Greece with a human face

On the afternoon of Monday, July 14 – with the ink barely dry on the Eurogroup’s merciless ‘agreement’ with Greece, signed off by Alexis Tsipras early that morning – Slovakia’s finance minister Peter Kažimir posted the following, slightly ungrammatical, statement on Twitter: ‘Greece compromise we reached this morning is tough for Athens because it’s the result of their Greek Spring.’ A digital Freudian slip, the tweet was hastily removed by Kažimir, but not before it was captured by the international media. Most assumed that the Slovak was equating Syriza’s electoral victory with the Arab Spring of 2011/12, but given his country of origin, it is more likely that Kažimir had the primordial ‘spring’ in mind: the Prague Spring of 1968.

Greece’s charismatic ex-finance minister Yanis Varoufakis looked to World War I for a historical analogy to the savage terms imposed on Greece by the EU’s political masters, telling ABC Radio’s Philip Adams that his country had been subjected to a ‘new Versailles treaty.’ But perhaps more intriguing are the parallels between Greece in the first half of 2015 and Czechoslovakia in the first half of 1968.

In the mid to late 1960s, the Soviet bloc seemed to be in relatively good health. The show trials and mass killings of political opponents that marked the Stalin era had receded to the past, and since World War II, most of the Warsaw Pact nations had enjoyed two decades of strong economic growth, rebuilding themselves from the rubble wrought by war and Nazi occupation. Yes, Eastern European governments were undeniably repressive, their Brezhnevite leadership bodies – memorably called a ‘palsied gerontocracy’ by Perry Anderson – were hardly inspirational. The notion of world communist unity had taken a battering with the Sino-Soviet split, and life behind the Iron Curtain for those not belonging to the nomenklatura was generally dreary and dispiriting. But in the clash of superpowers, the Soviet sphere did not come off too badly: unlike its American counterpart, the USSR did not support fascist dictatorships, was not trying to bomb a Third World country back to the Stone Age, and was not wracked by assassinations and internal unrest. Khrushchev’s heady talk of ‘communism within 20 years’ may well have yielded to Brezhnev’s torpid pragmatism, but the political order established in the Eastern bloc seemed solid and durable. Above all, most of the Western left (including the mass communist parties of southern Europe), while largely disburdened of any illusions in the nature of these regimes, at least placed their faith in the possibility of reforming ‘actually existing socialism’ in a democratic, more politically open direction.

These hopes were crystallised in Czechoslovakia when, in January 1968, Alexander Dubček became General Secretary of the Communist Party and initiated a series of liberal reforms dubbed ‘socialism with a human face’. The Prague Spring that followed unnerved the USSR leadership, but at bilateral talks held in July, Dubček stressed to his Soviet interlocutors that the country would not leave the Warsaw Pact. He was convinced that this guarantee would give free reign to the Czechoslovak party on domestic matters, but this proved to be a naive miscalculation: on August 20, Soviet tanks rolled across the border. The core leadership of the Czechoslovak government was arrested and conveyed to the Soviet capital, where, physically fatigued and subject to threats and bullying, they were compelled to sign the Moscow Protocols, substantially rolling back the reforms of earlier in the year. Dubček remained the nominal head of the country until his replacement by Husák in April 1969, but in reality all power had been taken out of his hands. Reduced to an impotent figurehead, the Czechoslovak leader could only issue calls for his compatriots not to resist the Soviet invasion, for fear of his country meeting a yet graver fate.

The events were a shock for the European left. The Warsaw Pact intervention was denounced by the Communist Parties of Spain, Italy and France, and precipitated their shift to Eurocommunism. More broadly, any hopes that the regimes of Eastern Europe could make a peaceful transition into democratic socialist societies were shattered by the invasion. Dubček had essentially carried out the programme wished for by those seeking reform of the existing systems – and was met with Russian tanks.

In essence, the crushing of the Prague Spring also brought about the demise of communism in Eastern Europe. From this point on, any diehard Stalinists who sought to come to the defence of the Soviet system could be met with the simple, irrefragable response: ‘But what about Prague?’ It is true that the reverberations from this event did not bring down the hollowed-out edifice until two decades later, but it was in 1968 that the death knell for the Soviet sphere sounded. Certainly, the economic marasmus of the late Brezhnev era – belatedly addressed by Gorbachev’s attempts at reform – had a role to play in this precipitous collapse, but just as important was the loss of ideological legitimacy the incursion entailed. As long as there was still hope, however slim, of meaningful reform, challenges to the system could be channelled and absorbed. With the vanishing of this as a political possibility, the crisis for the Soviet bloc became an existential one. When the moment of downfall came at the end of the 1980s, it was swifter and more spectacular than anyone could have predicted. Notably, too, politics in this region had become so decayed that even talk of Dubčekian humanist socialism was summarily scotched (Dubček himself was jeered when he suggested this at a Prague demonstration in 1989), and the free market capitalism of the West was jubilantly, disastrously embraced.

