Vangelis, Titika, and Simonida from the Greek revolutionary socialist group Kokkino spoke to Mark Osborn of Workers' Liberty in Athens, August 2012. Vangelis and Titika did most of the talking for Kokkino.
I am 46 years old [Vangelis]. I have been a Trotskyist since 1984. I have been involved in lots of things. But I have never seen anything like what we are witnessing now. This is new. It gives us real optimism.
By objective circumstances we are in a pre-revolutionary period. The ruling class can not control the situation as they would wish.
But if you look at class consciousness – the lack of a revolutionary party and the absence of discussions among the working class about taking power – we are not in a pre-revolutionary period.
The Greek left, however, is the most sectarian left in the whole world. And not just the Stalinist KKE. Let me give you an idea. We have had 50-60 revolutionary groups here. Some Trotskyist, some Maoist, some in between. Those organisations rarely discussed with each other.
After 2001 and Genoa we began to see some change. Some revolutionary groups, activist organisations and reformists began to act together, to try to find a way into the movement. We discussed how to build common work on anti-racism, anti-war, anti-globalisation. We investigated how to build a party - not revolutionary, not reformist – that was open. We had an opportunity to overcome our distance from the working class. A lot of the revolutionary left had no relationship with the unions, no elected people in the unions.
Q. Were you deliberately trying to build a centrist party? It is one thing being in a centrist party, another to actually aim to construct one.
If I was honest … Maybe not exactly that.
So what is my problem with, for example the NPA? Here you have 5000 revolutionaries trying to pretend not to be revolutionaries. We should not do that. But in Syriza is not a revolutionary party pretending to be something else. The reformists are a big majority. Here we are, and we try to change this balance of forces.
Q. So you might well end up inside Syriza fighting on a common platform with the DEA?
Yes, we have no differences with the DEA about what programme Syriza should adopt.
Q. Which is what, exactly?
For example, on the economic policy there was a discussion between the revolutionary left and Synaspismos. We said: no payment of the debt; at the start of the discussion Synaspismos advocated Euro bonds. We shifted them. Now they have a good policy. They don’t say: we won’t pay any of the debt, but that they will only pay that part of the debt that is owed to the pension funds (because that might impact on workers); nothing to the banks.
Q. If Syriza tried to implement their programme using the existing state machinery they would be prevented. There would be obstruction, a coup.
Of course. However Tsipras said, several times in the run-up to the last election, that Syriza can win the election, and form a government, but the power is with the banks, the army, the state. Tsipras said he wants the people to take the power. He said this again and again publicly.
Q. I understood that Tsipras was looking to deal with the problem of capitalist state power by appealing to ‘good people’ inside the state machine – police army, civil service - to help a left government and who would oppose a coup…
No, he is more left wing. He said that things can not be changed just by winning the government. Working class people and the youth will have to come out, onto the streets. They will have to take the power.
Q. OK, but what about the police and the army? We’ve had a long tradition of parliamentary democracy in Britain. But even there, even against the right-wing Wilson government in the 1970s (and the mobilised working class), there was discussion about a coup. You have had a military government relatively recently; half the police in Athens voted for Golden Dawn…
Yes the police are a problem. The army is better. When Pasok came to government in 1981 they made reforms to the officer corps. Of course the majority of the army’s officers are on the right, or far right; but 30-40% are democratic, more-or-less.
We have conscription – for men, not women. If you refuse to go into the army you must do extra time in a civilian job. The revolutionary left – until the mid-90s – suggested that boys who were about to go into the army shouldn’t go. Most didn’t go. Now our stance is different. We say go. There are now people in the army that are trying to do work there. There is no union in the army. It is illegal to attempt to set up a union. It is also illegal even to have a political discussion in the army. If you are caught with political papers, or books, you might be taken to an army court.
There are two police unions. They were split. One is far-right. The other is just right.
Syriza have not criticised the police too much – for example, after demonstrations when they have attacked protestors – for fear of alienating ‘democratic minded’ police.
Syriza says that the police should be disarmed (no guns or gas); that the police’s job is to make sure citizens are safe in their homes and so the special forces that are used against demonstrators should be abolished. However it is difficult to see how work could be done inside the police – the army, yes; but it would be hard in the police.
We also have the issue of the fascist right. Golden Dawn is active in an area near here: near to Victoria metro station (north Athens). The fascists are a huge problem here. And we think the far left’s attitude has not been adequate. The people in these neighbourhoods have said they are afraid of immigrants who have no jobs and no food. We have answered that the people should not be afraid and that workers should unite. But is no adequate answer to people who are afraid. GD managed to take account of this fear and channel it in their favour. It is very difficult now to change this balance. There are a lot of people in the centre of Athens who are truly opposed to GD. But they are trying to find a modus vivendi with them.
