Panagiotis Sotiris, from ARAN (Left Recomposition), one of the groups in the Antarsya coalition, spoke to Mark Osborn in Athens in August 2012. ARAN describes itself as "inspired by the vast experience of the Chinese Cultural Revolution".
There are three factors that define the situation. First, the Greek economy is in a disastrous state. It is in a deep, vicious cycle of austerity and depression. This is the fifth year of a depression. We are not talking about -0.5% growth. We are talking about -6 or -7%, year on year. The current figure is -7%, which means that in terms of accumulated decline it equals only the Great Depression of the 30s, or the Second World War. This is an immense write-off of social wealth.
More of the austerity measures, such as those that are due to be implemented in September, as dictated by the EU, European Central Bank and IMF - the Troika - means even more unemployment etc. It means a social landscape of poverty, of public infrastructure being unable to function properly, and all the social ills you see around you.
The official rate of unemployment is about 25%. But there is also a very large percentage of workers who are not being paid, or not being paid properly. They show up for work, do their jobs, but are not paid. So this only creates the explosive materials for the next wave of struggle.
The second aspect is that the political crisis in Greece is far from over. It was exemplified by the election results of 6 May and 17 June, in the immense condemnation of establishment parties – especially PASOK - and the rise of the left. New Democracy managed to prevail, taking advantage of the fact that the overall right wing bloc was not diminished and taking votes from there.
But the coalition government is marked by infighting which began even in the first weeks in office. They have been shaken by tremendous internal arguments and disagreements. There are also signs that the same pressures are at work inside the main party of the coalition, New Democracy. So we are still in the phase of open political crisis.
The third factor is the turn to the left. Mainly Syriza, of course. Despite Syriza’s political and ideological contradictions, this is still a positive sign.
The problem for the left, especially the problem for the anti-capitalist left, is that at the same time we see a society facing social disaster, at the same time we have seen insurrectionary types of social movements of the sort we have witnessed for the past two years and that people are overcoming traditional institutional political barriers, we are presented with Syriza’s far-from-adequate politics. Moreover Syriza’s leadership has moved to the right during the electoral period. This is exemplified by the refusal to discuss any possibility of leaving the Eurozone, plus the idea that a left government would renegotiate the terms of the Memorandum with the Troika. This is the big contradiction in the situation.
Although we have a society which is more able and willing than before to listen to radical alternatives, what is being presented as a radical by Syriza is far from adequate.
Q. So you believe the main problem with Syriza is its position on Europe?
The position on Europe and the whole attitude to the relationship of Greece within the European integration project is a concentration of all the problems with Syriza’s reformism. It is not just the Euro, not a technical problem, not a question of monetary policy in the strict sense of the term. They have no strategy of rupture. They do not intend confrontation, to confront capitalist policies.
In Greece, for the past 40 years, the main bourgeois policy has been to be part of European integration.
Q. So you propose to devise your policy by simply attempting to break up what the bourgeoisie have built? European integration is in a general historical sense positive and progressive. Syriza’s policy on Europe seems like fresh air [...] But, whatever, their vote was spectacular. And the people backed them, not you, Antarsya. Why?
In the run-up to the 6 May elections it seemed as if all the parties of the left would gain. The Communist Party was doing well, we were doing well (as against our starting point). But then Syriza, even unwillingly, made a very important choice. It changed the political debate by proposing that people vote for it with the intention of winning a left government. That was a turning point. Until that point – and this is by way of self-criticism, or by way of recognising a problem – until then all the Greek left was saying (cutting away all the rhetoric) that the mainstream parties would find a way, one way or another, of cobbling together a coalition. They would win in the end. What we said amounted to: let’s have a big, left opposition.
Syriza realised that many people didn’t want another opposition, they wanted their own government. They wanted their own political power. Really, people were saying they had tried everything else over the past two years. We have had an enormous sequence of mass strikes, street protests, occupations – perhaps the biggest period of sustained struggles in recent European history, perhaps with the exception of Italy in the early 70s – so people wanted their own government, openly anti-Memoranda. Syriza got the vote.
