Syriza - reality is forcing us to forget the old ways
Socialist Resistence (UK)
August 23, 2012
Alexis Benos is a Professor in Public Health
at Thessaloniki's Aristotle University, and was an
electoral candidate for the left wing coalition Syriza
in Thessaloniki. Alexis is a member of Syriza's local
coordinating committee and also a member of the party's
central committee. He was interviewed by John Lister.
How do you see Syriza as an organization?
The name itself means a coalition of the radical left,
and we have taken a very important step since 2004,
when Syriza was first founded. It was formed just
before an election campaign, as an electoral coalition.
What's interesting is that within it we have all the
possible branches of the historical left in Greece and
internationally: we have Trotskyists and we have
Stalinists - Maoists and Eurocommunists - and sections
from the left of social democracy, and eco-socialists
as well: it's really a big spectrum of the left.
Of course there is another important part of the left
which is missing, which is the Communist Party (KKE),
an older pro-Soviet Communist Party which still uses
the same old rhetoric and still has the same attitude
towards politics. There is also another missing
component which is a section of the extraparliamentary
left formed mainly of a split from the Communist Party:
they are collaborating with us, and I know a number of
them recognize that they have to come with us and work
The crisis is becoming deeper and deeper, Syriza is
becoming bigger and bigger, and we have to become much
more serious as we look at the reality and the need for
unity perspective. A union of the left is a real
possibility: and we need to make it happen.
How do you see the tensions between the different
currents within Syriza? Are they becoming sharper, or
are people beginning to see the need to work together?
Of course there are problems: in last three years we
have come very close to a split. Part of the
organization - and it's interesting that is actually a
Trotskyist element within Syriza, along with the
Communist Organization, which is Maoist - tried to form
another front in opposition to the main party - without
actually leaving Syriza. We call that opportunism.
A couple of years ago the social democratic minority
faction of Synaspismos (the biggest party of our
coalition) abandoned both party and coalition and
founded a new party called Democratic Left, which is
now participating in the tripartite neoliberal
government (both with the Conservative-New Democracy
and Socialist-PASOK parties).
In SYRIZA meanwhile there was a lot of friction and a
lot of the older organizations wanted to keep their
organizational integrity, but the reality is that
because of the crisis in the last two years we are all
getting more serious.
So now within Syriza there is a unanimity, a declared
consensus that from September will be a transition
period in which we will have local assemblies all over
the country which are going to elect their
representatives to a Congress of a new party, which
will be one party - of course with trends inside it
which will be recognized, but one party.
This is not up for discussion today: it's positive
because the reality is forcing us to forget the old
ways of working, the old passions and splits of the
traditional left. Now we have to be more responsible:
we have to recognize the need to work together.
You are a public health official and a health activist:
and one of your concerns is clearly to tackle the
problems that are developing in the Greek health
service under the impact of the austerity. Tell us
about how you're discussing the issues that would need
to be addressed if Syriza wins the next election and
becomes the government.
As you know, this year in the most recent elections we
lost by only 2%. It was very close. We really were
close to being in government today. So the discussion
is getting really serious now. If we win a majority in
the parliament, of course our main strategy recognizes
that without the mass movement outside, a majority in
Parliament on its own is not enough as a basis to make
But we're also discussing much more technically because
we will have to solve real problems that will arise.
The big issue is the big pharmaceutical industry. Under
the austerity rules in the last two years the
government has been increasing the amount the patients
have to pay out of pocket to cover the cost of their
drugs and treatment.
In our view as part of our philosophy, health is a
right, access to services is a right, and access to
necessary medicines and drugs is a right that we must
uphold. But of course we also know that in the current
system there is a big overconsumption and significant
corruption involved in the marketplace for the big
So if we became a government tomorrow there are big
problems for us to solve: we would want to relieve the
burden on people who need to be able to get a hold of
the drugs they need to keep them alive every day,
whether for diabetes of HIV but on the other hand we
face an industry which is making really massive profits
from our healthcare system. We have to control the
market for pharmaceuticals. This is our long-term
vision but also our duty.
