Interview: The political work of the avant-garde in Greece

 

Interview to the Italian newspaper and web page “La Città Futura”

(Read the interview in Italian here)

With Yorgos Michailidis of the New Left Current (NAR), we talk about the causes and consequences of the economic crisis and the policies of the Trojka, the Tsipras government and the return to power of the right, the role of Greek capitalism in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans, the political autonomy of the working classes and the struggle against the EU from the point of view of the class left.

1. In 2015, the whole world witnessed the brutalization of Greece by the Troika. It was the culmination of a process that began with the economic crisis of 2008 and the subsequent explosion of contradictions in the development model imposed by the ruling classes on your country, within the framework of integration into the ultra-imperialist European Union. Can you briefly describe the causes of that crisis?

The real face of “economic growth” during the EU/eurozone integration before the crisis was evident through the scrapping of workers’ rights, the rise of unemployment and precarious forms of work, the privatization of public goods etc. The youth acted as the guinea pig of this new barbaric world. In the years of crisis, we lived an even more provocative redistribution of wealth in favour of the rich and powerful and the dissolution of illusions on the possibility of existence of a new social contract, without a rupture with the strategic priorities of capitalism. As a result, the capital has been deepening its reforms and shifts not only in the fields of production and work but also in the political system, in the field of ideology and international relations. Moreover, the ΕU tends to adopt a more aggressive, anti-social and authoritarian structure. This authoritarianism acts as an important supplement of the anti-social, anti-worker policies of the EU that, in our opinion, cannot be reformed but can only be overthrown through class war. Since 2008, the increased level of demands from the struggles forced five governments to resign or lose the elections and created new forms of popular organisation, increasing the radical forces in overall. SYRIZA (back then a party of the reformist Left), emerged as a parliamentary opposition and a government which actually froze and blocked the popular movement’s mobilization in the name of parliamentary struggle. Their strategic choices of remaining in the frames of the EU and the Eurozone, “whatever the cost”, the acceptance of the national debt, were the political basis that turned rapidly their preelectoral promises into commitments to the memoranda and to the local and foreign bourgeois oligarchy. The next point of decline was that of July of 2015, with the declaration of a referendum and its immediate cancelling. The overwhelming “NO” vote that prevailed was the upmost point of this period, a mark of the wide popular will for an alternative to the neoliberal strategy, the memoranda and the one-way road described by the EU institutions.

2. Today, twelve years after the 2008 crisis and five years after 2015, what lasting wounds remain in Greek society?

We could say that today, after 12 years of a continuous assault on workers’ and people’s rights, the Greek society is different. Most of the previously existing rights and freedoms no longer exist. The liberalization of the Greek economy has deepened with a new set of neoliberal rules and laws regulating working conditions and social life. The workers’ movement hasn’t been able to reorganize itself although class struggles have never actually stopped and various initiatives have been taken at a grassroots level.

Greek workers and ordinary people are considerably poorer while working for longer hours, the unemployment is stabilised over 20% (compared to 10% before the crisis), the health and education systems have been degraded and of course around half a million people (mostly young men and women) have left the country to work abroad.

At the same time the biggest part of the state sector has been privatized (by all governments) and the environment has been destroyed by various investments which have been allowed under the new neoliberal laws which have been voted over this period.

3. In 2015, many people on the left throughout Europe looked with sympathy and hope at Syriza's victory and Alexis Tsipras' assumption as Prime Minister. Everyone knows the immediate results of his confrontation with the EU institutions in 2015: first the emergence of popular opposition to the conditions imposed by the Troika, sanctioned by the referendum called by Tsipras himself, then the signing of the third memorandum. What is the balance of Syriza's government experience?

In our view, SYRIZA’s government experience has been devastating. It was the first time in Greek history that such anti-popular measures that dealt a blow to workers’ rights were taken under a “left-wing” government. Instead of breaking the concept of TINA (There Is No Alternative) which had been so emphatically cultivated by the capitalist forces, the “government of the Left” legitimized it by fully submitting to the EU, the Troika and the Greek ruling class and the applying their policies. Moreover, in other fields except for the economy SYRIZA proved that the “continuity of the State” is not affected by changes in government as they continued the anti-refugee policy and actually unfolded the nationalist agenda of the Greek state, aligning themselves with the main geopolitical priorities of the Greek ruling class while fully cooperating with imperialist states and institutions such as the EU, the US, NATO and Israel.