Q. Their slogan, for a government of the left, also implied left unity. That idea was clearly very popular.
Syriza was a part of the opposition movement. They took an open stance in favour of the movement. They had a rhetoric of unity, as opposed to the Communist Party, KKE, which had a rhetoric of division.
Q. Syriza seems open, too…
Well it is important to remember that the whole political spectrum is tilted to the left, at least in words, in comparison to Western Europe. Not just now, but in the past. That stems from the period of dictatorship and the radicalism here in the 1970s. Syriza was, from the beginning, more radical than the parties of the European Left [a federation of European CPs]. It is also an open party, although – and this was evident in the election period – the main policy decisions during the election period were made by a closed group of advisors around the leadership. Some of the turns made during the election period were made by these people. For example, the decision to more the position on the Memorandum was made by these people. The official position of Syriza was for the abolition of all these agreements. However, during the election that was played down.
Q. And Syriza, and its component parts, seem to be growing quickly…
Before they had less than 20,000 members. Now they have thousands of new applications, true. Perhaps they have doubled. And they are – clearly – a future party of power, and this creates enthusiasm around them. At the same time I am not sure the debate in Syriza is going to move to the left – while not denying there are many, many in Syriza and Synaspismos, who are radical anti-capitalists. What has prevailed is the idea that the thing to do is to wait until the government falls under its own contradictions and shortcomings. They see themselves as getting ready for government, a party of responsible opposition.
Which brings us back to Europe. The main institutional form of blackmail, forcing even the current government to accepting the austerity packages which go even beyond the interests of the local bourgeoisie, is the supervision from the EU and IMF.
Q. So your policy alternative amounts – in reality, and despite what you might wish – to a small capitalist Greece with the drachma? And you believe this would be progress for Greek workers? How?
Well I wouldn’t put it that way. And this is a disagreement we have with others on the European anti-capitalist left. We think the exit from the Euro and exit from the EU is not simply a question of having a capitalist Greece with a national currency, it is about regaining monetary sovereignty as part of a broader strategy of anti-capitalist rupture. This would include forms of workers' and social control. If you are in favour of workers’ control as a strategy, you need to find a way of ensuing democratic control of monetary policy. The Eurozone is the most aggressive, capitalist, monetarist organisation we could imagine. We face a massive wave of privatisation. This is not just a matter of the sale of public property to pay for the debt. It is also an exigency of European regulations.
This is the reason we do not have a national airline anymore, or the reason we will not have a public railway or the Greek public electricity company. This is not only about the debt.
Q. What are your main slogans now? What is your perspective?
We have some main aims.
One. We must organise resistance to the new wave of austerity. Only through struggle will governments fall. Governments do not collapse without help. Resistance must take place on all fronts, including the organisation of networks of solidarity and the anti-fascist struggle.
This anti-fascist struggle is now very important. For the first time we are facing a grass-roots fascism, Golden Dawn.
Second. We insist that in order for the left to be really able to offer an alternative it must have a transition programme. In our and Antarsya’s opinion it includes exit from the Eurozone and EU, the annulment of debt, the nationalisation of banks and strategic infrastructure, the redistribution of income in favour of working people. This amounts to the reconstruction of the collective productive capabilities of this country. For us this is the outline of a radical programme. Of course it needs to be worked upon, elaborated, made more concrete. People need to know there are real alternatives to the dominant narrative and the architecture of the Eurozone.
Third. Antarsya aims to fight for the unity of all forces on the left that seeks such as transformation around such a programme, working within the movement.
That’s why Antarsya has already begun discussions with other forces to the left of Syriza. That does not mean that we leave aside the position we have had from the start, of the need for unity, in struggle, of the left. Antarsya has been instrumental in organising many struggles.
Q. We think Greece is in a pre-revolutionary situation. And yet you are also a long way from taking power. How are you aiming to prepare – to create workers committees, to raise the question of arming the working class?
We have been having the same discussion. All of us that are from the Marxist tradition have a stereotype of a pre-revolutionary situation. A very big acceleration of historical time, a collapse of the state apparatus – things like that. We don’t have such things in Greece. But we do have an organic political crisis. And we have a particular quality – almost insurrectionary – set of expectations here. And in terms of people being willing to consider ideas they would have found unthinkable even a few years ago – this is as far as things have got, in Europe, for many years.
