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Remembering the last Greek government elected on a Bennite programme

Tony Benn

As PASOK suffers the worst defeat in its history, the one thing it still has in common with Syriza is that it too was once elected on a Bennite programme. We reflect on that with the help of Tony Benn.

Last night’s sweeping victory for Syriza is the first election of a genuinely radical Left government in the European Union (though you might argue the Socialist/ Communist government François Mitterand appointed in 1981 also had a radical economic programme). The importance of Syriza’s victory in challenging austerity in Europe is tremendous and across Europe we will all be affected by its success or otherwise in meeting that challenge. 

It is important therefore that speculation about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various factions within Syriza, is not allowed to party’s unity of purpose, nor the unity of the solidarity movement across Europe and beyond. There will be differences of view. The struggle is just beginning and decisions will be difficult. Some decisions will be controversial – like the decision to form a coalition with the right-wing Independent Greeks (known by the Greek acronym ANEL) — its leader Kammenos is an anti-semite who recently said thatJews in Greece do not pay their taxes“. However, it is possible to make a strong case for it as Kevin Ovenden does here.

Nevertheless, I can’t help remembering how similarly enthusiastic I was about the election of PASOK back in 1981 on what also looked remarkably like a Bennite programme — withdrawal from the Common Market and NATO, state intervention in the economy and more. Then as now there was concern about how the international elite would react, and, in some quarters, about how strong was the resolve of its leadership. The story of PASOK ended in colossal disappointment and what could be its final rejection by the electorate in this election, but history does not need to repeat itself. Alexis Tsipras is certainly not the grotesque mediocrity that was Louis-Napoléon.

The situations are very different though PASOK was elected in the aftermath of the great crisis of capitalism prior to the one with whose fallout we are still living. Many of the fears are of course similar, Tony Benn had met the PASOK leader, Andreas Papandreou, in November 1980, though he had been indirectly in touch with him for some time, and recorded it in his diary:

He said “The government really has no economic policy and has complete control of the media.” Papandreou opposes the Common Market and thought the Americans might try to undermine a PASOK government, either by a flight of capital or by a military coup…”

He and I struck up a rapport immediately.

In March 1982, six months after PASOK formed its first government, he visited Athens:

Although the army are prepared to go along with Papandreou because of the national interest which leads them to suspect the Turks and hence the Americans, they are still no doubt riddled with the same sort of sentiment as at the time of the Colonels, and are not prepared to have any Communists in the government. This guarantees that PASOK will remain a radical liberal government with socialist rhetoric (and no doubt some socialist aspirations). They are genuinely trying to liberalise the regime They sacked all the senior civil servants, they are changing some of the judges, they are bringing in political advisers. But they have a severe economic crisis and they haven’t really got an industrial base.

Benn records Papandreou discussing the problems of the black economy, tax evasion and corrupt commercial relationships, getting to grips with the civil service, the corruption of the police, and the anti-left hatred within the intelligence services, his continuing suspicions of NATO and attempts to rid Greece of US weapons although they were, he claimed “pretty old“. Benn, who had become disillusioned, was won over once again:

I was most impressed by Papandreou. When I first met him in 1980 I had great sympathy with him, and here was a left-wing Labour-type Government with all the right ideas about the Common Market and NATO and industrial development. (…)

When I got to Greece I had a fear that Papandreou was another Mário Soares , ie that he must have been at least tolerated or even promoted by the right-wing social democrats in order to see that the communists never got into any position in Greece. However, I have come to the conclusion that there was something much more radical going on there, and I came away from the discussions very much encouraged.

Benn concluded that Papandreou had “considerable talent and ability” and his government was trying to do its best, though he regretted that it “consists mainly of intellectuals” faced with the challenger of “governing a rural society with ill-developed industry” dependent on tourism.

Although Papandreou abandoned the more radical elements of his programme fairly quickly, it took some time for him to lose popularity – until the late 1980s in fact, and his sone George managed to win a resounding victory only just over 5 years ago. Worst of all was PASOK’s descent into clientalism which is why the democratisation of Greek society and the ending of corruption is such an important facet of Syriza’s programme.

3 Comments

  1. David Pavett says:

    Jon Says that Syriza was elected, as PASOC once was, on a Bennite programme. Apart from the strange generalisation of “Bennite” to include programmes which do not have their source in his ideas, Bennite is characterised by ” withdrawal from the Common Market and NATO, state intervention in the economy and more”. So, maybe Benn-like would have been better. But even that wouldn’t work since Syriza does not call for withdrawal from the EU or even the eurozone. It doesn’t call for an exit from NATO either.

  2. James Martin says:

    The initial coalition with the Greek UKIP is I suspect to excuse later disappointments.

    The only consistently anti-EU left party in Greece is KKE (whose vote rose slightly), but the real key to what happens in terms of driving forward socialism in Greece now is not the loose Syriza coalition of left groups, the MPs it now has or the pro-EU Tsipris but the strength of organised workers in Greek workplaces who are still powerful despite huge job losses, something the British left always ignores in their parliament obsessions. The PAME unions in particular will therefore be potentially the touchpaper for what develops as the loan repayment deals are done.

    1. Robert says:

      I do smile at you people who are or it seems hateful of the left.

      Today the Miliband government has 15 left MP’s the front bench has no left leaning MP’s at all most are full members of the Progress right.

      Miliband is not to the left he is weak as hell and will follow whom or what ever he thinks will get him elected .

      This is the left in Labour and I do not include Miliband who is to scared to be counted as a lefty.

      Diane Abbott
      Dave Anderson
      Katy Clark
      Jeremy Corbyn
      Fabian Hamilton
      Kelvin Hopkins
      Ian Lavery
      John McDonnell
      Michael Meacher
      Ian Mearns
      Grahame Morris
      Linda Riordan
      Steve Rotherham
      Jim Sheridan
      Chris Williamson

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