When I met Alexis Tsipras in late January at a small gathering in The Nation’s New York offices, it was immediately clear he was no ordinary politician. The 38-year-old former civil engineer and current leader of Syriza, the main opposition party in the Greek parliament, introduced himself uncertainly to the room of journalists before pouring some coffee into a plastic cup, which he held uncomfortably for a few moments before someone dashed to find him a better-insulated paper cup. Not the smoothest of initial impressions. Tsipras, who rides to parliament on a BMW motorcycle, would be ill-suited for the baby-kissing pageantry of American politics.
Nor would he be comfortable with the vague platitudes commonplace here. Tsipras came across as intelligent and well-rounded, impressing even the conservatives in the room with his grasp of the economic situation and the balance of political forces in his country. To the pleasant surprise of some, and the disappointment of others, Tsipras didn’t present a revolutionary platform, but rather a new social democratic common sense — a Left alternative to austerity that could serve as a guidepost for other nations in Europe’s periphery.
The movement wasn’t exactly on the ascent in the late 1980s, but Tsipras joined the Communist Youth of Greece when he was in high school anyway. At the time, the Greek Left was concentrated in Synaspismós, an electoral coalition between the hardline pro-Soviet Communist Party of Greece and reformers in the Communist Party of Greece (interior). The latter was formed in the 1960s, by socialists inspired by the example of the Italian Communist Party, which advocated more democratic forms of social transformation in Western Europe free of the “Soviet model.”
Following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Synaspismós came to be dominated by these reformers. When, in 2004, Synaspismós came together with other small parties to form an alliance called the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), Tsipras was there with them. An unfailingly charismatic leader, he quickly rose through the ranks.
Today, he is poised to become the youngest prime minister in the European Union.
The terrain was fertile. Greece has a radical past, with even the unabashedly Stalinist Communist Party of Greece (KKE) — which refuses to work with others on the Left — maintaining a measure of mass support. Syriza, however, was the upstart. It surprised in the 2007 election, winning 5.6 percent of the vote, but was still a marginal force.
Then came the flood. The story of Greece’s economic collapse is by now familiar. One of the first casualties was the country’s once-dominant center- left. The Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) was the political organ of the Greek working class, but its austerity agenda, enacted in implicit agreement with, and later in coalition with, the center-right New Democracy party, led many to look for alternatives.
Syriza is now the main party of opposition, threatening to overtake the center-right and forge its own governing coalition. Should that happen, Tsipras will become prime minister. Syriza calls for an end to austerity, renegotiation with the European Central Bank, and Keynesian measures to stimulate demand. But another alternative for disgruntled Greeks is the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, a party, in Tsipras’ words, of “ex-nightclub-security guards.” He’s quick, however, to point out the savviness and intelligence behind the rise of the group, which is now polling at 11.5 percent.
Operating in true fascist tradition, the Golden Dawn roams the streets, at times physically attacking progressive demonstrations. But it also lifts whole passages from the Left’s critique of European austerity, painting itself as an anti-establishment force. But where Tsipras points out that the battle raging in Greece is part of a global one between capital and labor, Golden Dawn traffics in more nationalist rhetoric. Its vitriol is often directed against German bankers, the same forces that brought Greece to ruin during World War II. They even want war reparations, full coverage of Greek debt and another $200 billion in punitive payment. The Oedipal irony of this message coming from a neo-Nazi party is lost on many.
More in the spirit of its German predecessor are Golden Dawn’s attacks on immigrants and migrant workers, constituencies that Tsipras says Syriza is trying to organize on a mass basis, albeit with little success thus far.
The differences between the defenders of immigrants and their oppressors should be easy to discern. But the mainstream media — in Europe and in the United States — has been quick to draw analogies between the two “extremisms” that Greek workers are drawn toward. CNN.com contributor Roman Gerodimos even compared the situation to the Weimar Republic in the days before Hitler’s rise — a period where the decay of moderate forces led to a struggle to the death between the Stalinist Left and the Nazi Right.
It is an attempt to relegate Syriza (which, according to opinion polls, is as popular among Greeks as the governing conservative New Democracy party) to the political margins and bestow legitimacy on only the two austerity parties of the center — parties that voters have justifiably lost all confidence in. Yet one question asked by mainstream commentators deserves attention: What would Syriza do if in power?
Tsipras says that Greece lacks an industrial base, making an exit from the Euro difficult, but he thinks Syriza would be more effective at renegotiating Greece’s debt with European officials because of its harder line and outsider status. Yet he is careful to impress observers with a tempered understanding of his country’s options.
He is, after all, on a world tour to gain the legitimacy with the international power elite that he has already won with much of his own public. Earlier in January, he met with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. In Washington he met with the IMF and the Treasury Department. And in New York, he was interviewed by the New York Times editorial board, to whom he said: “They say I am the most dangerous man in Europe. What I feel is dangerous is the policy of austerity in Europe.”
Syriza may not be the first — or even second or third — choice of international capital, so Tsipras’ pitch went, but it would be able to administer a state without imploding the entire Eurozone.
It seems possible that Syriza is offering both Greeks and Europeans an alternative, governing the state without administering more cuts: European Social Democracy 2.0 in the age of austerity. And this possibility would provide a model to those struggling in places like Portugal and Spain, struggles that Tsipras sees as being merely “two years or so behind the situation in Greece.”
But many of those in Syriza have ambitions more radical than social democracy. Tsipras has plenty of answers as to how he would minimize capital flight and the subversive actions of the Greek oligarchy, but few about how the party would respond to work occupations and the spontaneous militancy of the extra-parliamentary Left once it is in power. It will be a hard task to reassure international capital that Syriza can manage a state without turning on the radical forces that the party owes its rise to.
In defense of Tsipras’ pragmatic approach, tiny Greece cannot move in a more socialist direction alone. What is needed is a radical shift across Europe and the developed world as a whole. And for many Greeks, an end to austerity and an end to the suffering seems like more than enough.