SYRIZA’s governance has allowed the capitalist and most reactionary forces to claim that the Left is responsible too for the situation of the economy, that the Left has been proved unable to apply a different policy and that the Left too is linked to capitalist interests. This situation has contributed significantly to the disorganization and demoralization of the struggling forces and the workers’ movement.

4. Since about a year, Greece is again governed by the traditional right party of New Democracy, which has radicalized in a reactionary sense under the leadership of Kyriakos Mitsotakis. What guidelines has the right-wing government followed since it took office?

The party of New Democracy, as the biggest right-wing, conservative party after the end of the Junta regime in 1974 has deep connections with the state and the society and a clear neoliberal agenda. However, it is hated by the biggest part of Greek society and it had lost a considerable part of its popularity among masses during the crisis. Its re-emerging in power was only possible through the complete failure of SYRIZA to bring about the changes that they had been promising before coming to power. Since 2019, New Democracy, has followed a very aggressive path. They have taken advantage of the numbness caused by SYRIZA’s 5-year term and are currently applying a mixture of neoliberal and nationalist policies. In essence, they are completing the neoliberal, reactionary transformation of the legal and institutional framework which allows the Greek capital to deepen the exploitation of the masses. They have managed to pass a new set of rules and laws to actually turn Greek economy and society to a Latin American one.

At the communication level they have been following the tactics of demonization either of the unions, or the broader Left, the refugees and immigrants they are trying to build an alliance with all major capitalist forces and the most reactionary and conservative parts of the society. At the same time Mitsotakis’ profile is one of a modern, open-minded European politician. However, in all crucial moments they have been applying more or less the old, well-tested tactics of the Right, namely the cultivation of fear, the constant underlining of real or imaginary security threats, the cultivation of nationalism, xenophobia etc.

Last but not least, since they consider themselves the rightful owners of the state, they have been launching a campaign in order to bring SYRIZA into complete discredit by revealing real or carved-up scandals thus forcing SYRIZA to adopt an even softer and superficial stance of opposition.

5. How did the Covid 19 crisis in Greece develop? What are the expected repercussions for the living conditions of the Greek working class and democratic spaces in the country?

Greece was relatively lucky to be hit later by the pandemic compared to your country. This gave the Greek government some extra time to apply the necessary measures on time in order to contain the spread of Covid-19. Thus, until summer Greece had one of the lowest death rates in Europe and the world. However, it should be clear that this didn’t happen because of a well-prepared public health system but due to the fast enforcement of horizontal measures namely a country-wide lockdown. On the other hand, only a few provisions were taken by the government in order to support workers and those people in need financially, psychologically during the lockdown period. A lot of people were left jobless or unpaid and there were a series of violations of workers’ rights by employees during the pandemic. Simultaneously, the government applied a set of unnecessary restrictive measures that aimed more to disciple people (and especially the youth) than fight the virus. Luckily for the government all this was to a great extent overshadowed by the low death rate which allowed New Democracy to talk about a “success story” that served as a role-model for the whole Europe.

We can say that because of this relative success in the first phase we were “doomed to fail” in the second phase. And this is because the logic behind every governmental decision was “how to spend less – how to change less”. Moreover, being afraid that a big reduction in the tourist numbers would sink the already struggling Greek economy, the government bowed to the interests of the tourist industry thus allowing a huge influx of approximately two million people (in a country of ten million inhabitants) most of whom were not tested and did not undergo any kind of control. Therefore, we are currently witnessing a serious increase in covid-19 cases and deaths in our country while the government has not made any significant steps to enhance and strengthen the public health system. Again we see how the logic of the capitalists placing profits before people leads to catastrophic consequences and losses of human lives.

6. Greece, due to its strategic position, is an important member of NATO. How evolved the relationship of the last Greek governments with the Atlantic Alliance? What are the current priorities of the anti-imperialist and peace movement in Greece?

