How we can reverse the racist agenda

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Demonstration over the murder of Pavlos Fysas, 2013. Pic: Ggia via Wikimedia

Greek anti-fascist and revolutionary socialist Petros Constantinou talked to Socialist Review about the Golden Dawn trial, the forest fires, and the prospects for anti-racists across Europe today.

The trial has been running for some time against the Nazi organisation Golden Dawn (GD). What are the outcomes so far and how much longer will the trial go on?

It started on 15 April 2015. It will probably last another year. There are three main cases: the murder of the musician Pavlos Fyssas in September 2013, the violent attack on Egyptian fishermen at their home when they were sleeping, and the attack on trade unionists of the Communist Party in Perama.

The trial has highlighted a lot of criminal actions organised by GD for years that have never been brought in front of any court — attacks on migrants and activists. So that’s why it’s huge and it’s going on. The state, especially the police, was covering their criminal actions for years.

In reality, Golden Dawn has been defeated in the trial already. The prosecution included a lot of evidence from mobile phones during the attacks, conversations among leaders and members celebrating the violent actions against migrants, and so on. A lot of evidence presented in the trial proved that all the attacks were centrally organised, not some locals without a plan or actions of some unknown “angry citizens”.

There has also been much proof of the character of GD as a Nazi organisation. For example, pictures of GD MPs posing with the swastika and the flag of the Waffen-SS recruiting new members and exercising with weapons in old military camps.

None of their threats stopped even one witness from attending the court. 130 witnesses testified against them. Not even one of them was scared off. Not even their own ex-members.

The anti-fascist movement is very strong against the Nazi GD. The trial wouldn’t have happened without the magnificent response when Fyssas was murdered. There were huge strikes by the ADEY public workers federation. The government was still giving cover to the actions of GD.

On the day when Fyssas was murdered, KEERFA, anti-fascists and trade unions put out a call in the local area of Keratsini and 15,000 people demonstrated. The police attacked the demonstration along with a local group of GD!

Anger was growing against the Nazis and it took one week to build a huge response. We managed to connect the general strike against austerity that was organised by civil servants union ADEDY in September 2013 with the mood to fight fascism. They called a 48 hour general strike with the first day against GD. This ended with a demonstration of 60,000 marching to the central office of GD, demanding it be closed down and that they be put in prison. After that the government was forced to crack down on the Nazis.

So the strength of the movement puts pressure on how the trial continues. On the first day of the trial there was a four-hour general strike by ADEDY and some other trade unions and 3,000 people came to the court at 8 o’clock in the morning. So there is huge pressure.

How much trouble are the far-right in?

The fascists have a big problem now with how they respond in what is generally speaking a good period for them: the rise of Trump, the rise of nationalism; the victories of the Austrian far-right, the Italian far-right, the rise of Le Pen, of AfD in Germany, and so on.

The main problem for GD — that they are not growing from these far-right successes — was underlined by their leader Nikos Michaloliakos. He said, “We are trapped in this trial and we have to prove that we are still a normal political party and not a criminal Nazi group”.

They stopped the violent attacks and organising openly with GD t-shirts. He also complained, “Whenever we try to do something open the anti-fascists are there.”

They lost three MPs and one member of the European parliament: a serious crisis. The most important factor is the closure of their local offices. When they were elected to the parliament they got all the money from the state and they opened local offices around Greece.

In reality this meant expanding their bases for pogroms — for organising attacks against migrants, trade unionists, women, Roma, and so on. Now they only have ten offices left. This is a huge defeat because it is all connected with large scale mobilisations against them — a lot of them locally organised with the participation of trade unions, migrant communities and so on. But GD are not abandoning their attempt to make a comeback.

The deadly fires in Greece during the summer were exacerbated by austerity. There are reports that the far-right tried to blame migration. How did this play out?

They tried to go to the area affected and say we are here in solidarity with the people who lost their houses and their lives. They were really isolated from the first day. They tried to give out water and there was a woman who was shouting, “We don’t want help from the Nazis, even if we are burned, we don’t want your water!”

It was a very clear expression that the people, even though there are real problems with the Syriza government’s compromises, they don’t turn to the fascists.

The opposite happened. In that area there are a lot of migrant workers. There are Egyptian fishers on the boats and there are people from India and Pakistan who are working the fields. During the first hour of the destruction a lot of people were blocked between the fire and the sea. More than 80 were burned alive and a lot of people tried to escape by sea.

Egyptian and local fishers took their boats to a bay where there was low visibility and a strong wind — one of the reasons why the fire was so destructive. They managed to save 740 people in the first couple of hours by using all the methods they normally use to save people from the sea.

The local people were angry and they were attacking the minister for defence, who is responsible for the Navy, who mobilised to save people in the sea four hours later. The Egyptian fishers started saving the people ten minutes after the destruction. Afterwards we had migrant workers from India coming in big groups, going house to house to help people reconstruct their homes. So there was huge solidarity to help the victims of the fire, rebuilding and stopping the fascists from using this to build and present themselves as being with the people.

What effect have the EU agreements over borders had inside Greece?

There are three: the agreement with the EU and Turkey, the second between the EU and Libya, and most importantly the agreement to close the border from Africa to Europe. The Syriza government signed all of these.