The left has also made a big tactical mistake. They have treated the anti-fascist struggle as being identical to the anti-racist struggle. You can find working class people, with left family backgrounds – whose grandfather, for example, fought in the Greek civil war – who are completely against GD, who will come with us to smash fascist heads. But they are not very clear on the issues of racism, they don’t want open borders. If you say: let’s smash the fascists and open the borders, they will not march with you. We have to be with them on the anti-fascist movement, and gain their trust, and then win them to anti-racism. It is not true that to be an anti-fascist you have to be anti-racist.
We must not act like a professor in front of the people we talk to.
In these neighbourhoods where the fascists are active there are many problems. First, for everyone, there is vast poverty. No one helps people in these places.
In some of these places immigrants are involved in drug dealing, muggings. At the same time you have the fascist attacks on immigrants. Every night 20 or 30 Nazis will attack non Greeks. You can’t only discuss in these circumstances. You have to act, to do things. We have things in our revolutionary tradition that can help – a tradition of civilian militias. We need 50 or 100 people, with some immigrants among them, to work in these neighbourhoods against the Nazis.
Q. Have you attempted this?
No, we are not strong enough. Not big enough, and not well trained enough. It would not just be a question of the fascists, but if we attempted it, of taking on the police, too.
What we have done is to try to occupy the square when we knew they had an action planned. The anarchists have confronted them – small groups.
The Greek SWP – the SEK – does not have a branch in this area. When we split I took the members from this area with me. What they do is gather people from other neighbourhoods, march into the area with their slogans, stay for an hour, and then leave. Other people take the consequences.
It is not as if the immigrants all want to be here, in the same area. But the police pushed them – they were met at the borders and sent to the centre of Athens with temporary papers. The police made a ghetto. They were left without jobs, housing. And, anyway, most don’t want to stay in Greece – they want to go further into Europe. The city authorities have helped to make the situation worse by refusing to provide facilities and making these areas truly awful places to live. There are no services in these areas. Compare places on the coast with inner-city Athens: it is like two different countries. In the centre we have no public toilets, no recycling centres, no places for children to play…
The Greek people in the areas and see two things have happened at one: everything has stopped working; there have been a big inflow of immigrants. They connect the two.
What has happened in London over one century – the immigration that has taken place – has happened here in one decade. In 1990, for example, there were no immigrants here at all. The Greeks used to say: here in Greece, there is something in our DNA that means we are not racist. Everyone in the 80s thought that. But in 1990, Samaras – who was then Minister of Foreign Affairs – wanted to open relations with Albania, and with the Greeks of Albania. He opened the borders with the Albanians. In two or three years one million Albanians came to Greece. That was a shock for the Greeks – it happened suddenly and they came in huge numbers. After that there was a big wave of immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kurdistan and Bangladesh. Another million in two years.
And this was a big shock for the Greek left too. We had a policy from the years when there were no problems. It was easy in the time when even the reformists were calling for the abolition of all borders. Now it is hard. Many people voted for Syriza at the last election, but of course many do not share our point of view on immigration. Now we need a detailed policy and discussion in order to convince people. We need to try to move people at least a few steps towards us.
Q. If Greece is in a pre-revolutionary situation how do you see the process of setting up workers’ committees and how it can begin to arm itself. How will that come about in conditions where there is a lot of unemployment, not many big workplaces?
And the political problem is partly that the organisation which could make moves to do the things we have been discussing is the Communist Party. They are a very well organised party. If the KKE chose to put 30,000 people – tomorrow afternoon – in Omonia Square, they could do so. In some neighbourhoods they might have 1000 members – and these will be active members, who will do whatever their leaders tell them to do. But they don’t see the fascist problem – they don’t say anything about it and they do nothing. Not only that, in the Steel workers strike they allowed GD to speak to the workers. And not just the KKE – but all the Stalinist-orientated left has this problem.
Whenever we have tried to demonstrate against GD they have criticised us for trying to move the attention of the workers from the ‘real issues’ (of poverty etc) to the ‘bourgeois’ issue of fascism.
Q. But the KKE leadership must be under a lot of pressure now. Their vote went down, Syriza’s went up. Their world must seem upside down.
Yes, there is a large minority in the KKE who think that they should work together with Syriza in the movement.
Q. And as part of a workers’ government? It seems that a ‘united left government’ was a popular demand. It seems like a version of the workers’ government slogan. […]
Yes. And we posed the question of a united left government. This came from us and the DEA, not Tsipras and the reformists. In the Central Committee of Synaspismos you can find more Trotskyists than on our Central Committee. We only have a Committee with 13 members! On Synaspismos’s Central Committee, along with the reformists, you can find 20 Trotskyists.
