I spent four days in the sultry heat of Athens at the beginning of September. I did seven interviews with activists from across the Greek left, and met many others. Below is the first interview. I shall publish others.
It was striking that many of the activists described the passing of the new memorandum in July 2015 — which will represent a further colossal decline in the living standards of the Greek people — as a form of trauma. Most regular people I came across would describe the deep disappointment they feel. The leftists foresee this disillusionment translating into a crisis of political representation. Or, they fear, the vote of Golden Dawn will increase. Notably, the trial of the Golden Dawn leaders recommenced on a day when I was in town: the left and labour movements had organised protests.
It is the political experience of Syriza, which has consumed the left for five years and longer, that they are reflecting upon, and trying to learn from. One of the interviewees described our meeting as a form of “therapy”. This introspection is taking place at a time of intense political activity for the election. Further debate amongst the left about its time in Government is urgent after the election, and there are no easy solutions. The labour movement is in crisis in Greece, particularly in the private sector.
I attended a local Popular Unity meeting, in the North of Athens, of about 80 people. It was one of many meetings taking place across the country to construct local charters and committees. There were upwards of 15 speakers, each from different political formations. The local councillor, Christos Kassidiss, had recently left Syriza to join Popular Unity. I spoke in the meeting about the upsurge around Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party and the prospects it offers for socialists. If Popular Unity are able to pull off a decent result in the election, maybe 7 to 10%, then it is likely that those who are leaving Syriza but have not yet come in to PU will join its ranks.
Each of the activists I met would recommend I meet one man: Dimitris Belantis. Why, I would ask. Because he is constantly thinking would be the classic response. This, I thought, was one of the finest compliments that could be made of someone involved in politics.
Belantis is an activist lawyer. He defended those that fought the military Junta in Greece between 1967-74. He was a member of Syriza since 2005. He has been central to the team of intellectuals that has assembled the Popular Unity manifesto, alongside others figures such as Costas Lapavitsas, the SOAS academic and Popular Unity MP.
He has deep roots in the Greek left, having been active for more than 35 years. He participated in the Youth and Student movements and was a member of the eurocommunist section of the Greek Communist Party, the KKE. He is influenced by the works of Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas.
He is standing in the elections for Popular Unity in a central Athens district.
DLC: Can you tell us a little about what was going on inside Syriza from 2012?
DB: I think the elections of June 2012 are a critical moment for Syriza. I believe that in the period of 2010-2012 it was considered important for Syriza to participate in the labour and social movements. This changed in June 2012. The main motive for existing became our access to government.
In spite of this there were some critical points: the strike in the City railway in 2013; the dispute over the public TV station, ERT, in June 2013; the strike of the public teachers in secondary education. I believe that Syriza didn’t support these movements decisively. This was because it had taken a view that Parliament work is the centre of political life. I know this as I was also a member of Syriza’s Parliamentary group at the time.
Tsipras tried to change the programme of Syriza. For example, he changed our attitude to the Euro. Our programme was the motto “No Sacrifice for the Euro” yet he tried to change this over a period of time. The leadership team started to move to the position that we would be in the Euro at all costs.
DLC: Today, in September 2015, Tsipras’s strategy sounds naive and misunderstands the political economy of the Eurozone: what were the foundations of this belief?
DB: I think there are roots of this belief lie in the Euro-communist tradition which combines internationalism inside the Europe and cooperation of labour movements inside Europe with the expectation that one remains as part of the Eurozone. They say that if you leave the Eurozone then you will lead us in a separatist direction inside Europe; we will not be able to work together. They argue that our economy will be ruined. They also argue that right-wing movements will increase. Therefore Greek society will be destroyed economically and socially.
DLC: What is Popular Unity’s response to those charges in the election of 20 September?
DB: Our response is that is the Eurozone policies that strengthen nationalism and racism and fascism in Greece. We can work better with Europeans if we try to break the limits of the Eurozone. Our attitude is not a nationalist attitude. Our perspective is one focused on the labour and working classes.
Of course we know that exit from the eurozone is not an easy path. In the first 10-12 months the economic situation will be critical and difficult. But we believe that if we adopt a national currency there will be easier circulation inside our economy; that we can try to change the productive process in Greece in industry and other sectors as they have been devalued in the memoranda years and period before; we are also an economy that imports many basic goods – we will try to reduce imports and strengthen exports. We will try to assemble a productive reconstruction of the economy.
DLC: Can you offer some assessment of the Left – the Left Platform and Red Network — during the Syriza government?
DB: I think that we were not brave enough. We should have communicated the debates and disagreements we had more publicly , and should not have kept them inside the party. I think that would have strengthened our credibility inside Greek society.
It was not easy to decide what to do. Some people say now that the Left Platform Ministers should have resigned in February, for example the new leader of Popular Unity, Panagiotis Lafazanis. I don’t agree. But we should have reacted more. We should have gone to public meetings and demonstrations: we should have made it a public debate.
I also believe that if you are inside a party with a dominant majority that is moderate, and if you see that this moderate tendency is organised very strongly — with the state and so on — you should not hesitate too much to develop conflict.
Panagiotis Lafazanis, whom I respect very much, thought for a long time about what to do. He didn’t take decisions early enough. I believe we should have left Syriza in July, and not in August, after the agreement with the creditors on 12 July. There was a period when we voted against the memorandum in government whilst also saying that we support the government. It is a logical contradiction. As regards to Antarsya, there are many of its comrades that are very active in the social and workers movements. I think they had a correct position regarding the EU and Euro but it is difficult for them to change tactics. They demand too many guarantees to join and work together.
DLC: What is going on inside Syriza at the moment, in September 2015?
There is a largish grouping of people that have left Syriza but who have yet to join Popular Unity. Initially this was a formation called the “53 movement”. They are centrists, of about 20% of the party. They were for the Euro, but they made a critique that you could adopt class-based policies for the working class and poor inside the Eurozone. They felt you could change things internally on taxation, employment policies. They are very focused on LGBT and feminist movements.
At the 30 July Central Committee meeting of Syriza Tsipras proposed a party conference in September. This tendency of the 53 voted with the leadership. The Left Platform argued for a conference immediately, in August. Only a short while afterwards Tsipras called an election. This was a critical moment for these people to leave. They felt betrayed.
Syriza Youth has split recently. This surprised me as they were often close to the leadership. They claim to be internationalist, and say that the Left Platform speaks too much of the currency, and not about internal class-relations. But they now believe that the leadership has betrayed the leadership and that the Eurozone must be abandoned.
DLC: How do you respond to those in Syriza Youth that are critical of the Left Platform when they say that you focus too heavily on the currency; and that you adopt a national road to socialism, as they have critiqued?
DB: I think this is wrong. The topic of currency is combined with a total programme. It is only a ring in the chain of programme. But it is an important ring in the chain. We also believe that there is no future for the eurozone: for social and labour rights, and also at the level of efficacy. We believe the eurozone will be dissolved in the near future. We do not believe that Greece should take a separatist route. We believe in cooperation with other nations but on the basis of a new, socially new, socialist programme.
DLC: What is your prediction for the election?
DB: I think it probable that Syriza will be the first party but without a majority. I think they will be in Coalition with Potami and Pasok. I think they will cooperate with New Democracy. I think it will be difficult for Tsipras to be Prime-Minister in this situation, so perhaps they will put another leading person in Syriza.
I believe there is an upper and lower limit for Popular Unity. I think we will I believe the lower limit is 5% and the upper limit is 8-9%.