Take for example the collapse of PASOK. For 30 years PASOK actually represented the majority of the working class in a very strong way. They seemed impregnable. This is an earthquake to see PASOK at 12%, and having almost no union representation. In this sense the political choices made by the left, here, now, will affect the course of history here.
To give an example, Syriza might be able to form a government after the next election. Whether this will be an opening up a new political dynamic, or whether there will be a defeat, will put a stamp on this country for years and years. So if we are critical of Syriza it is not from resentment that they got more votes, it is out of a responsibility we feel for the left and the movement. In one way or another the left is facing an important test.
Q. How might workers’ committees be formed here? […]
Yes, given the concrete situation, committees may well be local popular assemblies rather than workplace committees. This type of locally based work, which would include the unemployed, could deal with traditional workplace-based issues, but also with solidarity, anti-fascist struggle.
It is also a way of creating an alternative political sphere, which is much needed. It is also going to be important, in the coming years, to have examples of self-managed enterprises, factories. But we do not have a strong tradition of this sort of self-management in Greece. We have a tradition of very bitter labour struggles, but not of this type. Even in the emblematic struggle of the steelworkers the question of self-management was never raised (of course, as it was a steel factory, selling its industrial-scale produce is not as easy as a tile factory occupied in Argentina.)
We need some examples. There is an experiment that is taking place in a factory in Salonika… However there are possibilities of self-management, or workers’ control that might be more fruitful in Greece. This concerns public infrastructure. For example, in public hospitals over the past years they have introduced a mandatory fee of €5. Not only in Athens, but also in provincial health centres, workers (doctors, nurses) have blocked the fee. This give an example, a hybrid form of self-management. But the idea might apply in schools and elsewhere. And we will see more of it.
Greece is now facing the possibility of a humanitarian disaster. Until now, with the exception of groups who were already excluded, Greece has not really seen the sort of social devastation we would expect in a country with such economic statistics. We have a very strong tradition of inter-generational solidarity. So, for example, we have homeless people who are hidden by family solidarity. But I’m not so sure there is much more scope for this. Society seems close to breaking point.
Golden Dawn, in the worst fascist tradition, is very good at making propaganda from the situation. They do very few things, but some have a real symbolic weight. For example, giving out food, but only to those with Greek identity papers. The actual examples are very few, but they do carry political weight.
So developing forms of solidarity is of particular importance. First, because people really do need help. But also because it is a way that people can use collective action and see an improvement in their lives. It will give confidence to struggle.
Q. Syriza has local committees. And in addition there are local people’s assemblies.
Well the whole left is still at the stage of rhetoric with regarding this. I think Syriza people will tend more to use more traditional institutional means. For example, using municipal authorities. They control some authorities here, in Athens, for example. The important thing is for these types of initiatives to be based on people’s initiative. It is not going to be easy. For example organising food banks, or connecting to local agricultural producers – even the right might do such things. It is easy. A mayor could manage to set such a thing up. But, if you’re trying to set up, say, a people’s clinic, in Athens, in a workers’ neighbourhood. This requires a whole network of volunteers. Such things really required to be based on popular assemblies (alongside union work).
Q. What’s your policy in the unions? […]
The union movement in Greece is a bit different to Britain. In the first place there is the size of workplaces. We do not have many big industrial workplaces. Even the traditional industrial working class is rather fragmented in medium or small businesses.
On the other hand the biggest enterprises have been public (civil servants etc) or publicly owned (public electricity or telecom etc) which have formed the basis for the union movement here. In the private sector there are big trades which have been well unionised, which have also been hit badly by the crisis (for example the building trades, traditionally a Communist Party stronghold).
In the banking sector there has been a growth of fully privately-owned banks. Although this remains a strongly unionised sector, and still one with centrally negotiated contracts. When the Agricultural Bank was sold – it was fully state owned – and although there have been no lay-offs, the workers status is now more precarious.