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Greece is currently the most trustworthy and thus the most valuable NATO ally in the broader region. Since the beginning of Turkey’s differentiation under the Erdogan/AKP government the Greek governments have followed the strategy of further strengthening our country’s ties with NATO in order to gain US sympathy and support in the Greek-Turkish disputes. The Greek state is trying to secure a better position, a position of a local NATO guard and governor not only for the Balkan region but the Eastern Mediterranean as well. We witnessed that all Greek governments (SYRIZA included) during the past decade have worked for the deepening of Greece-NATO ties thus leading to the expansion of already existing US and NATO bases and the decision for the creation of new (e.g. the one on the Greek-Turkish land border, in the city of Alexandroupolis).

The anti-imperialist, anti-war movement in Greece has got three main priorities in our view. The first is to fight against NATO presence in Greece, demand for the military bases to shut down and be removed and make sure Greece will not be involved in the wars in the region. Another task is to expose the essence of the state propaganda and nationalist discourse in front of the masses in order to undermine the governments’ attempts to cultivate nationalist hatred against neighboring countries and prepare the masses for a small or large scale war. We insist that it is equally important for communist forces to target both the big imperialist states and organizations and their national bourgeoisie and its strategy. No matter that Greece is a rather small country and its ruling class has lost ground in the international competition we consider it reactionary, aggressive and dangerous for the interests of the peoples in the region. That is why we have developed a broad work in the army and among ordinary conscripts (in Greece it is mandatory for young men to serve in the army) through the “Spartacus” network while at the same time we’ve been taking different initiatives in order to build a strong anticapitalist and anti-imperialist front with other political forces.

Last but not least, it is impossible to lead a decisive battle against war and imperialism without international coordination. Especially, in the Balkans, Southern Europe and the Mediterranean it is crucial to build a broad anti-imperialist, anti-nationalist, anti-war alliance and coordination. We are trying to contribute to this cause by developing our relations with anti-capitalist and communist forces in our region. Over the past years we have taken serious initiatives with brotherly organizations from Turkey and North Macedonia against war and nationalism.

7. Your country is also an important element in relations between the European Union and the Balkans. How do you interpret the disputes between Greece and neighbouring countries such as Northern Macedonia or Albania? Have you developed partnerships with the left-wing forces in those countries to offer solutions from the point of view of the working class and internationalism?

Since the ‘90s, the Greek ruling class has secured a leading position in the Balkans using its geographical position and its EU and NATO membership. The Greek capital made serious steps of expansion in the ‘90s and the ‘00s but also based its internal development on the influx of cheap labor from the devastated Balkan countries. The economic crisis resulted in a serious withdrawal of the Greek capital from Balkan markets with Turkey emerging as the new potential “boss” of the area, economically and politically. However, after the first shock and after dealing with the internal struggle with the working class in Greece, the Greek ruling class has been showing signs of readiness and a new ambition to “reconquer” the Balkans and of course diminish the presence of its biggest competitor, Turkey.

The “Prespes Agreement” with North Macedonia must be viewed in these exact terms. Aligned with the priorities of US and EU imperialism to oust Russia, China and Turkey from the Western Balkans and taking advantage of its veto power and the desire of North Macedonia to enter NATO and the EU, the Greek state managed, with minor concessions, to sign a beneficial agreement that allows it to exert new political influence in the region. It was not by coincidence also that the “Prespes Agreement” included a rather big appendix of economic agreements between the two countries. The Greek state used Greek nationalism as a tool of pressure in order to make less concessions and obtain more. At the same time the official narrative conveyed to Greek people through mass media and the ruling parties was that North Macedonia posed a threat to Greek territory with its irredentism. Of course nationalist claims do exist in North Macedonia too but after Prespa Agreement it is the Greek air-force patrolling the air space of North Macedonia a fact that serves as a proof of who is the real boss in the region.