Could the Eurogroup meeting of July 12-13 represent the EU’s Prague Spring moment? The timelines of the two historical phenomena are uncanny: a government promising radical reforms comes to power at the beginning of the year, only to meet with continued opposition from the conservative old guard within, and dogged antipathy from its supposed international allies without. While much of the new premier’s focus is consumed by negotiating his country’s international obligations with a stubborn, overweening neighbour, the nation undergoes a deep politicisation, its people infused with a sense of ebullience and optimism even amidst the dire circumstances they are faced with – represented above all, in the case of Greece, by the inspiring 61.3% No vote on July 5, perhaps the only truly democratic moment in the history of the EU. But this buoyancy is quashed by the intransigence and bloody-mindedness of the regional power, happier to see its obstreperous vassal-state smothered for decades to come than for it to taste the air of sovereign freedom.

There are, of course, differences between the two events: for a start, the EU’s ‘coup’ against Syriza is less overtly brutal than the Warsaw Pact’s toppling of Dubček. Varoufakis – a reliable source for biting aperçus – is accurate in labelling the July 13 agreement a ‘postmodern occupation’ which is undertaken by means of banks rather than tanks. On the other hand, not even Brezhnev and Kosygin had the gall to propose the mass theft of public wealth contained in Wolfgang Schäuble’s mooted $50 billion privatisation fund – to be administered by a Luxembourg bank chaired by none other than Schäuble himself. Of course, this last measure was so egregious that it was the only concession Tsipras could wring out of his European ‘partners’: the cash-grab remains, but it will now be overseen by EU bankers based in Athens, rather than the notorious money-laundering tax haven on the French-German border.

The rest of the new memorandum makes for sorry reading, with the EU apparatchiki annulling all relevant Syriza legislation passed since the January election and impelling a rapid dismantling of the country’s social fabric. Unlike Dubček’s abduction to Moscow, Tsipras went to Brussels of his own free will, but the 17-hour brow-beating he received from a tag-team of Merkel, Tusk and cohort – widely referred to in the media as ‘mental waterboarding’ – was analogous to the treatment the Czech leader received in the Soviet capital. Dreading a still more draconian retaliation from a hostile continental power bloc, as augured by Schäuble’s late proposal for a ‘temporary’ Grexit, the Greek PM caved in, and signed a document whose viability he openly acknowledges he does not believe. In this estimation he is joined by virtually all sane and impartial economists, no matter their political persuasion. Even the IMF, hardly a friend of the radical left, considers Greece’s debt repayment plan to be untenable. The prospect of the Hellenic republic ever returning to economic growth under the conditions to which the EU has subjected it is a mirage, clung onto only by the most deluded Pollyannas among the technocrats of Brussels.

For Europeans, the question now is whether the ‘resolution’ of the Greek crisis, while forestalling the possibility of the Eurozone shaking off an unwanted, economically gangrenous limb, merely papers over an underlying mortal affliction. The continent is unquestionably in a state of economic stagnation which shows no signs of abating, promising to be as structurally insurmountable as the Soviet downturn of the 1970s and 1980s (or, more recently, Japan’s ‘lost decades’ after the early-1990s bust). Perhaps more damaging, however, is the ideological toll caused by the crippling punishment meted out to Greece. Who, after July 13, can honestly believe in the EU’s empty rhetoric of solidarity, democracy and human rights? What does the ‘ever closer union’ of the Rome treaty mean now other than the suffocating grip of a shadowy, unaccountable bureaucracy? What more galling sight was there than the cast of besuited clones shuffling into the soulless glass structure of the Eurogroup meeting hall in Brussels, each one fronting up to the media and reciting the bland homily that Syriza had ‘lost their trust’? In the manner of aspiring actresses desperate to land a plumb role in a Hollywood film, they all strove to express as much faux-sincerity as they could muster upon delivering the same, repetitive lines from a script that – it does not take a paranoid Germanophobe to surmise – was evidently composed in the back-rooms of the Bundestag. The resulting interminable parade of sanctimonious hypocrisy surpassed, in its specious affectation, even the Warsaw Pact’s pietistic expressions of ‘proletarian internationalism’ after the Czechoslovak invasion.

