The Point
Last updated: 07 December 2018.

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Greece Fighting Austerity

 

Gordon Morgan, National Treasurer of Solidarity was recently in Greece as an invited international delegate to the National Congress of Syriza, dominant force of the Greek Left and leading the resistance to austerity and fascism both electorally and on the streets. This is his inspiring account


I was privileged to attend the 1st Congress of Syriza-USF in Athens in July as a representative of Solidarity. This was an exhilarating congress, with around 3,500 delegates which successfully handled a tasking agenda of not only debating how to fight austerity and neo-liberalism and protect Greek communities, but also deciding on a constitution for the new party and electing a renewed leadership.

Syriza has set itself a goal of forming a Government of the Left in Greece after the next election opposed to EU imposed austerity and launching a campaign against neo-liberalism in Europe and across the world. If it succeeds in these aims, which all socialists should support, it will prove to have been a truly historic conference.

Background to the Congress

Syriza was created as an electoral alliance in 2004 following a left turn from Synaspismos, which had existed since 1991, and took just over 3% of the vote at the 2004 Greek elections. Following major student and union protests, in which Syriza played a significant role, it gained over 5% in the 2007 elections on a radical programme. Following this most of the disparate Greek radical left and revolutionary groups joined Syriza. With the onset of the credit crunch and Greece's debt problems, Syriza backed the widespread youth riots against austerity.

How to respond to the mounting economic crisis created divisions within Syriza and its component parts, just as it did in most radical left parties across Europe. The majority of workers opted to vote for the Social-Democratic party Pasok in 2009 and it formed a coalition government. Syriza's vote declined to 4.6%. A rightist tendency within Synaspismos resigned denouncing Syriza as left extremists. Further divisions between the component groups of Syriza followed in 2010 with groups standing in regional elections on different programmes. However, the majority of Syriza came to understand that such divisions were damaging in the face of neo-liberal attacks particularly the EU's "memorandum of understanding" i.e. Rule by the Troika of Merkel and EU finance chiefs.

Syriza began to organise the resistance to austerity in every section of the economy and adopted and campaigned on a programme of a "Government of the Left" committed to scrapping the Memorandum. This proved to chime with the workers who were suffering most under austerity and in May 2012 Syriza gained 16% of the vote and became the 2nd largest party. It was at this time that the Syriza leadership realised that organisational forms which had worked till then could act as an impediment to future progress and for over a year a series of forums, debates and aggregates were held to debate the form that a new party should take in order to secure a "Government of the Left".

Syriza-USF (United Social Front) was registered and stood in June 2012 gaining just under 27% of the vote, just failing to become the largest party. Since then Syriza has been the main opposition party in the Parliament as well as organising communities, factory takeovers and defence of immigrants against the fascist Golden Dawn attacks.

On the eve of the conference Synaspismos the largest autonomous grouping within Syriza dissolved itself, passing its apparatus to Syriza. This for me was reminiscent of the dissolution of Militant prior to the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA) becoming the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP).

Conference Arrangements and International Invitations

Up until June 2013, there was every possibility the Greek Government coalition would irredeemably split, new elections be called,and the Syriza congress postponed. Given the priority given to Merkel's re-election, Germany granted Greece a bailout extension and gave a short term lifeline to the Greek Government. With four weeks to go, the Syriza International Bureau issued invitations to representatives of socialist parties across the world, including Solidarity.

In 2005 the SSP began discussions regarding coordination of the European left and made contact with leaders of Syriza and the left groupings in the European parliament. After the split, Solidarity continued discussions with these groupings and in 2011 was invited to the European Left congress (weather prevented my attendance). On receiving the invite to the Syriza congress, Solidarity's national steering group agreed I should attend.

On arrival at the congress, I found that due to the late invite, of the nearly 200 International parties or organisations invited to attend only 55 International Representatives were able to attend from 21 European countries and 12 countries outside Europe. I was the only representative from Scotland. From the rest of the UK and Ireland there was one representative from Sinn Fein, and one from the Socialist Campaign group in the UK parliament who presented greetings from Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn.