With Albania too, Greece tries to secure its position as the main trade-partner. Albania and North Macedonia are both a place of tax-free investment for Greek businesses, an export destination and a source of cheap labor. This became evident in the previous months when during the lockdown period, the Greek state was forced to make an exception and bring in thousands of fresh Albanian peasant workers in order to collect the fruit in North Greece. Whenever the relations of the two countries have some difficulties the Greek propaganda remembers the Greek minority of Southern Albania and the violation of its rights. The main geopolitical issue that the Greek state wants to conclude with Albania is the delimitation of their EEZ zones, as it happened with Italy recently. Greece is trying to maximize its EEZ zone against Albania and use the fact as a negotiating tool against Turkey on the other side of our sea borders.

In overall, the Greek state’s desire is to be the main NATO and EU agent in the Balkans and through this role to improve the position of its ruling class and the Greek capital.

Over the past years we have been trying to build and consolidate stronger bonds with various Balkan political organizations which have a marxist analysis and an anti-capitalist, communist program. Unluckily there are only minor organizations with limited networks and influence in the ex-socialist Balkan countries which work under difficult circumstances. However, there has been a considerable increase of their presence in Albania, North Macedonia, Croatia and we are constantly taking initiatives for joint declarations and multilingual public material, joint public discussions, interviews and exchange of views.

8. Another context in which Greece plays an important role is the division of Cyprus, which is also intertwined with the historically tense relations between Greece and Turkey. What are your views on the Cyprus issue and how do you think an anti-imperialist policy in relations with Turkey should be set up?

The division of Cyprus is one of the biggest traumas in our region and a constant source of friction between Greece – Turkey and Cyprus. In our view, the only viable and anti-imperialist solution is the full sovereignty and independence of Cyprus. Cyprus should be a unified state with no foreign armies on its soil (neither Turkish, nor Greek) and no foreign military bases (the British bases occupy up to 10% of the land of Cyprus). At the same time, the position of the Turkish minority should be secured and respected. For us, it is about a country with two equal ethnic communities which can live together and prosper as long as Turkish and Greek interference stop. And this is yet another task for the communist forces in Greece and Turkey. At this point, I would like to clarify that we are against the UN proposals for a new Cypriot state whose institutions and political life will be ethnically divided in a way that ethnic identities become the dominant political factor.

9. Like Italy, Greece is a crossroads of migratory routes to Europe from the Middle East and Africa. We know the social tensions that this has caused in your country. How do you work to build solidarity between the Greek working class and migrants?

Well, that’s one of the toughest but also most important tasks. Greece has been hosting great numbers of migrants since the ‘90s. At those times it was mostly Balkan and Eastern European migrants (mostly Albanians). Then another wave of Asian and African migrants appeared. But the last and most complicated phase was after the explosion of the Syrian war. So since 2015 we have been trying to upgrade our work towards migrants. First of all we have contributed to the building of a permanent coordination of unions, collectives and pro-immigrant initiatives which has been taking various initiatives to help alleviate the difficulties of immigrants and refugees, provide solidarity and put pressure on the government and the state. Our teacher comrades have achieved in a lot of cases to give a decisive fight in order to accept migrant and refugee children in Greek schools equally with Greek citizens’ children. We also take part and/or organize protests whenever possible in order to support migrants’ rights and defend them in case of racist mobilizations. However, we need to further develop our efforts in this field as it hasn’t been possible till now to attract large masses of immigrants and refugees on a stable basis.

10. Your party was founded in 1990 as a result of a KKE split. What are the basic reasons for your action and what is your point of view on the political and theoretical characteristics of an organization fighting for socialism in our time?

