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Alexis Tsipras’s Ramsay MacDonald moment?
13 July 2015
The British Labour Party leader Clement Attlee in his autobiography called the decisions taken in 1931 by the British labour party Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald ‘the greatest betrayal in the political history of the country.’
The economic and political situation facing the first ever Labour Party Prime Minister in 1931 is not too dissimilar from the one now facing Alex Tsipras and his Syriza Party today. In 1931 the austerity economists linked to the banking and financial interests were pressuring the recently elected Labour government to make deep cuts to public spending, including to the very meagre unemployment benefit and even to pensions, to supposedly’ balance the Government budget’. The Labour government had to make a choice between making the spending cuts and staying within conventions required by adherence to the Gold Standard or break with that straitjacket and devalue the national currency. The then unorthodox economists Lord Keynes had advised the Labour government to break with the balanced budget approach and to devalue the currency by as much as 25 percent.
What transpired in August 1931 was, MacDonald choice to follow the policy line of the financial and banking interest and enacted the severe austerity. In doing so he lost the support of his party and the working class that he purported to represent. Having lost the support of a large section of his Cabinet, MacDonald was asked by the King to form a new National Government with the Conservatives and Liberals for the sake of national unity. This he dutifully did, he then called an election in the name of the National Government and won the biggest electoral victory ever recorded, winning 554 seats. Unfortunately the Conservatives took the lion’s share taking 473 seats. There were now two Labour Parties, one holding on to the position of Prime Minister with only 13 seats and now calling itself National Labour and the original Labour Party in opposition led by Arthur Henderson and resting on a much reduced rump of 52 MP’s seats. Of course MacDonald was only the nominal Prime Minister, he was the absolute political prisoner of the Conservatives and the financial interest that he had elected to serve.
The current leader of the Syriza coalition, Alex Tsipras has now to decide if he wants to be a Ramsay MacDonald for the European Left. To keep his class and nation chained to the equivalence of the Gold Standard of our time, the rules pertaining to the single Euro Currency as set out in the Maastricht Treaty, and impose all of the austerity measures that come with staying the course, or decide to break with the terms of the Treaty and the Euro currency Union and therefore redirect the austerity measures away from the working class and against the interest of the international financial class. The early indicators are that he is ready to raise himself up to the political task at hand and lead a so-called National Greek Government if that is what is deemed necessary by international finance, to keep Greece within the straitjacket of the monetary Treaty, even if this means sacrificing the very unity of the Syriza party. The whole point of last week’s unnecessary referendum was to raise the personal standing of Tsipras to the height of a Statesman or of a Presidential leader who can command enough political authority to govern without the support of the whole of the Syriza party. To quote from a well placed member ‘ The other negative feature of the new structure is that Syriza has become a leader centred party, and this is accentuated by the fact that its internal structures are very numerous and dysfunctional…the whole process of decision making has become more centralised, more opaque, with the leader playing a very crucial role, combined with informal leadership circles, rather than a collective leadership, or even a more restricted group of leaders.’ Stathis Kouvelakis interview by the Jacobin online magazine.
Much of the Left has been slow to understand what was going on within Syriza itself. The party is a rather diffuse or hybrid coalition of right, left and centre social democrats and some committed socialists. Alex Tsipras belongs to a Euro Communist faction called Synaspismos of some 16,000 members that supported the Maastricht process from the outset. His own party faction has been closely linked to the teaching profession and this bourgeois layer that had been steadily losing control over the party machine, due to a growing number of workers joining the party due to the efforts of the Left Platform. Syriza has not until lately attracted support from the unions and class-conscious workers. The Left Platform got 25 percent of the slate at the inaugural National Conference in November 2012, and this has now reached 40 percent.
The primary leadership decisions are no longer being put to vote at the central committee level to avoid clashes with the left. Stathis Kouvelakis says in his interview that one of the aims of the party leadership has been ‘to marginalize the left tendencies within Syriza’ by turning outward to non-party members. The departure of the finance minister Yanis Varoufakis was another indicator of the direction of travel. He is not a socialist of any persuasion; his wife in fact is a bona fide Euro millionaire. Yet he was at least prepared to contemplate a break with the Maastricht Euro, and to ease up on the austerity programme being imposed on the Greek people. His threat may have only been a bluff, but it was recent press interviews indicating such a different course for Greece that led to him being pressed out of his lead negotiator position. It should be said that other prominent non-Greek economists like Paul Krugman have supported a break with the Maastricht criteria for the Euro and for Greece.
The first thing Tsipras did after the 61 percent No referendum was vote was to call together the leaders of the defeated political parties for a roundtable discussion on the way forward, the last thing he sought to do was put the what is to be done next question to the membership of his own political party. So there is evidence a plenty to suggest that Tspiras is being prepared to play a similar historic role to the one Ramsay MacDonald once played. He might think that this would at least be better than the creditors appointing their own Technical Government, but hopefully there will be enough people within the Syriza party to prevent it happening.
In an article just published in the Jacobin,
Panagiotis Sotiris says that ‘Today the danger is that the very notion
of the Left will become associated with betrayal and full endorsement of
austerity. And this is a cost the entire Left will pay for…It is the moral
obligation of all Syriza members of parliament to vote against the new
measures if they want to somehow salvage the honour and dignity of the
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