Kevin Ovenden speaks to three members of Syriza who are associated with the AnalyzeGreece! website
“Communist”, “Eurocommunist”, “radical Left”, “anti-capitalist”, “plural”, “a coalition of the radical Left”, “a new Left”, “a recomposition of the old Left”, “Left-reformist”...
There are many characterisations of Syriza. In part, that is a reflection of the heterogeneous make-up of the coalition which was founded in 2004 and turned itself into a singular party in 2012.
It also has something to do with the hopes people within and without Greece are investing in its anticipated victory on Sunday. Hope is a good thing – and rare for those of us on the Left in recent decades who have experienced “defeat, defeat, defeat” as the British Communist leader Harry Pollit used to put it, but not the “and then a victory” which was his peroration.
But if combined with a despairing flight from your own political reality, it can feed an unhealthy projection of wishful thinking onto someon else's.
Matters are further complicated because they have an annoying habit of changing. Syriza has been marked by very rapid changes over the last three years and more. And as it enters government, at a moment of renewed political crisis in the European Union and amid rising expectations of change emanating from Greece, it is set to change again.
I spoke to three members of Syriza who are associated with the Enthemata theoretical and comment supplement to the Syriza daily paper Avgi. They are also involved in the recent launch of a valuable English language website – analyzegreece.gr – which is set to be a daily turn-to for all those looking for serious analysis of political, social and economic developments as the struggle against the Right and austerity continues under a government of the Left.
Strathis Bournazos, Manos Avergidis (both on the editorial board of Enthemata) and Dimosthenis Papadatos-Anagnostopoulos (editor in chief of RedNotebook) all broadly occupy the same space on the political spectrum within Syriza. They are not of the organised Left Platform (see below), but they are on the Left of the majority grouping to which Alexis Tsipras and the leadership belong.
No one should infer that this provides a privileged position from which to comment with authority on the party or that the views of others, particularly the organised currents which make up the Left Platform, are worthless. Far from it. There are many views and important insights.
Rather the three happen to be typical of a large number of Syriza supporters and members who do not fit neatly into the formal organisational distinctions and they also embody three differing levels of engagement with the party. Dimosthenes joined in 2005 and is a young member of Syriza's 170-strong central committee, which is elected by the annual Congress. Strathis has had a long association with Syriza and its predecessor, Synaspismos, but joined only two years ago, following the 2012 election breakthrough and the transformation of Syriza into a party.
Manos is not sure whether he is registered as a member nationally, but is active in his locality with the Syriza branch there and it is that and his intersection with the party in the social movements which forms the core of his relationship to it.
How do you see Sunday? Out on the campaign trail, there seems to be a shift in the last few days – will Syriza have a big win and what are the implications for forming a government of the Left?
Dimosthenis: “There are clear signs of people coming over directly from New Democracy to Syriza. It's a tremendous development. We are getting reports of it happening in the provincial areas as well as in the big working class centres of Athens and Salonika.
“There is a chance we can win an absolute majority. This is not the be all and end all. We must not fall into the trap of believing that we can do nothing if we don't have over 150 Mps. But clearly the bigger the win on Sunday, the better in pursuing the political changes the Left stands for.”
Manos: “The Right spoke in the language of the civil war against a Left, ie Syriza, victory. Now it is the Right that is caught in its own civil war. You have figures in New Democracy refusing to support others from other factions. It is too much to hope that the Right will just fall apart. They have positions in the state and they will be hoping that Syriza will be at most an interlude.
“But there is something deep happening. It's not just a normal election with a dramatic change of government. It's more.”
Stratis: “The society has moved Left. Not over everything and not everyone. But in general. That's why you have this atmosphere and why the whole of the Left feels some confidence. Ultimately, it is on the social forces of the working class and its allies that the Left bases itself to find some strength.
“So it makes a big difference that we are seeing a general Left shift. And the bigger that is registered on Sunday, the better for the Left in opposing the Right and demands of the European Union and troika, and the more it will further encourage the social movement.”
Without going back too far, the origins of what we have now in Syriza can be found in the split between the Communist Party (and consequently within it) and its electoral front, Synaspismos, in 1991. Throughout the 1990s Synaspismos was a fairly unremarkable formation – struggling to find an identity between Pasok on the one hand the Communist Party (restating Orthodoxies and party pride) on the other. What changed to bring us to where we are today?
Manos: “You can point to all sorts of organisational changes, for example the opening up to others on the Left which came with the launch of the Syriza coalition. These were important. It meant the influx into Syriza of several groupings on the Left – Maoist (such as KOE), Trotskyist or neo-Trotskyist (like DEA) and so on. It also anchored Syriza firmly on the radical Left. There were those who really saw the future as going into government with Pasok.
“But the biggest change was the turn to the movements. It was that which attracted people like me. And it created a new sense of the relationship between the party and the movements for change and social justice.”
