The success of the anti-fascist struggle in Greece is due to a fighting unity of the movement, and the Left collaborating with those who are fresh to the struggle, writes Kevin Ovenden
About 600 people, from a broad spectrum of the Left and social movements, gathered in the wake of the enormous upsurge of popular feeling over the murder by Golden Dawn thugs of much-loved anti-racist hip hop artist Pavlos Fyssas.
That popular revolt, combined with an ongoing, active anti-fascist campaign forced the government, a coalition of the centre Right and vestigial centre Left, to belatedly move against the fascists. The last two weeks have seen dramatic arrests of GD leaders and raids on their offices.
If there were still a scintilla of doubt that GD represents not only a “far Right”, racist formation, but a dedicated neo-Nazi enterprise, then this photograph of its second in command, Christos Pappas, in his youth must dispel it.
The photo broke into a Greek media that is now daily awash with stories and reports exposing the fascists. It was not so just two months ago, when most of the media was criminally silent or indulging in anti-immigrant scapegoating and racism. The government was refusing to take measures against GD (with some leading figures of the centre Right entertaining the possibility of future coalition with them) and was itself implementing the most racist and authoritarian policies of any administration in the European Union.
Absolutely central to the shift is the anti-fascist movement and the response to the murder of Pavlos. It was spontaneous only in the sense that many thousands of activists, often young, knew instinctively, without the need for a central call, what to do. This was a result of over a year of mass anti-fascist campaigning and of the percolation, through the base of society, of the ideas that have guided that rising movement.
The government is now hoping to wrest back control. It aims to divert the movement into the confines of constitutional and legal processes — an approach first mooted by dying social democratic party and junior coalition partner, Pasok.
In that way it aims to re-legitimise itself as the custodian of democracy and to draw on any accrued political capital to implement further rounds of austerity as Greece heads for a deepened debt and deficit crisis next year amid an ongoing, extraordinary level of workers’ and social resistance.
It hopes to trap the Left, especially the parliamentary Left, into a neutering “constitutional arc” of sham unity, headed by the centre Right, at the same time as continuing to denounce the radical Left as the “twin of the fascists”, as much a threat to democracy as GD.
The size and social weight, and the precise and intelligent direction of last weekend’s conference, as well as deepening clarity in the labour movement, all suggest that those hopes of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and his government will prove forlorn.
The movement and its end goal are together everything
Among those speaking at the conference was Maria Psarra, a journalist on the centre Left paper Ethnos. She is now one of the leading writers exposing the crimes and true politics of GD. The paper’s editors have shifted to giving her much more space in the mass circulation daily than previously had been the case.
She told those at the conference — who were disproportionately young and fresh from militant protests — that they should be in no doubt that it was activity by them and by the movement that caused the abrupt shift in Greek national politics over GD.
She said it was not just the eruption over the slaying of Pavlos, but also the ongoing movement that has seen hundreds of local mobilisations and meetings, as well as a historic 20,000-strong national demonstration against GD on 19 January this year. Maria added that the information she and others are reporting in the mass media has itself come from the movement.
Javed Aslam, a leader of Greece’s Pakistani community, underlined the point, saying that we are where we are today, on the threshold of decisively throwing back the fascists, only because a section of the Left decided years ago to forge a deep alliance with the Muslim and other immigrant communities in Greece — standing up to the fascists, state repression (including the state kidnap under the fig leaf of anti-terrorism of Pakistani migrants), and against popular racism and Islamophobia.
The government and its hired keyboards are trying to present themselves as the prime, or at least significant, agents of defeating the fascists. Others — including a few who ought to know a lot better — are unwittingly undermining the self belief of the movement, and the politics that are cohering it, by relegating the impact of the broad, radical, mass anti-fascist campaign to merely one “factor” among many: most of them “objective”, “structural” or otherwise gifted from without.
There are even some who, from a legitimate “anti-state” standpoint and a correct concern at the Greek government’s attempt to steal the political initiative, have distorted reality through an ideological prism to suggest that the anti-fascist furore is wholly or largely confected by “the state”.
Samaras is supposedly, then, acting according to a carefully constructed plan to strengthen the state through feigning attacks on the fascists but with the thinly veiled purpose of moving hard against the Left, and smashing the workers’ and social movements.
Historical distance means it is often difficult to unpack primary and proximate causes from the secondary and remote when it comes to events and moments in the relatively far off past. We are fortunate to be living through this historic drama and to have compelling evidence of machinations at the top as well as direct experience of the struggle from below.
We know from the house journal of the Greek Right and business class, Kathimerini (the rough equivalent of The Daily Telegraph in Britain, Le Figaro in France or The Wall Street Journal in the US), that there was indeed a high level discussion in the centre Right New Democracy party at the end of August over how to respond to the growth of GD.
But its thought out conclusion was not to deploy the weight of the criminal justice system against the Nazis. Instead, it was to launch in the autumn a further vicious assault on migrants, to ratchet up racism in rhetoric and institutionally, and to redouble the deployment of anti-Left propaganda redolent of the years of civil war against the Communist and workers’ movements. It was thus to seek to win back votes from the fascists by adapting wholesale to them.
