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Those who know history or sport will recognize the reference to Marathon, the place where, in 490 BCE, the Athenians defeated an invading Persian army. The news was brought 26 miles to Athens by a messenger who ran the first “marathon.”

“Marathon” thus means both an epochal victory and a very long run requiring endurance. Both connotations apply to Greece’s current situation.

The referendum of July 5 was a huge victory by the Greek government and a large majority of voters (about 60 percent) over the forces of the European financial sector and its backers in Berlin, Paris, Frankfurt and elsewhere. These forces have for some time been attempting to force Greece to submit to yet more austerity as a condition for outside aid that would enable Greece to avoid defaulting on its debts. The argument has been that the Greeks have no alternative.

The left-wing government of Prime Minister Tzipras has responded that the prescription for more austerity will simply accelerate the slide into depression that is now several years old, without solving the debt problem. Tzipras called the referendum after the latest round of negotiations collapsed, in hopes that it would support his search for an alternative approach. Even if he had lost, however, he would have had the backing for accepting the demands from Europe.

Having won such a decisive victory, Tzipras’ government is now in a much stronger position to demand European support for an alternative approach.

Having won such a decisive victory, Tzipras’ government is now in a much stronger position to demand European support for an alternative approach. The leadership of the Eurozone, after all, do not want to see Greece leave the Euro currency. The Euro was supposed to strengthen Europe’s economies, but it has been like a millstone around Greece’s neck, preventing it from devaluing its currency as a means of promoting exports and restricting imports.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, in particular, is almost entirely focused on imposing fiscal discipline and monetary stability, even in a context of persistent recession where deficit spending and currency devaluation could have been helpful. She will now have to decide whether to hold the austerity line and force Greece out of the Eurozone, or to allow the Greeks some wiggle room within the Eurozone.

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The Greek leaders have no time to rest on their laurels. They have been granted a stronger negotiating hand in dealing with Europe. The referendum’s result implies, but does not define, the alternative approach to be followed. The government must now decide what that approach is to be, and implement it with discipline and consistency.

The European Left (including Tzipras’ Syriza) has its origins in the Social Democratic movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which rejected the orthodox Marxist demand for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Social Democrats proposed instead to win power by democratic elections within capitalist societies, and then to transform capitalism from within.

Social Democrats have certainly been vindicated by the experiences of real-world revolutionary socialist regimes, which really did attempt to replace capitalism by centrally planned economies (e.g., Stalinist USSR, Maoist China, current North Korea), and universally failed to build efficient alternative economies.

On the other hand, Social Democrats have also consistently failed to build socialism by reforming capitalism. Instead, their governments have been inexorably drawn into accepting the premises of capitalism and trying as best they can to mitigate its worst aspects.

The fundamental problem—one that Marx and Engels understood well—is that capitalism is a global system. No single state, and certainly not a small, weak state like Greece, can change how the system works, its fundamental rules. And no state today is so self-sufficient as to isolate itself from the system (though North Korea is doing its best).

So Syriza must define an alternative within capitalism without submitting to the capitalist conventional wisdom that more austerity is the only way out. It must show that stimulating the economy rather than starving it is the way out of the current crisis. And as the economy recovers, Greeks will have to recognize that they can’t go back to the bad habits that got them in trouble in the first place (basically, undertaking debts they could not pay for, seeking benefits that will not be paid for).

john peeler

This marathon, like the first one, will require both courage and discipline.

John Peeler