We will need immediate solutions that we can apply at
once, but we will also need to make sure that these are
consistent with the wider vision of the way we want a
health care system to run in the interests of people
and not of big business: is not just a question of
paying the pharmaceutical bills, but of reshaping the
Right across Europe, and I know also in the UK we have
very negative examples of the ways in which social
democratic parties in government, because they had no
vision for society turn out to be the best servants of
big business. They are national parties, which relate
to their national ruling class: but also lack any
strategy or alternative vision to overrule the big
corporations or to mobilize any kind of mass
organization to challenge them. That's why they so
easily succumbed to neoliberal views.
You've always been clear that the answer is not simply
to try to build an alternative in Greece, but the you
need to make a much wider appeal.
This is a very important point. All the neoliberal
propaganda in Europe and in Greece has been that we are
the Greek phenomenon, lazy Greeks and so on, but of
course this is not the case. It is a Europe wide attack
on working people being mounted by big capital.
There is no solution without an international solution,
not just in Greece, but in any country. Even if we win
control of the Greek government, and have the very best
policies you ever dreamed, we are not going to be able
to succeed. Big capital will make a war against us,
it's obvious. There will use a stock market to devalue
the currency and they will build a much bigger and
deeper crisis even than the one we have today. And then
their strategy we can assume will be to argue that this
is the crisis that the leftists have created for the
country and to press for a right wing so-called
national government to put the country back on its
To overcome that we need an international movement, not
only for Greece. Before the elections we were preparing
the ground so that if we did win the elections we would
immediately make an appeal, an international call
especially for Europeans but not exclusively to Europe,
to organize solidarity tourism and have a lot of people
coming to the country in order to assist in buttressing
the economy while big capital attempted to destabilize
A solidarity movement will be very important for
Greece, but is not only that: we also need to build an
awareness that we want and need working people in every
country to fight their government, and oppose any moves
to destabilize Greece, all to increase the austerity.
We need people to fight the government because if they
don't, the government will fight them. If people band
together against their governments, the governments of
Europe will band together against the people.
What's worrying us is that we appear to be out in
front. We are not proud to be in the most advanced
crisis and the most advanced situation for the left. We
know that Syriza is the most mature and developed
expression at the present time of the left in Europe,
and the closest to winning real power. Rather than
being proud we are afraid that there is no parallel
movement in the whole of Europe. There are good parties
and good comrades, but the movement towards unity of
purpose, recognition of the need for serious action is
nowhere near as advanced elsewhere.
There are some movements to give us some hope, for
example the movements in Spain. But the question is how
is this grassroots movement going to be expressed in
political form? The movement continues to go up and
down but there is no real consistent large-scale
organization capable of winning elections and
mobilizing large forces.
It's important to realize the positive experience that
we have made. We've been working all these years as
activists, supporting movements such as the occupy the
plazas movement and all kinds of ecological movements
and so on. When they moved we were there. And it's
important to discuss from a European perspective that
we recognized from the beginning that we should not try
to take these movements over, to control or claim that
they were somehow 'ours'.
What happened, and it's really quite amazing, is that
the government - ministers and all the media that
support them - accused Syriza of responsibility for
whatever was happening in Greece. So we were blamed for
the occupy movement, and for the 'don't pay' movement
which has also been very important in challenging the
austerity, refusing to pay extra taxes and other
charges. Even when we haven't been involved, the media
propaganda effectively helped us by making us look much
bigger and more active than we really were.
But because we didn't try to take over, we have
developed very sound and well-established relationships
with these movements. They are genuinely supporting
Syriza, but they are not part of Syriza. This is
producing a good dynamic. Because we need to build a
much stronger and bigger mass movement.
So what's your relationship like with the trade unions?
This is a big and very important issue which is also a
European issue and not simply a problem that we have.
