The Greek left takes stock: July 2013

Submitted by AWL on 3 August, 2013 - 4:25

In Greece from 17 to 29 July, comrades from Workers' Liberty and I talked with several groups of the Greek left to find out about their assessments of the political situation and their activities.

We have reported elsewhere on our discussions with OKDE, whose summer camp in western Greece we attended from 20 to 28 July. Here I'll summarise our discussions with other groups.

The newspaper Prin is linked to NAR

First we met Dimitris Souftas from NAR. NAR, the New Left Current, originated in 1989 with a left-wing split from the diehard-Stalinist KKE (Communist Party of Greece) by members of its youth organisation. It is the largest group of the Greek revolutionary left, and the largest element in the Antarsya coalition. Politically, it aims for the "refounding" of a communist movdement in which "all the communist sub-ideologies will have something to offer". The newspaper Prin, linked with NAR, is the most widely-read paper of the Greek left, but circulates through news-stands rather than through hand-to-hand sales.

Dimitris did not agree with the assessment we'd heard from Spiros of OKDE, that on a "molecular" level opinion has shifted to the left in Greece over the last year. Since the government's shutdown of ERT (Greek equivalent of the BBC), to which the ERT workers have responded by occupying their offices, "people are back on the streets, but it is the same people back again, rather than new people turning to the left".

Since ERT, workers are more willing to take action, or for example to consider taking over factories which the bosses shut down, as the workers have done at Biome in Thessaloniki.

Society is being polarised. The government talks about the danger of civil war, but pushes policies as if it is making civil war against society. There is a close connection between what Golden Dawn says, and what the government subsequently does.

However, the government's political position is much weakened, and its ability to take further steps is weakened.

NAR's main focus over the last year has been "reconstructing the organisation", reconsidering fundamental strategic questions.

Dimitris thought Syriza had become "more and more reformist". "The left in Syriza has a big problem because people coming over to Syriza from Pasok strengthen that reformist drift, and bring in Pasok methods. We believe there will be a crisis in Syriza sooner or later, and the Syriza left will seek another home.

"We are not hostile to the Syriza left. We want to open dialogue. Antarsya should be ready, not so much to accept the Syriza left into itself, but to explore agreements on how to go further together".

The left increased its vote at the Syriza congress? "Yes, but we'll see how much that means. I think a dissident faction is always heterogeneous. The left got 30%, but what does that 30% mean?"

Wouldn't it be better for Antarsya to join with Syriza left in advance of the crisis? Couldn't joining help the left get a majority in Syriza? "We would say no. We firmly believe that if you try to influence a big party from inside you get no results. Syriza has moved to the left, when it has, because of the outside pressure of Antarsya and others.

"A Syriza government that is unwilling to radically confront the interests of capital will not only fail but open the door to Golden Dawn. We try to pull Syriza to the left by building a social and political front on the streets.

"It would be more effective if the Syriza left agreed to an anti-capitalist coalition with us. Our trouble is that most people know about politics only through the TV, and we can't reach them".

What about the KKE? "It is in a contradictory phase. Deep down, it wants to approach the rest of the left. It demonstrates together with the rest of the left more often - not all the time, but more often. There is pressure inside the KKE.

"But the militants of KKE have got longstanding habits of keeping aloof from the rest of the left. On the grassroots level KKE fights only for small economic demands, despite its revolutionary declarations".

Has there been a shift to the left in the unions? "There has been a big shift to the left in union elections, and especially in the public sector. But the majority of workers are not in unions. Often unions do not accept casual workers. Most young workers are not accepted into unions, or work in non-union sectors. The vast majority identify the unions with the bureaucrats.

"When I talked with university catering workers in dispute, I found that they couldn't even imagine that they could propose a policy for the union different from the bureaucrats'. We should create workers' clubs which are open to young workers and help them to get into unions or to create new unions". ["Unions", in Greece, are organisations covering a single workplace or a small group of workplaces, so "creating new unions" means "organising new workplaces"].

