Note from LeftEast Editors: We are publishing an interview with Kostis Megalios from ARAN – Aristeri Anasynthesi (Left Recomposition) and Popular Unity conducted by activists from the Social Center Dunja, the party “Levica” and LeftEast, conducted in September, 2017 during the 2018 LeftEast autumn encounter. We are publishing this interview a day before a mass nationalist rally is scheduled to take place in Athens in reaction to negotiations between the Greek and the Macedonian government on the issue of the “name” of the Republic of Macedonia. The last such rally, on the 21.01.2018 in Thessaloniki gathered tens of thousands of people from across Greece, and ended with the complete burn down of the Libertatia Squat in Thessaloniki while several other social centers in the city were attacked. Tomorrow’s rally will represent another example of dislocated anger, aimed not against those responsible for inflicting humiliation on the Greek society- the TROIKA, but against a weak neighbouring country, itself a victim of the neoliberal capitalist order.
Q1. What is the situation in Greece right now?
The first very important point is that after SYRIZA’s u-turn following the referendum, there took hold a widespread disillusionment and frustration amid the activists of the Left and the participants in the social-movements. After a long series of struggles- which at times took violent and very radical forms- there emerged a sentiment that all of these were for nothing. The second point is of a more historic nature. The left was historically remembered as the political power that fought the Nazi during the occupation era, that spearheaded the struggle against the junta in the 1970s, and subsequently led the fight for the democratization of the greek state and the establishment of a relatively strong welfare regime. That has completely changed now. This moral advantage no longer stands. The image of a more sincere and more honest left perspective was completely torn apart by SYRIZA’s complete about face, and utter betrayal of the wishes of the greek people. That makes the current situation very difficult. The remaining leftist forces need to confront not only the accelerating pace of neoliberal reforms and the authoritarian shielding of the state but also an identity crisis of leftist politics per se.In that context, it is much more difficult to organize on a grass-roots level and much more difficult to do mass political work; exactly because you no longer have the organizational, ideological and moral capital that once provided a substantial political advantage as against other political currents and more particularly the various right-wing groups and parties. In a nutshell, while neoliberalization now takes its most brutal form, crashing all the remaining achievements of the popular movement, the latter is unable to regroup since the Left is in a state of deep crisis and people utterly disillusioned with politics in general.
Q2. What does this imply in terms of political strategy and organizing?
This means that we need to place much more emphasis on grassroots organizing than political propaganda, it also means that we have to be politically completely clear. Greeks have realised that nobody can offer a sound, long-term, solution to the current malaise without dealing with the core of the country’s problem which relate directly to its relations with the European Union, the Euro-zone, and the institutional setting dictated and imposed by the memorandums. The actual situation is suffocating and you are always going down and down and down, living standards are constantly dropping, and there is no way to exit this situation without a clear, whole, planned solution of social transformation and an exit from the imperialistic mechanisms that hold the society, the production and the working relations in the field of production as they are. This also goes for the organisation of the production and all that the European union has agreed upon, which is suffocating the Greek economy. A clear cut programme needs thus to be presented and advanced, spearheaded by the demand for an immediate cancellation of the memoranda and a concomitant mid-term exit from the eurozone and the European Union. Otherwise, it is just not reliable.
Q3. So the strict sense of the greek radical left now is exiting the EU and exiting the eurozone. Obviously, the implications in terms of future political action suggest that you as a political left are preparing for a self-run economy, right? But, we don’t want to do the job that does the job of the state, that is a general stance of the left in the region, for us as well, that this kind of parallel institutions, we don’t look favorable on that. But, in Greece, also remembering what you were discussing last year about the idea of City Plaza and your approach to the question of the refugees, is pretty much in that direction. Is there a connection between the two. Would you say that now the Greek left is at the point when you are orienting more towards this kind of self-organization, radical grassroots organisation?
No, the actual thing is that there is a very wrong assumption even inside the Greek left, that when somebody says that we need a programme of transformation of Greek society, that this is an economical programme based on a mere set of calculations and in line with the mainstream economic theory. What we mean by that there is a need for a programme of social transformation, the essence, the core of this programme is political change. It is a program, which is trying to change the country’s productive model towards a self-organizing, self-running economy with participation of workers in both management and production. So, this is what we describe as a social transformation programme. However, at this point we need to clarify that applying such a programme beforehand is impossible. Such far reaching reforms and measures can only be implemented if you hold governmental power. Beforehand, maybe you can build some “anti-examples” as to the way the state functions -City Plaza is one of them and offers an alternative model on the handling of the refugee crisis- but you will be in no position to implement the necessary structural changes that a full-out transformation of the productive model and the state institutions necessitate.
