Notes on Greece 4: SYNASPISMÓS and SYRIZA

NOVEMBER 7, 2012: Note 4 of 6 – The explosive changes in Greek economics and politics have introduced the entire world to SYNASPISMÓS and SYRIZA, the anti-capitalist coalition of which SYNASPISMÓS is the leading part. The roots of SYNASPISMÓS go back to the 1968 opposition to Russian imperialism in Czechoslovakia, the original dividing point in the old KKE.

At its core the opposition to Russian tanks was based on the marvellous, instinctive anti-authoritarianism of the 1960’s youth radicalization. This willingness to be influenced by a new generation is more important in categorizing SYNASPISMÓS than the label “eurocommunist”. Stathis Kouvélakis captures this clearly. The wing of communism from which SYRIZA emerged was “marked by eurocommunism” but was also “open, since the 1970s, to the new social movements. … It is a party which is at ease in the feminist movement, youth mobilizations, the anti-globalization, anti-racist and LGBT currents, all the while keeping an important orientation on the workers movement” (Marlière 2012, author’s translation). There is, in other words, a generational divide between the two historic wings of Greek communism. One study of the KKE concluded that, after the political developments of the 1990s, “the KKE has become a party of retired people with limited education and resources. SYNASPISMÓS has, instead, a far more dynamic social profile, reaching its peak among people in their thirties and forties, with a higher degree of education” (Kalyvas and Marantzidis 2002, 682).

There is a tendency to see this in “class” terms – the KKE keeping its roots in the poor and the working class, SYNASPISMÓS (and by extension, SYRIZA), evolving away from the working class towards “urban bourgeois intellectuals” (Kalyvas and Marantzidis 2002, 681). But we should be cautious before so easily pigeon-holing the class character of these parties. The same authors who define the base of SYNASPISMÓS as that of “urban bourgeois intellectuals” also use the term “young, professional, urban and affluent” to describe the party’s base. However, the authors argue that SYNASPISMÓS acquired this base by appealing “to the ‘new-left/post-materialist’ segments of Greek society. It is creatively combining all kind of anti-globalization, ecological, anti-nationalist, pro-immigrant messages” (Kalyvas and Marantzidis 2002, 680).

Is it really meaningful to see the anti-globalization, ecological, anti-nationalist and pro-immigrant movements as expressions of young, professional, urban, affluent bourgeois intellectuals? Or are these issues the developing concerns around which are cohering the most advanced sections of the modern working class – a class which is increasingly educated, increasingly urban, and (from certain perspectives) increasingly professional?

Class needs to be seen, not as static layers of privilege within society in the manner of Max Weber, but rather as a relationship between exploited and exploiter in the manner of Karl Marx. The working class cannot meaningfully be restricted to those who have little education and who work in factories. The working class encompasses all those who have to sell their labour power to capital. An elementary point about the modern working class in advanced capitalist countries, is that increasingly – alongside blue-collar, factory workers – the working class (and the union movement) is more and more comprised of white-collar, office and service workers, many with quite a lot of education. Where would the class struggle in Greece (and Canada, and Britain, and the U.S.) be without teachers, civil servants and nurses? Perhaps the divide between the KKE and SYNASPISMÓS should not be seen as one of class (factory workers versus urban bourgeois intellectuals), but as one within the working class, between the old working class and the new working class? With the latter perspective, the evolution of SYNASPISMÓS and SYRIZA makes sense.

In any case, much of this discussion has been made moot by the rapid developments of 2012. The social composition of the electoral base of SYRIZA has been dramatically transformed. In the May 2012 election “SYRIZA came first among young voters, as well as among the voters ageing up to 55 years.” But the party also “prevailed in the big urban centers, where the economic and social crisis is particularly acute. It even managed to represent big parts of the popular strata in the poor neighbourhoods of Athens and other big cities, where traditionally its penetration had been low” (Golemis 2012). These tendencies accelerated in the June election, with the shift of a quarter of a million votes from the KKE to SYRIZA. The KKE, in other words, no longer has a monopoly on the left in terms of having a base among the poorest strata of the working class in Greece.

One of the component parts of SYRIZA is a group called the International Workers Left (DEA, from its Greek initials). Panos Petrou, a leading member of DEA, outlined the evolution of SYRIZA from 2004 until 2012. His history dovetails very nicely with the above analysis. Petrou argues that SYNASPISMÓS was in some difficulty in the early part of the 21st century.

A left-wing turn was needed, and it was expressed mostly through the involvement of SYN in the anti-globalization movement and the antiwar movement of 2003 against the invasion of Iraq. Regular joint actions between SYN and organizations of the radical and anti-capitalist left – DEA among them – took place in the anti-globalization and antiwar movements, and in the creation and activities of the Greek Social Forum. This kind of coordination represented an important break with the sectarian past of the traditionally fragmented Greek Left. The pressures from the movement itself – for unity of action and to express in the political field the dynamic of the Social Forum and the anti-globalization and antiwar movements – gave birth to SYRIZA.

The process that unfolded in the following years was, again, not straightforward. There was resistance to the left-turn in SYNASPISMÓS, the turn which had allowed for its formation in 2004. There were individuals and groupings which split to the right, more comfortable working with PASOK than with the new radicalization. But again and again, it was the pressure of the social movements which pushed SYRIZA to the left.

