Learning from defeat

Panayotis Yulis is a representative of the Network for Political and Social Rights in Greece (Epohi), which works with immigrants and political prisoners. He is a member of the Greek Social Forum and on the organising committee for the ESF in Athens

Why could the Greek comrades not find a solution on the date?

The SWP's Greek section, Genoa 2001, was the only organisation that insisted on sticking to the original date in April. I believe the main reason for the behaviour is that they are trying to establish themselves as an important political player. So they are constantly vetoing decisions by withholding their consensus - for example on the question of which venue we should be using for the ESF. Sometimes they do that in order to look big; sometimes they try to 'bribe' us into giving in on one of the other issues they have previously lost on the committee.

I also fear that some of the leading SWP members are quite keen on having an ESF without the Italians. Judging by their behaviour on the organising committee, they want an ESF with big banners and lots of meetings where they can have their own speakers on the platform and recruit people to their own little group. The smaller the event, the larger they loom. The Italian comrades were very angry with the SWP about this and have written an angry letter to them. In the end, they had to give in.

During the preparations for the ESF London, the budget was always treated as a secret and we were thrown out of meetings for reporting details.

We certainly have nothing to hide. It is going to be a cheap ESF and will cost less than €1 million. Around half of that will be raised through ticket sales. Various trade unions are putting in between €200,000 and 300,000, with the other participating organisations giving another €100,000. In addition, we will be making some money from concerts and other fundraisers.

Is your decision not to apply for funds from local government connected with the London experience of Ken Livingstone's undemocratic hold over the ESF process?

We definitely do not want local government involved in the organising committee and effectively making the decisions. That we have learned from the events in London. But of course we have nothing against local authorities helping us to put on the ESF and we will be asking for help in terms of public transport. It looks like the Athens council might also be able to provide us with tables and chairs.

Who else is involved in the organising committee?

There are a number of trade unions, most of them linked to the social democrats (Pasok), who are involved on a leadership level. They book rooms, have donated money and help with the logistics. But they don't really know what to do with the ESF and normal union members are not really involved. The most important NGOs are involved in the process, but they are neither very strong nor radical. So they don't play a big role. The World Wildlife Fund actually walked out over the debates on the venue and particularly the date of the ESF.

There are a number of political parties, the biggest one being [the left-reformist] Synapsismos. Members of smaller parties always openly state their political background, but Synapsismos has decided that they will not. Just like Rifondazione they are centrally involved and everybody knows who they are, but they do not say so openly. I believe most of them have done so with only good intentions - they did not want to be seen to dominate the process. On the other hand, of course, it would make proceedings far more transparent if people were open about their affiliation.

More seriously though is the fact that, just like in London in 2004, staging the ESF has not helped at all to bring the left together any closer. My network really had big hopes that a variety of groups, parties and networks would start to learn to work together and carry on doing so after the ESF, as a stronger left. But none of this has happened so far - we are as disunited as before and there has been no real qualitative change on the left. And I don't think it will happen in the next four years.

In London, there was no unity because one particular group tried to organise something like Marxism 2004 - on behalf and with the help of the mayor. This is not the problem in Greece - maybe it is the opposite: The big organisations like Synapsismos have not tried to move things forward. Both the unions and the political parties have shown their political incompetence over the last 12 months and have not been able to interest their members in this process at all.

Had we worked better in the ESF, maybe we could have even attracted the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) to the ESF. But they are still not involved. Instead, they are now preparing to continue their attacks on the ESF. The KKE is a tightly organised and controlled organisation and it will be interesting to see what happens when ordinary members come to the ESF, as I'm sure many of them will.

And on a European level? Do you think after more than five years of organising the ESF we have been making enough progress?

I think we have made some progress and the 'no' vote in France has shown that there is space for an alternative. Undoubtedly, we will have a lot of people in Athens - maybe around 50,000 - and I'm sure it will be a great success on a European level, with lots of participants from eastern Europe.

But we are not moving forward fast enough. A few years ago, I was very optimistic that by now we would be working together internationally on a far higher political and organisational level.

Maybe this is not so much the fault of the ESF, but the political organisations involved. What I described as the incompetence of Synapsismos is visible on an international level too. If Rifondazione goes into government in Italy, that will be a real catastrophe for all of us.

The European Left Party is not the answer either. The organisations involved have no interest in debating why they have constantly defeated by neoliberalism. If they don't start trying to explain their defeats, there is no way they can become part of the answer. Instead, they will be defeated again and again.

Synapsismos, for example, worked very closely with the social democrats from 1987 until 2001. In 1989, they even went into government with the right. The leadership Synapsismos would certainly have no problem in doing so with the social democrats, just like Rifondazione. But the factions within Synapsismos are stronger and the organisation would split, unlike what we are seeing today in Italy.

Historically, however, the Greek left is actually in a much better position than many socialist and communist parties in Europe. It is commonly said that the left in Greece was defeated politically and organisationally, but it won ideologically.

The resistance to the Nazis was led by the Communist Party. The ensuing civil war was seen as a way of breaking the CP's strength: the British and American governments tried to destroy the left. Thousands of socialists and intellectuals were imprisoned - a period that only ended in 1974. So the communists are seen by public opinion not so much as Stalinists, but as those that saved us from Nazi tyranny, fought for the people and were brutally suppressed and imprisoned for it.

This explains perhaps why many socialist and communist organisations in Greece suffer from left nationalism. The Stalinism of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) is of course horrible, but the so-called 'patriotism' on the left is almost worse.

I think the left across Europe needs to learn how to connect to society. Maybe up to five percent of the people might vote for you at some stage, but in order to win them over you must do a lot more. The left does not do grassroots politics any more; it is growing no roots in society. Instead, we are seeing a type of media politics, where TV appearances matter more than talking to people on the ground.

It seems to me that a lot of the parties are chiefly concerned with their own survival, in an almost pure way. They are not interested in joining or working with groups or individuals who have different opinions. So, of course, they also have to become more democratic internally if they really want to become a political alternative.