Why does NAR call for Greece to quit the euro? "Leaving the euro is not enough. If Greece leaves the euro, and is still inside the EU, then things will be no better. So Greece should also quit the EU. For that to work, we will need other countries to leave the EU too - Portugal, Spain, Italy...

"The first step is to stop the flows of capital, to nationalise the banks under workers' control, to nationalise strategic production sectors, and to create forms of organisation from below, like the Biome workers' links with neighbourhood groups to sell their products. Obviously that is not full socialist planning, but it is going in the right direction".

Antarsya, said Dimitris, has about 3000 to 4000 members, an increase of a thousand over the last year. "Antarsya has done well over the last year, but still falls short of its full potential. Three things need to be done.

"One, make Antarsya more democratic for members who are not in any of the component organisations. [Antarsya is a coalition of different organisations, but also has individual members who are in none of the component organisations].

"Two, make Antarsya a real political force in neighbourhoods and local assemblies. There is sometimes difficulty in making the national line meaningful in local terms.

"Third, defend our anti-capitalist political programme. It is ok now, but it needs to be elaborated more to connect to everyday life.

"In elections, many people who agree with our programme vote Syriza because of the left-right polarisation - they just want to be rid of the government.

"New Democracy still has support from a lot of old people, people in the countryside, and middle-class people for whom the crisis has a lagged effect. But how long will that last?"

We met Vasilis Grollios, an unaffiliated socialist whom we first came across while he was studying in England.

He told us that the government's latest decision was to abolish the jobs of school caretakers and the municipal police (who enforce regulations about parking and street-cafe furniture).

Despite thinking the government's policies absurd, he also thought the government was "not weak". "Two years ago we had maybe the biggest demonstration in the history of Greece. The police moved in - and nothing happened. Strikes take place. But life goes on".

The government's parliamentary majority is now down to three? "But it won't fall. The MPs get 7500 euros per month even without the bribes. They will hold to their positions". Besides "a large majority of the population is generally in favour of privatisations, and the municipal police are not popular".

There are many people who are scared of the left. Vasilis described people going to banks before the 2012 elections to withdraw all their money just in case the left won.

Vasilis described further government measures. The government is removing the tax-free threshhold, so that all income is tax. A lot of people, he said, are not being paid for months on end, and yet they complete tax returns as if they have been paid because otherwise there will be legal action against their employer and they will lose their job.

Lots of other workers are in the black economy, or working full-time and declaring themselves as only part-time.

The police have not even dared to try to evict the ERT workers; and if the workers took over all the factories, as they have done at Biome, then the police cannot come and evict them all. But Vasilis did not think that likely.

The Troika (EU, ECB, IMF) knows that Greece is not going to pay the debt in full. It's a dead-end policy. It will end with Greece being kicked out of the EU, or becoming a permanent debt peon.

What of the left? "The KKE and Syriza are only radical liberal. In Greece now you are considered to be on the left if you just oppose the austerity measures.

"The KKE wants capitalism with a human face. Syriza, too, is not anti-capitalist, even though it wants to appear as such. It accepts private ownership, but not the inevitable results of private ownership.

"Antarsya is more radical, closer to Marxist ideas. But they are happy to think that they are on their own, as an elite".

Vasilis quite likes OKDE, which he sees as "close to council communism". But in the last elections, he had faced a dilemma. If you vote for a party which gets less than 3%, your vote doesn't count; in fact, in effect it is redistributed among the parties which get more than 3%. He voted for Syriza so that his vote would not get stolen.

Vasilis is a part-time lecturer at a university in Thessaloniki. Have students become more politically active? "No. They are focused on their careers. New Democracy is the political force with the strongest group in universities".

From Kokkino, one of the Trotskyist groups in Syriza, we met Stathis, a student, with Amalia, a Syriza Left Platform member and Kokkino sympathiser, acting as translator.