All of the unions in Europe have over the years become
more or less completely bureaucratized and corrupted.
And this has led them into the role of effectively
backing the neoliberal policies of social democracy.
At the beginning of the occupy movement in Greece we
even had some clashes in which some unions went in to
help the occupy movement, told we don't want you
bureaucrats, clear off. That was partly good, partly
But the challenge is now to politicize the trade union
activists and the trade unions, not to dismiss them or
write them off, but to work to ensure that they play a
We are by no means there yet: the leaderships of the
unions are still linked in with neoliberal politicians.
But there are interesting developments. There are
grassroots movements emerging in the unions. The basis
of the new union movement.
But of course the main problem now is not the unions,
it's the unemployed. You know we have nearly 25%
unemployment: up to 50% of those aged under 25 are
Where then is the base of Syriza in the current
We have 35-40% support amongst those aged under 45, but
when you look at the ages from 50 and upwards then it
starts to get really bad. Which is interesting because
historically the left has tended not to relate so
strongly to younger people.
But what was also very interesting for us is that for
the first time the vote for Syriza was clearly a class
vote. The lower and middle classes voted for Syriza and
the others voted for all the parties of the system
which includes the social Democrats.
But there's also a different issue amongst the
students. The movement is slipping in this sector. The
students are overwhelmed by the perspective of
unemployment, and as they come up to the end of their
studies they really anxious as to what they going to
do, and tend to be really out of any movement.
In the last week before the elections we faced a really
tremendous onslaught against us in the media: even
David Cameron had a go at us. All of the European
leaders made statements that Greece was at the edge of
destruction if people voted for Syriza.
The most obvious impact of this campaign was that it
did terrorize people, and it whipped up an
anti-Communist style of movement. So it raises big
issues about how we can reach out to these wider layers
of people who were affected in this way and deterred
from voting for us, but who really should be with us.
You have a big campaign going on around the issue of
multinational corporations opening up a very
destructive gold-mining operation that threatens to
trash one of the main tourist areas of Greece. This
obviously has lessons about the dependent situation of
the Greek government, and the continuous demands and
shortsighted policies of neoliberalism. Can you talk a
bit about it?
Yes a consortium headed up by a big Canadian-based
multinational corporation, but also involving a Greek
capitalist who owns one of the major TV stations along
with a construction business, has chosen this period of
crisis, and mass unemployment, to argue that they want
to invest heavily in gold-mining in Greece, and
claiming it will mean thousands of jobs could be
They want to dig up a whole mountain in Halkidiki,
where we know already that the concentration of gold is
just 0. 1 gram per ton of rock. So that means just in
order to get just one gram of gold, you have to dig
1000 tons of rock. To get a kilogram you need to move a
mountain. The threatened environmental destruction is
Here in Halkidiki, there is a very developed tourist
industry - in my view a bit too developed - but it
keeps a lot of people in work, and the landscape is
very beautiful. The mining will destroy a very lovely
part of the world, but also one which generates
considerable profit, so even in capitalist terms the
plan seems to be a complete nonsense. Environmentally
it's also important to recognize that the forest on the
mountainsides is a major resource, historic forest that
is never being destroyed by fire or by other activity.
The chemicals that they will use for extracting the
gold from the rock include cyanide and other highly
dangerous products. There already bitter experiences
all over the world including the United States but also
Romania where these chemicals have caused massive
destruction. But on top of that there will be massive
amounts of dust thrown into the air. And although they
are claiming that will keep the toxic chemicals
carefully, this is an earthquake zone, and nobody can
be sure that any of this will be done safely.
They are all set to create a major disaster - and
that's why there has been a very big movement to
challenge the proposals. When we started a lot of
villages in the area had accepted the argument that
they might benefit from extra jobs: but now they have
understood what the implications are, and now we have a
very powerful resistance movement. But of course the
people driving the plan am now trying to divide the
movement. They took 150 young people from the villages
around and gave them O200 a month to work on security.