Dimosthenis: “This is critical. It's not that the party initiated the movements or had a front inside the movement. This was the old Orthodox Communist tradition which had not succeeded in winning the young people and others who moved into opposition to the system as a result of the Genoa protests and the anti-war movement.
“Rather it was that the party was porous, sympathetic, engaged in the movements and so on.”
Stratis: “This is crucial today. Becauase the movements have not disappeared. But activists must pay a lot of attention to developing them anew as we have this Left victory electorally. If people say we will just sit back and wait to see what Syriza delivers in government then we know that there are enormous pressures not to deliver. We cannot have a pause.”
Yes – in 2001 to 2005 we also had Rifondazione Comunista and its leader Fausto Bertinotti make a turn to the movements – anti-globalisation and anti-war. But he ended up supporting a government which deployed troops in Afghanistan. The Italian Left is still recovering from the damage done? How has Syriza been different?
Dimosthenis: “In a sense Bertinotti was our model. So the Italian experience is very serious. You can't just pretend it did not happen.
“One lesson is that we must struggle to ensure that the party has a life and dynamic independent from the party in government. And the social movements have to maintain that autonomy too. There is a great danger of statification – that the state, which remains in the hands of the dominant classes, absorbs our activists and directs them in its interests.
Manos: “The truth is Syriza could have done a lot more in the last few months towards pushing the social movement. Ok we have had a lull. But people are active in the neighbourhoods – in the social solidarity movement, in the anti-racist struggle (which is critical) in all sorts of ways.
“This has to be a real priority.”
Dimosthenis: “Look, we won't win in negotiations with the troika if it is just down to the negotiations themselves. I want to have skilled negotiators with some weight and prepared to threaten the troika back when it tries to blackmail the government. But there has to be a third pole. The mass of people – and I don't just mean the employed workers – engaged in struggles.
Stratis: “This will impact on the party and with its structures also.”
Yes. Tell me about the political lines of division inside the party.
Dimosthenis: “There is the Left Platform. Its majority is of the old Communist trend represented by the leading figure in the Platform Panayiotis Lafazanis. It tends to be quite national in its outlook. But the current represented in the Red Network are more internationalist. More modern in a good way – alert to racism and other oppression.
“The Left Platfom had about 30 percent support at the last Congress. Then there is the majority. It is looser. There are for example 53 Central Committee members who signed a declaration to the Left of the leadership. If you put the two together, there is a majority for the Left.
“But things don't work as simply as that. Because we will face a new political reality with pressures, strains and surprises.”
Strathis - “And, of course there is the social resistance to austerity and authoritarianism...”
Manos: “Additionally, its not just the base of the party in those movements and inside the working class. It is also the mass of the party members. They are a further factor. There are about 35,000 members.
“Some are ex-Pasok. They tend to think of politics in that old way. But they are in a process with people who are thinking and doing in a new way. So I don't think the traditional way in which parties managed their members is going to work.”
One more factor is what the Left internationally can do to assist the process here. What should the Left be doing? What should it draw from Greece?
Manos: “The battle starts nationally, but it cannot be won nationally. For me, the internationalism is central. And the battle against racism and for refugee rights is central. It's not just that it is another front in the struggle. It is about breaking the ideological confines which have limited so much of the Left and our struggles.”
Dimosthenis: “I suppose the old answer, overthrow the power where you are, is still relevant. That is the heart of solidarity. But that does not mean nationalising the struggle. One problem I think the Left has is that it does internationalism when it is doing something special for another struggle abroad. And it does not make that an issue relevant to the national politics when it does so, but rather a special interest.
“And when it fights on the national political questions or social issues at home, it does not internationalise its discourse and tactics. So I think the main things are practical solidarity in a way that deepens the class struggles at home and also developing the relationship between the political Left and those struggles which can open up not just electoral growth, but a way of doing things differently.”
Chatting over coffee with Stratis, Manos and Dimosthenis made one thing clear above all: a thinking and young Left is at the heart of the developments in Greece whose most visible expression will be in the election results on Sunday.
But that is but the tip of a very large iceberg. The captains of European capital who have spotted the tip and shouted the alarm would do well to think what lies beneath the surface.
Tomorrow I'll look a little more at the history of Syriza and the rest of the Left, and finally take a more theoretical look at where these events in Greece leave the traditions of the Left, which don't just continue to exist here, but which find themselves in all manner of combinations in all sorts of formations.
In an imaginative venture of practical solidarity Philosophy Football are funding well-known progressive journalist Kevin Ovenden to go to Greece and report exclusively for Counterfire on Syriza's campaign alongside other radical media outlets from the USA and Australia.
Please support this venture. Kevin's reporting is funded by the sale of 'Syriza: Greek For Hope' T-shirts, get yours from Philosophy Football
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.
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