The ongoing financial crisis has highlighted different aspects of how Greece is engaged in various European dilemmas and how political developments in the country are interwoven with Europe’s contrasts. In this context, tracing the history of left wing political forces in Greece and their access to power involves a reexamination of the history of eurocommunism, since SYRIZA and other European radical left parties draw their legacy from this ideological tradition. At the same time, eurocommunism has also influenced Social-democratic parties and policies.
Panteion University researcher Giannis Balabanidis’ new book on Eurocommunism (just published in Greek by Polis editions) studies the history of Eurocommunism and the “long” decade of the 70’s, exploring at the same time the dilemmas and prospects of progressive political forces both in Greece and in Europe. Giannis Balabanidis spoke to GrèceHebdo and Rethinking Greece*:
Your book is an exploration of the forgotten history of Eurocommunism. What made you choose such a topic?
My starting point was the “KKE Interior” communist party (1968-1987), a paradoxical case: a small party with a wide ideological appeal; a communist party that was at the same time a reformist, moderate, pro-European party, bearing the message of an advanced political liberalism. Soon I realized that this small party was part of a much broader political movement, namely Eurocommunism, which at the time (early 70´s) included the Italian Communist Party (PCI) of Enrico Berlinguer, the French Communist Party (PCF) of Georges Marchais and the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) of Santiago Carrillo. A movement that has been a major attempt to renovate the communist project in order to adapt it to the Western liberal democracies and to part with the less and less attractive soviet model. Despite its contradictions and regressions, this renewal was successful, before its demise, just before 1989. Its heritage however has been essential for the European left.
What are the elements that bring SYRIZA as a party of the radical left close to the case of Eurocommunism?
The legacy I refer to applies to the case of SYRIZA in two ways. First, in terms of political kinship: the Greek Eurocommunism party, “KKE Interior” is the ancestor of SYRIZA. Second, as a renewed strategic proposal. The great innovation of Eurocommunism has been the attempt to transform the radicalism of “Global 1968”, the political agenda of social movements focusing on the idea of a new utopia in the West, into a program for gradual social transformation through “structural reforms”, following the democratic conquest of power. This eurocommunist synthesis – “party of struggle and government party” – was the key for communist parties to evolve from “pariahs” to legitimate players in the national political scene.
We could draw parallels between this “forgotten history” of Eurocommunism of the 70s and the current political situation: the crisis and the austerity policies have lead to the emergence of a new radicalism in Europe, which favors radical Left parties – SYRIZA here being an exceptional but not unique case. The post-communist Left, which after 1989 was limited to a protest and “anti-systemic” profile, is now facing these old questions and seeks answers from its manifold and often conflicting heritage.
Once in power, can SYRIZA retain its radical left identity or will it be forced to turn into a social democratic party?
Eurocommunists have constantly oscillated between two divergent strategies: governance based on gradual reforms / breaking with the capitalist system. Far from attempting a direct historical analogy, a similar ambivalence may be observed during the government period of SYRIZA. The radical populist strategy that brought a party of 4-5% in power marked the first phase, haunted by the temptation of the “big rupture” with austerity, international lenders, the EU – culminating with the referendum of July 2015. But the moment of the rupture never came. SYRIZA has accepted the constraints of a conservative Europe, choosing the fight within the EU instead of a national retreat. In its second governing phase, SYRIZA is in search of a progressive public policy agenda and “anti-austerity” allies among the socialists of France, Italy, etc. Will SYRIZA then turn into a Social Democratic Party, parting with the radical Left? The question remains to be answered.
In your opinion, is there a promising future for social democracy or is it just a political force in decline?
Although its political appeal is currently quite low, social democracy remains a power with deep historical roots and governmental vocation, an indispensable component of European politics. Following a period of great popularity of Blairism and “third way” politics, social democracy seems to be reduced to an emaciated political mechanism. On the other hand, the radical Left in Europe has been strengthened since it constitutes a voice of protest against austerity policies. But although the radical Left exerts a considerable electoral pressure to socialist parties, it remains for the time being a minority force, without direct access to power.
In any case, it can be noted that the (non-linear) emergence of a radical left in Greece, but also in Spain, France, Germany or the Netherlands, seems to trigger shifts within the socialist parties. Could we perhaps seek similarities to what happened during the 70s when the emergence of Eurocomunism provoked a radicalization of the Mediterranean socialist parties of Mitterrand and González? Look at what happened recently in Portugal, where socialists needed the radical Left’s cooperation to return to power, under the banner of an anti-austerity plan too! Are we witnessing the emergence of a “plural left” (socialists, communists, greens) at a European level? That’s a hypothesis that remains to be confirmed or not.
“Modernization” and “europeanisation”, central concepts in Greek political discourse especially during the Metapolitefsi period (i.e. after the 1967-74 dictatorship), are now met with the concept of “reforms”, emphatically used in the political discourse of centrist political parties (Potami, PASOK). Can we rethink the Greek case as an opportunity to reconceptualize political radicalism and progressive reforms?
The “Modernization” and “europeanization” requests are intertwined with the history of the Greek state since its birth. And there is a corresponding unresolved duality in the Greek psyche, much more complex and contradictory than the supposed dualism between a progressive “Western” and a backward “East” aspect. Nevertheless, as many Modern Greek history scholars have shown, Greece has managed, even at the last moment, to follow the major strategic choices of the West, albeit with some delay, hence the perennial request for a “catch-up”.
“Modernization” in the Greek political discourse of the 1980s-1990s and more recently the call for “Reforms” are “floating signifiers”. Because what really matters is what kind of political forces will provide them with political substance and direction. Historically, the Left in Greece, despite its far-reaching efforts (e.g. with United Democratic Left during the 1950s-60s and KKE Interior during the 1970s and 80s) didn’t manage to rise to the occasion. The eurocommunist parties in general tried to incorporate modernization requests coming from the movements of 1968 and the new social trends (to the extent that some scholars have characterized them as “parties of modernization”). A case in point: a hegemonic moment for Italy’s PCI was its strong defense of the right to divorce in the referendum of 1974.
What kind of radical social demands are formulated in today’s Greece? The right to citizenship for second generation immigrants and the right for civil partnership for homosexual couples are important cultural and institutional modernization demands. Thus there is a certain scope for progressive reforms beyond the MoU’s budgetary compulsions. But how can reforms really meet with left radicalism, under the conditions of the current Syriza alliance with the deeply conservative party of Independent Greeks? That’s the question!
Can we (re)think Greece within the comparative framework of Southern Europe? Do you think that the history of Eurocommunism can contribute to this end?
Paraphrasing Antonio Gramsci I would say that the history of Eurocommunism is the history of Europe from a certain point of view – and within this framework, the history of Greece. This is the major virtue of the comparative method, the fact that it allows us to escape the occasionally parochial national perspective.
The economic crisis, which manifested itself in a sweeping way in our country, triggered a process of individual and collective reflection. Why did we get here? What went wrong and how could we fix it? The answers proposed often remain trapped in an ethnocentric perspective. However, the facts constantly contradict all those interpretations attributing the crisis solely to Greek pathologies, as well as those who opted for national solutions (and ruptures) to problems that can only be handled at European level. So I believe that this comparative methodology could be an antidote to a certain intellectual self-reference that affects us all.
*Interview by Nikolas Nenedakis & Costas Mavroidis. Translated by Athina Rossoglou
An extended version of this interview has been published in Greek in “Εποχή” weekly newspaper (Γ. Μπαλαμπανίδης: Η μεγάλη ευρωκομμουνιστική σύνθεση, 6.12.2015)