There’s a town​ south of Budapest that Hungarians call Görögfalva, ‘Greek village’. Its official name is Beloiannisz, after Nikos Beloyannis, a communist commander in the Greek Civil War. After the left’s defeat in 1949, some Greek communists fled to Yugoslavia, others to Central Asia; a handful built this settlement just outside the Great Hungarian Plain. They intended to stay only a few months, until the left regrouped in Greece. Their football club, Partisan, set up a pitch outside the town. Their newspaper, the Popular Struggle, kept fighting the Civil War in print. The town square, Lenin Tér, was paved with a blue Greek key. A prize was awarded every year to the student who drew the best copy of Picasso’s sketch of Beloyannis, the Man with the Carnation. After the Junta fell, some villagers returned to Greece; more left after 1989. Today, none of the children speaks Greek, though the local school imports Greek expats living in Budapest to teach them. When I asked one of the expats about Syriza, he wanted to know if Alexis had sacked the church yet. In the Platán Café off Szarafisz Street, the last of Beloiannisz’s original settlers gathered around an antique television, positioned below a framed portrait of Engels.

Syriza is the most successful product so far of the left that stayed at home. The first major step towards its eventual election victory was taken in 1992, when a coalition called Synaspismos brought together the leftists who’d stayed in Greece after the Civil War – who were by then Eurocommunists – and many who returned from places like Beloiannisz and were still ‘orthodox’ communists. Three years later, almost half of these orthodox communists left the coalition because of what they saw as too many capitulations to capitalist interests. Alexis Tsipras, the black sheep of a Pasok family of engineers who was 18 at the time of the split, stuck with the Eurocommunists. The mission of Synaspismos was to establish a ‘true’ Greek left. In 1981 Andreas Papandreou had campaigned on the promise that Pasok would bring socialism to Greece. But the ‘Pasok decade’ of the 1980s only enhanced the clientalism it had vowed to end. From the late 1990s, with the ‘New Pasok’ after Papandreou’s death fully embracing foreign investment and privatisation, Synaspismos became a home for elements of the radical left. Repentant hardliners returned, and the first of the alter-globalisation groups joined. ‘The idea was to represent in parliament a radicalism that was in the DNA of voters who were voting for Pasok mechanically,’ Tsipras’s intellectual mentor, Alekos Alavanos, told me. ‘But it was difficult to anticipate just how embedded Pasok’s popular base would prove to be. Providing an electoral alternative wouldn’t be enough. We had to go deeper.’ Synaspismos started attracting feminists, greens and young activists. These were the sunistóses, the ‘little bits’, that coalesced into Syriza in 2004. The Eurocommunists were the furthest to the right of all these bits. Since then the rift has only deepened between Syriza’s pro-European founders and the anti-EU faction made up of those who streamed into the party in the mid-2000s, then flooded it at the start of the economic crisis.

When Syriza came to power on 25 January, it made a series of symbolic gestures and statements to prove it still belonged to the ‘true’ left. Tsipras paid a visit to Kaisariani, the site of a massacre of communist partisans by the Nazis in May 1944. The privatisation of Piraeus by the Chinese shipping company Cosco ‘was to be reviewed in favour of the Greek people’. Plans to close refugee detention centres were announced. Illegal immigrants could no longer be randomly frisked by the police. Citizenship would be granted to all children of migrant parents. The riot police, the Units for the Reinstatement of Order, were no longer to carry guns. The majority of Syriza MPs took a civil not a religious oath.

It’s one thing for a party on the left to win power in Greece. It’s another for its members to speak – even in public pronouncements – as if they’re at a critical theory reading group. Tsipras’s cabinet is full of people with PhDs more familiar with ‘governmentality’ than with governing. Giannis Panousis, a criminology theorist, has been given the Ministry of Public Order. Shipping has been assigned to Giorgos Stathakis, a historian of the Marshall Plan; Ginnis Tsironis, an ecologist, runs environment; Aristides Baltas, a philosopher, education; Costas Fotakis, a laser physicist, research. The Eurocommunist left that bred the older academics in Syriza was a creature of the Greek university system. Many were at Panteion University in Athens, which specialises in social and political theory, or at provincial universities that were founded under the Junta but became the prime sites of politicisation during the Pasok years.

