Greece: The Capitulation of Tsipras and what must be learned from it

Although nearly 62% voted OXI (NO), the troika managed to impose a package of severe austerity measures.

Although nearly 62% voted OXI (NO), the troika managed to impose a package of severe austerity measures.

We hereby provide an English translation of an article originally published by the French Marxist paper La Riposte on July 20th. The article examines the background to the recent agreement between Greece and its creditors. 

By Greg Oxley (Editor of La Riposte and member of the Communist Party of France )

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

From The Second Coming, W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)

The document produced by the European Summit of July 12th reads like the ultimatum of the victorious over a vanquished country. Berating and threatening, it brings to mind the demands of Bismarck in 1871 or the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. There is nothing of a negotiated agreement about it. It is a brutal and punitive imposition. Depriving Greece of a large part of its national sovereignty, its clauses amount to taking control of the economy and even, to a certain extent, of the governmental apparatus of the country.

The terms of the ultimatum were implacable. If the Greek government did not follow the economic and social policy dictated by Merkel and Schaüble to the letter and in accordance with a precise calendar, Germany would provoke an immediate collapse of the banking system and of the national economy. A long list of measures had to be carried out within a few days. A protocol for the expulsion of Greece from the European Union was drawn up. With the knife against his throat, Tsipras gave in. He signed a humiliating “agreement”, against his own convictions and with ruinous consequences for Greece. The reforms he pledged to carry out include a vast programme of privatisations worth 50 billion euros (half of which must be used to refloat the banks), a big increase in VAT, major cuts in public and social expenditure, a pensions reform pushing the age of retirement to 67 years old, new laws facilitating “collective” sackings, the curtailing of trade union rights and the right to strike and measures to invalidate existing collective bargaining agreements. The day-to-day management of budgetary policy is placed under the surveillance of the European Union bureaucracy, which in turn is effectively under the control of the German government.

Now that it is in the process of crushing the Greek people under its heal, the dominant position of German capitalism in Europe is obvious to all. This position has existed for a long time. It was a fact long before the reunification of 1989. But the massive extension of its territory at that time greatly increased the political and economic weight of Germany in relation to all the other countries of the continent. Until recently Germany tried to hide this reality behind the myth of “European cooperation”. Anxious to erase the memories of the past and not to awaken old fears and hostility among its neighbours, Germany cultivated the image of being just one country among others. This explains the discretion of its diplomatic and military activity, as compared to other major powers. But the acceleration of the decline of European capitalism since 2008 has sharpened the tensions between the states. In the implacable struggle for the division of markets, resources and profits, the banks and the industrial and commercial giants, together with the states they are linked to, must throw their full weight into the balance. In this economic war, German capitalism has more power than any of its European « partners ». The irrefutable demonstration of this truth has now been made.

The independence of the European Central Bank is a lie. In fact, it is under German control. France can “have its word”, of course. But every time this word has run against German interests, it has never led to anything. The bureaucrats who manage the European Union act in the interests of the major powers within it. Among these Germany occupies – and by far – the first place. Germany exports between 35% and 40% of its production. No other world power does this. China, for example, exports 30%. The importance of German exports is at once a factor of strength and of great vulnerability. Anything that obstructs German exports or which would lead to a fall in the value of its foreign assets would directly threaten the very foundations of its national economy. Under these conditions, European monetary policy, and therefore the control of the ECB and the euro, is a vital stake for German capitalism. Its government will allow no-one – certainly not Greece, and not even France – to alter monetary policy in a way which would harm its interests. Thus, when the British journal, The New Statesman (13th July 2015) asked Yanis Varoufakis if German attitudes dominated the Eurogroup, he replied: “Oh completely and utterly”, adding that it was not so much attitudes that controlled the group as the German finance minister in person. “It is all like a very well-tuned orchestra and he is the director. Everything happens in tune. There will be times when the orchestra is out of tune, but he convenes and puts it back in line.” In the same interview, what Varoufakis had to say about the behaviour of France was also very instructive: “Only the French finance minister has made noises that were different from the German line, and those noises were very subtle. You could sense he had to use very judicious language, to be seen not to oppose. And in the final analysis, when Doc Schäuble responded and effectively determined the official line, the French FM in the end would always fold and accept.”

