Visiting the Greek left, July 2013

Submitted by AWL on 1 August, 2013 - 10:20

We arrived in Thessaloniki on the evening of Wednesday 17 July. First we went to an estate agent to collect the keys of the flat where we would stay.

Other reports from Greece, July 2013:

That taught us that estate agents in Greece are not like the archetypes of the US middle class described in Jeffrey Hornstein's book: the typical estate agent seems to be a voluble, affable, casual, slightly scruffy young man in polo shirt and shorts.

Then we went to the Thessaloniki headquarters of the public broadcaster ERT (Greek equivalent of the BBC), where a workers' occupation is defying the Samaras government's decision to shut down ERT. The building was covered with union banners. On the pavement outside and opposite was a crowd of supporters. Some hundreds gather there every evening: apparently it was 2000 at the start of the occupation.

On Wednesday evening - as the next evening, when we came past ERT again - there were many left-wing banners there, some attached to buildings or railings, some carried on poles. Despite that, on both evenings the gathering seemed more like a social occasion, with people chatting, than a political forum. There was music, not particularly political; on the Thursday evening there was a fast-food van.

On Wednesday evening there were a couple of short speeches, and then the crowd formed up to march to Aristotelou Square, in the city centre. The comrades of the Trotskyist organisation OKDE told us that the initiative for the march had come from members of NAR, leaders in the local teachers' union, who have promised the possibility of linking up with a bigger crowd in Aristotelou.

On the way, the OKDE comrades used their megaphone to lead chants - for a political general strike, and others - and there are also a few chants led by a megaphone on the contingent with the banner from Pame, the KKE's (Communist Party's) political front. However, there were no paper-sellers and no leaflets.

The OKDE comrades told us that they had a leaflet, but were keeping it to distribute to the bigger crowd in Aristotelou. In the event the bigger crowd wasn't there. And their paper? "We sold them all yesterday, when there was a general strike". Later, Nicos from DEA (a Trotskyist group within Syriza) told us that demonstrations involving roughly the same crowd from the left are sometimes so frequent that on the second or third time out activists don't bother trying with their papers.

Spiros from OKDE told us that the KKE - the major, defining organisation of the Greek left from the 1920s onwards - has no tradition of public paper-selling, maybe in part because it has spent so much of its life under one or another dictatorship. Its paper Rizospastis circulates through news-stands rather than through hand-to-hand sales. On Thursday evening we chanced upon a KKE rally in central Thessaloniki, near the Venizelos statue, and true enough there were plenty of KKE flags but no sign of Rizospastis, or indeed of the assembled KKE members making any effort to spread their message to passers-by.

On Wednesday, having found no large crowd in Aristotelou, we went with the OKDE comrades to a cafe to eat, drink, and chat.

Spiros agreed with the assessment which Sofia Theodoropoulou from Athens OKDE had given me when I met her at the Lutte Ouvriere fete in France in May. The Greek working class is still moving to the left, he said, but it is an unspectacular, molecular process, a matter of "little things". The left is gradually winning more ground in the elections. New "first-level" unions are being formed or revitalised, though against those gains there are losses from the disappearance of unions when workplace shut.

In Thessaloniki, the Biome factory is still operating under workers' control. The 70 workers there make household cleaning materials and sell them themselves, directly to the public. "It is not such a big thing", said Spiros, but the idea of workers whose factories are abandoned by their owners taking them over is becoming more current.

When AWLers were last in Thessaloniki, in July 2012, the neighbourhood assembly movement was reduced to dribs and drabs. A year later, there are more neighbourhood assemblies, some running neighbourhood markets in liaison with suppliers from the countryside to provide food without middleman's profit. It is easier to convene ad hoc neighbourhood assemblies when issues arise. "People have become more disobedient". There is more activity by young workers, even though they are usually not union members.

What have OKDE's main activities been in Thessaloniki over the last year? Spiros reflected and said that the main area had been union activity. OKDE is active in the restaurant workers' union. In the last elections, the slate supported by OKDE got 100 votes. The slate supported by the KKE got 200 votes and kept control, but OKDE's 100 is more than the total number of votes cast in the union election a couple of years ago. OKDE has also been active in the teachers' union and among students.

Pasok, the old social-democratic party, elected to government in October 2009 with 44% of the vote but now a junior coalition partner to the conservative New Democracy and on just 7% in the opinion polls, is "finished", said Spiros. It was never a party which came out of the workers' movement like the British Labour Party or the German SPD. [It was founded in 1974 by Andreas Papandreou, former deputy prime minister in a government of the liberal Centre Union]. It was, said Spiros in a startling analogy, inspired more by the Ba'thists than by traditions of the workers' movement.

On Thursday 18th and Friday 19th we met people from other strands of the Greek left. We will write up reports of those discussions separately, and we have also reported separately on the discussions we had with OKDE about broader questions of world politics and theory.

On the Thursday morning we met Dimitris Souftas of NAR, the biggest group in the Antarsya coalition and one that aspires to a "communist refoundation in which all the communist sub-ideologies will have something to offer". That meeting was in a city centre cafe, "Hemingway", which is "the NAR cafe".

Dimitris has a job with the Institute of Labour (the educational department) of the trade union federation GSEE. Although his wage is only 5000 euros a year, he hasn't been paid since June 2011. How was he surviving? "From odd jobs".

Prin, associated with NAR, and widely sold on newsstands, is the most widely-read paper of the Greek left.

Then we went to another cafe to meet Vasilis Grollios, a Greek socialist whom we first came across when he was studying in Britain. In 2012 he was having to take a seven-hour bus trip to reach work at the only university job he could find in Greece. Now he has a job lecturing at a university in Thessaloniki, but it is part-time and insecure.