Kokkino has recently had a split. "The comrades who decided to leave supported the Syriza leadership's demand that the 'components' in Syriza should dissolve. Maybe they had the Bloc of the Left in Portugal in mind as a model.

"We think they are exposed to a danger of incorporation. Maybe they think that Syriza is still moving to the left, but it's not like that any more.

"We fear that if Syriza comes to government, and it keeps to its current policy, there will be deadlock. It is not that Syriza wants to betray. The intentions are good, but in certain circumstances there will be great pressure on Syriza.

"If we don't insist on keeping the components, we will see the same result as Brazil" [where the Workers' Party developed as a broad radical left party, with large internal democracy, but ended up taking office and governing as neo-liberals].

There has been much discussion in Kokkino, said Stathis and Amalia, of an article by João Machado, a member of PSOL, on the experience in Brazil, where the post-Mandelite Trotskyists focused on the building of the Workers' Party as a broad party and ended up... with some of their members becoming ministers in a neo-liberal Workers' Party government.

Their personal opinion was that the Syriza congress had shown "a slight right turn"; despite that, "30% resisted". The basic parameters are the same as with the Workers' Party and Brazil. The Workers' Party was a radical party like Syriza, but then turned right wing. The evolution of Syriza has been quicker, in the years 2004-13 where the Workers' Party evolution spanned 1979 to 2005.

"There needs to be a compromise between Syriza's wish for more centralism and components like Kokkino. People organised just as a 'tendency' can much more easily be incorporated into reformism. It's more honest to keep component status. If we don't insist on keeping the components, we will have the same result as in Brazil".

Kokkino has worked with DEA and Apo, two other Trotskyist-oriented groups in Syriza, on a joint venture called Rproject. We asked about it.

"It's a new attempt, under development. It is popular inside Syriza - in fact, the third or fourth most popular website on the left".

Why is its name in English? "Rproject - resist, reclaim, revolt".

"We are internationalists. It's R for revolution like V for vendetta".

It seems that using English in Greece has become a token of cosmopolitanism, as the use of French was at one time in England, or in the same way as the word ciao spread from Italy to Germany, many Spanish-speaking countries, and England. According to another Greek comrade we spoke to, if you accidentally jostle someone else on a bus in Greece, you say "sorry", rather than using a Greek word. At the OKDE summer camp, people said "bye-bye" to each other as they left. If t-shirts have words on them, they are more likely to be in English than Greek. Quite a lot of shops have English names and street-signs. However, one OKDE comrade, Stefanos, told us that in his view the use among youth people of scraps of English as a way of seeming chic is now declining.

The Rproject website is linked to "the Red network", comprising Kokkino, DEA, Apo, and some unaffiliated comrades, which has "lots of activities". At the Syriza congress, the Red network participated in the Left Platform, and helped to develop its texts.

"The alliance of the Red network and the Left Current [formerly of Synapsismos] is the first step in moving Syriza back to the left, although the Left Current still has some traits deriving from the KKE".

What about those on the Greek left who say it is better to organise outside Syriza?

"The fight must be waged inside Syriza. It is not the right time now to step out. The whole political situation obliges us to fight inside Syriza. The elections last year showed that a very big section of society places hopes in Syriza.

"We're trying to prove to the other left forces that we don't have the luxury of time to go round Syriza.

"The society and the conditions are mature to go left, but the majority of Syriza believe that if Syriza moves to the right then it will keep the balance in society. We have not mobilised society broadly enough yet. We must inspire society. A lot of people are doubtful about Syriza and ask what is happening with Syriza's right shift".

What political issues are most important in Syriza? Strathis replied that there is no official Kokkino answer to that question.

At the congress the Left had four amendments, all rejected. One said that it was not feasible to abolish the Memorandum and rely on staying in the eurozone.

Does Kokkino call for Greece to leave the eurozone? "No. Exit is not a demand. But it is a probable consequence of a radical policy".

