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

NOVEMBER 13, 2012: Note 5 of 6 – There are, as Alex Callinicos outlines, New Lefts forming across Europe in countries other than Greece. How should we assess these New Lefts? Callinicos, in a short newspaper article attempted to survey the development of the left throughout Europe as a whole, putting the entire New Left of four countries – Germany, Greece, France and Holland – under one label. He asked: “What is the politics of this rising left? Over-simplifying a little, it is essentially some version or other of left reformism. It’s true that SYRIZA includes within its ranks an assortment of far-left groups, but the dominant force, SYNASPISMÓS, originates in the more accommodating and pro-European wing of the Greek Communist movement”. This left reformism, he argues, is “filling a space left by the rightward shift of mainstream social democracy.” Leaders of left reformism “are able to reach out to traditional social-democratic voters by articulating their anger in a familiar reformist language.” However, “ambiguity is inherent in any version of reformism, which seeks simultaneously to express workers’ resistance to capitalism and to contain it within the framework of the system” (Callinicos 2012a).

It is always difficult in a short newspaper article to convey all the nuances of a political position. But Callinicos is also the editor of a quarterly theoretical journal, and in a much longer analysis in that theoretical journal in the Summer of 2012 he developed exactly this position at more length, including direct quotations from the earlier, shorter newspaper article (Callinicos 2012b). For Callinicos (and others, as we shall see below), the starting point in an analysis of SYRIZA is categorizing it as one of several formations in Europe of “left reformism”. But adjectives such as “left reformist”, “accommodating” and “pro-European” are not helpful when it comes to understanding the political dynamics being unleashed by the new social facts taking shape on the European political landscape.

This can be shown through a brief, comparative analysis of the situations in Greece and France –one of the most important countries where New Left formations have been takng shape. Such an examination will show that there are in fact interesting and important parallels between the situation in France with that in Greece. But there are also important differences, which make over-generalization difficult and misleading.

Perhaps the most important parallel, has been the challenge posed, in both countries, by large breaks to the left from the traditional parties of social-democracy. The Front de gauche is an electoral coalition, originating in a left split, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, from the Socialist Party in France. His grouping was joined, in 2009, by the French Communist Party. The 2012 campaign of the Front de gauche had a movement feel to it, marked as it was by enormous mass meetings. “Around 20,000 people turned up at Mélenchon’s meeting in Lille, 70,000 were present at a huge open air meeting in Toulouse, 100,000 were in Marseille and around 50,000 attended an indoor rally in Paris”, and it ended up achieving a vote of 11% in the April 2012 elections (Wolfreys 2012, 40).

François Sabado – a leading member of the Nouveau Parti Anti-capitaliste (NPA) – deploys the same label used by Callinicos, “left reformist”, to describe the Front de gauche. He does so as part of an analysis to try and situate the rise of the Front de gauche and the relative eclipse of other forces on the left, including his party, the NPA. He offers an interesting analysis to explain the ability of the Front de gauche to become the main expression of the radicalization in France. He suggests that the 2012 pre-election situation in France was “marked by social defeats, which encouraged the hope and the illusion that ‘what is blocked in the struggle can be unblocked by the election’” (Sabado 2012, author’s translation). He is undoubtedly referring to “the defeat inflicted on the impressive movement that developed in the autumn of 2010 against Sarkozy’s pension reforms, reflecting a displacement of hopes invested in struggle onto the promise that they may be realized by electoral means” (Wolfreys 2012, 41).

The struggles of 2009 and 2010 were in fact, massive. “In March 2009, over two million workers supported a general strike organized by the Confédération générale du travail (CGT) against President Sarkozy’s handling of the economic crisis. … This was followed in October 2010 by major stoppages and street demonstrations (including a week-long blockade at France’s twelve oil refineries and a three-week dockworker strike in Marseille) over Sarkozy’s privatization and austerity measures, which included plans to raise the minimum and full retirement ages to sixty-two and sixty-seven, respectively, a move the government claimed was vital to stem a soaring pension deficit” (Burnham 2011, 503–504). Millions participated in the 2010 “rolling strike” strategy of the French union leadership (Davies 2010). On October 12 and 19 2010, the CGT claimed that 3.5 million people took to the streets each day against the pension reforms. The Interior Ministry had lower figures, putting the demonstrations of October 12 at 1.23 million, and those of October 19 at 1.1 million (Erlanger 2010). But even these lower figures indicate a social movement of enormous proportions.

