Agis Stinas – Memoires [Vorwort]

Vorwort von Olivier Houdart, Übersetzer/Herausgeber der französischen Ausgabe

Forward
Agis Stinas came from the generation of the early communist leaders who went over to the opposition when it seemed to them that the Communist International had turned its back on the world revolution. He was born with the twentieth century, in Spartilla, a village on the Isle of Corfu, in a well-off family (his father was a dealer in olive oil). His real name was Spyros Priftis.
His memoirs, written in 1976, in the evening of a life of struggle, essentially cover the events of the years 1912-1950 in a Greece marked by war: from the Balkan wars, which announced the war of 1914-18, to the civil war, a Greek prolongation of the 1939-45 war.

Stinas lived these events as a spectator and then quickly as an actor, an actor who tried with his friends to change their course. It is that which gives flesh and depth to his story. Placing itself in a non-orthodox perspective, it puts paid to some golden myths, in particular that of the Second World War with its “democratic crusade” and its “Red Partisans”. The working class of Piraeus and Thessaloniki is the central character here, tobacco workers, dockers, rail workers and sailors; with its militants, from the most obscure, like the socialist humanists of Corfu at the beginning of the century, to the best known, like Siantos, chief of the Communist Resistance or Zachariadis, leader of the Greek CP during the civil war; from the most charming, like the anarchist Speras or the blind “archeiomarxist” Verouchis, both assassinated by the Stalinists, or the Trotskyist leader Pouliopoulos, shot in 1943, to the most sinister, like Ioannidis, the Greek Beria. But this account is also the story of a professional militant which this epoch gave rise to, who espoused the revolution at the age of 18 and remained faithful to it until the end, testifying by his life itself to the depth of the hopes raised by October 1917 and the Berlin Commune. Running through this book is an “invigorating spirit”, to take up the terms used by the author, of revolt against the established order, against blind obedience, oppression and nationalism. A revolt which never targets individuals but systems, neither internalised nor deflected, but completely turned towards the subversion of society. More precisely towards the application of this principle: the role of revolutionaries is not to absorb social struggles but to help them go right to the limit of their emancipatory possibilities. After his break from Trotskyism in 1947, Stinas became the principal representative in Greece of the “Socialisme ou barbarie” current. At the end of his life he moved closer to the anarchists(6). The last time I met him, in April 1987, in his little ground floor flat in Pangrati, he was delighted that a demonstration was being held in protest against the anti-Turkish campaign and the bellicose bragging of the Papandreou government.

He died in 1987 following a cataract operation whose risks he had accepted. His obituary in one of the main Athens dailies, Eleftherotypia, appeared under the title “Stinas the inflexible”. The press also reported this anecdote: contacted by a minister of Papandreou who offered him a pension (Stinas, at the end of a life spent in prison, in camps, in clandestinity or in exile, had neither resources nor a retirement pension), he declined his offer and replied to him, after having thanked him for his concern: “Revolt is a duty, not a profession”.
The press also reported that there were numerous young people at his burial: the ultimate revenge on his old comrades from the CP leadership who had all chosen to adapt themselves to Stalinism and to make a career there. What is now the political or human heritage of a Zachariadis, the Stal- inist chief who succeeded to power and glory at the end of the war, and was then reviled and dragged through the mud by his own party, dying miserably in exile in the USSR?

***

A. Stinas did not limit his political horizon only to Greece, he always considered himself as a militant of an international cause. You can’t reduce him to the dimension of “Greek revolu- tionary”. But it is a Greek public which he addresses himself to, with which he shares historical references little known in France.
In 1820, the region which stretched from the Balkans to the Middle East formed a vast political entity under the authority of the “Sublime Porte”. But the centuries-old Turkish empire was on its last legs, undermined by revolts and attempts at secession by local potentates. A political void appeared in the East, from which emerged over a century, thanks above all to the intrigues and wars launched by the big European powers or on their behalf, fifteen or so states and protectorates, of which the first was Greece.
The little political entities, not economically viable, cutting into the flesh of peoples, guaranteed dependence and instability.

When Germany and Italy unified themselves and removed their internal borders, the borders only multiplied in this part of the world, while the apparatuses of rival states created two zones of ten- sion. One was in the Balkans, which the First World War was to start out from. The other was in the Middle East, opening a cycle of wars, terrorism, pogroms and population displacements which we still haven’t seen the end of. After a relative stabilisation at the end of the Second World War, the Balkans experienced a revival of nationalist tensions which seemed to be straight out of the nineteenth century.

Not the least of the paradoxes is that the Turkish empire, vestige of the Middle Ages, symbol of immobilisation and of Oriental Despotism, had succeeded to do on a large scale what apparently no Balkan state, the majority of which had socialist pretensions, had managed to do even on a small scale. This was to make people who were destined to become “hereditary” enemies live in harmony. There were however some men, such as the Greek Righas Feraios, from the end of the eighteenth century who defended the idea of a state encompassing all the European possessions of the empire on the basis of equality of all the peoples including the Turks. This idea did not take shape, but it didn’t cease to reappear, even if fleetingly, like during the Young Turk revolution in 1908, which proclaimed in the central square of Thessaloniki in fourteen languages the political equality of all the nations of the empire, to the enthusiasm of the population. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the creation of a “pure” Greek state made no sense because over the centuries the Greeks had spread out around the perimeter of the Eastern Mediterranean. They were present everywhere but were only a majority in old Greece, that is to say barely more than the Peloponnese.

