Trotskyism in Greece: An interview with Andros Payiatsos
Platypus Review 64 | March 2014
On November 22, 2013, Nikos Manousakis, a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society in Thessoliniki, interviewed Andros Payiatsos, Secretary General of Xekinima or “Start,” the Greek chapter of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Nikos Manousakis: Tell us about the Greek chapter of the CWI. What are its involvements politically, its connection to the wider international organization, its ideological background, and what are Start’s aims in present-day Greece?
Andros Payiastos: Xekinima, which can be translated as Start, has a long history that dates back to the period of the Junta, the military dictatorship from 1967-1974. It was originally a small group that operated illegally under the Dictatorship of the Generals and, in 1974, joined the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). Xekinima had evolved in a Trotskyist direction, although not with full clarity at the outset, and was involved in the uprising of the Athens Polytechnic in the autumn of 1973. Start members joined PASOK when the latter was created in 1974. Around the same time Start came into contact with the British counterpart of the CWI, then called Militant, which was working inside British Labour. The group has had an interesting and a complex development since then. In its initial period it was very successful within PASOK, which, in the 1970s, was an entirely different organization from the one we see today—with thousands of working-class fighters and radical left activists. It was also very bureaucratic. But Xekinima was very quickly expelled. From 1975 onwards, Xekinima has worked as a tendency outside PASOK, although it directs itself at the PASOK rank and file.
Then in the late 1980s, a discussion began to develop in Greece and internationally about the character of working-class parties, labor parties, Social Democratic parties, etc., and there was a move in the direction of abandoning them. So Xekinima, too, shifted toward independent work and abandoned any kind of relationship with PASOK. Furthermore, in the 1990s, Xekinima came out openly as an independent organization with a stated aim of rebuilding the forces of the Left, describing PASOK as a bourgeois party, which had abandoned any link to working-class interests.
The 1990s were a very difficult period. The Left, as a whole, was in crisis as a result of the collapse of Stalinism and was confronted by a major ideological offensive by the bourgeoisie globally. It is fair to say that the entire Left was in crisis, even in tatters! Many organizations split and Xekinima also suffered from such clefts.
NM: This in spite of the fact that Xekinima had a different ideological or Trotskyist background?
AP: The Trotskyist current, although it was the only one that had predicted Stalinism was a temporary historical phenomenon and that it would collapse in one way or another, nevertheless paid the cost of the collapse of the Stalinist left. Because the collapse had an adverse, negative effect on the struggles of the working class, on the consciousness of the working class, on leftist working-class organizations, and on the leadership of the trade unions, etc.
NM: So you understand 1989 to have been a turning point for the Left in Greece and globally?
AP: Without any doubt! And Xekinima paid a cost for 1989. Actually, it is fair to say that Xekinima was able to restart, to rebuild its forces, having contracted to a small group by the late-1990s, when leftist movements found new life as the repercussions of the financial-economic crisis in southeast Asia were felt internationally, by the effects of the anti-globalization movement, and then the anti-war movement. It was this rebirth that followed the collapse of the Left in 1989 that also allowed Xekinima to rebuild its forces and become one of the significant forces on the Left today.
NM: How would you define the present goals of Xekinima?
AP: The general goal, of course, is the transformation of society. Capitalism is a deadly system leading to the barbarism that we experience today. How we get to transform society is the main question and a difficult one because the entire Left claims, in one way or another, that they are struggling for a socialist society, but historically the Left has proved incapable of achieving that aim. We have two goals given the present state of things in Greece: The first is to develop a transitional program that reflects the needs of today, define the aims for the working class to fight for, launch proposals about how that fight should develop, in other words a plan of struggle for the working class in order to be able to face this barbaric attack by the troika and the Greek bourgeoisie. The second is to try to bring together the forces which agree on the fundamental tasks of our epoch, I mean forces from the rest of the Left with an orientation toward revolutionary Marxism.
The Greek left is in turmoil—reflecting the depth of the current crisis on the one hand and the deficiencies of the (international) Left on the other. What is very important, however, is that there are significant forces inside all of the major left formations which are in opposition to the ideas or political lines of the central leaderships of those left formations. Such forces exist inside SYRIZA, but also inside the ANTARSYA coalition, and the KKE, the Greek Communist Party. These forces understand the necessity of a transitional program as I have described above and, also, the vital importance of the United Front.
Though a certain section of our membership is also in SYRIZA, Xekinima, stands outside, openly raising the call for various oppositional currents within the left parties to come together to form a common “arc” or “center” to coordinate their efforts. Xekinima, for example, plays a major role in the Initiative 1000, a collaboration of different segments of SYRIZA and ANTARSYA together with other groups on the Marxist left.