It was a case of asking people to prefer a moderate “bourgeois” imitation to the militant “plebeian” rabble-rousers, which on every occasion from the pre-Hitler authoritarian governments in Germany onwards has only ever emboldened the fascists. A taste of this criminal policy came with Samaras’ speech on 7 September to the annual gathering in Salonika of the Greek business association, as 50,000 protesters besieged the event.
We know also that there have been a few muted, mealy-mouthed concerns from some European government ministers about the growth of the Nazis in Greece. There have been a handful of more forthright words, often drawing on excellent reporting by NGOs such as Amnesty International, from those Brussels and Strasbourg institutions designed to give a gloss of “European” and “liberal” values to the EU project.
But there have been no EU measures against GD. Despite respectable protest, one of its MPs — the wife of the now-jailed führer Michaloliakos no less — was absurdly allowed to be on the Greek delegation to a meeting of the Council of Europe, guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The EU has imposed the Fortress Europe policy for over a decade — enacted in Greece through Forex, the hunters of black and brown skin who operate the border with Turkey, and across the whole of Southern Europe, resulting in the recent multi-state mass murder of migrants left to drown off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. And it is the EU, European Central Bank and IMF — the troika — of course, which have imposed with the Greek bosses the devastating austerity.
So these are the “objective” circumstances, barely changed through five years of the crisis except to become more accommodating to the far Right, and more vicious.
It is simply and squarely the eruption of the anti-fascist struggle, resting on sustained mass campaigning, that transformed the situation in the last two weeks — that and, relatedly, the failure of the fascists to take control of neighbourhoods with massed street fighters over the last year. The paltry numbers mobilised by GD in protest at the arrest of its leaders show that. The anti-fascist movement has consciously sought to cleave GD between its Nazi core and flabbier periphery. It was the politically aware movement which rearranged the “objective” circumstances and, through mass, directed, collective action, became itself the key “objective” factor, the critical circumstance of yesterday inherited in the struggle today for potential victory tomorrow.
The Greek government’s response is, naturally, calibrated to construct a political bloc to bolster itself, ride the movement and even to master it. It would be foolish to underestimate that. But it is far from coherent, still less pre-planned.
It is ad hoc, reactive and piecemeal. It is through the instrument of political formations pursuing policies and tactics that the interests of the ruling class and the direction for their state organs are materialised. The instrument of New Democracy and the coalition government it heads is weak. It is acting in circumstances not of its choosing and in which the overarching immediate “factor” is both in flat opposition to it, and is capable of developing further its own political understanding — directed against not only the fascists but against the political class that has incubated them.
The struggle, politics and the law
That sentiment and understanding ran through the KEERFA conference as it carefully deliberated on the concrete next steps and demands for the movement. Its communiqué and calls to action can be read here in a reasonable machine translation
Participants ranged from militants from the years of the struggle against Nazi occupation and the Civil War, through academics and public figures such as Dimitris Kousouris, who was the victim of a near-fatal GD attack in 1998, to the young woman facing charges for hurling GD leaders into the harbour in Chania on Crete.
They included leading representatives of the immigrant communities in Greece, elected figures such as Petros Constantinou (the organiser of KEERFA facing state charges for speaking out in defence of Albanians shot by the police), and leading trade unionists, including from the state broadcaster ERT, where workers continue to occupy and run the station under their control. The occupied ERT station live-streamed the conference and there was widespread other media coverage.
It is a sign of the dynamism of the new situation that Pakistani community leader Javed Aslam was called to give evidence in Greece’s highest court against GD: previously he has faced both witch-hunting by the government and its Pasok predecessor, and threats of being dragged before the court as the accused.
Lawyers — including those who represent victims of the fascists, such as the family of murdered Pakistani worker Shehzad Luqman — made an important contribution to the conference.
As people first become moved by something as vital as the serious growth of fascism, one initial response is to look to legal answers — to say, quite understandably, that we are meant to live in a democracy, with the rule of law, so surely there must be legal action against the criminality of fascist groups.
Faced with impotence, or even collaboration with fascism and organised racism by the police, courts and criminal justice system — the core of the repressive state apparatus — that can quickly give way to contempt for appeals to legal redress. While that may hold the seeds of wisdom, in itself it holds no positive answer to the threat.
The anti-fascist lawyers — themselves activists in the movement as well as advocates for the victims of fascism and racism — last weekend argued for a strategic approach that can unite the movement (uneven in its experience and levels of confidence) even more broadly, confound the attempt to neuter it into a paper, constitutional consensus, and take the political battle right to the heart of the governing parties and the state.
As in Britain, it is in the hands of the state in Greece to bring criminal charges. We have already seen the, at best, incompetence of the prosecuting and judicial authorities: one judge released the personal details of a GD whistle-blower to the fascists’ lawyers last week.
It is not just that the movement is providing the evidence that prosecutors are drawing on, or even that activists will hold the court proceedings to public scrutiny. A rallying call from the Athens conference was that the anti-fascist movement must itself mount the prosecution into GD, not stopping at the collusion with state institutions, businessmen, and politicians.