It is also true that these struggles did not, in fact, stop the pension reforms. Just weeks after the massive October protests, then president Nicolas Sarkozy signed the reforms into law, in this sense, defeating the movement. Sabado is suggesting that demoralization from the failure of these street battles turned peoples’ eyes towards the ballot box. In that situation, the left-reformist Front de gauche could do very well, while the more radical NPA, with its emphasis on extra-parliamentary action, would do more poorly.

Is this persuasive? In Greece, as earlier notes have outlined, there have been equally massive strikes and street protests. And, as in France, those struggles have not prevented the imposition of austerity measures. But the austerity measures imposed in Greece are far more serious than those in France. Sarkozy’s pension reform “increases the minimum pensionable retirement age from 60 to 62 and the full state pension entitlement age to 67 from 65 for anyone who has not contributed to the system for 41 years. The measures will come into effect gradually from July next year, and be fully enacted by 2018” (Samuel 2010). But contrast this with the immiseration being imposed on the Greek workers through the various “memoranda”. The attacks on the living standards of the Greek population are qualitatively worse than those in France.

By the same logic, shouldn’t the Greek movements failure to stop these memoranda constitute a “social defeat”, a much more drastic social defeat than that experienced in France? Should we then see the rise of SYRIZA – like the rise of the Front de gauche – as a result of demoralization from the failure of street protests? In the case of SYRIZA, this seems entirely unpersuasive, given the scale of the break from social-democracy.

It also feels unsatisfactory as an explanation of dynamics in France – a search for an objective explanation for problems that are actually rooted in serious, subjective political errors. While the Front de gauche has been galvanizing tens of thousands, Sabado’s party, the NPA has entered a very serious internal crisis. Part of this is certainly rooted in the party’s inability to consistently challenge Islamophobia – a very big problem in a country where the extreme right is building a base on hard, anti-Islamic politics. In 2010, this erupted into a nasty controversy when Ilham Moussaid was chosen as an NPA candidate in her region. Moussaid is a hijab-wearing woman, and her candidacy sparked a storm of controversy, including a resolution put forward by a minority “that hijab wearers can’t be candidates for the party”. Moussaid ended up resigning from the party, along with several other members (Mullen 2010). This is an open door through which many internal problems can enter. But a probably bigger reason for the crisis in the NPA has been its decision to stand aloof from the Front de gauche. Jason Stanley argues that, even before the April 2012 elections, the NPA was “hemorrhaging members and struggling to stay afloat”. He roots this crisis in large part in the NPA decision to not participate in the Front de gauche, something he labels “sectarianism” (Stanley 2012).

Even if we do decide to call both SYRIZA and Front de gauche “left reformist,” it does not justify standing aside from the radicalizations they represent. Sabado uses the label “left reformist” to emphasize the ambiguities and contradictions inside the Front de gauche – and there are many such ambiguities and contradictions. The Front de gauche refuses to take a stand against nuclear power “because of the many ties linking the French Communist Party to the French nuclear industry” (Sabado 2012, author’s translation). Mélenchon himself, while very much opposed to U.S. imperialism, is more muted when it comes to French imperialism, reaffirming his position in a recent publication that “in the current situation, the nuclear deterrent remains the essential element in our defense strategy” (2012, author’s translation). Sabado emphasizes these ambiguities and contradictions, in order to justify his party – the NPA – standing apart from the Front de gauche electoral coalition. But labeling the Front de gauche “left reformist,” outlining its contradictions, and on that basis standing aside from its campaign is quite one-sided. Surely more important than the ambiguities of the Front de gauche and its “left reformism” is the social fact of it representing a new radicalization of tens of thousands? When the latter is seen as the key factor, then without question the task for groups like the NPA is to stand in solidarity, not stand aside. To refuse to engage with a new radicalization, whatever its limitations, will push formations like the NPA into political crisis – the bigger the radicalization, the bigger the crisis. If this is true for the challenge created in France by the rise of the Front de gauche, it is doubly true for the challenge created in Greece by the rise of SYRIZA.