A special programme had been arranged for International representatives with simultaneous translations at key debates; special briefings from the International Bureau members and other Syriza leaders; daily briefings explaining the key debates, controversies and decisions; as well as a tour of key historic locations for the Greek resistance and communist movement. In return, the International Bureau members questioned each representatives from each country on their key strategies and campaigns.

In my case, Syriza and most other International representatives, were keen to learn about the independence campaign, our and other left groups attitude to it, and how we were fighting austerity. In a separate internet TV interview I recounted these issues and Solidarity's involvement in the campaign against the bedroom tax.

First Impressions of Congress

Having attended many congresses in over 40 years, this was the most exhilarating opening evening I have attended, more akin to a pop concert. The nearly 5,000 seat Olympic Sports Complex was filled to capacity; huge TV screens provided an audio visual split screen montage of demonstrations, struggles and key events from the last 2 years; massive hydraulic arms propelled cameras around the arena allowing images of delegates and speakers to be transmitted to the screens and live TV broadcast.

The appointment of the presiding committee showed the depth of history, experience and on-going struggle represented by Syriza. For example: the last surviving leader of the resistance against the Nazi occupation, the most prominent leader of the struggle against the Greek Junta, leaders of most of the main trade unions, representatives of communities organising themselves in defence of immigrants, and supporting their impoverished residents, representatives of factories being run under workers control.
All appointments were greeted by applause and revolutionary chants from the delegates and brief speeches from those appointed. Finally the parliamentary leader of Syriza, Alexis Tsipras, gave a resounding hour long speech outlining the importance of the new Syriza, the historic tradition they were a part of, and the tasks they must succeed in. As this speech presaged many of the key debates at the congress I extensively quote key passages below. Those phrases which may seem redolent of Marx or Gramsci are not accidental as both were extensively alluded to by many delegates.

 

 

"Since last May's elections that dramatically changed the political scene, there has been a ghost hovering over Greece: The ghost of SYRIZA and the Left that manage to unite our people in a broad front of victory and subversion.

And it is not chance that has brought us together. We are the children and grandchildren of those who – in the first steps of the labor movement - put on the light of the Commune and class emancipation. We are children and grandchildren of those who during the Metaxas dictatorship gave the battle of democracy although they were outlawed, imprisoned, or exiled. We are children and grandchildren of those who during the German occupation with their patriotism and their blood created the miracle of the National Resistance. Of the great democratic majority of the Greek people, who lived for years in the fear and terror of the Post-Civil War emergency regime. Who gave the great battles for democracy, the 114, the Lambrakis Democratic Youth. The hard and bloody fight against the dictatorship of the colonels – for bread, education, and freedom. That's who we are.

Greek society is today before the challenge of a critical, absolute choice. At a historic crossroads. Greek society will either choose the road of cancelling the Memoranda or choose the road of continuing them. Will either choose the road of democratic revival or the road of shrinking democracy. Either the road of social justice and social emancipation or the road of vested interests and banks' dominance. Will either choose the road of pride or the road of voluntary slavery.

This magnificent get-together of different political currents, organizations, parties, and trends of the Left, was not an outcome of some opportunistic bureaucratic processes. It was demanded and created by Greek society. It was the hundreds of thousands of working people that took SYRIZA by the hand and drove it to become the leading force that will take on the task of getting Greek society out of the economic and humanitarian crisis.

Different views don't frighten us. They are our wealth. The party we want is deeply democratic; a democratic collective individual that 'lets all flowers bloom', but at the same time is based on unity, unselfishness, respect, and conscious discipline. The party we want is also an active self-criticism of party models we all carry in our minds historically, each of us according to his or her background. We reject the idea of a party of bureaucratic centralism, a cartel party. We reject the idea of a state party.
It means right of control, right of opinion, right of disagreement, for all and for each member separately. But speaking of a party of its members, comrades, we highlight - and we must highlight – not only the rights but also the obligations of those who carry the title of the SYRIZA member. If we are talking about party members who are dedicated to the task of great subversion and change - to the colossal work awaiting SYRIZA, that is. Then, comrades, we cannot be talking about members of diminished responsibility. Members who treat the party as a place of political ferment. No SYRIZA of the members will exist if we don't decide that the members of SYRIZA will be members with all the rights and obligations such a thing means, and not split personalities. This is deeply democratic, and befits the ethos and the course of the Left, and its characteristic tradition of offering.