The victory of Syriza in the elections of the 25th of January was met with great enthusiasm by labour movement activists throughout Europe. On that day, Tsipras declared: “Today we have put an end to austerity.” But this was not the case. Attacks on living standards, in Greece as elsewhere, are not only the result of government policies, but also and above all of the inability of present-day capitalism to maintain itself other than by forcing these living standards further and further down.  In the context of saturated or shrinking markets, combined with massive state, company and personal debts, capitalist profits can only be maintained or increased by exerting constant pressure on the living and working conditions of the mass of the population, and also by whittling down democratic rights. It is precisely the exhaustion of the development potential of capitalism on any basis other than this which obliges governments defending or accepting the system to bring their policies into line with this reality. The coming to power of left governments like that of Syriza resolves nothing in itself. Of course, it can open up the possibility of solving the problem or at least – depending on the policies it carries out – put the workers in a more advantageous position in the class struggle. But for this, the governments in question must have, beyond all the rhetoric, not only the will but also a programme of action capable of breaking the stranglehold of the capitalist class.

How was it with Tsipras and Syriza? Just after the election victory, Tsipras and his ministers went on a tour of the continent and discussed with all the main European powers. They pleaded for a loosening of the noose which was strangling the Greek economy. They met with closed doors, everywhere. Was it a mistake to try to discuss with these governments? Not necessarily. That would depend upon how it was used, politically. Tsipras and Varoufakis considered that they had been “mandated” by the Greek people to negotiate with the European Union. The negative results of this round of talks could have been used to justify a radicalisation in the policy of the government, since it was clear that any policy aimed at “ending austerity” could only by carried out on the basis of a bitter struggle against the European Commission, against the coalition of national governments and against the ECB and the major capitalist banks and industrial groups. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that the so-called negotiations gave no positive results.

The vast array of enemies ranged against Syriza included, of course, the Greek capitalists. They are among the main culprits for the social and economic catastrophe that has befallen the country. They were the ones demanding “austerity”. They were the ones who destroyed the economic infrastructure of Greece, who rallied to every reactionary cause in league with the reactionary parties and even the “Golden Dawn” fascists. If the new government was to have any chance against the coalition of capitalist interests ranged against it on the outside, it had to start by eradicating the power of the capitalists of the interior. A serious struggle to defend and improve living standards implied, on the part of Syriza and the Greek labour movement, an offensive against the very source of this power. It implied the mobilisation of the living forces of the Greek people for the forcible expropriation of the Greek capitalist class, placing all banking institutions and major enterprises under the democratic control and management of the Greek workers themselves. On this basis, the channels of foreign interference on the part of the major powers would have been blocked. An appeal to all European workers inviting them to follow Greece’s example in order to break its isolation and put an end to austerity throughout the continent had a good chance of being heard. But in the minds of the leaders of Syriza, this offensive approach was out of the question. Hanging on to the illusion that they could come to an agreement with the jackals running the European Union, they opted for negotiation rather than struggle.

There then followed many long months of discussions – or rather of ultimatums and blackmail – that were leading nowhere. The point of view of the Greek government was that the conditions which the EU wanted to impose on Greece removed any hope of getting the economy back on its feet and would have even graver consequences for people who had already suffered a steady deterioration of their living conditions over a number of years. But the pawns of German and French big business were from the outset completely indifferent to these obvious truths. The testimony of Varoufakis is most eloquent in this respect. He says that he was faced with “apparatchiks and bureaucrats who have absolutely no interest in the human cost of decision-making.”

Feeling that they were in an impasse, the Greek government decided to organise a referendum, rather like a card-player who, knowing that he is sure to lose, suddenly knocks the table over. Varoufakis thought the referendum would be lost, and says that Tsipras thought the same. Nonetheless the referendum resulted in a massive rejection of the European blackmail. Before the vote, Tsipras and his entourage claimed that a “no” vote would strengthen their position against the Germans. Did they really believe that? Perhaps. Be that as it may, on the very evening of the referendum, Tsipras firmly rejected the more “energetic”  line recommended by Varoufakis, who was apparently in favour of a government takeover of the Greek banking system. Tsipras insisted that nothing should be done to provoke their opponents or put them in a difficult position. “Essentially”, said Varoufakis in the New Statesman interview, “that means folding. … You cease to negotiate.” Thus, instead of a hardening in the stance of the Greeks, further major concessions were made, in addition to those already rejected as unacceptable by the “no” vote in the referendum. A sign of the coming capitulation was the resignation of Varoufakis. According to the former minister, Tsipras had told him that his continued presence would be problematic. Merkel and Schaüble had been asking for his head for a long time. Finally they had it. Germany could not only choose its own negotiators, but also those of the opposite side!