The Euro Communists are very badly organised, and very open too. They have a lot of platforms inside the organisation. From Trotskyists on the left, over to people who believe capitalism can be peacefully reformed and transformed. Synaspismos has 16,000 members. I have never seen more than 4 - 5000 – a lot of their members are not active. We have made a ‘political united front’ with them. But Synaspismos is not very connected to the working class – more linked to the intellectuals and middle class elements. So why did we link up with them? Firstly, because it was not possible to unite with the KKE. Second, because they are open.
Q. Are you in Synaspismos too? Why not – you could be in both?
Vangelis says at this point: well, I think we should be in Synaspismos, but I’m in a minority on our Central Committee. We are in the broader group maintaining our own identity. But we could easily enter Synaspismos, saying whatever we liked.
Next Synaspismos is not even really one party. There is no hard discipline in Synaspismos - on purpose, as a reaction to the discipline of the Stalinist party, they went the other way. There is a left and a right. It is really a collection of 6 or 7 parties. The third part of the government, the Democratic Left, was part of Synaspismos. With the formation of Syriza this faction was forced out – they couldn’t stand the thought of being in the same party as people like us. Now if you sell your paper, openly, in the Congress, to Tsipras, there would be no problem. No one would try to stop you.
Tsipras lives near to here, in a workers' area, in a three-room apartment. He has spoken out clearly to defend workers taking industrial action – for example in clear support of the electricity workers and their leader, who is close to Syriza.
One fight we had was to make sure that the new MPs were paid a workers' wage. They take the median. And they are entitled to five full-time helpers in parliament. We said no, you only need two in parliament, give the other three to the party.
Q. Over 200 full-timers. A new basis for party bureaucracy?
Yes, but that’s for the future. Now we have the opposite problem: chaos. Thousands want to join, but we are not organising them properly.
Moreover quite a few members of Synaspismos - including people higher up - wanted our help to push their party to the left. They have had a bad experience from their own electoralist right wing.
Syriza is now in the process of changing – becoming one party from a coalition of groups. Up to now it was a front of different parties. In the past if you wanted to join Syriza you had to be a member of one of the groups – Kokkino, Synaspismos etc. But now local branches are being formed. Round here there are too many members [we were sat in a trendy left-wing enclave near the Polytechnic, called Exarchion Square], but normally a Syriza branch has between 50 and 120 members. In a small area. These are now all over Greece. In Athens there are about 100 branches of Syriza.
Syriza had about 25-30,000 members. But membership has exploded. There are many, many thousands of applications to join. The target is 200,000.
Q. There is barrier to voting of 18 months membership?
The main electoral strength of Syriza is amongst the youth. Between 18 and 24.
Q. There is a youth wing?
Yes, and it is much more left.
Yes, not high school so much, but university students. It is important to understand that Syriza is still only the third biggest left party on campuses. First is the KKE. Second is the youth of Antarsya. There has been now shift in that balance, yet, in the universities. There is a strange left atmosphere on campuses, divorced from society, nothing like Britain. You can go there and find the most extreme, unusual groups with a big base. Off the campus these groups have nothing.
Q. In Britain all students at a college are automatically in the national students’ union. They all get a vote in campus elections. How is it here?
No. You have to be a member to vote. Of course the youth of the CP and of Antarsya are under pressure from Syriza. But there is still a lot of work to do. We press the question: OK, now you’ve got your degree, what are you going to do? How are you going to fight?
Q. So what’s your policy? We encourage students to get jobs in strategic industries, where they can do useful union work.
When we were in the SEK we used to pull people out of college [before they’d completed their degree] and get them into industry or to work in a particular neighbourhood. Now we ask our students to do work in the universities. As a second job, they might work in a union (if they have a job too) or in a neighbourhood. But their main duty is on campus.
Q. You pulled people off courses? That sounds mad. Did it work?
No. We lost them all. There is not a single one left. But now, after they graduate there is a problem. We can’t get them to work in industry, because there is no industry in Greece. It is hard to get a job anywhere.
Q. No jobs on rail, metro, airways, banks, education…?
Well, even in the past it was hard. Most available jobs were state employees and to get such jobs you had to be close to someone in the government.
Q. You advocate revolutionary re-groupment, using Syriza as a forum for that? […]
Yes. You’re right that convergence can take place. People in the past who have not talked find themselves drawn together. But, for historical reasons, not everyone can see the big opportunity of Syriza. The big reasons are the sectarianism of the left; the roots of that is Stalinist hegemony on the Greek left. Don’t forget we had a civil war, in 1944, between the left too – the Stalinists cut our necks. And that poisoned the atmosphere. If I saw someone from the Greek Militant in the streets, I would ignore him, not even say hello. The only solution is by winning hegemony, to win a new view.
