Leo Panitch is co-editor of the Socialist Register and Professor Emeritus at York University, Canada. 

In an interview* with Tassos Tsakiroglou, political editor of the Athens daily “Journalists’ Journal” (Η Εφημερίδα των Συντακτών), he talks about Greece’s current economic situation, the SYRIZA government room for maneuver especially in relation to redistribution policies and the northern European working classes responsibility to try to change the correlation of forces so as to improve SYRIZA’s position and credibility. Professor Panitch emphasizes that “the great danger for any radical government taking office is its social-democratization” and the the “danger of being overwhelmed by the problems of managing the existing state”. In conclusion Leo Panitch underlines that “even with SYRIZA been forced to be social-democratized, Greek society did not give Golden Dawn beyond the 8%… It is something you should be very proud of and I think SYRIZA has something to do with it.”

The government claims that, in the summer of 2018, international economic surveillance will be over, and that Greece will start borrowing from the markets. How realistic do you think this is, given the country’s current economic situation?

This is very difficult for me to judge. On the basis of what I read in the press, this appears to be somewhat confirmed. The real question though is at what rate of interest it will be able to access international funds, that is, what will the spread be between the interest Greece would have to pay and the rates applying to Europe. On the surface, access looks increasingly like a possibility, and it still may be feasible after the German election. What the IMF has been calling for in exchange for the terrible structural adjustment that’s been forced on Greece is relief from a large portion of its debt. What I might have hoped is that, after the election, the Germans would have finally agreed to this.

I think however that the Liberals who will participate in the new government are against this.

That’s why I said “hope”. I don’t know if it is true or if it will happen or mere speculation that the liberals have insisted on taking the Finance Ministry. That’s quite possible. Your question makes a valid point in relation to the existing debt and whether Greece will be able to fulfill its obligations to gain access to the markets.

There is also the obligation to maintain the surplus at 3.5%

This rate is extremely high. It may not be impossible to meet, but at a cost of not being able deliver on many things the Greek government still wants to do, such as its distribution of some of the surplus to pensioners in last year’s budget. Tsakalotos nonetheless may still have some room for maneuvre even with that 3.5%, given the shifts in both unemployment and growth. That may give him enough room not to meet the 3.5 surplus requirement. But the causes and effects of all this go back 40 years, long before the Economic Monetary Union and the euro.

You have argued that the Left must take on government responsibilities and not exhaust its actions at protest events. How do you see things after 2.5 years of SYRIZA rule in Greece?

I still believe that. The prime responsibility in my view for the credibility of the SYRIZA government lies outside Greece, above all in the northern European working classes who could not -and at times did not want- to change the correlation of forces to give the SYRIZA government more room for maneuvre.

That said, I think that I was aware all along that going into government provided the leadership with an impossible choice. Had they said they would leave the Eurozone they would not have been reelected. That is what the Left Platform and many outside SYRIZA were insisting on, but this was completely unrealistic as abandoning the euro required introducing capital controls as well as import controls; and you cannot remain in the European Union with these limitations. There was always a lack of sense of reality in the claim that “we’ll leave the eurozone but not the European Union”. If you leave amidst a crisis without securing any funds from the ECB, and given the failure of Greek banks, it would require capital and import controls. And you couldn’t have remained in the E.U.  And SYRIZA did not have a mandate for that even after the referendum. It was an impossible situation and it required a shift in the correlation of forces.

In that sense, there is a parallel between 1917 and the situation in Greece. The only difference is that the Russians had oil to cover their energy needs, whilst Greece has only olive oil. You can’t run the economy on olive oil. Then there is another very serious dimension, which is membership of NATO and all of its implications that the left did not wish to discuss.

You mean the geopolitical implications?

Geopolitical, yes, but also the nature of the Greek military and the Greek Police, as well as the correlation of forces within them. On the other hand, it is clear that not to go into government would’ve been irresponsible also. There is a different situation in Portugal, a different alignment.

In an interview with our newspaper (Η Εφημερίδα των Συντακτών), Tsipras said that he will continue to seek cooperation with social democrats in Greece. Given the experience in Europe, do you believe that this political space now has any credibility?

