wings to carry out austerity and imperialism with a left-ish sounding program and the capitalist system has been consistently stronger for it.
When elected leaders say they are going to sell out, believe them
Even on the eve of the “OXI” referendum, Tsipras insisted that he was only going to use it to negotiate a better deal in order to remain in the Eurozone. He was doing everything he could to avoid a Grexit and he was very open about it. The numbers in the eventual austerity package were worse than expected, but ultimately this is not a math problem but a political problem. There was no way any of this was going to play out as described in advance without accepting massive austerity. When movement leaders talk about how they are willing to accept concessions, we should believe them and prepare for battle, no matter how great it feels to be a part of a common struggle alongside them.
Electing radicals into powerful positions disarms them
Taking a radical, giving them an enormous amount of power, media attention, a generous living stipend, a free car, etc. is a formula for turning them into a liberal. This should be obvious. They will become accustomed to their position and to their own self-importance above all else. Even worse, once they are in power promoting austerity, their far-left comrades suddenly become toothless liberals who cannot stand the thought of fighting their own friends. Certainly, some do not need transforming–the only way they can get elected in the first place is to compromise so many principals along the way that they are no longer capable of leading the good fight. In the meantime, they will assure everybody that everything is going to be fine until the inevitably bitter end.
Leftists will consistently cling to power rather than dismantle it
Only two members of SYRIZA’s Left Platform voted against Tsipras’s proposal. Many even voted for it because they did not want SYRIZA to lose its majority. Others, such as Left Platform leader Panagiotis Lafazanis, abstained. Rather than use every parliamentary tactic they had to sabotage the deal, split SYRIZA, bring down the government and do everything they possibly could to pull the emergency break on this disastrous plan, they chose to maintain SYRIZA’s hold on parliament and their position in it. This has been the story of the self-inflicted death of various left-wing movements for at least 100 years–they are too committed to their own position to risk losing their position by employing its full power. If this is the left wing of SYRIZA, it is no wonder Tsipras felt that he could pass the austerity plan.
Judge people by what they do, not what they say
Costas Lapavitsas, a radical Greek intellectual serving as a SYRIZA MP, declared the day of the vote that Tsipras should reject his own plan. Days earlier, he called on SYRIZA to take a radical turn, “put in the knife” and nationalize the banks. He had insisted that Greece must leave the euro. But the day after calling on Tsipras to reject his own plan, Lapavitsas also decided not to vote no and abstained. Even the best sounding radical intellectuals will succumb to the pressure of events when elected into parliament.
In spite of what they consistently say, Leftists throughout the world are waiting for a messiah to rescue them
Various Marxists and other self-described revolutionaries the world over looked to SYRIZA to break the euro and defeat austerity in Greece and beyond. All they had to do was realize that a few dozen left-wing MPs were not up to the task and would succumb to the pressure. In spite of all their talk about working-class self-emancipation, many still believe that electing radical leaders into parliament is essentially a good strategy and not a disaster waiting to happen. Even worse, many have convinced themselves that they are not carrying out exactly the same social democratic strategy that has failed countless times in the past.
There is a bright and necessary future for radical and revolutionary organizing, but it is in the workplaces and the prisons and the streets, not in parliament
The problem is not that we have bad people but bad strategies. Even the best people falter as social democrats. The more radical and left-wing they are, the more likely they and everybody around them are to believe they are immune from social democratic capitulations. The solution is not to find better people but to employ different strategies.
These strategies do not just change by themselves
The failure of SYRIZA will not simply wipe social democracy off the map forever, any more than the capitulation of social democracy to World War One in 1914 wiped it out. There will continue to be, for as long as capitalism exists, a social base of intellectuals, union leaders, NGO staff and others that benefit from these strategies and will carry them out indefinitely. These people are dangerous. They are lying, often to themselves, when they insist that their social democratic project will not capitulate. It is precisely this naive thinking that disarms people when they suddenly face the same situation that SYRIZA faced and discover that they do not have a strategy to deal with the inevitable because they were too busy promoting their own self-importance.
Many of the people who currently advocate SYRIZA-like strategies will not now suddenly change their tune. In fact, it will be shocking how little they want to change at all, shy of lip service to avoid outright embarrassment. They are more committed to their role as a cog in the hamster wheel of ineffectual activism than they are committed to dealing with actual problems faced by radicals resisting neoliberalism and fighting for societal transformation.
We do not need to wait to put these lessons into practice
Every struggle has some self-important individual waiting to step into their position in history so they can be the next Tsipras. Every struggle has a reformist element which seeks to not only win elections but hang their entire future on governmental machinations. Every struggle has people who want to negotiate rotten compromises in the name of the oppressed. If they are not there now, they will be. We do not need to wait until there is another SYRIZA on the verge of winning parliamentary elections to deal with these problems–dealing with these latent elements now will prepare us for the inevitable moment when the next social democratic leader attempts to negotiate surrender. This is not a side project or a future problem for radical organizing. Rather, this is at the center of radical organizing.
Social democratic sellouts will continue happening until there is a revolutionary struggle powerful enough to fight for something else
So let’s build that instead.