Q4. Do you think it is possible to do that in Greece or it needs international help?
The institutional framework of the E.U. is specifically designed in such a way so as to hinder the emergence of an alternative course of action, that is of policies that go against neoliberalism and the realities of globalized capitalism (e.g. the euro has played a determining role in the decline of domestic production and thus the country’s dependence to the international markets). It may seem paradoxical to you but in Greece we need at the moment to import olive oil, milk and oranges -products that we once exported- due to E.U. regulations and agricultural quotas. So, it goes like this. We strongly believe and there are also scientific studies about this and it’s confirmed in all kinds of ways -even inside Syriza there was talk about this prior to the referendum- that the very function of the eurozone is to suffocate economically the weakest states and diminish their productive capabilities so as to increase their dependence by strong state actors within the Union and the international markets. That said, leaving the eurozone and the E.U. is definitely not an easy process. Needless to say that the official state propaganda is constantly feeding people’s fear as to the potential outcome of such an event, adding ideological constraints to an already Heraclian task.
Q5. Recently Tsipras declared that the crisis will soon be over. What can you comment on this?
Tsipras may say that we will be out of the crisis in 1 or 2 years, but that is being said time and over again since 2009 when George Papandreou’s government signed the first memorandum. Papandreou had said back then that it’s just a temporary crisis. That said and in relation to my previous comments, I think the only way to clearly see the political spectrum in Greece, is between the pro-EU/pro-memorandum political powers and the anti-EU/anti-memorandum. Absent the anti-EU forces it is all neoliberal agendas with different flavours on secondary aspects. To give you just an example of the similarities of Tsipra’s discourse with that of its predecessors let me remind you that Antonis Samaras, who became prime-minister after Papandreou’s resignation, was always saying that the exit from the crisis is just around the corner. Tsipras was supposed to scrap the memorandum with one law, with one article, in the first week that he came to power, that is actually the words of Tsipras, not mine. And this is a story that nobody believes, it’s just for the journalists and for Syriza members.
Q6. What is the general perception of Syriza among the general population right now? How popular are they? And what are the other political actors that are stepping up as a result of Syriza’s popularity shrinking?
The popularity of Syriza had dropped significantly but lately it has bounced back albeit slowly. New Democracy has gained some ground in the meantime but its way sort of a majority if elections were to be held. In reality the most crucial dynamic is that of the disillusionment that feeds abstention; a massive phenomenon after the 2015 referendum. Syriza was actually torn in half, membership wise and Tsipras has lost almost all of the youth of Syriza, he has lost most of his power in actual work places, the power he holds inside the trade unions is mostly a result of the corrupt nature of Greek trade unions on the higher level- not workplace trade unions, but branch unions. Syriza has lost all parts of its actual left progressive membership and appeal. It has gained some capital appeal from the upper classes because of the system stability. Syriza has also gained a lot of voters from the enormous lapse in the social democrats popularity. The social democrats (PASOK) faced a complete downfall in the polls, they were in Government for 25 years or so, from 1981 to 2005, with a very small break. In Greece we had a two-party system, that PASOK dominated for two and a half decades, until New Democracy -the official right wing party- assumed power in 2004. This changed with Syriza going up in the polls in 2012. It also meant the complete downfall to 3% at some point for the social democrats.
Q7. What has the role of the KKE – the Greek Communist Party been in this constellation?
The KKE’s policy profile is paradoxically a mix of hard-leftist rhetoric with completely harmless political action. The political agenda of the communist party is constructed on the basis that nothing can really change in the Greek social formation today but everything will change once the communist party will have the forces necessary to take power and establish socialism. In the interim period nothing can really happen according to its logic. Something which is of course ruinous both for the popular movement and the potential re-emergence of the Greek Left as a major political actor. It is absurd to think that the revolution will just happen one day, that without any intermediate victories or a broad social and political alliance change is possible. In their mind is all about waiting for capitalism to collapse and then socialism will happen as a historical necessity. For example, the Communist party called for people not to vote for the referendum with the argument that it is a pseudo dilemma, it’s not memorandum or no memorandum, it is socialism or capitalism. And every dilema and every social problem is reflected upon as socialism v. capitalism, but with action completely harmless against the establishment. So they represent a different kind of normality, a different kind of establishment politics.