What was really positive in the last years is that there was a new wave of grassroots trade union activism in parts of the private sector that have not been properly unionised in the past. Here the anti-capitalist left played an important role. The anti-capitalist left has traditionally had a strong union presence - stronger than our electoral presence. We have a good presence among education workers, a growing strength among municipal workers, among bank workers. We have played an important role in the growth of most of the new unions that have been formed over the last ten years.
Q. Could you tell us about Antarsya…
ARAN has over 500 members. We originate not in any of the historic trends (Maoism or Trotskyism), but from a New Left perspective in the late 1970s. It is a peculiarity of the Greek left and this trend was especially important among students in the late 70s and 80s.
Although we originated in the Euro-Communist party we also incorporated post-68 radicalism. We have a traditional solidarity position regarding Cuba, believing it should be defended against all forms of imperialist aggression, although we don’t think it is now a model for socialism.
We regard the left-wing governments of Chavez and Morales as very interesting experiments.
In Antarsya we collaborate with the SEK, aligned with the British SWP. When the British SWP was creating Respect, however, the SEK was creating fronts when totally comprised of SEK members. But in the past few years, since the Antarsya experiment began, the SEK has been able to join a broader front. The level of comradely cooperation in Antarsya is continually rising.
SEK are perhaps bigger than ARAN. The third large current in Antarsya is NAR, a major (at the start it involved 10 or 15,000 people) split from the Communist Party in 1989 in opposition to CP participation in government.
At the time of the last conference we calculated the participating groups had 3000 members in total. We have local branches which elect conference delegates. But the organisations have their own autonomy. Every group has the right to one representative at the Central Coordinating Committee.
We do tend to try for consensus, although our constitution does allow for majorities, we do vote on positions.
Q. You got 0.3% in the last election. I can’t believe Antarsya doesn’t contain people who are now looking towards Syriza.
Yes. Of course. There is an open discussion in Antarsya. Some hold this position.
But right now, despite the importance of Syriza’s vote, we feel that it is our responsibility to develop our political programme. Not necessarily a full revolutionary programme, but a programme for now. This is indispensible.
Q. Much of what you say is actually in Syriza’s programme. The rest – well, why not fight for your ideas in Syriza? There seems to be no barrier, as far as I can see…
Yes and also no. For example, during the second electoral period there was a lot of pressure on those policies in Syriza on the Euro and EU. A particular target for this was a Maoist organisation within Syriza, the Communist Organisation of Greece. They made a spectacular about-face, when they publicly renounced their position – previously a centrepiece of their politics for many years, they were a very Maoist, pro-national sovereignty…
They did not say: we are against the Euro, but we are part of a front and we follow the common programme. They said: we have changed their minds. Rather a quick change, we thought.
Q. Maybe they changed their minds (and good if they did). Maybe they collapsed. I don’t know, and I’m not a Maoist... But I don’t see it is an argument against entering Syriza. Unless you’re worrying you’ll collapse under pressure.
You have to understand that the Greek revolutionary left has a very strong tradition of defending positions. We have always had more weight here than the revolutionary left in many other European countries. At the same time we always fared quite badly in elections. There has always been the temptation to go into something bigger, to do better. But if we had done this a whole series of strategic and ideological references would have been obscured and forgotten.
I’m not saying these are easy choices. I’m not saying all those who say: ‘Let’s go and fight in Syriza and pull it to the left’ will give in. That would be really unfair – many are good comrades. But, for the time being, the unity of the forces to the left of Syriza, around an anti-capitalist programme, in a non-sectarian way, advocating unity in struggle, such a tactic seems better. Even, for example, people on the left of Syriza, say the Left Current of Synaspismos with a whole group of MPs, have a very strong anti-Europe position. Even they openly say: let’s have a broad united from of the left, referring explicitly to the Communist Party.
Despite the Communist Party’s disastrous tactics we should not forget how strong and well-organised this party is. It has very deep, special roots in Greek society and especially in the working class. So if I think of a left front I cannot do this just by considering Syriza. I’m thinking of a broader left landscape.
What we are trying to do in Antarsya is to seek a correct dialectic between unity in action and the autonomy of our organisation and the necessary anti-capitalist struggle.