Because the dynamics of the political scene today are defined by three poles: the New Democracy (ND) that is leaning more and more towards the extreme right, the pole of the fascist threat, and the pole of SYRIZA and the wider political and social Left.

We must become the political representative of a broad popular social alliance that will include all the poor and the newly poor. In this social front we don't forget – and we don't ignore – the other political forces of the Left, mainly the forces of KKE (the Communist Party of Greece). It is inconceivable that when the working class is being ferociously and coordinately attacked by the capital, the forces of the Left are not united. As it is also inconceivable, that in the name of petty party calculations the struggle of the people should be frustrated.

We want to address a general call to all the democrats who after the changeover supported the demand for Change and pinned their hopes on the PASOK of the time. Today, those people are watching in astonishment Mr. Venizelos' party being transformed into a component of the Right and the far Right. SYRIZA calls all those people – honest people who are suffering from this violent class restructuring – to rally around the Left in the struggle for the restoration of Democracy and of political dignity. It is time to meet again. We are united by our common values and our sincere commitment that we will never betray these values.

And we are the Greece of tomorrow that cancels the memoranda, that puts an end to policies of subjugation, humiliation, and destruction. We are the Greece of democracy, of those who refuse to accept the inevitability of submission and are seeking a way to national reconstruction and recovery. We are the Greece of the intellect, of creation, of art, of thought, of dialectics, of questioning, that even in the darkest time know how to keep the light of civilization burning. We are the Greece that opts for freedom, democracy, dignity, and social justice. And knows how to fight for all the things that today are the alpha and the omega of our national and personal identity. We are the ones who can and will change Greece. This is the political, social, and class conflict today, whose outcome will determine the lives of people for years to come.

There are great and crucial dilemmas: Memoranda or democracy. Memoranda or social justice. Memoranda or national independence. And eventually all these dilemmas are summed up politically into one, which multiplies our responsibilities:

Memoranda or SYRIZA!"

International Discussions

The following morning all the International representatives met with the Syriza International Bureau and Alexis Tsipras, briefly introduced ourselves and our party's policies and began discussing how international action could be taken against austerity and in solidarity with Greece.

The key points made were:

Greece unemployment 30%, youth unemployment 60%.

Not just a Greek problem, we need an alternative to neo-liberalism across Europe and around the world. If Syriza wins elections then in order to build a new Greece it needs solidarity across the EU and we must seek to change the whole of Europe. We must act against EU finance chiefs and the banking sector more generally.

The bombing of Belgrade by the EU and NATO was only possible because the people accepted they were "humane" bombs, not a barbarian attack. Similarly in Vietnam, where eventually global solidarity changed opinion. Greece is the front line in a new global ecoconomic war, which has also engulfed Portugal and Cyprus and other countries outwith Europe.

In Europe we should fight for a European summit on public debt, to convince the people they are not responsible for the debt. Point out the 1953 summit on German debt cancelled 60% of Germany's debt. Greece GDP has fallen officially 25% unofficially 50%. Even the IMF admit the failure of their policy whilst they continue to enforce it. This is an issue for the European left.

But the problem is not just there. There is resistance across the world, the Middle East, Latin America. Syriza believes we need a New Spring of the people all over Europe. But even more we should discuss a global political left forum of socialists, communists, ecological movements. We need to organize an International Solidarity campaign for the Middle East and Mediterranean countries.

Although I had many one on one discussions with representatives from Palestine, Slovenia, Germany, Catalonia etc, the key discussions were with Syriza's International Bureau who have in effect taken on the role of leadership of the European Left Party represented at the European Parliament.

Athens in Turmoil

The population of Athens is around 10 million, 50% of the population of Greece. Each visit to the conference by bus involved delays due to spontaneous demonstrations by communities or organized disruption by fascists. Several hundred Golden Dawn riding motorcycles, blocked our bus whilst setting fires at a junction ahead of us.

 

 

The week before the conference, the Government shut down the state broadcaster, the equivalent of the BBC, following weeks in which workers occupied it and continued broadcasting. They also that week sacked the entire Athens Municipal Police force. I have a leaflet I was given at their demonstration pointing out Greece is the first country in the world ever to do such a thing. Whole swathes of local government and education were also sacked, for no better reason than the whim of the Troika.