Q8. How do you explain then that they still have 5%- which is quite a large percentage?
That is a very hard question. It has to do with the history of the Greek Left and KKE’s position in it. You can understand maybe, how stable this 5% is by the fact that during the years of the crisis, when everything in the polls was volatile, going up and down, with people always changing their minds and everyone was concerned with what’s going to happen next, they still got 5%. Next elections 5%, next elections 5%. But now they have some gains, the situation is better for them, because it is easy for a left person to say that everybody else is scum, and the KKE were saying the truth all along, they never told me lies, they never said they would scrap the memorandum and then didn’t. They never told me that there would be a solution. So the situation is better for them, because they may take some of the disappointment that makes people leave Syriza and wants to vote for something left, but doesn’t trust anybody.
Some weeks after SYRIZA’s capitulation, some of its ministers and parliament members decided to leave the party and form another, which had a parliamentary group of about 25 MPs. Along with it, it took maybe half of the Syriza membership. These people formed the core of Popular Unity and shortly after other groups and organizations joined be it from ANTARSYA or elsewhere. Popular Unity is thus a political front and not a party stricto sensu but its programme is quite clear-cut. It is clear-cut in the sense that it speaks openly about the exit from the Eurozone, the unavoidable exit from the European Union, the nationalization of the banking system and of some major production units, the restructuring of the debt etc. If we take into account that Popular Unity is the only power at the moment to insist on the necessity of a so-called frontal policy, that is, the necessity for the formation of a big social and political front on the basis of the above set of demands then we can indeed say that its strategy is “unique” although definitely not novel.
Q10. What has been the relationship between Popular Unity and Antarsya?
Antarsya (Front of the Greek Anticapitalist Left) is the third largest party of the greek left (after Syriza and KKE). There were discussions in Antarsya on whether to participate in the september elections on their own or in a coalition with Popular Unity. We were then a part of Antarsya that wanted that Antarsya joins a coalition with Popular Unity. This was so that the Greek people would have the option to vote for something that would be a sign that at least whoever stays loyal to the anti-memorandum and anti-EU politics inside the left is on the same ballot. But Antarsya voted against this by a small margin. Antarsya’s members remain very strong allies of us in the workplaces and inside the Universities. That being said, even though it is clear they are on the right side of things their strategy has some similarities with the one advocated by the communist party. We may know that we will be side by side fighting every fight against the establishment through the various social movements but we also know that there is no chance Antarsya cooperate in other vital fields of organizing. For example it is clear that there is unwillingness to be on the same ballot not only in the general elections but also in the maybe even more important elections in every syndicate and workers union there is. As a result a lot of trade unions that would be left orientated or have a powerful left representation are left with a complete dominance of the right wing platforms. In that regard, this isolationism and the belief that there is no need for any cooperation or coalition inside the Greek left, is a clear similarity with KKE and the main problem in our relations with Antarsya.
Q11. How about the structure and the organizing of Popular Unity? There were some internal problems within the Party in the sense of democratic procedures for some organisations. How do you comment about this?
At first Popular Unity was functioning much better and in that sense it had greater potentials than Antarsya. It seemed to pay more attention to the big public issues and not to take an elitist position that usually leads to a “philosophical” discussion of pressing political and social problems. It was able to operate on the basis of well-attended local assemblies and working committees and galvanize a variety of activists. That worked for a while and we were quite active in the neighbourhoods but also in the workplaces and the central political scene more broadly. The problem is that inside Popular Unity there occured a significant lapse towards bureaucratization and thus a certain democratic deficit. What we believe is that it would be much better for Popular Unity to launch a media strategy that revolves a lot more around youth personalities, that is less connected to the establishment in the way the “establishment” is percepted by the people.