Kokkino, the comrades said, looks to "Lenin's theory of the weakest link". "The fight begins in Greece and then spreads to the working classes of Europe. We look for solidarity in other European countries".

We asked what debate there had been about the role of municipal councils controlled by the left, by Syriza or KKE. The comrades explained that the municipal police and the school caretakers and all public sector workers are employed by the central government. Local mayors can protest, they can threaten to resign, they can encourage strikes, and some have done so; but mayors don't hire and fire workers.

Is the government weaker? Stathis said that this was a controversial issue, and he could give only a personal opinion.

In his opinion, the government is "embarrassed". There has been huge solidarity for the ERT workers which the government didn't expect. The government is still powerful, for now, but not for long, because the extreme neo-liberal ministers put into place after the Democratic Left resigned from the government coalition will provoke a reaction.

Have the unions shifted to the left? "Yes, mostly, in trade union elections, but not necessarily in the consciousness of the members. Some union federations have become really radical, for example the high school teachers".

Nicos Anastasiadis, from DEA, the biggest Trotskyist group in Syriza, thought the Syriza congress had been "difficult". The majority had tried to turn the congress towards an internal debate about the status of the components, the format for electing the committee, and the election of the president.

That the majority did not win dissolution of the components was a clear victory. But it got its way on the voting for the committee and for the president. The left had a separate list for the committee elections and got 30%, a score it was "more than happy" with.

"There is an effort by Tsipras and the majority to turn Syriza to the right. But it has created many reactions".

We discussed the amendments the left had put at the congress. Nicos agreed that it would not be a victory for the left if the European Central Bank expels Greece from the euro, but it is an eventuality to reckon with.

None of the four amendments passed. There was no counting among the 3500 delegates, but it looked as if they got about 30%, with the biggest vote, perhaps, for the amendment which called for straight refusal to pay the debt rather than a policy of negotiating down the debt.

Syriza, explained Nicos, comprises different segments: organisations in neighbourhoods, organisations linked to the working class, and organisations linked to small employers. All the organisations linked to the working class are with the left; but the Syriza youth are mainly with the majority, except on the Macedonian question, where they are with the left.

The new members who have joined Syriza over the last year are mostly with the majority, partly because many of them come from Pasok, and above all because most of them are not active.

The majority has become more aggressive. Panayiotis Lafanzanis, the leader of the Synapsismos Left Current, was booed when he spoke at th congress. That sort of thing used not to happen in Syriza. Many delegates came to the congress looking neither to the left nor to the majority, but we believe the congress pushed many delegates to the left.

We asked about Rproject and the Red network. Nicos said that the network had held three or four joint meetings recently, but most activity is still by the separate component groups.

Kokkino people in Thessaloniki, said Nicos, are mostly in the central Thessaloniki Syriza organisation, which however is not active. That limits DEA-Kokkino joint work.

DEA has also tried to get joint meetings of the Red network and the Left Current, "but the Left Current is not sure they want that".

What has DEA been doing, week to week? "We are heavily involved in an anti-racist campaign in Thessaloniki. We work to push Syriza into activity. That is often difficult: the majority wants a party of voters, not activists.

"We are involved in the Red network. We also do trade-union work. And there is a campaign about making abandoned military installations into parks rather than selling them off".

Over the last year, Nicos estimated, all the left groups have grown "a little", and DEA likewise.

Nicos thought the government was now weak: "I don't know if it will survive the autumn". Its parliamentary majority is down to a sliver, and that's why it uses force and ministerial decrees so much.

"I believe in September Greek society will try to resist. Teachers will strike whether conscripted [into the army, as the government has done with other strikers] or not. Now the left controls the high school teachers' federation, one of the biggest union federations in Greece.

"The left has also won the leadership of the federations of hospital doctors and hospital workers. They are striking soon".