It could be argued that little else was to be expected from the ascendant conservative fraction of the EU’s variegated political caste, concentrated in the administrations of Germany and the continent’s north-east. But the role of European social-democracy in the sordid depredation of a left-wing government was particularly ignominious. While figures like the nominally left-of-centre Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem gleefully sided with the fiscal hawks in their unstinting attacks on Syriza, others, such as French president François Hollande and Italian PM Matteo Renzi, maintained a studious silence on matters Greek, with Hollande only intervening into the affair at the last possible moment, tepidly helping to draft a Syriza proposal taken to the Euro Summit that was immediately discarded by the Merkel-Schäuble clique. Since then, not a peep of protest has been heard from the mainstream pseudo-left.

It was a different scenario for the motley far left, which has been steadfast in its principled solidarity with Greece. If the Greek situation has exerted such a high degree of fascination for the radical left around the world, it is because we now have skin in the game. Not, of course, in the same way that, say, a young Greek dealing with unending unemployment or a retiree relying on her pension to pay for needed medication has skin in the game. Nonetheless, for the first time in a generation, an unabashedly left-wing group has come to political power in Europe, and its experience will be salient for the prospects of similar tendencies in other countries.

Since Tsipras’ capitulation, however, the left finds itself even more divided on the question of support for Syriza, an international reflection of the left-wing coalition’s internal unravelling, as the Left Platform refused to vote for the austerity measures demanded by the EU, with Tsipras relying on the pro-European right to pass the legislation required of him. Those who see the Greek PM as nothing but a capitalist stooge who was always going to betray the Greek people are, however, misguided in their sectarianism: if this were the case, it is hard to imagine that he would have spent six months tenaciously trying to extract more favourable terms from EU creditors, and inconceivable that he would have launched a snap referendum on the matter and campaigned for the Oxi camp (Brussels, as its reaction to the French and Irish votes on the EU constitution demonstrated, is fundamentally allergic to acts of mass political involvement such as referendums).

Like Dubček, one could accuse Tsipras of political naivety – genuinely believing that appeals to international solidarity and ‘European’ values could have persuaded his EU neighbours to show some leniency. I sense, however, that it is not so much naivety as the straitjacket of the dominant Eurocommunist tradition in Syriza’s parliamentary caucus that prevents Tsipras from taking more radical steps. As Left Platform leader Stathis Kouvelakis writes in Jacobin, this tendency, in which Tsipras himself came of age, has assimilated the ‘anti-political’ mantra of Thatcherite conservatism: that ‘there is no alternative’ to working within the established institutions of global capital. No matter how unpalatable the EU’s measures were, the ‘moderate’ faction of Syriza could not countenance departing from the euro – a refusal compounded by the Greek electorate’s continued unwillingness to take this path, as well as the daunting logistical challenges that re-establishing a national currency would have presented. The only option, then, was to pray for mercy, and when this was not forthcoming, the result has been disarray and division within a party that had until recently presented a comparatively united face to the public.

Whether Tsipras’ accession to the Eurogroup memorandum’s sadistic demands results in the downfall of his government is yet to be seen – I know of few people confident of making predictions on this score. But one thing is now certain. From a left-wing standpoint – that is, from a standpoint advocating genuine international solidarity, democratic popular control and egalitarian social justice – the Greek crisis has irrefutably shown the EU to be politically bankrupt and profoundly irrecoverable. To those who seek an EU road to socialism (or even a milder, more social democrat variant of capitalism), the rejoinder from now on will inevitably be: ‘But what about Greece?’ Reforming the institution, giving it a human face, is a vain, hopeless endeavour. Electing radical left governments at home will inevitably bring them into implacable conflict with their continental overlords. The ‘ever closer union’ now means little more than an ever more entrenched bureaucratic apparatus, whose grey functionaries are loftily impervious to any form of democratic accountability and unswervingly attached to the fantasyland economics of neoliberalism, no matter how destructive the practical implementation of its dogmatic recipes becomes. If the Syriza experience points to anything, it is to the necessity of a new Europe, constructed on radically different lines to that of the EU in its current guise, but equally remote from the Paleolithic nationalism craved by the Farages and Le Pens of the continent’s xenophobic right wing. A Europe of the left, in opposition to the Europe of the right. This may mean that, once more, the continent would be divided, but better this than unity under the current regime, which is blithely content, in Tacitus’ words, to ‘make a wasteland and call it peace.’

It took two decades for the shockwaves of the Prague Spring to topple communist party rule in Eastern Europe. The EU’s collapse may be quicker than that, or it may turn out to be more protracted. It may result in a return to internecine national rivalries, or be transcended by a truly internationalist social structure. In any case, should the project of pan-European neoliberalism indeed founder, historians of the future may well point to the treatment of Greece in 2015 as a decisive turning point.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Daniel Fairfax is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at Yale University.

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