On the one hand these comrades -previously PMs and some of them Ministers- were completely honest in the way that they had an opportunity that very few would miss. That is to have some higher position in the establishment, and all the power that goes with it, but denied it favour of their ideals. On the other hand they are so many years in Parliament, some of them almost continuously from 1992 till 2015, and they treat politics in a way that is a little bit unconnected with grassroots organising. That’s normal after continuous lobbying and “high politics” for many years, but it is discouraging for the youth and other social groups that loathe the “establishment” for the current situation in Greece. What also hurts their public image a lot, is them being part of the former SYRIZA government that turned into this one. It may not be fair to associate them with the “establishment”, but it is a common and understandable misunderstanding. That also discourages some organisations, along with the fact that there is no change in leadership as we proposed in the first Popular Unity conference. Also, there is no change in the way Popular Unity publicly speaks. Its discourse is much closer to “classic politicians”, than we would like. It is the wooden vocabulary and language of the traditional left.
The problem with PU is that even though it is a political front, that is quite radical and quite honest with the greek people, with quite a clear-cut programme, and some appeal in the left political spectrum, we deny to shake away the dust of the past, and realise the actual change in the historic period that I mentioned in the beginning. We need completely different ways of political action, and to give all of our efforts to grassroots organising. Another thing we always say in PU discussions, is that we need a kind of experimenting, new kind of organizing and struggle that would be appealing to people outside politics. That is of utmost importance to overcome the fact that nowadays politics is a taboo in greece. After a long historic period when this was not an issue it is difficult but very important to readjust your way of treating politics.. This means some kind of meddling with solidarity structures, some kind of organising in maybe not such a party-political way, some experiments of political action from multiparty structures, and constantly trying to get all the left -Popular Unity, Antarsya and other small parts of the greek left- to work together. Popular Unity even though it proposes this kind of stuff, does not seem in practice to understand their importance. Of course, I would like to defend the position that everybody is at fault here, and maybe Popular Unity less than the rest, since nobody wants to cooperate with anybody. That, in our opinion, is just a result of how through defeating us, Syriza also managed to divide us. As we all know, it’s much easier to rule at peace, when the left is so divided.
Q12. I noticed you take for granted this political front as a form of organising. It is not so clear for the left outside the Greek context. Maybe you can elaborate a bit more, through the lens of your organisation (ARAN – Aristeri Anasynthesi?), being the second largest organisation in Popular Unity and maybe with the accent on the mechanism of how what you do on the grassroots level (the neighbourhood organising, City Plaza, students at the Uni)- feeds into Popular Unity discussions?
The Greek left has a very long tradition in people’s struggles but also of division. We are actually an organisation that represents the belief that one of the most important things the greek left should do is rethink the possibilities for a radical reconstruction and recomponsition of the left. Because as it is, it is not possible to capitalize on the successes of the people’s movements without political organisations of strength and appeal to give more political context to the social struggles. This also implies, that if there are so many different political organisations inside the left, it is completely absurd for anyone to think they have the absolute complete truth and believe what s/he says to the maximum and never wanting to cooperate or do some compromise to cooperate with someone else on the left. This -sadly- is very often the phenomena.
The political front as a way of organizing, is a way of trying to surpass that, to organise at the level that you accept the existence of all these organisations and you try to make them work all together. It’s the one part of what is our description for the recomposition of the Greek left, which is our main strategic point. This part is the formation of the strong, wide, radical left front that combines all the separate organisations of the radical left political spectrum.
The other part of our strategy for the recomposition of the Greek left is trying to describe the great need for hard and wide grassroots organising in Greece. It is quite a peculiar discussion because of all these mass left organisations, but the very urgent need is as everywhere to form a new greek communist party- a real communist party- which we believe is only possible along with the process of forming a wide left political front. The core of the left political front should be a new greek left communist party. We also believe there are vital materials for this constructions inside the greek left, but most importantly, inside the greek society, which were ready to be represented by a process as described but never got the chance..
What is lacking is the will from the greek left. The will to discuss and cooperate in such a manner that would form stronger political bonds, political platforms and political fronts and alliances. We should add that we don’t believe that Popular Unity is the left front we describe. We believe it has the most hopeful materials for an actual building of such a front, and that is why we are part of it. We believe that there is no other place inside the greek left, that serves the strategy of the radical recomposition of the Greek Left. Antarsya is maybe filled with left people, with strong activists, but it has taken a choice, and it has decided clearly that it is against anything of this sort. Antarsya made this clear when we (that’s when we left Antarsya and joined Popular Unity) decided that it’s not going to be a part of a coalition with Popular Unity and when they still decide every day they won’t try to cooperate with PU inside the workplaces and inside the student unions and in general won’t try to cooperate in any way or form.