These people wound up in clashes with their own
Only three days ago we had very big clashes there,
there was a big rally up in the mountains, in the
forest, with large numbers of riot police deployed. The
police action, firing tear gas resulted in starting
fires in the forest. The demonstrators stopped
protesting and immediately went to put the fires out.
The movement is strong, but the deal has been signed.
However it's not too late to imagine it might be
stopped. They have not yet begun any really serious
environmental destruction. On the point of law it's
also interesting because two months ago the campaigners
won a ruling in the Court to stop the mining.
But immediately after that came a visit to Greece by
the troika of the IMF, the European Central Bank and
the European Union: they visited the highest court in
Greece, and managed to get the previous ruling
overturned. The new ruling said that the level of
unemployment in Greece meant that it is now a top
priority to create jobs, and that therefore they had
changed the previous ruling to permit the money to go
ahead. But it's obvious that once they've obtained
whatever profit they can obtain, the mining company
will simply leave behind Greece and the desert and the
irreversible damage that that operations will create:
any possible short-term contribution to reducing
unemployment will soon be wiped out.
This is another issue in which we need European wide
action: it's clear that we need as much pressure as
possible put to bear on the Greek government and on the
mining company to prevent a disaster taking shape.
There are moves to setup a global alliance against
extractive mining, and it's clear that we have similar
issues all over the world - Latin America, Africa,
Asia. Everywhere we have the same drive for profit at
the expense of people and the environment. And
everywhere we have the same arguments that in the
current crisis it's important to create jobs and so on.
From which I conclude that sadly the capitalists are
much more internationalist and coordinated in their
approach than we are!
One issue we have not touched upon is the rise of the
far right in Greece and the way in which Syriza is
As we know from history a period of economic and social
crisis creates the ideal breeding ground for the far
right and for fascists. This is what we're also seeing
in Greece now. Even at the beginning of the occupying
movement we could see a dangerous streak of nationalism
- blaming bad Germans and Angela Merkel and so on, and
I think we played quite a positive role being there,
and questioning and challenging these views and not
just leaving this movement to be taken over by the
We did a lot to challenge the idea that this was a
national issue and to make the argument that it was an
international question and the international alliances
would be vital, but it's clear from the last elections
that the fascists are now a force, with 7% of the vote.
And they are really fascists, we call them the dogs of
It's very important to recognize that they also have
some popularity amongst the youth - and of course as we
might expect the most desperate sections of youth. So
this is the most negative new development
Of course one aspect of this is that the rise of the
far right grows out of the destruction of the previous
consensus between the two main parties the right wing
and the social Democrats.
In Greece we have a history of struggle against the
Nazis and the collective memory of antifascist
struggles, but also a long history in which the Greeks
have been immigrants in other countries in Europe, in
the USA, Australia and around the world.
Especially in the generation of our fathers many Greeks
were immigrants in Germany. So as the fascists wage a
campaign now against immigrants we respond by pointing
out that the Greeks themselves in many countries are
even now immigrants: so do they want their fellow
fascists in Germany to kill Greeks in the way they
attack and kill Africans and others in Greece?
There is a big movement building to challenge the
fascists, and Syriza once again is part of that
movement. Every year we have a big anti-racist
festival: three days of festivities, with food and
theatre and music. There are discussions on racism, the
involvement of women, and many other dimensions.
We regard this as very important in strengthening and
building the movement that we need if we are to
challenge for government.
There are a lot of warnings from history, and a lot of
parallels between what might happen to Syriza in
government and what happened in Chile in the 1970s.
That is why we are having discussions and seminars on
issues including the Paris Commune (1871) the Pinochet
coup in Chile, lessons of the Greek civil war and also
the Spanish civil war.
We are working to understand history better and what
happened then, not because history is exactly
reproduced, but because we have to have all the
experience to foresee and avoid problems in the
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