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From Papandreou to Tsipras

What can the history of Greek populism tell us about Syriza's election victory?

The Syriza press tent during the elections in January 2015 in Athens, Greece. Marcos Fast as a Snail / Flickr

How should we read Syriza’s latest electoral victory? Certainly this question forms the basis for countless discussions on the Left. Why did the Greek people choose to back a politician who turned their proud “Oxi” into subservience toward the third and most brutal of all the memoranda? Moreover, why has the left-wing split from Syriza failed to even enter parliament?

The answer to these questions consists of many parts that cannot be analyzed here — the record abstention rate of 45 percent, the fear of a conservative comeback, Popular Unity’s twenty-eight-day existence, just to name a few. Nevertheless, there’s another aspect worth considering that, while not capable of explaining the whole picture or even most of it, certainly contributes to a better understanding of the Greek political landscape.

Much has been said and written in the last five years about the supposed comeback of “populism” and “populist politics,” the importance of “empty signifiers” in forming broad movements and alliances. In this telling, Podemos and Syriza are populist movements that belong neither to the Left nor to the Right, while Tsipras and Pablo Iglesias are the quintessence of populist leaders, able to rally the masses behind them.

My contention is that a populist moment exists, but it is much more sophisticated than the fashionable one associated with Ernesto Laclau and devoid of any class content.

Anybody familiar with the history of Greek politics would have noticed how much the Tsipras campaign this month differed from the one in January — not just in content but in style. And it wasn’t just that the emphasis was solely placed on Tsipras as a political leader. The posture, the attitude, the speeches — all were reminiscent of former Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou during his reign in the 1980s.

If popular memory is a factor that co-determines political agency, then it’s worth remembering who Papandreou was. He was the offspring of a bourgeois political dynasty that moved swiftly to the left during Greece’s military dictatorship, experimenting with neo-Marxist concepts like dependency theory. Riding a wave of politicization after the fall of the dictatorship, he founded Pasok and became prime minister in 1981 on a platform of getting Greece out of NATO and the European Union and transitioning to socialism.

Of course, none of this materialized. Papandreou swiftly compromised. Still, he won reelection in 1985 and was able to create his own social base and system of clientelism (a major corruption scandal forced him out of office at the end of the decade), expand the welfare state and the public sector, and give Greece a semi-independent posture in foreign policy.

The Iranian historian Ervand Abrahamian — by way of describing the Ayatollah Khomeini as a populist in the vein of Argentina’s Juan Peron — defined populism as a middle-class movement that mobilizes the lower classes using radical rhetoric to attack the prevailing status quo. Populist movements rely on charismatic figures, imagery, and symbols borrowed from popular culture. But owing to their class composition, these movements stop short of putting the principle of private property into question. Inevitably, talk of social revolution is supplanted by talk of cultural or national reconstruction.

Papandreou’s record of reforms, his nationalist rhetoric, and his use of popular imagery are all in accord with these criteria — with the major exception that Pasok was less of a middle-class movement and more of a social-democratic one in its class composition.

The absence of a global economic crisis on the current scale also made it possible to implement modest social measures that endeared him to many Greeks. His original Third-Worldism, a reaction to the complete domination of Greece by Washington, gave the country a sense of dignity as well as respect on the international scene. By the time Papandreou was reelected again in 1993, Greece was a regional geopolitical player with a banking sector expanding throughout the Balkans.

Papandreou’s populism is certainly more fondly remembered in Greece today than the detached and overtly academic persona of his successor as prime minister and Pasok leader, Costas Simitis, the “Third Way” social democrat who expanded the system of corruption that Papandreou helped build and which eventually incurred the debt that future generations of Greeks will have to live with.

So did Tsipras win both elections by pulling off a Papandreou? Difficult to say, but there are certainly many similarities. He definitely attacked the status quo with radical rhetoric in the past. His rhetoric in the most recent election challenging the “old forces of yesterday” marked him as a classic populist. And he mobilized people for the July 5 referendum, then stopped short of undoing the eurozone’s austerity framework.

In capitulating to the lenders’ demands, he justified his actions with reference to the national interest. Panos Kammenos, the leader of the Independent Greeks, who went from to tactical ally to political sidekick of Tsipras, summed it up well when he argued that he and the prime minister opted to shoot their own parties in the leg than to shoot the country. Accordingly, their discourse is now adorned with talk of “national dignity” and “reconstruction.”

Greece might be located in Europe, but its social structure is more characteristic of a Latin American country. There is a huge urban-rural divide: the rich are more insulated from the rest of society than elsewhere in Europe, while politics is deeply embedded in informal systems of patronage and corruption.

All this makes Greece fertile ground for populist politics. Tsipras should be credited for redefining the tradition of Greek cross-class populism by incorporating the “Europeanism of the underdogs” — viewing membership in the single currency as a matter of national pride — and employing a certain rhetorical bravado when referring to European elites “who want to force us out.”

Such rhetoric, of course, doesn’t change the reality: Greece’s fiscal policy is entirely contingent on the whims of the European “institutions,” a subordination to which Tsipras acceded. Indeed, by conveniently overlooking these facts, Tsipras’s campaign discourse was a nauseating tour de force of lies and demagogy.

And here comes the farcical part of the story and the reason why Tsipras can never hope to become the political patriarch that Papandreou once was. Unable to convince the lenders of the mutual benefit of reforming the eurozone and relieving Greek debt, Tsipras embraced the tradition of Greek populism that Papandreou embodies so well.

However, the social base of Tsipras’s project is much thinner than that of the old Pasok. Even after its electoral annihilation, Pasok retains a dedicated core following of opportunists and careerists waiting to resurface again. Its rise in the 1980s coincided with an increase in social mobility.

Syriza, on the other hand, was not formed as a party with a catch-all ideology of “socialism with Greek characteristics,” but as a principled formation seeking to overcome austerity and radically transform society (and even Europe). Its context was the impoverishment of the working class and the decimation of the middle classes.

By relieving itself of its founding raison d’etre, Syriza risks becoming superfluous. Unlike Pasok, the party did not grow out of the ebbing of social struggles some years after the fall of the dictatorship, but rode the waves of social mobilization that have rocked Greece since 2008. Accordingly, its voters expect much more than it will be able to deliver.

Even if Syriza tried to build the hegemony Pasok once achieved — one based on patronage and favoritism — it doesn’t have the resources to do so, not to mention any capacity to manage austerity “more humanely.” The implementation of harsh cuts in the coming months will likely split the party further.

Going forward, the key challenge for the Greek radical left will be choosing the form its recomposition will take amid the imposition of the third memorandum. It will need to overcome doctrinal differences and form a unified strategy after analyzing its successes and failures over the last three years.

Even those disappointed in Tspiras’s performance should recognize that the stakes are tremendously high. Further missteps by a “government of the Left” can have dangerous consequences in a country where the third largest force in parliament is a Nazi party. It’s up to the radical left to keep the right-wing threat at bay.