Syriza’s victory has also effected a reverse brain drain. A year ago Rania Antonopoulos was the director of economics and gender equality at the Levy Institute at Bard College in New York, where she specialised in rural employment guarantee acts in India in the 1970s. ‘In 2012, I sent a “Get in Touch with Us” message through the online version of Syriza’s newspaper, Avgi. “Listen. My name is Rania Antonopoulos. I have witnessed what’s happening in Greece first-hand in Latin America. If there is anything I can do for you, don’t hesitate.”’ Euclid Tsakalotos, a Syriza economist, wrote back the next day and Antonopoulos began making trips to Greece every few months to meet Syriza’s leaders. She is now deputy minister of labour. ‘I’m not interested in politics,’ she said. ‘I do not intend to stay in politics. Syriza asked me to do this out of patriotic duty.’

Syriza hasn’t tried to hide its academic inclinations. Down the street from the party’s crumbling headquarters in Psiri, a leftist redoubt in Athens, is the Nicos Poulantzas Institute. This is Syriza’s think tank, where about two hundred party intellectuals, mostly economists, have been polishing their theories since 1997. Leftists from more than twenty similar organisations throughout Europe – the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Germany, Espaces Marx in France – show up every week to give talks. An office press, Nissos, publishes several volumes of party scholarship every year. Analyses produced by the institute’s members – ‘The Political Economy of Public Debt’ by Nikos Theocharakis; ‘Development, Productive Reconstruction, Memoranda and Debt in Greece, a Country of 1.5 Million Unemployed People’ by Nadia Valavani, the current alternative finance minister – appear in Avgi, on Kokkino, the party radio station, and, its blog. ‘Syriza politicians let us operate the institute autonomously,’ Georgios Daremas, one of its trustees, told me. ‘We push out ideas; they grab onto things here and there.’

Nicos Poulantzas, a Marxist sociologist who killed himself in 1979 at the age of 43, was the decisive figure in the renewal of leftist thought in Greece, and remains the party’s intellectual anchor. A handful of Syriza’s current leaders knew him. His cousin Vasilis showed me a photo of Poulantzas on the night the Junta fell in 1974. He’s laughing with Konstantinos Tsoukalas, now a Syriza MP. They’re surrounded by women, bottles of champagne, balloons. Poulantzas has been given a sign – ‘You’re the priest of Marxism’ – and a great banner hangs from the ceiling: ‘Greece salutes you, prophetic sociologists!’ From Paris, where he taught, Poulantzas had watched as the Junta collapsed when the police faction under Ioannidis overthrew the military faction under Papadopoulos. He was troubled by the examples of Chile and Portugal. In Chile, the left had not penetrated a crucial state structure: the military. In Portugal in 1974-75, they smashed certain state sectors in the process of occupying them – the Agricultural Ministry, for instance – which rendered parts of the recently acquired state totally useless. The task for the left wasn’t to take the state by frontal assault, Leninist-style, or encircle it with popular movements, as Gramsci had insisted. A dual strategy was required. First, the left had to enter the state. This required playing electoral politics. Once inside, it could democratise state structures by destroying the networks of capitalist power. ‘Struggle,’ Poulantzas wrote, ‘must always express itself in the development of popular movements, the mushrooming of democratic organs at the base, and the rise of centres of self-management.’ These movements would work in tandem with the political front, but they would also act as a check on it. Partyism must not override expressions of popular will.