Q13. Why is that? Is it because PU is composed of former Syriza members and Antarsya don’t want to have anything with ex-Syriza people?
Yes, exactly. The rhetorics is “they were with Syriza till the end”, which means drifting into endless discussion about whoever did the one mistake and then the other. There is no Court of Justice inside the Left. If you don’t believe in changes,in people changing what they believe, what they are doing, then what is the whole point? We actually believe that the existence of Antarsya, all those years, played a very critical role for the separation of Popular Unity from Syriza. There was a part of the greek left that was constantly outspoken about these issues and tried to always be there and fight for the anti-European Union belief. And ok, it wasn’t so successful, there were many many problems, but it’s not the point, it was there, it wasn’t completely unreliable, and it played a role in the question of whether we are going to leave the European union alive. It is sad that they decided that at the exact moment when there was a much bigger part of the Greek Left ready to say all these things, not to try to cooperate with them.
Q14. From the position of a leftist leaning individual in Greece, considering the existence of a variety of leftist tendencies in Greece, leftist streams, of various sorts, which I consider Greece to be paradigmatic of, in European terms, because almost all the tendencies are represented within your political structure. How does one, especially young person with leftist inclinations, or convictions, navigate within this political landscape, makes a political choice in terms of political theory and practice, of political engagement, because you always need to get political engaged with someone. And how does he or she then influence the development of the political programme and the development of the very necessary need to build bigger leftist, radical leftist alliances that strive for political dominance, in order to bring about this transformation?
Firstly, it sometimes is a problem. Hyper Political questions, and going around and around the same theoretical argument and dividing theory from praxis, is very usual inside the Greek left. You know, there are always theoretical conversations, that do not conclude in any way or form. This might make it very hard for an individual to see himself or herself inside an organisation or inside one of the coalitions, inside the University for example which is the easiest example because it is the most successful example of Greek left organising. I think that what we try to say to everybody who is just getting engaged with how the Greek left functions and how it functions internally and how it tries to do politics, is to try to see himself/herself inside the action that the political organisation is doing, before any theoretical conversation. Because always theorizing everything is just not the way you can actually build strong leftist people. We have to accept though that it is not only a problem, it is also a strength, and so it wouldn’t be a solution to wipe this out, and get some 4 or 5 currents. What you have to open your horizons to open,honest discussions, that will upgrade everybody. Philosophically the ideal solution would be trying to mix them in a way that holds every good from every current and every form of organizing and taking political action. To answer your question the correct path in my opinion is to see yourself inside the actions, of an organisation, not the words, as it is with people. Some organisations may say something, but in an essence everybody is what he or she does, and not what he or she says. So that’s the most important criteria.
Q15. Within your political organisational nucleus, which is ARAN, what are the main structural, theoretical and practical issues that you face? What do you consider to be your strengths, but also what are your main challenges that you fail to completely address and that your perspectives depend upon?
Yes, I believe that beginning from the problems is the fact that most parts of the Greek left outsidethe Communist party, we have very low percentage of first line workers. And we mostly consist of middle class people and students. Vast majority are recruited when they are students- 99%. This means that we don’t have the wide perspective we need to see the political situation correctly from the lenses of the lowest classes. That’s one of the most important things we thought when we chose to enter Popular Unity, aside from the strategy that I was speaking about before. That there was this better, albeit still low in percentage, first-line worker, much lower class base in Popular Unity. The other problem is of course our numbers, but what can you say about that. Nobody can magically change the numbers. The good thing mostly is that we are one of the most self-conscious organisations about these problems. We are constantly trying to say we are low on numbers, we never know the full truth, we always want to cooperate with other groups, to learn from them. We are very willing to learn and very accepting of the fact that we need to upgrade in every kind of way, and were I find our biggest strength I also find the biggest problem with the greek left, in that kind of narcissism.
Q16. Bringing the discussion back to Skopje, Macedonia, where we are now, I wanted to ask about the question of anti-nationalism in the Greek left. On the side of the Macedonia left, there has been a conscious attempt to include a strong anti-nationalist pillar in its foundations. That pillar of course contains a critique of what you have been able to witness everywhere around Skopje- the Skopje 2014 project, its roots, manifestations and implications. But it also implies that we would consider similar kinds of expressions of nationalism in Thessaloniki for instance as a similarly negative representations of toxic nationalism. How is the Greek left responding to such outbursts of nationalism?
