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Leo Panitch: Recently returned from Greece, a report on Syriza, the left party that could win the next election

Leo Panitch is the Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy and a Distinguished Research Professor of Political Science at York University in Toronto. Panitch is also the author of “Global Capitalism and American Empire” and his most recent release “American Empire and the Political Economy of International Finance”. In addition to his university affiliation he is also a co-editor of the Socialist Register the latest volume of which is The Crisis This Time


Paul Jay, Senior Editor, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

In Greece, the debate continues on the Greek left about what to offer up to the Greek people, what solutions can the left present, and what politics should the left be uniting around.

Now joining us to talk about all this, and recently returned from Greece, is Leo Panitch. He’s a Canadian research chair in comparative political economy and a distinguished research professor of political science at York University in Toronto. He’s the author of a book that’s just hitting the shelves now, and soon in the United States—and I think it’s already out in Canada, is it? In the U.K.? At any rate, it’s called The Making of Global Capitalism. And he’s an often-contributor to The Real News Network. Thanks, Leo, for joining us.

Leo Panitch, Professor, York University: Hi, Paul. Glad to be here.

Jay: So talk a bit about your recent visit to Greece. You were there during an important debate that was going on. What did you observe?

Panitch: Well, I was lucky enough to be there just in time for the launching of Syriza’s programs. Syriza is the coalition of left-wing social movements and parties which has existed now for a decade but made an enormous breakthrough in the run-up to the election and came to the verge of entering the state and forming a government in the second election. And I was fortunate to be able to actually be there when they launched their program, to have a fly-on-the-wall observer status at the meeting of the strategy and policy committee which was putting the last dots on the I’s and crossing the T’s on that program a few days before, and spending a lot of time talking to some of the leadership and activists in the party. So it was fascinating.

Jay: One of the hot debates there, I would have assumed, was the attitude towards staying or leaving the eurozone, some people suggesting that you can’t really solve this crisis within the eurozone, that all one can have is more austerity, and others saying Greece can’t afford to leave the eurozone. So was that at least one of the big debates? And how did that play out?

Panitch: No, not so much. I mean, it was a debate perhaps between Syriza and the parties to the far left of it, which got a infinitesimal portion of the vote. Syriza is quite committed to staying in Europe. But what they’re committed to and why they’ve secured such support is that they can’t expect to be carrying the brunt—the Greek people can’t be expected to be carrying the brunt of the fundamental imbalances of a capitalist Europe. So their position is that the memorandum agreement, which first the social democratic government signed on to and then the conservative government signed on to, which involves enormous austerity and structural adjustment to be borne primarily by Greek working people and small businesses and public servants, that that would not be implemented by a government of the left.

Jay: But was there not some debate about what next? Because the—.

Panitch: Well, their position is that they will stick to this and that it’s not easy for any government to be, any country to be thrown out of the euro. Now, you can say, and I take this position myself, that they’re trying to have it both ways, but their position is that there’s no reason for them to take the initiative, that what they’re demanding is what’s right for most European people. And that includes, in their program, socializing the banks, that is, nationalizing them and then socializing them, making them democratized and part of a system of democratic and economic planning. That’s not a new position. That’s been a position of the party from the beginning. But now it’s extremely relevant.

Now, you know, it’s true that it’s very likely, of course, given that they’re dealing with the Europe they are, that what they’re demanding would not be agreed to. That isn’t to say that it would be at all easy to figure out a constitutional way of expelling a member from the eurozone, even more so from the European Union. So it would be a long and very nasty affair were they to do it. Were it to happen, there’s no question that the Greek people would suffer [unintel.] as well. They’re suffering under the terrible imposition of cutbacks at the insistence of the so-called troika. Primarily Germany is much more insistent than the United States or the IMF. Germany is insisting on this, as everyone knows. But they’re hoping that whether they’re pushed out or not pushed out, that there will be support that would come from a shift in the balance of forces inside Europe.

It would be realistic to realize that if they do get pushed out of the eurozone, the people will suffer as well. I mean, Greece has to import oil. It has to import most of its manufacturing. And one of the reasons, of course, for that is that joining a free trade zone—many countries know this well—resulted in 100,000 manufacturing jobs being lost since Greece entered the Economic and Monetary Union. So they have to import a lot of stuff. And if they devalue, which would, of course, give them a respite, it also means that they’d have to find means of paying for this.

