Those who experienced Lon-don of the 1970s may recall Collet’s, a left-wing bookshop run by a wing of the Communist Party, on Charing Cross Road. A distinctive feature of the bookshop was an anteroom that used to be referred to as the “cave”. This small room, marked by a square table at the centre and fragile shelves running along the walls, was a treasure trove of cottage industry publications of the various left-wing sects in Britain. From reprints of polemical tracts of Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg and fierce denunciations of each other by rival claimants to the mantle of the Fourth International to erudite essays on the Kurdish national question produced by an exile group, the “cave” provided countless hours of fun to some of us who delighted in the passion with which the Marxist sects not only hated capitalism but loathed each other.
That, of course, was another age — when the Soviet Union still loomed large in the public consciousness, when the euro existed only in the imagination of German think tanks and before globalisation was a lived reality. Buoyed by the counter-culture of the Sixties, the left still believed there was a world to win — if only perfidious revisionists didn’t fall prey to theoretical errors and succumb to the short-term lure of capitalism, as the social democrats in Europe had done.
It was a fantasy world in which the impatience of the much-romanticised working class to these lefties was blended with the preoccupation of the sects with “correctness”, doctrinal purity and fascination with battles being fought in Asia and Latin America.
Capitalism, needless to say, didn’t collapse; but the Soviet Union did, and China reinvented itself as the world’s most successful market economy. On the contrary, the system fuelled by moneybags and fat cats got a fresh lease of life and expanded its reach through a combination of globalisation and new technology. The Marxist sects in turn lost their sense of certitude and their concerns shifted to other themes such as environmentalism, feminism and, above all, lifestyle politics. Those who hated each other with greater passion than they despised capitalism also mellowed with age and the survivors of the “cave” experience even learnt to tolerate each other, particularly after the Moscow or Beijing-sponsored Communist parties opted for voluntary dissolution. Instead of the “party” the new buzzword was either “alliance” or “coalition” — umbrella outfits that subordinated doctrinal scepticism to activism.
As the crisis in Greece approaches a possible climax, it is instructive to understand the social and ideological ambience that nourished and sustained what is arguably the most successful experiment in post-Marxist political mobilisation. The Syriza party that has been at the helm in Athens since the beginning of this year is a strange animal that can be said to be an aggregation of all the tendencies on offer in the “cave”. It is the ultimate grand alliance of all the disparate — and they are truly disparate — elements that so occupied the fringe, far-left space in Europe. Whether it is the tie-less Alexis Tsipras, the former civic activist who is now Prime Minister, or the grandstanding, insolent former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis whose “absence” from formal meetings of eurozone finance ministers became an urgent necessity, there is a discernible political pedigree: anti-capitalist disdain blended with the virtues of entitlement.
A scholar well-versed in the internal byways of the Syriza government can inform the world of the extent to which the suspicion of the European Union is motivating the regime in Athens. From a distance, however, certain trends are becoming increasingly apparent.
First, it would seem that the negotiating strategy of Syriza is governed by the belief that neither Germany nor the EU as a whole will allow Greece to become a European Zimbabwe and slide towards chaos and bankruptcy because it will have a knock-on effect on the stability of the global capitalist order. If the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the US could trigger a recession that the world has barely recovered from, the argument is that Greece is too big to be allowed to slide towards bankruptcy. Consequently, Mr Tsipras and his new finance minister, the posh-speaking, public school and Oxford-educated Euclid Tsakalotos, may well believe that it is for the EU to secure a bailout package rather than Greece drawing up the contours of a survival strategy. This was only too apparent from
Mr Tsipras’ speech to the European Parliament last Wednesday.
Secondly, behind the apparent intransigence is the doctrinaire conviction — familiar to many political parties of the left in Europe — that deficit financing and unaffordable public debt is a perfectly legitimate way to run a country. Apart from the conviction that the more prosperous EU countries, notably Germany, owes the Greek people their livelihood, the Tsipras government doesn’t acknowledge the right of the lender to have any say in how the borrower manages its national affairs. Despite being from the left, the essential question raised by the Syriza government in last Sunday’s referendum was one of national sovereignty. It contested, as have other nationalist parties in Europe, the right of Eurocrats and the regime in Berlin to dictate national policy. In other words, it believes that Greece must be saved from financial collapse by other people’s money but without preconditions. For long there has been scepticism over Greece’s willingness to actually fulfil its “reform” commitments. With the Syriza party in charge, this scepticism has been reinforced.
Positing democracy against the power of unelected oligarchs may make sense when there is a domestic political battle. However, the battle Greece is waging at this point is against another sovereign and democratically elected government. Just as Mr Tsipras has his own voters to answer to, so does German Chancellor Angela Merkel who cannot be seen to be pouring money down a bottomless pit.
Maybe the whole issue indicates the unviability of a monetary union without a corresponding degree of political integration. But that is a mismatch that can’t be immediately resolved. And certainly not when the problem stems from the attitudes of a Greek leadership nurtured in the political culture of anti-capitalism. Even if a compromise is hammered out — albeit in the guise of humanitarian assistance to beleaguered fellow Europeans — it is bound to be temporary. To stay in a club, all members must adhere to the basic rules.
The writer is a senior journalist