I believe that in the centre of the answer is that in Greece there is no procedure of conjuring a new national identity in Greece. The reference is something for Golden Dawn members, it is not something that is really used- the ancient Greek culture, that it is responsible for everything. That kind of nationalism is maybe a little bit more accepted than it should be, but it is not that widespread. We for example think that the Greek identity is completely different from the European one. We are more a state of the Balkans as we are and that there is nothing to gain from being part of what is considered “the West”. “We should not leave Europe”. That is a sentence that the media says all the time. And the government sometimes, especially the previous one. Instead of saying we are leaving the European Union/the Eurozone, they said we leave Europe, like a cluster of culture, of ideology, of moral high ground. That was never there, that is non-existent, that is just media propaganda that exists. Where is this moral high ground of the Europeans in building fences, killing refugees, imposing austerity, where is it? What exists is the bigger political and military power of the “west” over other parts of the globe that tries to cement itself with an beautiful ideological cocoon of bullshit.
Regarding the name-issue, we are against everything that is producing or provoking some kind of nationalism, for example we are against the obsession of Greek people calling Istanbul – Constantinople. That is the same way we are against the whole narrative of this country called Macedonia, “grandsons of Alexander the Great”, which give a narrative to the far-right here and the far-right in Greece to think there is some kind of conflict between the peoples of the two countries when there is nothing to divide us. We do understand though that this narrative hurts you much more than it hurts us. Also we don’t believe that the question is of utmost importance. There is a part of what is geographically Macedonia in Greece, a part of it in Bulgaria, and a part of it in FYROM. We have to take the tone down from how much the question matters while dealing with the historic inaccuracies propagated by both sides. The name issue is used here to fuel far-right nationalism as well as in Greece and used time and time again to take the political agenda away from more “dangerous” matters as austerity, memorandums, poverty, unemployment. The people of the two countries have absolutely no reason to be hostile against one another and the most important thing in my opinion is trying to make this clear in spite of the media showering people with nationalistic bigotry.
Q17. The question was more about efforts on the Greek left, to confront the existence of such narratives on the right in Greece and to also perhaps expose the constructed nature of Greek national identity, as well, as part of an anti-nationalist critique, which is also a demonstration of comradely solidarity across the border?
Some days ago, there was very big anti-fascist, anti-nationalist protest in Athens with attacks by the police etc. We are always active on these sort of issues.Anti-fascism and anti-racism is one of our main interests. To answer your next point, we are tackling the idea that we have to be so proud and above everybody else because there was ancient Greece. We argue that we just happen to live in the same place, and the language is similar. We are always doing that because we think these are narratives used to fuel far-right extremism and have nothing to do with actual patriotism. I’d like to add though that is not such a central question on our political agenda and generally it’s not that often that you really have to address these issues. I understand why you are asking but in Greece these narratives, are not that popular. When I was in primary school for example I remember arguing with my teacher because of Alexander the Great’s “greatness”. By reading the school book to me -a child- seemed like a guy that killed millions of people and not something to be proud of. That’s one of the very few times I had to have this kind of argument.
***After the big nationalistic rally in Thessaloniki it is clear though that my last 2 answers were overly optimistic about the progressiveness and open-mindness of the Greek people today. I still think that it is completely different to be governed by people that get elected because of representing this this ideal, but it is clear that I completely underestimated the number of people ready to march in a protest titled “Macedonia is Greek” and the power of Golden Dawn not only in recruiting, but also in making people march the streets.
That being said I strongly believe that the Antifascist movement in Greece is clearly not intimidated, scared or defeated from these reactions. Greek history has shown that this is no place for fascists, murderers, nazis and their grandchildren. Leftists, patriots and progressive people believing in justice and common decency will give their response in the very immediate future.
The cries about stealing our national identity -by cult funnily dressed groups accompanying the neo-nazis- that were never outspoken in the last 8 years, when we are continuously being robbed of our basic human rights, our jobs, our free education, our public healthcare, our ports and airports, not only are unreliable but they are short-lived and quite pathetic in general.