A worker peers over a campaign banner of leftist Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras in Syntagma square in Athens, Greece, September 18, 2015.
Paul Hanna / Reuters

In the parliamentary elections that took place in Greece on September 20th, Syriza yet again emerged victorious. In general, parties that asserted the importance of Greece remaining in the European Union won big: together, Syriza, the conservative New Democracy and Independent Greeks parties, and the centrist Potami (River) and Pasok parties brought in more than 70 percent of the vote. This outcome was not a foregone conclusion, however, especially after the referendum that took place on July 5, in which around 62 percent of the voters rejected further austerity measures. It was unclear whether, given the chance, the majority would endorse an exit from the eurozone or even from the EU—institutions that advocate the implementation of an even tighter fiscal policy in Greece. 

In this month’s snap election, Greek identity also played a large part in general and in the radical left’s platform in particular. Some radical left-wing organizations advocated a withdrawal from the eurozone in the face of pressure on Greece to accept further austerity. These organizations used nationalistic rhetoric to try to convince the electorate of their policy platforms. The Popular Unity party, which split from Syriza over Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras’ acceptance of the EU bailout deal, promised to restore national dignity by refusing to cave to creditors’ demands and by bringing back drachma, if necessary, once in office. Moreover, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) offered the electorate a Greek exit from the European Union pending the party’s victory.

Supporters wave flags as former Greek prime minister and leader of leftist Syriza party Alexis Tsipras delivers his speech during the final campaign rally prior to Sunday's general elections on main Syntagma square in Athens, Greece, September 18, 2015.
Supporters wave flags as former Greek prime minister and leader of leftist Syriza party Alexis Tsipras delivers his speech during the final campaign rally prior to Sunday's general elections on main Syntagma square in Athens, Greece, September 18, 2015.
Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters

Nevertheless, radical left-wing nationalist rhetoric wasn't always coupled with Euroscepticism. Ahead of the vote, Syriza still presented itself as the radical left-wing party in the election even though it had fundamentally moderated its ideological profile by voting for the latest bailout package. Syriza whipped up nationalist fervor ahead of the vote by vowing to fight against the “old,” a synonym for vested interests and the once-dominant Pasok (social democrat) and New Democracy (conservative) parties. These parties, Syriza claimed, profited at the expense of the common good.


Although left-wing politics generally advocate cross-border solidarity, in modern states, the parties of the left have frequently found themselves as bedfellows with nationalist groups. Greek left-wing parties are no exception. Left-wing nationalism first manifested itself in the early 1940s. In those days, the KKE served as the National Liberation Front’s backbone against tripartite occupation by Bulgaria, Germany, and Italy. The National Liberation Front (EAM) was the most popular and best prepared to rally citizens, organizing a massive strike on March 5, 1943, which involved more than 7000 people and paralyzed Athens. The EAM even controlled large swathes of Greek territory near the end of World War II, although right-wing and centrist forces managed to assume power in Greece soon after its liberation.

Nationalism also figured prominently in Greece’s postwar years, when the governing right-wing parties presented the radical left as “traitors” who imperiled Greek national interests. Right-wingers attacked the KKE for its endorsing the creation of an independent Macedonian state between 1924 and 1935, a plan which would include areas that had hitherto belonged to Greece. Although the KKE later retracted its support for the plan and argued against a change to the Greek borders, its right-wing opponents used the issue present the KKE as an unpatriotic party.

The radical left responded in kind, aiming to present itself as a true patriotic force by forming in 1951 the United Democratic Left (EDA), which also included the members of the then-outlawed KKE. Throughout the 1950s, the EDA attacked the right on several fronts. Of particular concern was the right’s stance toward Cyprus, which was then a British colony. The right sometimes clashed with the British and U.S. governments over their stance towards Cyprus, but continued to ardently support close political and financial links with those countries. The EDA position, by contrast, combined nationalism with anti-imperialist rhetoric against the United Kingdom and the United States to embrace the idea that Cyprus should be wholly incorporated into the Greek state. By making this argument, the EDA managed to mobilize thousands of protesters and to attract members and voters, challenging its stigma of being unpatriotic.