No. I think that the great danger for any radical government taking office is its social-democratization, given the difficulty of carrying through a socialist programme in any country, and above all Greece in the context of the crisis: the danger of being overwhelmed by the problems of managing the existing state.

This was bound to happen with SYRIZA. Some of the leadership, especially Tsakalotos and the group of 53 he is associated with, have a vision beyond this. I don’t think they have been helped by so many people with shared views walking away from SYRIZA. The Left Platform could have turned itself into a major political force. Had they remained, developments would have been different.

Tsipras is now forced to govern with AN.ELL, a very conservative party.

Yes and that has implications in terms of the relationship with the church and so on. But there’s also been a failure: their overwhelming concern for able and honest people running the state versus their lack of concern- not only in the leadership- for developing the capacity of the party, to educate, mobilize and develop alternative means of production and consumption. It has been a problem with this government but it is further reinforced when someone like the former general secretary of the party walks away from his position instead of trying to mobilize the party to be SYRIZA again. Thus, the Left cannot be the political force it needs to be.

What we see in Europe and the United States is the rise of conservative, xenophobic, even fascist political forces, while the Left is on the decline even though it engages in solitary struggles from time to time. What is your explanation?

I think what we are seeing is that institutions are promoting neoliberalism, with the European Union doing it as a whole, social-democracy also embracing neoliberalism -PASOK did this in Greece- and the centre-right parties have also embraced neoliberalism; these institutions have all lost their legitimacy during this long crisis.

In my opinion, the ideology of neo-liberalism was never as popular as people thought it was. We see that with the antiglobalisation movement, and the deceit of the attempted reform of the European constitution along neoliberal lines. Even in the USA there are resistances from the working class.

There is huge suspicion of neoliberalism and in this long crisis we see the delegitimation of institutions.

In Greece, that resulted in the rise of Golden Dawn and much more importantly to the explosion of support for SYRIZA. The wave of occupation of public spaces and student strikes has put the rise of Golden Dawn relatively in the shadow.

I think it’s remarkable that even with SYRIZA been forced to be social-democratized, Greek society did not give Golden Dawn beyond the 8% it had already achieved. It is something you should be very proud of and I think SYRIZA has something to do with it. 

That said, the bankruptcy of social-democracy, its embrace with neoliberalism and the delegitimation of centre-right parties leaves enormous space open to a xenophobic, nationalist Right which expresses itself in anti-globalization terms and identifies capital globalization with human rights in particular, especially with liberal notions.

And this is extremely worrying. It’s not just an appeal to the white working class: the appeal is homophobic as well as xenophobic, it’s patriotic and it’s sexist. That is why Putin is a hero for all these people; because in the context of the Olympics, he openly showed that he was homophobic. It even has an appeal to immigrants in certain countries who espouse a similar stance.

In America for example, 33% of the Latino vote went to Trump, with 43% of educated women voting for him. That said, the natural base of the old communist and social-democratic parties has been left open to this. And this is the great danger of our time.

Is there anything positive?

There are some positive elements in this political protest from both sides of the spectrum, Right and Left.

And that is SYRIZA, Podemos, Block, but also Sanders of the Democratic Party in the USA, as well as Corbyn of the Labour Party in Britain, both of whom distinguished themselves. Corbyn campaigned for the rights of Palestinians, nuclear disarmament etc, which is very positive.

There are also many limitations. The Labour party, not to mention the Democratic Party, both in internal structure and goals is oriented towards linking its path to power with a process of education, mobilization and capacity building that would give support.

The momentum development in Britain is very important. But will they have the capacity to turn Labour constituencies into centres of working class life?When I was in Greece, SYRIZA was caught in a great dilemma, meaning this juncture in political time. Because of the crisis and its impact on working people, because of the danger of the rise of the Right, you don’t have the time to wait until you’re in power to do what you can. And you need a great deal of time to change these parties into what they aren’t as yet. And this is a terrible disjuncture. There is no easy answer to this.

Από τα επιτόκια δανεισμού θα εξαρτηθεί η επιτυχής ή όχι έξοδος στις αγορές (28.10.2017)