Eventually he hopes to find a full lecturer's post. But a friend of his has just got such a job, "in principle". His success means only that he is no.471 in the queue for vacant lecturing positions.

In the evening of Thursday 18th we met comrades from Kokkino, one of the Trotskyist groups in Syriza, at the cafe where Amalia, a member of the Syriza Left Platform and sympathiser of Kokkino, works. Amalia also works as an English teacher in a private school. Vast numbers of Greek school students attend private schools in the afternoons and evenings, after going to state schools earlier in the day, particularly to improve their English.

Amalia explained that everyone in Greek state schools studies English from the age of nine. The second language taught in Greek schools used to be French, but it changed in 1999.

Why, we asked, is the teaching of English in state schools considered so inadequate that the private schools thrive? The classes are too big, said Amalia. In the private schools they are no more than 12, and really she considers five or six the maximum for language teaching.

We heard the same opinion about class sizes from others. Why this applies to language teaching, and less to other subjects, we still don't understand.

On Friday 19th we talked with Nicos Anastasiadis from DEA, the bigger Trotskyist group in Syriza. Nicos is a maths teacher in a state school in a small town outside Thessaloniki. We met Nicos at the Arch of Galerius, one of the sizeable structures remaining in Thessaloniki from its time as an important city in the Roman Empire.

Left-wing posters at the Arch of Galerius

There were more posters plastered round the Arch, and elsewhere in Thessaloniki, and more political graffiti too, than in July 2012. We had asked Amalia of Kokkino about that. Yes, she said, that is true. The left has grown only a bit over the last year, but there is "more will". "Things are harsher".

As in 2012, Thessaloniki does not at first sight look like a city plunged into pauperism. The street cafes are bustling, the buses run frequently and cheaply; there are shuttered shops, and there are beggars, but no more than in British cities. This is not like the Omonia district of Athens, which has plunged.


The [Byzantine] White Tower and waterfront, Thessaloniki

A street cafe in Thessaloniki. The drink is "frappe" - made by whisking instant coffee and sugar into a froth with a little cold water, then adding more cold water and ice

But we know that one of the reasons why poverty is less visible in Thessaloniki is that things have got worse. In 2012 there were large numbers of African and Asian migrants selling small items on the streets of Thessaloniki, usually from sheets spread on the pavement. Now there are few. The migrants have not found steady jobs: the cops have chased them away.

When workers have huge pay cuts, or lose their jobs, the blocks of flats in which they live do not immediately turn into slums. The workers' clothes, when they go out onto the streets, have not been instantly transformed into rags. But the working-class anger is there.

On Saturday 20th we went to the Venizelos statue in central Thessaloniki to get the coach organised by OKDE to go to its summer camp in western Greece. As we were waiting there, three other groups of people with tents and backpacks assembled, boarded coaches, and left: to go camping by the seaside in July or August is not something only Trotskyists do.

The coach travelled along the Egnatia Odos, the main east-west highway of Greece, built between the 1990s and 2009. The highway is named after the ancient Roman Via Egnatia, which ran from Constantinople west through Thessaloniki to the Adriatic. The portion of it in Thessaloniki itself, also called Egnatia, is on the same route as the Roman road, but further west they diverge: the Roman highway took a more northerly direction, to Durrës in modern Albania.

The modern road goes through mountainous terrain - 76 tunnels and 1,650 bridges - though the mountains are mostly not high, and are green - covered, and sometimes densely, with small trees right up to their summits. Traffic on the highway seemed very light for such a major route. Along the way there was no sizeable city except Ioannina, and mostly only isolated buildings or small villages.

Taking a small track for the last small part of the journey, we reached the campsite in which OKDE had booked a section. The site is a large, well-serviced area right next to the beach, and OKDE had set up, near to the area for their tents, a drinks-and-snacks kiosk, a bookstall, an area with cafe-type tables, and an area for meetings.

A view down to the sea from the campsite

Banner at the OKDE camp: "Solidarity with the Turkish uprising/ Support for all political activists and refugees"

Through the week, there were political sessions from about 10:00 to 13:00 each day, and then from 18:30 to about 21:00. After 21:00 there were films, music, poetry readings... In the afternoon, people slept, played (many children came), swam, played chess or other board games, chatted, read, relaxed. The sun was warm, bright, and constant without being oppressively hot, and the sea clear and ideal for swimming.

On the Wednesday, we took a trip to the nearby ruins of the Roman city of Nikopolis and to the river Acheron, after which the river separating this world from Hades in Greek mythology was named. For some of its length you can wade across the Acheron fairly easily both ways, but I guess its mythological significance derives from a section where it runs through a canyon with steep walls either side.

Crossing the Acheron: real life

Crossing the Acheron: the mythical ferryman Charon, as depicted by Dore

The political sessions included: Turkey; Cyprus; the Greek revolutionary socialist movement between the World Wars; the life and ideas of Pantelis Pouliopoulos; the struggle against fascism and war; the crisis of contemporary culture; workshop sessions for students, for teachers, and for other workers to discuss OKDE activity in those respective fields; and presentations by two of the invited socialist groups from other countries, one from AWL on "Third Camp" Trotskyism and one from Lutte Ouvriere on the political situation in France and the PSA Aulnay dispute.

People from an Albanian socialist group and from the French group L'Etincelle also attended.

On Sunday 28 July, the camp ended, and we returned to our daily duties in the class struggle, in Greece, in Britain, and elsewhere.

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