There was a mass student movement against the New Democracy government in 2006 and 2007. “Universities were occupied for months, thousands of students attended the general assemblies on their campuses, and tens of thousands of students marched in every city of Greece each week … It was during these months of struggle that SYRIZA re-emerged. In the student assemblies and in the university teachers’ union, activists from the radical left worked together to lead the struggle”.

This was followed in December 2008 by a youth revolt “after a 15-year-old student was killed by two police offers in Athens. SYRIZA was the only force in parliament that supported the youth revolt.” Finally, in 2011, in the wake of the occupation of Tahrir Square, harbinger of revolution in Egypt, and as part of the “Occupy” movement which swept the entire world, “the so-called ‘movement of the squares’ broke out – massive occupations of public plazas, like Syntagma Square in front of the parliament building in Athens, led largely by youth, in imitation of the indignados movement in Spain. SYRIZA activists threw themselves wholeheartedly into the movement. Together with forces from ANTARSYA, they provided important organizational and political support to the demonstrations and the assemblies held in the squares” (Petrou 2012).

One central story completes this picture. The big social movements tha shaped SYRIZA (and ANTARSYA) were underpinned by the extraordinary militancy of Greek workers. In 2010 and 2011, there were 17 general strikes in Greece, as workers mobilized against the harsh austerity measures (Garganas 2012). Here we can only give short accounts of a few of these – but in truth, each was a story in itself.

On May 5, 2010, “a general strike was called … and a hundred-thousand-strong demonstration resulted in rioters attacking the Greek parliament and burning banks in Athens … [T]he protest was the biggest, and most violent, seen in the country since the return to democracy in 1974. In February 2011, a twenty-four hour general strike effectively closed Athens airport and over thirty thousand protesters clashed with police outside the Central Bank of Greece” (Burnham 2011, 504).

In 2011, a 48-hour general strike on October 19 and 20 “confirmed that this cycle was entering a new phase. According to the most reliable estimates, around 300,000 turned out for the demonstrations in Athens and at least 200,000 in the rest of the country, out of a total population of 10.5 million. … Participants included workers from the public and private sectors, the unemployed, young people, small business owners and entrepreneurs, retired people. The scale, spread and diverse social composition of the demonstrations indicated the support of the majority of society. The two days of protest also included a range of spontaneous actions: occupations of public buildings, including government ministries; refusal to pay the new taxes; prolonged strikes by groups such as dustmen and hospital staff” (Kouvelakis 2011, 18).

These strikes and mass street protests have not stopped the austerity measures. But neither have Greek employers or the Greek state been able to impose a significant defeat upon the Greek workers’ movement. SYRIZA’s Antonis Davanellos, in a recent speech in Chicago, gave an extraordinary picture of the way in which this working class resistance has carved deep roots into civil society.

The backbone of the resistance has been the working class movement – a series of strikes, then a general strike, then a new cluster of walkouts, a new general strike, occupations and on and on … [T]his resistance has spread everywhere in Greek society. We say that we are protecting public space in Greece. That means that every public hospital has become a fortress of resistance – not only, by the way, involving the workers inside the hospital, the doctors and nurses, but the people who are in the hospital and their friends [and] relatives. Everyone together works to protect and save the hospital. Around the hospital is the neighbourhood, and the chains of solidarity are built between them. The same is true with public schools. The same is true about child care facilities, which are absolutely crucial for working-class families. But it’s not only that – it’s parks and other public facilities. This is the public space that we are protecting against privatization, against speculators and against austerity (Davanellos 2012).

This is an extraordinary picture of a class in mobilization. It is the immediate background to the rise of SYRIZA.

The preceding short history is a modest attempt at concretely locating SYRIZA within the history of the Greek working class, and the current Greek economic and social crisis. The most important thing here is not the label that is applied to this current, but an awareness that it has become the vehicle which is expressing, in mass politics, the current radicalization in Greek society.

Previous in the series
Notes on Greece 1: Economic Crisis
Notes on Greece 2: Political Upheaval
Notes on Greece 3: The KKE

Next in the series

Notes on Greece 5: Greece, France, and the limits of the Concept ‘Left Reformism’

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

Publishing history

This note is one of six. The six notes have been published together as  “Greece in the eye of the storm (the Greek left, SYRIZA and the limits of the concept of ‘left reformism’)” Links, November 18.


Burnham, Peter. 2011. “Towards a Political Theory of Crisis: Policy and Resistance Across Europe.” New Political Science 33 (4): 493–507.

Davanellos, Antonis. 2012. “From Crisis to Resistance in Greece.”, July 5.

Garganas, Panos. 2012. “Greek Vote Proves Disaster for Ruling Class.” Socialist Worker (London), May 5, 2301 edition.

Golemis, Haris. 2012. “A Triumph of the Radical Left in Greece – A Message to Europe.” Transform! European Network for Alternative Thinking and Political Dialogue.

Kalyvas, Stathus N., and Niko Marantzidis. 2002. “Greek Communism, 1968-2001.” East European Politics & Societies 16 (3): 665–690.

Kouvelakis, Stathis. 2011. “The Greek Cauldron.” New Left Review II 72 (November-December): 17–32.

Marlière, Philippe. 2012. “« Syriza Est L’expression D’une Nouvelle Radicalité à Gauche » (Entretien Avec Stathis Kouvélakis).” Mediapart.

Petrou, Panos. 2012. “The Making of SYRIZA.”, June 11.

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