What Alexis Tsipras can learn from the sprawling history of the European left

Like Tony Blair in 90s Britain, and Spain's Felipe Gonzalez a decade earlier, the Greek leader will find the left can win if it stays in touch

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The Independent Online

Alexis Tsipras is about to face the favourite insult of the left since first the concept of left and right in politics was invented in the French revolution. He is going to be called a traitor. He might even given the ultimate Greek insult by his opponents and called Ephialtes – the man who sold the pass to the Persians at Thermopylae and allowed Xeres to destroy the 300 Spartans and march on Athens.

The newly resigned Greek prime minister is going to fight and win an election next month that will transform Greek politics and have wider implications for the European left, including in Britain, as it seeks some new strategy for winning and holding power.

Tsipras will do this by looking into the playbook of the 20th century left and see how it moves from protest to power, from belief in its own rhetoric to the brutal, messy compromises with economic and social realities.

The most obvious example is Andreas Papandreou, the founder of Pasok - the party Tsipras has attacked with the most venom and sought to displace by his own Syriza.

Papandreou was a demagogic orator like Tsipras, who spent the seven years between the fall of the Colonels in 1974 and his own accession to power in 1981 promising a left-wing transformation of Greece. He denounced Brussels and the then European Economic Community with all the vigour of the former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, ranting against the EU and Berlin.

Papandreou was even more denunciatory of Washington which in the 1970s held the same place as an object of hate for the European left that Berlin does today. Greece had withdrawn from the military command of Nato in protest at the indifference of Washington and London, then under a Labour government, to the Turkish invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus.

It was as brutal and illegal a violation of international law as Putin’s annexation of Crimea but the West only tends to get worked up about international law when its opponents, not its allies, flout it.

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Papandreou promised a rapid advance to socialism in Greece as he marched to his election victory at the same time that François Mitterrand was winning the Elysée and also promising a rupture with capitalism and attacking the banks ‘who nick our money.’

Papandreou like Mitterrand was smart enough to realise that the rhetoric of mobilising the left was not a recipe for the successful administration of a modern democratic state.

Papandreou quickly dropped his anti-European stand and instead maxed up agricultural and structural funds from Brussels to help grow the Greek economy and allow him to offer public sector jobs to his supporters.

He integrated Greece fully into Nato and indulged in over-blown anti-Turkish rhetoric which played well with Greek nationalist populism but which his son, George, had to unwind as Greece’s foreign minister after Andreas Papandreou’s death in 1996.

Mitterrand was doing something similar in France as he gave up socialism in one country in 1983 and instead accepted market economic realities. In Greece, half the working population were self-employed, often in tourism and agriculture, and there was never any base of mass workers’ support for Papandrou.

He may also have been inspired by a brilliant socialist tribune Felipe Gonzalez who was the same age as Alexis Tsipras is today when he became prime minister of Spain in 1982.  Gonzalez had made his name in clandestine and exile politics in the 1970s in the dying Franco years, The party he was elected to lead, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, was imbued with a Marxist socialism that kept together the faithful during the decades of Franco’s dictatorship.


Gonzalez just like Tsipras realised that the he could not successfully win power and govern Spain on the basis of the Marxist nostrums that made sense to the Spanish left intelligentsia which like its Greek equivalent today was well represented in universities and left media outside of Spain.

Instead the young Spanish socialist insisted all references to Marxism had to be expunged from the party’s constitution, rather like Tony Blair’s removal of Clause 4 calling for the nationalisation of the means of production which had remained in Labour’s constitution between 1918 and 1995.

Gonzalez won his ideological battle and governed for 14 years. Tsipras should aim for no less. The decision of the Bourbon left of Syriza which has learnt and forgotten nothing allows Tsipras to fashion a new set of candidates ready to engage with rather than reject Europe and to win a clear majority. The left can win and keep power when it is in touch with the time not its devout beliefs.

How long it will take today’s Labour Party to learn that lesson is another question. Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn should learn Greek to see what need’s to be done.

Denis MacShane is a former Labour Europe Minister. His book, 'Brexit: How Britain will leave Europe', is published next month