There is a general point, relevant to this analysis, which can be gleaned from this short survey of France. In the tumultuous political situation which currently exists in Europe, the traditional architecture of mass politics is in flux, and in key countries – certainly in both Greece and France – this has resulted in important new “social facts” emerging, mass left political formations expressing a radicalization to the left of traditional social democracy. The key task is to engage with these mass processes, not to label them and use the resulting categorization as an excuse to stand aside. But we shouldn’t stretch the comparison between France and Greece too far. There are very big differences between the New Lefts of France and Greece, and of the political and economic terrain in the two countries. To conclude this section, some of these differences will be highlighted.

First, in their attitude to imperialism, the Front de Gauche and SYRIZA are quite different. Sabado shows clearly that the Front de gauche is ambiguous at best on the question of French imperialism. By contrast, one of the strengths of SYRIZA is its roots in the anti-imperialist movement. In a message from SYRIZA to anti-NATO protesters in the United States in May of 2012, this was made extremely clear.

Here in Greece, the struggle against NATO has always been important and the demand to exit the war machine, and shut down its military bases in Greece had always been central for the Greek left since the ’70s. More recently, we still remember that the foundations for the emergence of the radical left, SYRIZA, that today is on the rise, are back at the anti-war movement of 2003 against the invasion in Iraq. And today, the country that is most hardly hit by the crisis and austerity, maintains military presence to Afghanistan, it supported actively the war on Libya, it deploys its navy in Somalia and Lebanon. Greek governments, in their competition with the Turkish state about which power can act best as the ‘military bully’ of the area, had been spending billions of euros in a frenzy of constant armaments. And the military spending continues even now, at the time of the most severe austerity that threatens public schools and hospitals with collapse (Davanellos and Martalis 2012).

Second, the impact of elections in 2012 was completely different on the political landscape of the two countries. In Greece, there was a coalescing of support for the extreme right, including the fascists, but it was not the main story. The main story was clearly the emergence of SYRIZA. In France by contrast, the main story of the April 2012 election was precisely the third place finish of the far-right National Front, which won more than 18% of the vote in the first round, “a stunning result for the far right … a record for France’s Front National, beating the previous best in 2002 … Everyone had said it could not happen. The opinion polls suggested it would not. It did”. The Front de gauche did manage to receive just over 11% of the vote, but “the Front de gauche leadership had hoped for results above 15%, and above all, to finish in third place, ahead of Marine Le Pen” (Sabado 2012, author’s translation). This “caused deep disappointment” among its supporters because the result was “several percentage points lower than had been expected” (Willisher 2012). In short, while the elections in Greece crystallized the rise of a New Left, the elections in France led to widespread disappointment in the ranks of the New Left, a disappointment mixed with fear in the presence of a very dangerous emergence of a mass base for the racist far right.

Third, the economic terrain in the two countries is quite different. We saw in earlier notes the continuing decline in GDP in Greece, and the inexorable rise of unemployment to truly painful levels. In France, there was a decline of GDP for five quarters in 2008 and 2009, a decline not unlike that experienced in Greece, but in the years since, the economy has expanded, not contracted. That expansion has slowed considerably in 2012, it is true. But the difference between contraction and expansion is not trivial. Unemployment in France did spike, as a result of the recession, from 7.5% to 10%. But this is not significantly higher than the unemployment rates experienced through the economic expansion in the first years of the 21st century, and is certainly far removed from the catastrophic levels in Greece, outlined at the beginning of these notes (Trading Economics 2012a; Trading Economics 2012b).

It is instructive to extend the gaze beyond France. In the summer of 2012, unemployment in Germany, at just over 6%, was at levels lower than at any time this century. In Austria, unemployment was 4.3%; in Denmark, 4.5%; in the Netherlands, 6.3%; in Belgium, 7.2%; in Sweden, 7.8% (Trading Economics 2012c). The contrast between the economic situation in these countries, and that in Greece could not be more pronounced.