It is that collectively the movement will insist — in a legal procedure akin to a private prosecution in Britain — on trusted anti-fascist lawyers being part of the official proceedings as “co-claimants”, asking the questions, cross-examining, advocating and leading evidence which the state authorities cannot be trusted to do.
Rather than a tortured and abstract debate about “legal action versus the movement”, the collective experience of participants in the Athens conference has led them to a more profound and concrete answer. It is to make the movement felt, indeed present, within the sacrosanct deliberations of a part of the state.
The strategy is to press the boundaries set by the establishment, either to break them or to reveal them to the whole society — either way advancing enormously not only the struggle against the fascists, but the positive movement for a truly democratic and just alternative to the system that has allowed them to grow.
The answer proposed to the riddle often perplexing activists — how do we move from fighting against to fighting for — is suggested not as through the movement of ideas and ideology, not by the blunt and jarring assertion of the necessity of the “communist idea”, as the militantly anti-racist French philosopher Alain Badiou put it in a recent, disappointing, article, but through the working out of the actual mass struggle of people — guided by a politics based on the “independent movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority”, as Marx and Engels famously defined the socialist or communist political tradition in 1847.
A European call to arms
Part of the Athens conference was a plenary of representatives of anti-fascist movements from elsewhere in Europe. Across the continent the struggle against fascism, racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia is sharply posed. Of course, there are also national peculiarities — different combinations of state and far Right racism, different specific weights of right-wing populist, far Right and outright fascist forces.
But the struggle in Greece — just as it has in the class war against austerity — provides vital lessons, so long as they are applied through building serious, united movements within each European state. And the call for a European-wide day of action from the conference, on 22 March in the run-up to the European elections next year, is welcome in providing a focus for national events and international coordination.
The focus is squarely on the fascist and far Right, while drawing a clear line against racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia more generally. As such, and given it is the centre Right which is in office in most of Europe and which is everywhere acceding, at the very least, to racism, the political thrust of 22 March will cut against the Right in all forms, directly and obliquely.
There are already many positive responses to the initiative from various anti-fascist formations, just as there were for the highly successful international day of action centred on Greece on 19 January, which drew together traditions as diverse as mainstream European social democrats and radical “anti-fa” groups.
M22 — 22 March — provides a basis for a principled fighting unity which can reach deep into the centre of the labour movement and liberal opinion in a way that levers the balance to the Left. The exact constellation of forces and form of events will doubtless vary according to the development of the movement and the national reality in each country. But the principle of constructing a broad yet militant coalition and seeking closer coordination with similar formations has traction across the continent.
The radical Left in particular has a great chance, thanks to the tremendous fight given by the Greek movement, both to have direct political effect and to strengthen its own ranks. Those of us who are part of that Left should come together to take it.
Unite Against Fascism, the leading anti-racist coalition in Britain, was represented at the conference by our national chair Steve Hart — of Britain’s largest union, Unite — and by joint national secretary Weyman Bennett.
They welcomed the call for increased co-ordination in the run-up to the European elections (already UAF has developed a national campaign strategy). The specific call from the Athens conference will shortly be considered by UAF’s elected national officers.
The widespread, co-ordinated demonstrations on 19 January provide a model not only for even deeper mobilisations on 22 March, but for united, mass campaigning against fascism and the far Right up to and beyond that day.
Unity, tous ensemble, hep birlikte, vereingt euch, l’unita, oloi mazi
There is a large and variegated Left in Greece. That reflects a turbulent past and an enduring resistance by the working class and allied forces since the fall of the colonels’ junta nearly four decades ago.
The organisational division of the Left is, at least largely and with regard to forces of any significance, a reflection of deeply held differences of politics and strategic orientation.
The success of the anti-fascist struggle thus far in Greece cannot be put down to the unity of the Left into a single organisation, however desirable one might take that to be.
Rather, it is down to a determination to build a fighting unity of the movement. That has meant — simultaneously — determined arguments for a politics which prioritises and can sustain a militant mass movement, and an open collaboration of a broad spectrum not only of the established Left, but crucially of those, including newcomers to Greece, who are fresh to the struggle.
As the crisis continues to rip through Europe and globally, the lessons emerging from the actual, molten struggle in Greece (as opposed to attempts to pour those real developments into pre-moulded ideological casts) become ever more vital.
Writing from London, one lesson I cannot help reflecting on is the need for seriously concerting a mass, united response — requiring a preparedness to argue, at times sharply, for precise tactics based on the best assessment we can collectively come to, but always in a spirit that genuinely does take to heart the necessity of unity, and that our enemy lies on the Right, no matter what our differences on the Left.
Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
More articles from this author
- Witchfinder Starmer must be stopped: this is a fight for all the left
- The struggles are fusing: Greece protests rage against authoritarianism
- Starmer's flag fetish: win the middle ground, don’t chase it
- Vaccine nationalism: a plague on all our houses
- Impeachment will not defeat Trumpism
- We need to learn from the mistakes of Brexit past
- Keir Starmer's Brexit opportunism