Kokkino split from DEA because they thought DEA was insufficiently committed to Syriza, so we were slightly surprised to find Nicos often using "we" to refer to Syriza in contexts where we would expect "we" to refer to DEA. He said at one point that he thought that the left in every country should try to create something like Syriza. We said that in many countries that would be a step forward; but to do it you need the starting point of a sizeable leftish product of the decomposition of a big old Communist Party, or some substitute of equal clout. That is not available everywhere, or even in most countries. Nicos seemed to take the point.

We asked about the fact, surprising to us, that at the ERT support demonstration the previous day none of the left groups had been circulating newspapers and leaflets.

"We do distribute leaflets and sell papers, but it is not easy. Most people read papers on the internet, not on paper. Sometimes when there are lots of protests you see the same people on them day after day, and you don't try again to sell the paper. And on the whole young people won't buy papers.

"But the DEA paper Workers' Left has a good circulation in Syriza. Workers' Left is a 'line' newspaper, oriented not to a broad audience but to people who ask political questions. We make ourselves visible to a broader audience by banners, placards, and flags".

What about unity on the left, especially between DEA and Kokkino?

"We are for the unity of the left. But it's not a fixed thing, not an absolute necessity. The real importance of unity in the left is in creating a current which can build a revolutionary party. It is not just about joining together a few small revolutionary groups.

"Our disagreements with Kokkino are not so much ideological as a matter of practical politics. Kokkino originated as a split from DEA. They wanted an orientation to a broad left party. Now, after Kokkino's split, the Kokkino residue say we must build a revolutionary party. They have changed. But there are still issues of style of work.

"I don't want to over-generalised, and I know Kokkino in Thessaloniki is different from Kokkino in Athens. But, for example, Kokkino in Thessaloniki recently organised a march against the killing of stray dogs and cats [which are numerous on the city's streets, presumably as a result of pauperised people abandoning their pets].

"It wasn't a bad thing to do, but DEA didn't consider it a priority. We think Kokkino tends to find issues that no-one else is dealing with, and try to make its mark on those, rather than dealing with the larger issues.

"But it's not necessarily the same with Kokkino in Athens.

"In Thessaloniki, we work with Kokkino in Syriza, but they don't do much in the anti-racist movement or other areas where DEA is active. That may change. We have learned things from the comrades in Kokkino - for example, they were the first in the Greek left to campaign on LGBT rights - but we think they tend to decide what they do according to what they think can bring a gain for their organisation in a short time".

Relations with Antarsya, Nicos said, were closer than before. "They are interested in what happened in the Syriza congress. They don't want to join Syriza. They believe that they will gain from the disappointment if Syriza moves to the right. We say they're wrong, and that no-one on the left will gain in that case.

"We work with Antarsya in the unions. For example, there is a coordinating committee of more militant first-level unions in Thessaloniki, which is mainly Syriza and Antarsya people. But it meets only once every two months or so, mainly to organise marches and that sort of thing, and with only a dozen or so people at the meetings".

It has been hard for the left to make gains in universities, said Nicos. "Some students will go on anti-Memorandum marches, but there is no campaign within the universities". Within Antarsya, it is NAR and ARAN and ARAS which have some foothold in universities, rather than SEK. SEK "does only high politics in universities"; other left groups deal only with students' economic issues; "we try to do both, but it's difficult".

Some things that Nicos told us suggest that more mobilisation may come soon in universities. At present Greek university students pay no fees, and they get housing, canteen meals, and textbooks free. The government is moving to end all that provision. There are already problems because university caretakers and canteen workers are not being paid, and fees have been introduced for postgraduate courses.

In high schools? "There is no left presence among high school students, other than the KKE youth. Most students despise politics. And Golden Dawn have a presence in high schools". Golden Dawn is weaker in Thessaloniki, but that is partly because New Democracy in the city has a strong extreme right wing, almost clerical-fascist.