Syriza’s leaders have been wary of politicising citizen movements not only because Poulantzas was against it, but because they understand how easily civil society organisations in Greece can be captured by state apparatuses. The euphoria surrounding Syriza sometimes makes it seem like a grass-roots movement. It isn’t: it hasn’t led workers’ strikes; it hasn’t figured prominently in the social initiatives – soup kitchens, local councils, homeless shelters – that have emerged as a result of the collapse of basic public services. When student protests and anti-fascist demonstrations began in Athens in 2006, Syriza vocally supported them, but didn’t do much more than that. During the crisis, the party didn’t hijack anti-austerity rallies despite their political potential. Greeks voted for Syriza because, alone on the left, its leaders offered a political complement for the kind of activism all the street movements represented.

Syriza works as a conduit. Eleni Kyramargiou, who’s studying for a PhD in sociology, spends her free time volunteering at immigrant shelters. Konstantina Venieri, a journalist, collects canned food for her neighbourhood assembly. Anastasia Veritzoglou, a part-time nurse, works in a makeshift medical clinic. Syriza membership connects them. It’s a porous party by design. To join it you have to prove your commitment to movements that aren’t technically part of it: for a few months you’re asked to attend solidarity gatherings or take part in popular initiatives. Syriza keeps these networks separate from its political operations. Its leaders talk about drastiriopoisi, ‘activation’, not ‘recruitment’. The party has only 35,000 members – a fraction of the support commanded by New Democracy, the party it turned out of power. Syriza’s identity is loose: you don’t have a membership card, and most ‘members’ I talked to claimed that they’d never actually signed anything. It’s difficult to find Syriza meetings in Athens; no one seems to know if they happen regularly.

Tsipras has few friends among the capitalist elite and limited access to the foreign funds that allowed Pasok to dangle gifts before each sector of Greek society. Syriza can’t give handouts. The party generates support instead by being what Lucio Magri faulted the Italian Communist Party for never becoming: a ‘light party’ that interprets society instead of trying to transform it. ‘As a union leader under Pasok your job was to be grateful for the government,’ said Giorgos Gogos, the general secretary of the Union of the Piraeus Dockworkers. ‘Syriza demands that we relay our criticisms.’ In Thessaloniki in 2011, efforts were made by the state to privatise the city’s water supply. More than fifty citizens’ groups mobilised to resist the measures; they ran some scattered demonstrations and picketed government buildings. Tsipras heard about it, and encouraged groups to keep forming. At state level he gave them a voice. ‘Water is not a commodity,’ he told parliament. ‘We should hold a referendum to save it – we are the 99 per cent.’ Eventually the referendum happened, and last May the people of Thessaloniki voted to stop the privatisation. A prominent member of Pasok, Kriton Arsenis, immediately switched allegiance to Syriza. A contingent of Syriza MPs travelled to Dublin to show the Irish how to run a similar campaign.

Many sympathetic watchers on the Greek left argue that Syriza is in no position to reform the state. They point to the loose grouping of the army, the police, the justice system and Greece’s oligarchs at home and abroad. In interviews Yanis Varoufakis, the finance minister, calls these the country’s ‘dark forces’. This is the deep state, which crystallised during the Civil War as the right’s tool for stamping out communism. The parents of many Syriza ministers were victims of the rightist persecutions of these years; Varoufakis’s father was imprisoned on Makrouisos, a political concentration camp off the coast of Attica. Syriza members themselves fought the relapse into authoritarianism under the Junta. As a student, Nadia Valavani was tortured by the Colonels’ police. This rightist fringe continued to lurk after the Junta fell, during the metapolitefsi, the so-called decades of democratic prosperity. Its most visible manifestation is Golden Dawn, which has prospered partly because the justice ministry has allowed it to operate for years with virtual impunity. It has supporters in the church and the police. Two retired generals serve in the European Parliament on the Golden Dawn ticket.

