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How it feels to be in Athens today

Paul Mackney writes from Greece on Syriza's victory and the atmosphere of celebration

January 26, 2015
6 min read

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Sunday night was the best night of my life. When I first went to Athens after my A-levels in 1967, the colonels had imposed a brutal dictatorship. On 25 January 2015 the people avenged that dictatorship and reinstated democracy, justice and dignity. People talk of crowds at the beginning and the end of wars: the crowd that welcomed the victorious Tsipras felt like both.

When we first came to Athens with the Greece Solidarity Campaign, established under the presidency of Tony Benn, Syriza was barely scraping 4 per cent. Few believed that a small left party could achieve what would be under the British electoral system a majority of well over 100 seats. As CLR James wrote in ‘Black Jacobins’: few believed that such power lay in the people.

We had attended the final Syriza rally in Athens on Thursday 22 January. On the way, the taxi driver was listening to Sto Kokkino (Red) Radio! The atmosphere in Omonia Square, where I had slept on the roof of the run-down Hotel Marion in 1967, was electric. There was a rumbling in the air. The placards pointed to an explanation: ‘Hope is coming.’ You could feel the winds of change bringing in a European spring, when the bitter misery of austerity will be blown away.

Alexis Tsipras’s speech was upbeat, confident and placed on us all an obligation to defend Greece’s new government. With Greece a mere 3 per cent of the population of Europe, with a GDP reduced by 25 per cent as a result of measures imposed by the Troika (IMF, ECB, and EU), Tsipras knows Greece needs the support of movements in other European countries.

At the end of the rally, Tsipras introduced Pablo Iglesias of the new Spanish party Podemos to the crowd. Iglesias repeated the words of Leonard Cohen’s song which blared from the loudspeakers: ‘First we take Manhattan, and then we take Berlin’ (to the delight of the Die Linke delegation next to us). Later, at a reception in a bar where Tsipras met with foreign delegates, this had changed to: ‘First we take Athens, then Madrid, then Berlin!’

Break the chains

We couldn’t miss the message: the Greece Solidarity Campaign delegates with their banner were directly beneath the podium from which Tsipras announced the future had begun. We must say to Ed Miliband loud and clear that – unless he wants to go down in history as ‘dead moribund’ – he must introduce an massive anti-austerity programme in the UK. We should assert that a Labour government in the fifth largest economy in the world should have the courage to break the cruel chains of austerity.

At the British Museum two weeks ago we welcomed the German chancellor and Cameron with chants of ‘We won’t forgive and won’t forget, Angela Merkel, drop the debt!’ We also offered a deal to the director of the museum: he could keep Angela Merkel (with the mummies if he wished) if he would return the Parthenon Marbles to the Acropolis museum in Athens.

We need a radical programme for a new Europe which will benefit the whole world (in which currently 85 families hold half of the wealth). Miliband could start by calling a London Conference to lift the un-payable burdens of debt on many countries and a financial restructuring of the whole of Europe. It would echo the 1953 London conference which alleviated and rescheduled most of the debt of Germany after the second world war… when Greece got little recompense for the demolition of a quarter of its buildings, the annihilation of 2,000 villages, the destruction of two-thirds of its motor transport, three-quarters of its merchant fleet, 90 per cent of its railway rolling stock, and all main road bridges; with the deportation slaughter or starvation of 700,000 of its people, including the murder of 60,000 Jews.

And we have to insist to the pedantic, nit-picking not-so-revolutionary-because-ineffective left: it’s not sufficient to carp from the sidelines. ‘Help is coming: food on the table and oil in the boiler’ may not sound very revolutionary. But context is all. ‘Bread, Peace and Land’ was not much of a slogan in 1910; but in Russia in 1917 its implications were world-shattering.

Greece will need all our support. If the EU refuses to negotiate on the debt, we will need to take to the streets across Europe. The forces we generate will be able to come up with new solutions on other questions, such as the disgraceful treatment of thousands of refugees and migrants.

If the Greek election result is a catalyst, Syriza (with its a formative alliance of more than a dozen groups) provides a model for the non-social-democratic left. We need to give ourselves a good talking to. It’s time to sink the differences based on minor shibboleths of distinction. We need to abandon redundant organisational models, Bolshevik pretensions based on distorted perceptions of how people organised in a very different world one hundred years ago. We may even grow to like each other if we renounce those traditions… even if, initially, it merely involves the suppression of mutual loathing in pursuit of a better world!

If we take the painful and awkward steps necessary to shake off the bad habits of the past; if we can outgrow the trivia of quibbling over who has precisely the correct line; if we embrace the experience of the Greek people; we should be able to build a people’s coalition that shakes the financial citadels and brings back joy and purpose to the people of Britain too.

Let’s make a start because that way lies a future worth fighting for, and it will be a great way to honour the striking miners and their wives driven back in 1985; and to commemorate our comrades from the 1916 Dublin Uprising and the 1917 Russian revolution.

You can make a start by coming to the meeting at 6.30pm, at the TUC, Great Russell Street this Wednesday night.

Paul Mackney is co-chair of the Greece Solidarity Campaign and the former general secretary of NATFHE/UCU

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