In some areas and communities, overall unemployment reached 60%. In these areas all factories have shut except where workers have occupied them and kept them going often without pay, although where possible goods are produced and sold on a cooperative model. Most community centres have been shut, but kept going by communities. Increasingly Syriza and Golden Dawn in different communities, and in different ways, help them self organize to compensate for the breakdown of the state.

Policy Debates

Syriza developed from 14 distinct groups reflecting distinct traditions – Trotskyist, Communist, Ecological, Marxist, Socialist, Independent Left, Greek Patriotic. These differences in ideology will continue, however, all agree the party needs to unite around strategic priorities. The key position of the majority was that the party should be inclusive, progressive, revolutionary and democratic. However, it should set itself the strategic goal of governing Greece.

All 3,552 registered delegates at the congress had the right to speak. Who spoke for 10 minutes was determined by lot, from a glass box, for each session. At the end of each session the political secretariat had the right to reply for 5 minutes. The debating and decision making days of conference started in mid-morning and went on past midnight. Most of the debate and disagreements had been distilled through the long preconference period not least in a 2 month policy conference.

Some debates such as getting youth to vote seem familiar – Syriza from polling was the choice of over 35% of youth, but youth represented only 5% of the Syriza vote.

How to challenge the EU, IMF and ECB faces most of Europe with few clear answers. Syriza would seek the dissolution of Nato and break from it if it is in government. They would seek a world forum against nuclear weapons and Nato as well as separate discussions on the environment and the world economy.

One issue specific to Greece is their attitude to the police, army and security forces in the event of forming a Government of the Left.

Their approach to the army strangely did not appear too controversial. The majority are confident, from discussion between their parliamentarians and senior officers, that the armed forces, which they believe have significantly altered since the days of the Junta, will defend the constitution and abide by the political process if they win. Their main aim is to further democratise the army.

The normal police they believe by 2 to 1 support Syriza over the right wing parties. The leadership of the fire service backs Syriza, as does 35% of the Coastguard.

Of the 8,000 units of security police they believe 55% support Golden Dawn and only 4% Syriza or communists. They are attempting to change this and always refer to the police as workers in uniform.

They also believe that Golden Dawn has strong links with organized crime through which they are involved in immigrant trafficking. Immigrants are then forced to work long hours on no pay. The Golden Dawn fascists stir up xenophobia and rascism and condemn the presence of these immigrants. Scurrilously using the Greek flag as cover, Golden Dawn and their allies in the security police physically attack immigrants and their defenders and terrorise immigrant and Roma communities. The recent arrests of Golden Dawn leaders on criminal conspiracy charges, may reflect this criminal activity more than the reports in the western media which merely mentioned the trigger of the killing of prominent anti-fascist.

An area of controversy was the Euro. Some currents wish to prepare for withdrawal and campaign on that basis. The majority position appears to be to concentrate on the results of being tied to the euro – debt and austerity. They seem to have the line, not a job, not a penny to defend the euro. In other words we don't seek withdrawal, but in the event we are pushed to continue with austerity, we will write off the debt and leave the Eurozone. The Euro was scheduled for a separate session 2 minutes for and against for each position

The longest policy debate scheduled was about what Syriza would do in the first 100 hours of being elected the largest party and then what they would do in the first 100 days.

The party's statutes had been previously discussed and were not the subject of major disagreement.

Syriza-USF Constitution

Most controversy centred on the party's draft constitution which had not been subject to detailed scrutiny.

The first disagreement was the size of the central committee – either 151 or 201. Once that was decided, there were differences over the proportions of each grouping e.g. men /women, age/youth, regions, trade unions etc. should make up the body. For example, the existing norm for the minimum women's representation was 30% there were proposals for a 50% minimum. There was also controversy as to whether elections should be by a list system or direct from conference.

There was also a proposal to elect the party president from congress rather than the alternative proposal of electing him/her from the Central Committee. The reason given was to increase the transparency of the democratic process and thereby the party's democratic credentials with the public. All elected officials would still be accountable to the central committee and other party bodies. This proposal seemed shocking to several International representatives from communist traditions. As a French communist (aka unreconstructed Stalinist) said regards this and other proposals "they are nothing but a bunch of social democrats".