NM: How do you comprehend the electoral rise of SYRIZA? Do you think that SYRIZA’s party formula—a broad coalition with different tendencies—is the most appropriate and radical party form today?
AP: The only way for the new, left formations like SYRIZA to develop in the present epoch is through a federal structure that allows different groups, different parties, and different tendencies to coexist, together with individual members. Whereas in the past, both the “Communist” parties and the “Socialist” parties developed huge bureaucracies that did not allow free discussion and free exchange of ideas inside the political organizations of the working class. Democracy today is not just an abstract issue; democracy inside the parties of the Left and the movements is essential.
NM: Trotsky had remarked that the disintegration of the revolution in the Soviet Union was not a result of the lack of democracy, but the failure of the October Revolution to expand in the most developed countries, to be international.
AP: “Socialism” without worker’s democracy in the Soviet Union would not have been socialism, and socialism, without the expansion of the revolution beyond the Soviet Union, would also have been impossible. Trotsky explained the consequences of the lack of democracy inside the party and the Soviet Union quite well, but it’s also clear from Lenin that the conditions for socialism in its mature form, for working-class democracy, did not exist in the Soviet Union on its own and in isolation.
NM: Unfortunately, however, we don’t have a revolution today to expand on. Would you argue that the lack of democracy is today the main problem that confronts communist parties and a party like SYRIZA.
AP: I would say that the main problem is the political line. But then democracy comes as a means to give voice to the rank and file, to allow the rank and file control at the leadership level, so that, among other things, it can correct the mistakes of the political line of the leadership. The policies of the Greek Communist Party, for example, are very openly seen as totally wrong: sectarianism, isolationism, and centralism. The role of democracy within the KKE would be a means by which the rank and file would be able to correct the policies of the leadership. That is why the leadership will never allow internal democracy inside the KKE. Democracy can only be achieved through a revolt of the rank and file, and this of course would make a split inevitable. However, even within SYRIZA, democracy is clearly beginning to contract as the leadership is approaching governmental power.
For the new, left formations that have evolved internationally in the last two decades, it is very important to safeguard internal democracy, which is a weapon of crucial importance against the danger of unchecked bureaucratization.
NM: You consider Syriza to be a reformist party despite the fact that its rise was the expression of a “left turn” in Greece. What was Start's contribution to this turn?
AP: SYRIZA is on the left of the political spectrum. But actually SYRIZA is a left party that is moving quickly to the right, abandoning its previous positions and watering down its radicalism, but that is a different issue.
Xekinima was one of the constituents of SYRIZA between 2008 and 2010. Xekinima fought for a radical, left, socialist program, and aligned with other forces and rank and file members to form the “second wave,” as it came to be known. Many of the ideas of the “second wave” were later taken up by SYRIZA. Xekinima distanced itself from SYRIZA at beginning of 2011 because the reformism of SYRIZA’s leadership isolated us from the most radical layers of society and workers in the forefront of the struggles could see the limitations of SYRIZA. We still collaborate with SYRIZA on many level, such as electoral politics. Above all we have very close relations with the left opposition within SYRIZA and through, for example, the Initiative of the 1000, the opposition inside ANTARSYA and the expelled activists of the KKE.
NM: From what you are saying, it seems that Xekinima supports left unity, so how would you define, in social terms, the successful unity of the Left? What would be the distinct role of political parties and organizations like Xekinima in a united Left?
AP: We need to elaborate what we mean by unity, because the idea of a “united Left” gives the impression of a unified party, which is not quite what I mean. What is required is the Left’s collaboration in creating new political formations of the working class. You may call this a united Left, but within which there would be full freedom for the existence of small parties, different groups, different tendencies, and many individuals. So, if we use the term, a united Left, we have to understand it as a federation that would allow all the different trends on the Left to come together without prohibitions and without having to sacrifice their ideological, political, or organizational independence.
NM: How do the working masses express themselves today? There are no soviets today, nor are there any workers’ councils in Greece, so what are the forms through which the masses express their discontents and demands?
AP: There are always many paradoxes and contradictions in every epoch. For example, one way in which the masses are expressing themselves today is by turning to SYRIZA. SYRIZA stood first in the polls. At the same time, there is huge suspicion and doubt about SYRIZA, to say the least, amongst the masses. SYRIZA is a new phenomenon. We didn’t have it in the 1970s and we didn’t have it in the 1930s. If you compare SYRIZA in its earliest stages to PASOK in its early stages, very different pictures emerge. The masses don’t have the kind of illusions they had in the past, they don’t, of course, expect socialism, but they also don’t even trust that the leadership will deliver what they promise.
