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“The SYRIZA Wave”: An account of leftist betrayal or an account of “activist tourism”?

Helena Sheehan’s “The SYRIZA Wave” chronicles the dramatic rise of SYRIZA and its first months in power, up until it overturned the July 2015 referendum result. But can the Greek left be reconciled with unwavering support for the EU?

Sheehan, Helena. The Syriza Wave: Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016. 229p. Reviewed by Déborah Berman Santana.

Helena Sheehan is an academic, journalist, and eurocommunist” activist from Ireland. Like many Europeans, she has had a lifelong love affair with Greece, firstly due to an idealization of Ancient Greece as the root of European civilization, and secondly through many visits to Europes favorite vacation spot. Sheehan recalls that the custom among many left academics was to finance  “sun, sea, sex, and socialism” trips through conference appearances and writing articles for newspapers and scholarly/activist journals. As a supporter of European integration and new” social movements, she felt closest to the Greek left groups that in 2004 formed the Coalition of the Radical Left: SYRIZAFollowing the global financial crash of 2008, she became interested in how it was affecting countries such as Ireland and especially Greece, where the International Monetary Fund (IMF) began to bring its policies of austerity and structural adjustment from the global south” to Europe. Especially after 2012, Sheehan wrote (her) way through multiple trips” to Greece. 

After SYRIZA won the January 2015 elections, Sheehan received a book contract from Monthly Review Press. By Sheehan’s own admission, others were perhaps more qualified to write this book, because they were Greek or were more knowledgeable about Greece, or knew the language, or had appropriate academic training; nonetheless, the publishers agreed that her experiences and reflections might “contribute to a big-picture understanding of the crisis in both Ireland and Greece.” (Her “right” to speak about events in Greece appeared to be a sensitive topic, as she dedicated six pages to defending herself from real or perceived attacks.)

Her main sources of information were interviews with English-speaking Greek and foreign leftists, as well as English-language publications and social media. At least two of the books six chapters are based on articles that she had already published. Half of the book deals with the aftermath of the referendum held on July 5, 2015, when nearly two-thirds of Greece’s voters rejected the proposed third memorandum between the Greek government and the “troika” (the European Union-EU, European Central Bank-ECB, and the IMF) to impose yet more austerity measures in exchange for another bank “rescue.” The book’s narrative ends in July 2016, one year after that famous “oxi” (no) vote.

Sheehan recounts what may be described as a chronicle of a death foretold. From its birth, SYRIZA sought to represent feminist, environmentalist, and other concerns identified with “new” social movements, while class politics (the central feature of the “old” left) appeared to be de-emphasized. Defense of national sovereignty — for which Greek communists heroically spearheaded resistance against German occupation during World War II — was rejected as “fascist.” Despite its radical left profile, the coalition’s support of mainstream policies, such as adoption of the euro and EU subsidies that diminished Greek agricultural independence, would later blind the SYRIZA government to possible ways out of the crisis via recovering national sovereignty.

Sheehan contrasted her frustration about the Irish left’s failure to organize resistance to austerity policies, with enthusiasm for the “heroic” Greek protests. She expressed the hope that many European leftists felt when SYRIZA captured 26.9 percent of the vote in the 2012 elections – dramatic increase from 4.5 percent in 2009 – which made it Greece’s second largest party. While some of her Greek colleagues expressed concern (in hindsight?) about the party’s sudden growth due to defections from the corrupt former ruling PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Alliance) party, they anticipated that such growth meant that the “radical left” would soon take power. Also forgotten was the unease that some felt when, two years later, SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras announced a party platform that lacked clear anti-capitalist content.

Sheehan was thrilled to see friends being appointed to various ministries in SYRIZA’s government following the January 2015 elections. She rationalized the election or appointment of right-wing politicians to positions such as President and Minister of Defense as “necessary” political concessions. She applauded the rehiring of the Finance Ministry’s housekeeping staff in Athens — who had been fired in response to the troika’s demand to reduce public sector employment — while ignoring continuance of significant public sector cuts throughout Greece. In articles, interviews, and conferences she struggled “to vindicate the trust so many placed in SYRIZA,” even after an agreement in February with the troika where Greece’s promise to pay the debt in full and not take unilateral actions provoked angry denunciations from SYRIZA’s “left platform” (who did not quit the party, however). She lauded her government ministry friends’ support for community-based cooperatives to “open up” public services such as education, health, and communications. She did not, however, mention visiting those groups; had she done so she might have learned that government support often silenced their criticisms.

Sheehan continued to participate in European “solidarity” groups for Greece, while agreeing that Ireland “needs a SYRIZA and we need it now.” She participated with thousands of supporters in Dublin in rallies supporting “no” (oxi) on the July 5, 2015 referendum, while noting that “there were many such solidarity rallies elsewhere in Europe.” And she expressed shock and grief when less than a week after the Greek voters said “oxi” to a ruinous third memorandum, the SYRIZA-led government signed – and most of its parliament members ratified – an even harsher agreement with the troika.

Déborah Berman-Santana (left) and Helena Sheehan (right) participating in a panel at the Resistance Festival in Athens, moderated by Errikos Finalis of the “Dromos tis Aristeras” newspaper, September 30, 2017 (Photo: Michael Nevradakis)

Sheehan described several academic conferences in which she participated during the time period of the book. None, however, was so contentious as the “Democracy Rising” conference in Athens in July 2015. Planning for the conference began just after SYRIZA took power; by the time it took place following SYRIZA’s betrayal of the “no” vote on the referendum, she wrote, “Democracy Collapsing seemed like a better name.” Conference speakers from the government either failed to show up, or claimed to reject the agreement while remaining in SYRIZA and keeping their seats in parliament.

Sheehan finally turned against SYRIZA only after Tsipras expelled the “Left Platform” from the party in preparation for new elections in September, which SYRIZA won despite – or perhaps because of – an unprecedented 44 percent abstention rate. Her friends hurriedly formed a new “Popular Unity Coalition” party, which failed to unify enough groups and win enough votes to enter Parliament. She ended her book on a pessimistic note, observing that the world was “no longer watching” Greece, but still hoping that support for similar movements such as represented by Podemos in Spain, or Jeremy Corbin in England, indicated that “reflection on the SYRIZA story could be an essential element in moving the global narrative onward.”

Even within Sheehan’s linguistic, political, and cultural limitations, her choices of “left” organizations and activists appeared to be more selective than necessary. Notably, she did not interview or even mention any person or group that clearly and consistently called for leaving the Eurozone and European Union. One example, the United Popular Front (EPAM), was born in the plaza occupations of 2011. EPAM has often been shunned because it calls for restoring national sovereignty, and some of its members are not “left.” But she also ignored the Communist Organization of Greece (KOE), which had been part of the SYRIZA government — although she mentioned that their newspaper, “Way of the Left” reviewed her book.

Some readers may also find her frequent descriptions of her tourist activities to be distracting. Nonetheless, Helena Sheehan’s personal account of the Greek and European left,who rode and crashed on the SYRIZA wave, is both fascinating and disturbing, and should raise many questions about where “radical leftism” is going.

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