On the key proposal to restrict currents and factions from acting against the party, to in effect dissolve them as component structures, there was strong opposition from some currents, not least from Manolis Glezos.

Glezos is a national hero and a veteran of the struggle against the Nazis and the Junta and imprisoned by each. In 1939 he helped create an anti-fascist youth group. In 1941 he and one other tore down the Swastika from the Acropolis and replaced it with the Greek flag, an act which inspired resistance to Nazi occupation. Condemned to death by the Nazis he escaped. Aged 90 he was arrested by police in 2012 whilst participating in a riot. He is a parliamentary representative for Syriza.

At the congress there was no suggestion that newspapers would be restricted, that local or sectional democracy would not apply, simply a desire that on central strategic priorities democratically agreed the party should try to win a majority of the population through concerted action.

In replying to Manolis prior to the vote, Tsipras asked how do we win people thinking of backing Syriza to the party and keep their support if

"the Party that calls you to rally in order to change the country is a Party with 14 different statutes and 14 different programs? That we are calling you to entrust the fortunes of this country to a party with bodies appointed and not democratically elected by its members and its conventions? That the future of the country will be decided by some people who are not accountable to a democratically elected body? And if they are not accountable to their party's bodies how can they possibly be accountable to the people?"

Following this speech Manolis publicly embraced Tsipras in a symbolic unity of the different generations of struggle. This ensured no acrimony at the end of conference.

Clearly this is an issue for those commentators not in Greece. In UK blogs and political sites, and in my personal discussions with comrades in Scotland, this issue dominates. In both the SSP and Solidarity, the issue of platforms and tendencies has proved controversial. In a mass party seeking to win government, the tensions must be greater, particularly when its growth has been so rapid.

Perhaps because I could only speak in English to the Syriza central leaders, I have been misled, however, I do not think so. They seem democratic to the point of insanity. Everyone has a say, seeking consensus is the goal, disagreements are clarified and put to the vote. Only then they expect and demand a unified party to challenge capital using the agreed strategy. This to me is not old fashioned democratic or bureaucratic centralism, but the essence of a democratic socialist party seeking to defeat capitalism.

Aftermath

Most of the central leadership's proposals were adopted. Election of the president, Tsipras, was made by congress. He received 74% of the vote. The election of the Central Committee was also by congress which voted on by competing unified lists. The "unified list" took 67% of the vote.

It appears that Syriza continues to advance in polls, the ruling coalition fragments, Syriza is recruiting. We await an inevitable election probably early next year when Syriza's call for a Government of the Left may be achieved, giving hope to the rest of Europe.
Solidarity

Medical aid for Greece, supported by Syriza has been established to provide vaccines for children in Greece. In effect the medical service cannot afford medicine. I would ask all those who can to consider either giving yourselves or through an organization a donation to Medical Aid for Greece via the Greece Solidarity campaign www.greecesolidarity.org .

Syriza conference also launched a campaign to supply food to areas of the community without it and local campaigns to stop all evictions of those falling behind in rent.
  

Reflections

Personally I was inspired both from the congress but also the selfless ambition of the Syriza leadership.

One of the central members of the political apparatus took the International delegates to the community where he was brought up. At the centre of it is a large park recently occupied by the community which had belonged for decades to Athens Rifle society as a firing range. Part of that contained a building and a large courtyard.

It was there in 1944, when the Greek King abdicated and passed over rule to the Nazis that 200 communist prisoners who had been in prison for years were taken one morning and machine-gunned by the SS.

A man then aged 7 had climbed over the wall the next morning and dug bullets from the wall to prove the event had taken place, as the bodies had been removed to graves unkown. He is now a Syriza member and showed the bullets which he still has to us. I was then honoured to witness a Greek socialist and a German socialist jointly lay a wreath on the memorial on the spot they died.

The current government is seeking to take back the park and the memorial into private hands. If Syriza takes power - it will become a national resistance museum.

The struggle for Greek democracy and socialism has been long, but both its memory and its spirit is strong.

Victory to Syriza.

Solidarity with Greece.

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left

Greenpeace

The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books