The text signed by Tsipras represents a major defeat for himself, for his party and for all Greek workers. In the parliament, during a long and rather vacuous speech filled out by numerous repetitions, Tsipras insisted again and again that he had not “betrayed”. Can we agree with this claim?  Clearly, Tsipras had wanted to put an end to austerity. He had not wanted the situation in which he now found himself. He signed under constraint, with a knife to his throat. He felt he had no choice in the matter. Thus, many people – such as Pierre Laurent, [the leader of the PCF], who saluted his “exemplary courage” – consider that the signature did not, in itself, amount to betrayal. But many Greek workers are not of this opinion. The majority of his own party leadership has also rejected the agreement.

In any case, shouting about the betrayal of Tsipras does not get us very far. The real problem runs deeper. Fundamentally, Tsipras was the prisoner of his own political outlook. His reformist vision of politics, which looks to defend the interests of workers without threatening the basic interests of the capitalists, does not correspond to the realities of our epoch. Consequently, and independently of his own subjective will, the limits of reformism set Tsipras on a course that he had not wanted and assigned him a role in contradiction with his initial objectives. Thus, just a few days after organising a referendum in which he asked the Greek people to reject the austerity plan wanted by Merkel, Schaüble, Hollande etc., he himself accepted an austerity programme of even greater severity! This fatal course has not yet exhausted itself. The line between a signature given under constraint, on the part of a man who thought rightly or wrongly that he had no alternative, and conscious betrayal can be crossed very quickly. In a minority in his own party, Tsipras and the right-wing of Syriza are effectively in a parliamentary alliance with New Democracy and the PASOK. In the ministerial changes of July 17th, the ministers who had denounced the alignment with Merkel’s policy were sacked. This is in the order of things. Having agreed to apply a programme which brutally attacks the people who had placed their confidence in him, it must be understood that Tsipras can only do this by breaking the resistance of the workers’ movement and the youth. On July 15th, public sector workers launched a 24-hour general strike. Other strikes and demonstrations of even greater proportions are to be expected. What will the government do, in this event? Send in the riot police? On this course, Tsipras will face the workers’ movement and all those who are fighting to defend living standards no longer as their champion, but as their enemy.

The evolution of the Greek government is dictated by the bankruptcy of reformism in the conditions of our epoch. The point of departure of a reformist policy is that the programme of the workers’ movement must come to terms with a social order in which the main levers of economic power are in the hands of the capitalists, and this at a time when the vital interests of the capitalists demand the destruction of all the social conquests of the past. It is an illusory and inapplicable policy. It is this programme which has “betrayed” Syriza and the Greek workers. Its fundamental flaw means that betrayal is inherent to it.

The perspectives which lay before Greece are laden with both revolutionary and counter-revolutionary possibilities. For the moment, no party in Greece bases its action on a revolutionary programme indicating to workers the means by which they could break the hold of the capitalists – whether they be Greek or foreign – on the economy and on the administration of the country. This absence of an alternative coming from the workers’ movement will have serious consequences. The pressures bearing down on the workers, on small businesses, on the youth and on pensioners will become increasingly unbearable. At the same time, the profound disappointment resulting from Tsipras’ volte-face and the feeling of humiliation and oppression by a European Union dominated by Germany is bound to favour the development of nationalism and strengthen the fascist organisations.

In the face of this danger, time is running out. The transformation of Tsipras into the executant of German policy is shaking the workers’ movement from top to bottom, starting with Syriza. In our opinion, the course of events strikingly confirm the warnings and the analysis of the Communist Tendency within Syriza, which has constantly striven to convince members of the party and of the trade unions of the baleful consequences of seeking a compromise with the enemy. So far, this tendency and the rest of the left opposition have been much too weak to impose their views. But henceforth, the situation in the party will change rapidly. On the basis of capitalism, no favourable outcome for the workers is possible. Syriza must therefore rid itself of the reformist policies which have led to the present debacle and arm itself with a revolutionary programme linking the demands of the workers’ movement to the imperative need to strike at the roots of the power of the ruling class. This means putting an end to private property of the banks, of industry and of all the main pillars of the national economy. Small businesses and other small-scale concerns can remain in the private sphere, but the capitalists who own and control the big companies must be expropriated and the companies concerned placed under the democratic control and management of the Greek workers themselves. Armed with such a programme, Syriza, the KKE and the workers’ movement could cut across the rise of reactionary tendencies and place itself at the head of a social force capable of freeing Greece from the capitalist system.

Merkel has secured the capitulation of the Greek government, which has thus become a tool of German policy in Greece. The economic policy of Greece has been placed under the supervision of EU monitors who are under the control of the German government. In this respect, a sort of coup d’Etat has taken place in the interests of capitalist creditors. Merkel and Schaüble – supported by the Hollande government – insisted that the new Greek government should comply with the agreements signed by its predecessor. For them, changes in government must not give rise to changes in policy. The interests of the banks and of the capitalists in general take precedence over all else.