When it comes to the church, Tsipras has appeared in public with Archbishop Ieronymos to show Greeks that he isn’t trying to upend Orthodoxy. As for the army, he has cosied up to a few retired generals. At the defence ministry last month I met one of them, Nikos Toskas, a Nato commander whom Greeks now call the kokkinos stratigos, the ‘red general’. Tsipras talked to him in the summer of 2012; the two agreed that something needed to be done about the increasing number of Turkish incursions into Greek airspace. Toskas has been made undersecretary of defence. Despite the history of military coups in Greece – eight over the last century – the Greek army doesn’t currently pose a threat to Syriza. The last rumour of such a coup surfaced in 2011, in connection with a nationalist army chief called Frangoulis Frangos. I met him recently at a café below the Acropolis. ‘I’ll just say that we haven’t had any serious problems with the politicians for a few decades now,’ Frangos said. ‘They respect us, we respect them.’

The police could make the most trouble for Syriza. In 2010, as austerity measures came in, a new special police force, called Dias, was formed. Dias police ride around Athens in pairs on motorbikes creating an atmosphere of state intimidation. ‘With Dias we asked the state not to use exclusively uneducated men in their early twenties,’ Antonis Zacharioudakis, the vice president of the police union, told me. ‘But the politicians wanted austerity enforced by a slender part of society – almost as though by a group of outsiders.’ There are tens of thousands of men like these who for the last five years have carried out state repression; they know very well that most people despise them.

The police have put Syriza in a particular bind. The party has to follow through on its promise not to go on giving the impression that the state is at war with the people. At the same time, reducing police powers might aggravate a sense of insecurity. Implementation of the party’s immigration policies has been ham-fisted: refugee centres around Greece have been shut down, but Syriza’s decision to release the immigrants in Omonia Square in Athens is driving people into the arms of the right. Another problem is the salaries of public sector employees. These are dependent on emergency funds issued to Greece on condition that it perseveres with austerity, which of course Syriza has vowed to resist. If Greece is denied the loans to pay its workers, will the police side with the anti-Syriza populists? New Democracy once appeased the police with promises of wage increases when economic order had been restored: Syriza has made no pretence of doing this. Despite attempts to purge the police of anyone with a swastika tattoo or obvious fascist sympathies, about half of its officers still vote for Golden Dawn. In the coming weeks Yiannis Panousis, a criminologist at the University of Athens and now Syriza’s deputy minister of citizen protection, plans to oversee the decommissioning of any officers with direct ties to Golden Dawn. There could be a hundred, he told me, perhaps more. ‘I lectured most of these guys in the police academy. It’s easy to tell who they are.’ He plans to loosen the association between the police and Golden Dawn by educating the police in universities alongside other students. But reforms like that take time, which is something Syriza has in short supply. The Golden Dawn trial begins this month. There is fear that the leaders, presenting themselves as victims of an unfair justice system, will be acquitted and emerge from jail as heroes. In June Syriza’s four-month debt extension with the European Union runs out. Germany’s intransigence during the first round of negotiations has confronted Syriza with a choice between betraying its anti-austerity rhetoric entirely, or proposing a public referendum on Greece’s departure from the EU. In the first instance it loses any hope of mass popular support. In the second, it loses the democratic safety net supposedly guaranteed by EU membership.

I left Athens shortly before the elections and returned a month later. It was a slightly different city when I got back. There were more immigrants wandering through the streets, especially in neighbourhoods like Mets where I had rarely seen them before. They still looked miserable – Greece for most of them is a waystation, not a home. People in Kolonaki were complaining about it over their aperitifs. But on the whole Athenians were more xalara, ‘kicked-back’, as the Greeks say. Syriza had made small but substantial advances. The wrought-iron gates outside parliament had been taken down. My neighbour claimed that he had seen politicians taking the subway to parliament. People still complain about the government, but not with the same spite they reserved for Antonis Samaras. The police presence has been reduced. On Ermou Street, near the entrance to Syntagma Square where they used to loiter in armed packs, they’ve vanished, at least for now.