That is a big issue to be answered in a few lines. Let’s start from our split from the KKE. It happened at a time when the “socialist world” was collapsing and communist ideas were regarded as obsolete. Simultaneously, the “official” communist parties in Europe were completing their metamorphosis either to social-democratic parties or to supplementary, not antagonistic forces to bourgeois politics. In Greece, it was the time when the KKE had decided first to form a broad coalition with small social-democratic (actually petit-bourgeois) forces on a reformist basis and then to participate in consecutive coalition governments with bourgeois forces. Of course this policy had its roots in the developments in Soviet Union. It was the Soviet party that had advised its Greek counterpart to ally with PASOK (a social-democratic, petit-bourgeois party) in the ‘80s and reduce its criticism. Then, the leadership of the Communist Youth (KNE), with its secretary, Giorgos Grapsas, decided to oppose this course of events which evidently led to the disintegration and mutation of the main communist forces in Greece. The political debate in the lines of the party was fierce and a considerable number of cadres from the KKE aligned with the majority of its youth. With anti-democratic measures, the leadership of the KKE managed to oust the “left-opposition” which spoke for the need to preserve the revolutionary spirit and class perspective and raise the red banner in times when the official parties had decided to lower it. The forces of KNE and KKE which later on formed NAR refused to accept that communism and marxism were outdated and of course refused to be part of the so-called “national reconciliation” policy which actually meant the transformation of the Left to a constitutional, reformist force.

Since that point NAR started a long journey of re-examining and re-evaluating various aspects of the Communist Parties’ methods, tactics as well as elements of the Soviet and European marxism in a process we called “communist re-foundation”. Our aim was to make communist ideas attractive again, to rejuvenate marxism while keeping the core of it, to be critical towards the working class and communist party history without annulling it which actually meant to try to answer the question of the given limits of the communist attempts in the 20th century.

11. The NAR is a member of the left-wing anti-capitalist coalition ANTARSYA. How does this coalition operate and what are its objectives?

ANTARSYA was formed in 2009, after the big demonstrations in Greece during December 2008. It was the broadest anticapitalist coalition formed in Greece with more than 3.000 members. It consisted of various political organizations of different marxist currents (maoist, euro-maoist, trotskyist, new left etc) and a big number of non-affiliated activists who were seeking for a “political shelter”. ANTARSYA holds pan-hellenic conferences every two or three years. It has got registered members, Regional and Local Committees and two main coordinating bodies, the Panhellenic Coordinating Body (80 members) and the Central Coordinatin Committee (15 members). All members of ANTARSYA are equal and the representation in the two main bodies of each political organization participating in the front is secured.

The objectives of ANTARSYA is to fight for the anti-capitalist perspective in our country, to strengthen and lead the struggles of the workers and the oppressed parts of the society. ANTARSYA has created an anti-capitalist program which we are constantly trying to enrich. Its main aim is to contribute to the overthrow of the capitalist system by boosting the grassroots movement, while functioning as a step towards the creation of a distinct “third anti-capitalist pole” in Greek society which is politically dominated by the traditional bourgeois forces and the reformist, non-revolutionary Left. For us, ANTARSYA is not the end of the road but a necessary step of political, not just movement-like, unification of anti-capitalist forces.

12. Greece and Italy are linked by their participation in the ultra-imperialist project of the European Union, against which the NAR has always been at the forefront. What possibilities do you think there are to develop a shared action of the class forces of the different countries against the EU? How and for what purpose should that action be developed?

The stance towards the European Union is of big importance to us. In our view it determines to a great extent the essence of the political powers in Europe. Like the stance of a political force towards its national ruling class defines its role in that national society, we could say, that in a broader sense the stance of every political force towards the European Union defines its role in a pan-European level but actually it is also a stance for or against its ruling class’s strategy and aspirations. In Greece, the ruling class, has always seen itself as a part of the project of capitalist unification in Europe. It is a precondition for its dominance against the working class in Greece and the way it attempts to promote its national interests in the region. That is why every communist or anti-capitalist force in Greece should be against the participation of our country in this imperialist integration. Similarly, we believe that it is crucial for a Left-wing, anti-capitalist, anti-EU movement to be built across the member-states. Unfortunately a lot of anti-capitalist organizations and communist parties across Europe refuse to adopt the position that the EU should be dissolved under socialist, internationalist pressure, not of course for a return to the old European system of powers and national borders but towards a new pan-European unity which will also be anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist. It is impossible to defeat our bourgeois classes if we do not dismantle their collective capitalist hyper-structure that guards and strengthens their position. Some first steps could be taken by coordinating against the imperialist aspirations of the EU countries, in order to fight “fortress-Europe”, to build common working class and youth/student demands against EU regulations etc.