In order to intimidate Tsipras, Merkel and Schaüble brandished the threat of expelling Greece from the European Union. This would have had grave consequences for Greece. But at the same time, being inside the European Union and under its domination, the perspectives for the Greek economy are just as bleak in the long run. For Germany, forcibly throwing out Greece was a risky and perilous option. Firstly, this action would have immediately transformed the consciousness of all the peoples of Europe about the nature of the European Union, which is already beginning to look like a capitalist empire in which all the most important decisions are made by the German government. Expelling Greece would have accelerated the decline and dislocation of the European Union, and this is not in the interests of German and French capitalism. Nonetheless, the mere threat of expulsion had an effect. German imperialism has now shown its teeth – long and sharp – and made it clear to one and all that it will act ferociously and vindictively when its interests are at stake. Given the history of Europe, this cannot fail to stir the memories, hatreds and fears of the past. Let us not forget that Greece, like so many other European countries, was occupied by Germany in the past. In this context, the rise of nationalist tendencies, evident in practically all European countries over the recent period, is likely to continue.

In France, as in the whole of Europe, the question of the European Union and that of the Greek experience now occupies an important place in the political consciousness of the workers. To a large extent, they will form the touchstone of political developments in all the member states. This means, as far as France is concerned, that the position taken by the PCF, the CGT and the workers’ movement as a whole on these questions is of absolutely crucial importance.

Many demonstrations have taken place in solidarity with the struggle against austerity in Greece. The PCF has been prominent in among the organisations involved in these actions. This is perfectly correct. The struggle against austerity in Greece is important to all European workers. Unfortunately, however, the party leadership has contented itself with blindly supporting the Tsipras government, instead of taking an independent critical stance.  The justification given for this attitude is that it is not the role of the PCF to “give lessons” to those who are involved in struggles in Greece, as if  constructive criticism had no right to cross national boundaries. In any case, for the PCF, for Young Communists and for activists in the CGT and other militant unions, the problem is not so much one of giving lessons, but on the contrary of the necessity to learn from what is happening in Greece and to take account of this experience in the programme they propose to the workers of France. If this task is left undone, the workers’ movement in France will suffer from the failure of the left government in Greece, because it will inevitably reinforce the fatalist and defeatist tendencies which exist among the workers. We can count on the media industry to gloat over the impotence of the “dreamers of the radical left” in the face of the realities of the world we live in. One can repeat over and over again how badly Merkel and the other European leaders have behaved, that their politics are unacceptable, scandalous, punitive, reactionary, etc. But if the failure of reformism in Greece is not recognised and explained to the workers of France, many of them will draw the conclusion that there is no alternative to capitalism. Attempting to explain the adoption of a reactionary austerity programme on the part of Tsipras by pointing to the role of Merkel would be to resemble a boxer saying that he would have won the match if only his opponent had stopped hitting him. The reactionary power of the capitalists is a reality against which reformist “moderation” is impotent. This is the meaning of the Greek experience. It is not a question of “giving lessons”, but of knowing how to learn.

The European Union is nothing other than a vast bureaucratic machine acting on behalf of the giant financial and industrial enterprises of the continent. These capitalists aim to destroy all the social conquests of the past and anything which stands in the way of their greed for profit. The passive demands at the heart of PCF policy in relation to Europe are not equal to the situation. Pleading for a reform of the European Central Bank, supposedly making it into an instrument for the promotion of social justice, is completely senseless. Who is this plea addressed to? The ECB is firmly under the control of the capitalists, and of the German capitalists in particular. This control is of vital importance, from their point of view. Who is going to reform the ECB? The European Commission? The German government? The European Parliament? The leadership of the party is silent on this subject. The same is true in relation to the equally passive and illusory demand for the reform of the IMF. The European Union cannot be reformed. It must be overthrown. The workers’ movement has not and can never have a hold over these institutions, the destructive power of which will fall at the same time as that of the capitalist class itself. What is within the power of the of the workers’ movement, however, if only it could be convinced of the necessity, is the taking over of the means of production, the expulsion of the capitalists and their bureaucratic stooges from their leading positions in the economy and the state administration. This ultimate aim, which should be tirelessly explained to the workers and the youth, must become the crowning point of the more “immediate” social and economic demands of the PCF and the CGT.  This is the revolutionary orientation La Riposte is striving to defend within the working class movement.