We’re back, in a sense, to 1917, Paul. You know, at the time of the Russian Revolution, it was the weakest link, and the people who made that revolution said, we’re only going to be able to go so far, and the Russian people won’t suffer too much if there is a break in that link in the chain that leads to revolutions in the more developed capitalist countries. It didn’t, and therefore the situation got very difficult. And, you know, for the Greeks to break, they would need a shift in the balance of forces that would provide stakes for the Greeks to be able to negotiate a different economic strategy, and if they did, they’d be providing a model for the rest of Europe, and indeed for perhaps [unintel.] the rest of the world. I kept feeling when I was there that we think of Greece as the cradle of democracy. Well, maybe we can think of Greece as the cradle of a democratic socialism for the 21st century.

Jay: And what do you make of the argument some people are giving that the Greek people are going to go through hell no matter what, better to go through hell outside the eurozone, take advantage of being in control of your own currency, and rebuild along some of the lines you were talking about, Syriza suggests, nationalization of the banks and such? What do you make of that?

Panitch: Well, yeah, I mean, I think that’s fine. I think one has to have a political strategy. One of the people you constantly and rightly have on I think I introduced you to, Costas Lapavitsas, has been arguing (and, I felt, rightly) for over a year or two that—and probably it should have been done right at the beginning—that Greece should simply have defaulted on this debt that was imposed upon it. If that involved getting pushed out, fine. But you need to realize as well that Lapavitsas did not have and does not have on his own a political strategy. He strongly supported Syriza, which committed themselves to trying to stay in the euro because that was the only political strategy. People in Greece are not prepared to leave. They would like the memorandums withdrawn. They would like a very, very different policy. They want a government that is with the people.

And, I must say, one of the things that’s most impressive and I think that is most impressive to the Greek people is that Syriza has been in the streets. It is not simply taking advantage of the enormous dissent and protest and demonstrations, general strikes; it has been in amongst the people. And why they managed to capture the popular imagination the way they did was to say, we’re just not going to do better as a left party; we are trying to form a left government; we feel it would be irresponsible to allow the situation to continue and just do better in the polls, irresponsible to allow this suffering to continue. And as soon as Tsipras said that—and I must say, I discovered when I was there, when he said it (he said it, by the way, in a internet interview something like this one), some of the rest of the leadership and the activists were astonished: what’s he talking about? You know, we’ve been at 5, 6, 7, 8, maybe we’ll get 10, 11 percent of the vote. How can he be claiming we’re going to lead a left government? But as soon as he said it, people flocked to him and to Syriza because they were looking for that type of confident lead.

Jay: So what’s next? And in terms of where Syriza goes, what else emerged at the conference you were at?

Panitch: Well, I wasn’t at a conference. I was there, actually, invited by a coalition of far-left organizations who got, you know, 1 percent of the vote or less and who look upon Syriza as a moderate reformist party (I think they’re wrong). I was there to, you know, interview and see former friends and students who were very active in Syriza and indeed who were forming in it. And what’s going on is very exciting, very important.

The expectation is that this government won’t last, it won’t last six months. There is a modicum of relief that they came so close to winning but didn’t win, because heaven knows they weren’t ready to take over the state—they didn’t know who would be the ministers, they didn’t know where they would get the talent to bring 10,000 people into the state, and they were worried that if they did, that they would denude the movement of many of its activists. They are very committed to being—even if they get into government, to be the kind of government that is still mobilizing people, still developing people’s capacities to organize, still connected to the mass movement. And they in fact—and one of my closest friends, who often writes for The Socialist Register—I think you’ve had him on The Real News—Michael Spourdalakis, is on the new commission that’s been formed to write a new constitution for the Syriza Party. So they’re hard at work in trying to implement a new type of relationship between movements, parties, and the state.

Jay: And if this government doesn’t last six months, what’s the polling look like? Does Syriza have a shot of forming a government then?

Panitch: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And it is very likely to do so. You know, they put upward of 30 percent of the vote, and the collapse of PASOK, the social democratic party, was massive. So, yes, I think that, you know, it’s extremely likely that that would happen. And, hopefully, they will be more prepared than they would have been in June, although had they been brought into the state, they would have entered it with a kind of purpose [unintel.]

Jay: Right. Thanks very much for joining us, Leo.

Panitch: It’s really good to talk to you, Paul.

Jay: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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