In the past the criticism levelled at us was that we were going with reformists and that we would lose our identity.
In fact most of the Greek left is a little mad. You can not understand them just using normal logical methods. The have lived too many years in political isolation. For example, Antarsya should, logically, have come over after the results of the first election this year. It is true what you say that sometimes it is not clear, from the outside, what is happening in other organisations; and true that the KKE has split before. So we always make plain that the KKE should unite with Syriza on particular actions, even if it seems hopeless. They are discussing this now. Some day some will split.
Another example. DEA and ourselves are both from the Greek SWP. We split together. Most of our leadership was part of the leadership of DEA. We have friendly relations, personally. We are both in Syriza and fight for the same programme there. Why are we in separate organisations? Two things. The first is the question of left regroupment. They don’t even want to listen to the idea. They didn’t want Syriza to become a single party, they wanted it to maintain itself as a coalition of parties. But if you are in a coalition you can not easily have a discussion with the people at the base of Synaspismos. The second difference is the question of tendencies. They don’t want permanent tendencies. If you want to be a revolutionary inside Syriza you must argue for tendencies inside Syriza.
Q. I understood the DEA to be more ‘partyist’ than Kokkino – meaning that they are more like the British SWP: sectarian to the movement and internally undemocratic (without tendency rights inside their own group). […]
We left DEA because they didn’t allow us to fight for our politics.
Q. One danger of what you are doing – in rejecting the SWP’s bureaucratic centralism – is that you recoil, do the opposite, disintegrate…
We know all the dangers. Speaking for myself, I was very frustrated by the project of the SEK - the idea that you could build a revolutionary party by simple one-to-one recruitment. We’ve tried it, it didn’t work. I tried very hard – personally recruiting 500 people to the Greek SEK – to make this work. I’m sure it doesn’t work. So we started to say: what is the problem? How do we overcome it. And for us the answer was – regroupment of the left. This would give us the opportunity again to reconnect with the mass working class movements. Of course, at the same time, as members of the Greek SEK, was the question of identity.
Comrades in Antarsya sympathetic to joining Syriza – this is their main fear. That that will sink into reformism and disappear. To guard against this we educate our members. In the first instance we start with the party and with the idea that socialism requires revolution and the revolution will not be peaceful. Of course we need a major split, eventually, in Syriza, as the revolution approaches, in order to make a revolutionary party. But when the time is ripe. Not forced artificially by some middle class intellectuals, but coming out of the logic of the struggle itself. The workers will tell us when the time is right.
Q. What are your perspectives here, with this government? Do you expect another election soon?
The only way there will be another election soon, is if there is a major upsurge from the Greek working class, who force it. The Greek rulers, and European bourgeoisie, don’t want another election – they didn’t want the last one. It is true that the government is not stable – but the bourgeois class is stable. They have economic problems, true, but they also know very well what needs to be done. They know they need that the workers must pay. We will have a bourgeois government by any means necessary.
Q. So how do you intend to raise the questions of workers' committees, the arming of the working class against the police?
Well, this is August, we need to re-gather the movement after August… But the committees have already been begun to be built. They were meeting weekly in opposition to government policy. The campaign to stop electricity disconnections is on-going, organised on a neighbourhood basis. Also issues specific to particular places – ecological issues etc. The question of jobs will be prominent because just today the question of public sector redundancies has been posed again.
Q. What relationship do the local committees have to the unions?
Well there is a big overlap. People active in the workplaces are also active in their neighbourhoods. Organisationally we have Syriza branches in neighbourhoods and also Syriza networks in workplaces. There are city-wide Syriza coordination committees.
And in neighbourhood Syriza committees there are perhaps 500 members. Sympathisers of Syriza. Coming together to discuss what Syriza might do locally, for them.
Q. These are top down committees?
This has been a real problem up to now. With no individual membership of Syriza there was no voting in Syriza local forums, to elect someone to represent you. It was a federation. The only people with real votes were the members of the individual parties in Syriza. It had the appearance of democracy – people could come and talk – but without real control.
Q. But to take power you need broader committees… […]
We have to change the balance of power inside the unions. In real life, and in popular consciousness there has been a change of view. But the top of the Greek TUC the functionaries of Pasok are still there.
At the first level, at the base of the unions, there have been some elections already. Syriza has made gains. For example, in the journalists' union we took the union. It was right wing. Now the president is Syriza. But in the unions most of the Syriza activists are from the revolutionary left – not Synaspismos. The metro workers have also had elections and we have won there too. In other unions Syriza has gained influence. But Syriza was only on 4% eight months ago. It takes a little time.