20 March

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Vol. 37 No. 13 · 2 July 2015

‘Syriza,’ Alexander Clapp writes, ‘is the most successful product so far of the left that stayed at home’ (LRB, 9 April). Presumably he means to mean that since the defeat of the communist insurgency in 1949 and its combatants’ thirty-year exile in the Soviet bloc the Greek left achieved nothing until Syriza’s electoral victory this January. This overlooks the role of EDA, a party generally regarded as a front for the banned CP, which contested elections as early as 1951 and remained a small but significant force in Greek politics until the Colonels’ coup in 1967 (the murder of its MP Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963 was the subject of Costa-Gavras’s famous film Z), as well as the achievements of Pasok, which after coming to power in 1981 recognised the wartime Resistance, introduced independent pensions for the wives of farmers and agricultural workers and established healthcare centres in the countryside, all for the first time.

Involvement in Elas and the subsequent Civil War and, in younger generations, resistance to the Colonels have been the ultimate badge of honour for Greek leftists. They used to say about the French Resistance that the number of participants swelled perceptibly once the war was safely over: the same could be said about the overthrow of the Colonels’ regime. It is not so true of the Civil War because for many years admitting to communist sympathies would have cost you your job, if not your life.

Clapp names people in Syriza who claim to have been tortured by the Colonels and tells us that the father of Yanis Varoufakis, the minister of finance, was imprisoned on Makronisos, the island concentration camp for unrepentant communists. I have no reason to doubt that he was anything but a brave, truthful and determined man, ready to die for his beliefs (he did, incidentally, send his son to a school for children of the very rich, whose nearby rival I taught at for several years), but I also recall the words of a friend, now dead, also a communist imprisoned on Makronisos, apropos of an acquaintance who was always flaunting his ‘revolutionary’ past. There were people who signed the dhilosi, a recantation of beliefs that in theory guaranteed a less harsh fate, and those who did not. ‘Some people went to the ravine’ (where they were beaten half to death), he said, ‘while others played the guitar.’ Anyway, as my wife – whose own mother went to prison in South Africa for being a communist – says, ‘Does any of this tell you anything about their children and grandchildren?’

Is any of this relevant to contemporary Greece? It is beyond doubt that the Civil War left long-lasting resentment and bitterness on both sides and some of the undercurrents are still there: in the resurgence of fascist rhetoric and action on the part of Golden Dawn, in the violent demonstrations against austerity by various far left and anarchist factions (the obvious explanation for heavy police presence on the streets of Athens rather than the re-emergence of a repressive state apparatus, as Clapp would have us believe). All through the 1950s, when I first set foot in Greece, the jails were full of political prisoners. Known leftists had to report to their local police stations weekly. Even referring to the events of the 1940s as the ‘civil’ war was enough to brand you a communist, with all sorts of unpleasant consequences. To get a job you had to have a certificate of what was called ethnikofrosini, being ‘nationally-minded’, i.e. not remotely lefty in outlook, which is why the building trade, with its tradition of casual labour and no questions asked, was stuffed with surprisingly well educated but semi-outlawed old-time communists.

Apart from a current of anti-US, anti-Nato, anti-EU sentiment, a foolish tendency to see Russia as somehow a more trustworthy friend and a willingness to believe in the wildest conspiracy theories, that runs among some of Syriza’s heterogeneous elements, I’m not sure that the Civil War communists have left anything much in the way of an intellectual legacy. Some may have been disillusioned by their long stay in the Soviet bloc (Solzhenitsyn encountered some of them in the gulag), but many of those who returned to Greece in the late 1970s and 1980s remained unrepentant, authoritarian Stalinists to the end of their days. They belonged to an era of People’s Courts, Enemies of the People, Class Enemies. ‘Pluralism’, ‘choice’, ‘democracy’, were not words that featured in their vocabulary. Greece would have been another Bulgaria if they had won the Civil War. They had never represented majority opinion in Greece. By the time they returned they were old and irrelevant and they were not welcome; several have described to me their shock at being jostled and jeered at when they got off their trains in Thessaloniki.

Tim Salmon
London NW3

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