SYRIZA today reminds us of PASOK in the late-1980s. It’s a party that is prematurely old. Even before coming into government, they have made all the compromises that were made by social democracy whenever it took power in the past. The analogy is not entirely accurate, because the epochs are different, but it has a certain usefulness.
NM: Does the similarity between SYRIZA, as a prematurely old party, and PASOK, in the late-1980s, stem from the fact that there is a revolutionary process going on right now that is accelerating this aging process?
AP: There are two factors here. The first is the depth of the current crisis. The crisis is so deep that it is putting severe pressure on the leadership of the working class and the political formations of the Left. The second factor is that revolutionary forces, revolutionary Marxism internationally, is very weak. This is a factor that is reflected in various ways in Greece and inside SYRIZA, as well as allowing the right-wing, reformist leadership of SYRIZA to win the upper hand.
It would be wrong to describe Greece as being on the verge of a revolution, but there is a revolutionary potential in Greek society, a potential for the working class to explosively assert itself—Greece is like a volcano. What is stopping it is, above all else, is the leadership of the trade union movement, which has played an absolutely treacherous role, and the “deficiencies” of the leftist parties, both the KKE and SYRIZA.
NM: SYRIZA fights for a left government. What do you think of this demand? How is this demand connected with an internationalist perspective?
AP: I would define the demand for a left government as a class demand, the working class needs a government of its own and the only one available today is a government of the Left under SYRIZA. But this government will have contradictory elements. Once in government, SYRIZA will try to come to a compromise with the bourgeoisie. SYRIZA’s government will be from the first moment implicated with this contradiction. It will be put under enormous pressure to make compromises and to accept the terms of the troika on things like debt.
What the SYRIZA leadership doesn’t seem to understand is that in order to be able to provide even the minimal needs of the working class, it has to confront the troika. It has to refuse to pay the debt, it has to nationalize the banking system and bring the commanding heights of the economy under worker’s control and management, and lastly it has to follow a whole series of measures which will make possible for the public sector to take responsibility for major investments and allow the economy to grow.
The working class will not be satisfied by explanations like “we need to compromise,” because for them it is a matter of life and death. The workers will demand their rights, will demand to take back at least part of what they have lost. This will raise the question of the workers’ control and management and nationalization. This is the revolutionary potential. Our task as Marxists, as revolutionaries, is to help the volcano explode. If this happens it will have international repercussions. If the Left in Greece is successful it will have a very positive effect in Europe and elsewhere.
NM: If we can rewind a little: Why did CWI groups stop working within labor parties? What were the benefits for Trotskyist organizations in doing so and why did these efforts not result in the politicization of the masses under the guidance of Trotkyist organizations?
AP: I think that the move of the CWI groups to abandon work within labor parties or social-democratic parties was entirely correct, as these parties were becoming increasingly bourgeoisified, that is, developing into parties of the capitalist ruling class and losing their working-class characteristics and composition. This tendency developed in the course of the 1980s and was completed in the 1990s after the collapse of Stalinism.
As regards the benefits of the Trotskyist organizations—had the CWI stayed within labor and social-democratic parties through the 1990s, it would, in all likelihood, have been destroyed. Speaking generally, it would have been impossible for the forces of Trotskyism to politicize the masses under their guidance. Because, on the one hand, mass consciousness suffered a setback after the collapse of Stalinism and the rise of neoliberalism. On the other hand, because the Trotskyist forces were weak, they did not have the critical mass which was necessary for the improbable task of politicizing the masses in the 1990s and 2000s. Everything was thrown back and we had to start from a much lower level.
NM: Would you say that we are experiencing a revival of Marxist and Trotskyist ideas nowadays? Has Trotskyism as a current born in the second half of the last century moved forward and progressed? And is there a way that this can be measured?
AP: I don’t think that, in terms of the numbers, Trotskyist organizations are any better off today than in the past. Back in the 1980s the number of Trotskyist organizations was growing. But I think we have progressed in two different aspects that are crucial. First, we are experiencing a revival of Trotskyism, I am convinced of this and I think it is quite clear. Second, a main difference today compared to the past is the explosion of social democracy, rather than the type of reformism and Stalinism that held sway in the 1970s.
I think that we are in a period in which there is a huge opportunity for the forces of Marxism, particularly those of Trotskyism, which is the present day expression of Marxism and Bolshevism. Stalinism is finished as a historical current. Even though we still have the Stalinist KKE and other Stalinist organizations, these groups have no future. I would say that Stalinism is living out its death agony in Greece, but its death will not take place tomorrow. Reformism has also been seriously weakened. Healthier forces of revolutionary Marxism can now come into the spotlight.
NM: What is the importance of Trotskyism in a country like Greece?