Thousands of refugees and migrants are blocked in the islands and cannot get to the mainland. The fascists tried to build racist campaigns there, demanding all these centres be closed and not to give refugees the possibility to move freely or have open spaces. They just wanted mass deportations and nothing else.

The second thing they tried was to block the registration of refugees in schools. They tried to mobilise the parents’ associations against the children of refugees by saying, “They’re going to bring diseases, it’s a problem for our schools, we don’t have enough resources for the Greeks,” and so on.

In this campaign they were defeated, school by school in the area of Athens, and even in the islands. The unity mobilisations by the teachers’ unions and anti-fascists forced the government to register the children.

The Syriza government want them to go to separate classes in the afternoon but the teachers’ union pushed to register all of them in the regular school programme with special support.

All these retreats to racism, all these compromises by Syriza, are the other face of compromising with austerity. It’s giving the fascists the possibility to return. That’s why we are always pushing and giving priority to the anti-racist and anti-fascist struggle.

For us it’s very important not to disconnect the struggle against fascism from the struggle against racism because the fascists are mainly playing the card of Islamophobia. This kind of racism cannot be defeated only on the grounds of defending democracy and civil liberties. It has to be defeated on the grounds of fighting against racism. So we can mobilise all these people around all these issues.

This picture, of rising organised racism and resistance to it, is increasingly common across Europe. What are the prospects for anti-racists?

For us it is very important that while the threat of the fascists is there, also the anti-fascist movement, the anti-racist movement, is there too. There is a possibility to defeat them — we are very optimistic because during recent years there is the birth of a new movement. We can see this in Britain in Stand Up to Racism and Unite Against Fascism. They are using all the experiences from previous years. This is the tradition of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) in Britain and other countries.

It was a real debate in the left and the workers’ movement in Europe about how you respond to the rise of fascism and racism. The left in France lost the terrain because they underestimated or downplayed the reality of the threat of fascism from the Front National and Jean Marie Le Pen. It is still happening in the current period of his daughter Marine Le Pen, but there are possibilities to build resistance and an international movement.

The immediate response to the right wing attack on Bookmarks bookshop in August is very important. So is the opening of discussion over whether to revive the ANL — it symbolises that much broader layers of people recognise the threat. Noam Chomsky, after all, connects the movement against capitalist globalisation with anti-fascism and anti-racism.

The Tommy Robinson demonstrations in Britain in June and July are a warning. You can see a warning in Germany with the rise of AfD. But also there is Stand Up Against Racism there that can mobilise thousands. We have the picture in Austria where the Platform for Human Asylum to Refugees could mobilise 70,000 in January.

We had a very successful example of resistance on the initiative of Linkswende in Austria. They mobilised when the Nazi Norbert Hofer was a threat to win the presidency. But also, when the new government came in Linkswende took the initiative to organise a demonstration.

The picture is also optimistic in Italy where you have thousands demonstrating against the racist interior minister Matteo Salvini. That’s a new movement and that’s why it’s very important for the left, and especially for the anti-capitalist left, to keep driving this action, with some main principles.

Firstly the united front. We have to include the trade unions, activists from the social democrats, to the socialists, to the more radical people. We have to include the communities, all the oppressed people, the LGBT+ movement and the women’s movement.

We don’t have illusions that even a left government can stop the fascists and the rise of racism without a strong workers’ movement. Without a strong anti-fascist and anti-racist movement we cannot reverse the racist agenda and the hard part is that we have to root this fight in the worker’s movement because we have also to build an alternative.

Racism is not something connected only to the crisis of the economy. It is rooted in capitalism’s exploitative system. Governments, during this period of crisis, play the card of racism by scapegoating migrants and Muslims in order to escape the pressures of the workers’ resistance movement against their austerity policies.

Also the traditional political parties, the liberals, the social democrats, they tried to avoid the pressure from the far-right by adopting their agenda. This is absolutely catastrophic and it brings the opposite result of legitimising them.

It is a two-pronged strategy that they’re using. First of all they are making all the imperialist interventions in the Middle East and secondly they’re using Islamophobia in their own countries to divert anger from their massacres and austerity policies. A strong workers’ alternative has to build on all these fronts.

That’s why the revolutionary left is very important in this period. Because it is a period of sharp polarisation. We can have a picture of Greece when we have the rise of Syriza or Britain where you have the Labour Party rising, but also we can have strong right wing pressures like we have in Italy, in Austria and so on. We have to build a movement in every country in order to help this European movement to stop the fascists everywhere. This is possible and necessary.

In Greece on 15 September a huge anti-fascist and anti-racist demonstration for the fifth anniversary of the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, focusing on resistance to the rise of fascism in Europe is being organised.

There are international meetings being called across Europe. KEERFA is organising one in Athens on 13 October. There is one in Germany in August. There is the International Stand Up to Racism conference on 20 October in Britain. In all these international meetings there is a discussion to coordinate this movement.

For us there is a real possibility that the next mobilisation for the UN day of action against racism can be a real European focus of mass demonstrations. It will be on 16 March and will be a culmination of all these struggles that we have seen.