To this point in the aftershocks from the 2008-2009 recession, Europe has proceeded on two tracks. The weaker economies, largely in the south (Greece, Portugal, Spain, and to some extent Italy) have experienced very severe economic contraction, and – in Greece, and Spain – depression-era levels of unemployment. But the stronger countries, largely in the north, have returned to growth – shaky and uneven growth – but growth nonetheless. Now of course, this could change. Perhaps Greece’s present is France’s future. Perhaps. But the political perspectives of the present cannot be built upon the objective conditions of the future. An abstract category such as “left reformism” – when applied to New Lefts developing in different countries in quite different circumstances – can obscure more than it reveals.

A comparative analysis of the Europe’s New Lefts must be sensitive to these differences. Without question, the development of a New Left is far more advanced in Greece than in France and the rest of Europe. The Front de gauche of Mélenchon is a welcome development to the left of social democracy. But it contains within it nothing like the deep history of development through struggle experienced over years by SYRIZA. It is at a much earlier phase of development than the New Left in Greece. This is not surprising. The economic and social crisis in Greece is incomparably deeper than that in, for instance, France. The very depth of that crisis has accelerated the conditions which have produced a very rapid decomposition of old political parties, and a radicalization to the left. The French working class has engaged in many, very militant struggles. But no one could paint the compelling picture of workplaces and neighbourhoods becoming the “fortresses of resistance” outlined so dramatically by Antonis Davanellos in his sketch of the state of working class resistance in Greece.

The concrete is always more difficult than the abstract in political analysis. The abstract formula “left reformist” hides more than it reveals. The contexts in which the New Lefts are developing in these four countries are quite different, and each one of the emerging left formations has its own story. This is part of an international phenomenon, which includes formations as different as Die Linke in Germany and Québec solidaire in Quebec. To properly assess each, including SYRIZA, we are going to have to concretely study their roots and history. Without such an attempt, there is a danger of political analysis falling back on extremely generally-formulated abstractions which tell us little about the real content of a political current, and can in fact can become a barrier to developing a proper understanding. Most seriously, there can be a tendency to use the label “left reformist” as an excuse for standing aloof from an unfolding radicalization. Interestingly, this point has been made very well by Callinicos himself. In 2009, in a debate with, among others, François Sabado, he argued that the using the label “left reformist” for the New Lefts in Europe can be used to “accentuate the negative” and runs the risk of an analysis which “ignores the fundamental fact that, for the first time in decades, the decay of social democracy has produced a serious breakaway to the left” (Callinicos 2009).

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

Notes on Greece 4: SYNASPISMÓS and SYRIZA

Last in the series
Notes on Greece 6: The Challenge of the United Front

© 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.

Callinicos, Alex. 2009. “Revolutionary Paths: a Reply to Panos Garganas and François
Sabado.” International Socialism 122 (Spring) (March 31).

———. 2012a. “The Politics of the Rising European Left.” Socialist Worker (London), May 19, 2303 edition.

———. 2012b. “The Second Coming of the Radical Left.” International Socialism 135 (Summer) (June 28): 10–22.

Davanellos, Antonis, and Sotiris Martalis. 2012. “Message from SYRIZA to Chicago anti-NATO Protests.” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal (May 20).

Davies, Lizzy. 2010. “Nicolas Sarkozy Calls for Calm as French Pension Protests Gather Pace.” The Guardian, October 19.

Erlanger, Steven. 2010. “Amid Strikes, French Leader Vows Order.” The New York Times, October 20, sec. News.

Mullen, John. 2010. “Islamophobia and France’s NPA.”, December 15.

Sabado, François. 2012. “Front De Gauche : Et Maintenant ?” Tout Est à Nous, June 2.

Samuel, Henry. 2010. “Nicolas Sarkozy Claims He Has ‘Saved’ French Pensions as Bill Becomes Law.” The Telegraph, November 10.

Stanley, Jason. 2012. “France: The NPA in Crisis.” Against the Current 26 (6) (February): 25–26.

Trading Economics. 2012a. “France GDP Annual Growth Rate.”

———. 2012b. “France Unemployment Rate.”

———. 2012c. “Unemployment Rates, List by Country.”

Willisher, Kim. 2012. “Marine Le Pen Scores Stunning Result in French Presidential Election.”, April 22.

Wolfreys, Jim. 2012. “France After Sarkozy: Confronting the Politics of Despair.” International Socialism 135 (Summer) (June 28): 27–50.

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