Greek Prime Minister-elect Alexis Tsipras arrives for a meeting with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos at the presidential palace in Athens, September 21, 2015.
Greek Prime Minister-elect Alexis Tsipras arrives for a meeting with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos at the presidential palace in Athens, September 21, 2015.
Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters
In 1974, communist organizations were legalized once more, and nationalist language has continued to appear in radical left-wing publications. In 1999, for example, the KKE arranged protest events against NATO operations in Yugoslavia, calling on all “patriots” to participate in massive anti-war rallies, which it indeed helped organize.

In general, Greece’s radical left construes the Greek nation as “inherently resistant” to difficulties and foreign intervention. Such discourse is not bereft of class connotations: it recalls the uncompromising militants, recruited from “the people,” namely the lower and lower-middle social strata, who have struggled indefatigably against the exploitation of Greece by foreigners. In this vein, the radical left accuses the bourgeoisie of selling out the Greek people to foreign interests.

In short, left-wing nationalism has come in many shapes and sizes since the 1940s. Although radical left-wing patriotic rhetoric tends to be secular, there have been exceptions: Liana Kanelli, an MP with the Communist Party of Greece since 2000, has stressed that Christian Orthodoxy should be protected against the “New World Order.” Her co-operation with the Communist Party of Greece officially began in 1999, when its solidarity with the Serbian people against NATO intervention dovetailed with her combination of religious and anti-imperialist rhetoric.

A nationalist holds a Greek flag during a protest on May 26, 2013.
A nationalist holds a Greek flag during a protest on May 26, 2013.
Yannis Behrakis / Reuters


Nationalist rhetoric is not confined to the left, and in some cases the line between  “left-wing patriotism” and “right-wing nationalism” has blurred. Still, nationalism in Greece is not monolithic. For example, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party’s understanding of the Greek nation is imbued with machismo, sexism, and virulent xenophobia.

For the radical left, things are far more complicated. The KKE makes no reference to LGBTQ issues, Syriza advocates same-sex marriage, and Popular Unity has fielded two openly gay parliamentary candidates in the most recent election. Neither were ultimately elected, since Popular Unity won no seats in last weekend’s election. Regardless of support or opposition to gender equality, neither strand of Greek political thought have given the issue much attention overall. 

Supporters of leftist Syriza party, including someone with a banner for 'The Other Europe', react at the party's main election kiosk after the announcement of the first exit polls in Athens, Greece, September 20, 2015.
Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters
More divisively, Greece’s radical left-wing parties stand alongside the migrants and refugees that are arriving on its shores. The Syriza-led government even challenged Greek notions of jus sanguinis—by which citizenship is determined by having one or two parents who are citizens of the state. Thus, the Tsipras government has allowed second-generation migrants to Greece to obtain Greek citizenship. For Syriza, migrants can be perceived as members of an “indefatigably struggling” Greek nation—even if they are recent arrivals to the country. Nevertheless, almost all parliamentarians of the junior coalition partner, the Independent Greeks, voted against this measure.

Radical left-wing nationalism has been both an enduring and a multifaceted phenomenon, and Syriza’s trajectory serves as the most recent reminder. Riding on a wave of opposition to bailout packages and the austerity measures that accompanied them, Syriza stressed the need to bring back hope and defend the dignity of the Greek people. This rendered the party as an attractive choice to more than a third of the voters this past January. What remained vague until the Syriza-led government signed a new bailout deal in July was whether the party wedded nationalism with euroscepticism, and if rejecting the spirit of EU-led austerity meant fostering closer ties with non-Western powers, such as with Russia. Nevertheless, after enduring the split in August that gave birth to the Popular Unity party, Syriza has retained its patriotic rhetoric but has ditched its Eurosceptic platform. The left-wing nationalism that helped propel Syriza to popularity softened in tone as the gravity of a Grexit became clear. 

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