The church is still a strong force in politics? "Yes. The Archbishop collected 70,000 signatures against a Gay Pride festival. And the church can mobilise young people, too. All the clerics are paid by the state, the church pays no taxes, and it owns a lot of property. We say that the state should not support the church, but the Syriza majority don't want conflict with the church. Only a minority of people still attend church every Sunday [the best guess available on the web is 27%], but the majority go sometimes, at Easter and so on. And "a priest can help you find a job... And Orthodoxy is identified with Greek patriotism".

We also had a brief discussion with Nicos about international questions. Nicos said there had been no real debate in the Greek left about Islamism. He was dubious about describing Iran as regional-imperialist or sub-imperialist, but could see the sense in describing Turkey as sub-imperialist. Greek capital has some of the same traits, he said, with its large financial investments in other Balkan states and the decisions by some Greek industrialists to move production there.

We asked Giannis Vogiatzis, from Xekinima, the Greek socialist group linked with the Socialist Party in England, what Xekinima had been doing since we were last in Thessaloniki, in July 2012. "Dealing with Syriza and Golden Dawn. Doing whatever it takes. Watching Syriza and intervening".

Xekinima joined Syriza in 2008, but left in 2011, just before Syriza won a big surge of support. When we talked with Giannis in 2012, it looked as if Xekinima might rejoin Syriza. It hasn't, but it has had some of members, including Giannis, join Syriza as individuals.

"Syriza remains the main left alternative which could under certain conditions make the difference, but the left is the minority in Syriza. Everything still remains open. If Syriza wins the election, life will become very difficult in a very short time for the Syriza bureaucracy.

"Syriza will face specific demands, on the debt for example. We want the whole debt repudiated. We have to prepare to confront international capitalism. We need a transitional programme spelling out what to do with the banks, the shipowners. We cannot confront them by ourselves. We will confront them in alliance with the European south. But Syriza is moving to the right".

Did Giannis agree with the opinion of Nicos Anastasiadis, that the new recruits to Syriza have mostly aligned with the majority? Giannis did not think there had been any real influx into Syriza. He reckoned the membership was almost the same as a year ago, and in fact some members were leaving Syriza or becoming inactive because Syriza was not left enough.

But, he said, the revolutionary left is not growing either. "People are just watching".

Giannis was active with Xekinima in Pasok in the early 1980s. "Life in Syriza is easier than it was in Pasok. In Pasok people believed Andreas Papandreou [the founder and leader of Pasok]. Now no-one believes Tsipras.

"Syriza could easily go back down to 4 or 5% of the electorate. We can then tell people, 'we told you so'. We have an audience. In Thessaloniki, Xekinima has about 50 members. All the revolutionary groups have an audience".

Among young people? "More among older people. At our Xekinima summer camp this year, for the first time in 23 years, we have provision for children, so that parents can come" [rather than the group being able to assume that almost all those coming will be so young that they will not have children].

Is there a shift to the left in the unions? "Yes. In the Workers' Centre of Thessaloniki [whose committee is elected by the 250 'first level' unions in the city, with a total of 100,000 members] Syriza has doubled its representation. People are coming over from Pasok to Syriza, though that is a problem because it can turn Syriza right".

What does Xekinima say about the euro? "We do not want to leave the euro, but we have to be prepared for expulsion. We have to coordinate with the workers across the south of Europe. Part of Antarsya say that we have to leave the euro, and then so help us god. We say the coinage is not the main problem. The main problem is the fight for our transitional programme. We have to fight capitalism, whether with the drachma or with the euro".

We questioned Giannis again, as we had done in 2012, about the discrepancy between Xekinima's view and that of the Socialist Party, which backed a "No2EU" slate in the 2009 Euro-elections and may do again in 2014. He would not be drawn. "Every part of our international will have its own ideas on what's best for its party. We talk with the SP, but we decide".

What did Giannis make of the recent KKE congress? "The KKE keeps on saying that the KKE is the only revolutionary grouping in Greece. The KKE says Syriza can change nothing, and they are right about that, but they couldn't answer the dilemma posed between May and June 2012, whether it was better for Samaras to win or Syriza. The KKE has lost members, and lost wider support too".

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