AP: The KKE speaks of revolution in words, but not in actions. It is, to start with, a nationalist party. A party like the KKE is completely out of context in this epoch in which internationalism is more important than ever. Stalinism is conservative. Stalinism is undemocratic. Stalinism doesn’t have a point of reference today like it did during the existence of the USSR. However, in countries like Greece, it is still an obstacle. SYRIZA doesn’t have the political program to put the gravestone on Stalinism.
Anarchism is another factor in Greece. The main problem with anarchism is that it invests everything in the spontaneity of the masses. But the masses have given many examples of magnificent, spontaneous movements, none of which came to anything.
This leads us to Trotskyism: It is the only force that ideologically and politically offers a solution. It is internationalist. It is based on a transitional program. It is based on the tactic of a United Front. Finally it is based on party democracy and democracy in the working class in general. These four factors are absolutely crucial for any force that wants to provide a solution to the catastrophic crisis we are facing.
NM: Is there a need for a Fifth International?
AP: I don’t think that there is a Fourth International so that we can fight for the Fifth. But there is a need for an International.
NM: Do you think the Trotskyist tradition has overcome Stalinism in Greece and internationally?
AP: We cannot say that the ideas of Trotskyism are now dominant in Greece or globally. But we can say that the Stalinist idea of “socialism in one country” has been severely weakened. Yet, in Greece, like in Portugal, Spain, France, and South Africa, Stalinism remains strong, much stronger than any Trotskyist organization.
NM: How do you distinguish the strategy of a United Front from the Popular Front?
AP: This distinction is necessary and we make it in Greece. There are many groups on the Left that refer to the Popular Front. What they mean by “Popular Front” is for everyone to come together. But the Popular Front, in the classic sense, as it was established in the 1930s, was an alliance of workers’ organizations and bourgeois organizations in the name of fighting against fascism—it was a Stalinist creation. We have to insist that what is required today is a United Front. What is required today is an alliance and unity among the forces that represent the working class.
For example, there are nearly 70-80 antifascist committees and initiatives in cities across Greece right now. We don’t think that ruling parties should enter these anti-fascist committees. These committees should be made up of the forces that fight fascism and have a reference to the working class. If the bourgeois parties enter the antifascist committees in Greece today they will not be fighting, but instead, indirectly, assisting fascism. The difference between a classical form of the Popular Front and the classical form of a United Front is therefore relevant today, although the terms are often confused.
NM: What is this factor that links all these different anti-fascist approaches even within a United Front? In many antifascist struggles, for example, differences among the left organizations are not expressed and they even considered unimportant to the common struggle. Would it be meaningful for these differences to come to the surface?
AP: I think it is absolutely necessary for these differences to come to the surface. I do believe that it is very correct to be in an anti-fascist front and to take concrete initiatives to fight against fascism, and, at the same time, for the different left forces to develop their own ideas. Anti-fascist initiatives positively host many activists from SYRIZA, far left organizations like Xekinima, Maoists, and others. But, of course, these initiatives, on their own, cannot solve issues like the collapse of the economy or the other issues that confront society and the Left.
NM: At the beginning of the previous century there was a general social process of the centralization of the state and the nationalization of enterprises as expressed in the Soviet Union and later in Germany under Nazi control (we can also mention, in this context, state regulation in the United States). This process allowed the powers of the state to expand, but surely it makes a difference whether this process occurs under workers’ control or a right-wing, fascist government, so my question is: Is the Left in Greece in a position to block the right?
AP: Nationalization must mean workers’ control and management. We are not proposing that the state runs the enterprises, but that instead society runs them. We want the society, i.e. the working class, to own, run, and control the enterprises.
The fact that there are no mass revolutionary Marxist forces in Greece or internationally means the working class is bound to move and develop it’s consciousness by excluding what they hate, but they do not have a real picture of what they want, particularly of the necessity for socialist transformation. So we have to raise our ideas, explain the necessity of the social perspective, and have the patience to work with the masses.
NM: What would it take to create and make visible this mass, working-class consciousness, would you elaborate?
AP: Have you followed the recent election in Seattle of Kshama Sawant of the CWI? This is a very important development on the microscale. Let me add some other examples: last year, in South Africa, there was a historical, heroic strike by the miners at platinum and gold mines that left many dead. As a result of this struggle, which was victorious in the end, a new party was created, the Workers and Socialist Party. Let’s also take a look at Argentina. In the last election there, an alliance of the Trotskyist left received close to 1.3 million votes. These are indications that something fundamental is changing. It’s not just molecular processes here and there so we have reason to be confident about the future.
If the Left fails to provide a way forward to the desperate masses in conditions of crisis, then it will indirectly assist the forces of the counterrevolution in Greece, where we already have the example of the Golden Dawn which became a mass party within months.|P