With the Jews and the Armenians they formed the merchant wing of the Turkish empire, the bulk of its bourgeoisie and its intellectuals, and it is notably through the channel of the Greek mer- chants that liberal and republican ideas began to spread. They were in a position to play a role of revolutionary ferment against absolutism and as federator of the Balkan peoples. Yet this bour- geoisie only played a secondary role in the Greek national insurrection which was proclaimed in the Peloponnese in 1821 by the Archbishop of Patras.

The insurrection, carried out by the notables and the clan chiefs, wanted to be specifically Greek and Christian Orthodox, which limited its scope from the outset, and the imbalance between its forces and those of the Turks made it seek out the support of the great powers and put its fate in their hands. Despite some initial military successes it would have been defeated like all the previ- ous insurrections without a joint Franco-Anglo-Russian military intervention which forced the empire to accept first autonomy and then independence for Greece.
Thus a mini-state came into being, peopled by a few hundred thousand inhabitants, without a city worthy of the name (Athens was only a small town), without roads, in one of the poorest and most backward regions of Europe, ravaged by almost ten years of war, and above all cut off from large numbers of Greeks, who found themselves in Constantinople (Istanbul), in Odessa or in Smyrna (Izmir).

The “Revolution” had given birth to a mouse and accepted without any resistance the installation of a Bavarian monarch (Otto, the son of Louis I of Bavaria). The monarchy built up the concept of the “Great Idea” which aimed at the reconstitution of the old Byzantine Empire, Greek and Orthodox, around Constantinople, and on the ruins of the Otto- man Empire, an idea which above all would appeal to Russia. The Great Idea became the official doctrine of the Hellenic state, and allowed it to avoid all its internal problems. When Otto sought to ally himself more closely with Russia, the British, ready to prevent any modification to the balance of forces in Europe and any progress of Russia towards the south at the expense of the Turkish empire, deposed him and installed a Danish monarch in his place in 1863. From that date Greece definitively entered the British sphere of influence. On this occasion the British gave him the Ionian Islands and Corfu which were dependant on them. Later they forced the Turks to give him Thessaly.
But it is during the Balkan wars (1912-1913) that Greek achieved its present size. In 1912, a coalition of Serbs, Bulgarians and Greeks chased the Turks out of almost all their European poss- essions. The following year the winners fought amongst themselves over the division of the spoils. Greece got out while the going was good and got hold of Aegean Macedonia, with a majority of Muslims, and Thessaloniki.
Thessaloniki, the natural capital of the Balkans, rebellious against the central power, a mostly Jewish town, became “Greek” and was stripped of its hinterland. After this Serbia and above all Bulgaria ceaselessly demanded “their” part of Macedonia, and the Macedonian question, with the terrorism of the Bulgarian komitadjis, was made into a perma- nently open wound.

Put in power in 1917 by the French army, Venizelos thought that only the support of the Great Powers would allow him to realise the Great Idea. He enrolled his country in the war on the side of the Entente powers and the Treaty of Sèvres rewarded him, at the expense of Bulgaria and Turkey, who had made a bad choice of camps. With eastern Thrace, Greece was at the gates of Constantinople, and with Izmir and its region it had a foothold in Asia Minor. Venizelos then sent troops to the Ukraine against the Soviet revolution and, above all, he sent them to Turkey to bring the nationalist movement of Mustafa Kemal to heel and to be better placed for the carving up of the empire that everyone thought was imminent. But nobody foresaw the strength of the wave of Turkish nationalism, and that what was supposed to be a simple policing operation against Ankara, Kemal’s capital, in 1921, would be transformed into a crushing defeat. Greece was abandoned by its French and British protectors, who reconciled themselves with Kemal on its back, its army was torn to pieces, and the Greek population of Asia Minor was threatened with massacre, having to leave as quickly as possible a land which it had lived on since time immemorial. In its turn the whole Muslim population of Greek Mace- donia was expelled to Turkey.

The Asia Minor littoral and Constantinople were thus “islamicised” by default, and Macedonia was “christianised” by the massive settlement of Greek refugees.
This trauma has remained in memory as “The Catastrophe”. It sounded the death knell of the Great Idea and put an end to the territorial expansion of Greece, which reverted to its frontiers of 1913.
Greece, already incapable of feeding its five million inhabitants, had to receive an extra million in a few weeks, the majority of whom had lost everything. Impoverished neighbourhoods and shanty towns were created on the edges of big towns. It is thus that Athens and Piraeus, linked together by these neighbourhoods, in the evocative names of New Smyrna or New Ionia, came to form a single agglomeration.
Inter-war Greece presented all the aspects of under-development. You could list them forever: malnutrition (the tourist guides of the time spoke of “frugality”) ; malaria in the inshore undrained areas (the country held the European record for consumption of quinine per inhabitant) ; child labour (the Ministry of Labour officially listed the active population starting from ten years old) ; emigration (above all to the English-speaking countries, since the wars had prevented emigration to the previously more hospitable shores of the eastern Mediterranean) ; illiteracy (particularly amongst women) ; the split between the “purist” Greek used by the authorities and the press and the “vulgar” Greek used by the ordinary mortals made access to culture and information even more difficult.
Some villages and whole islands only lived on the money sent by expatriates. The country had to import most of the wheat which it consumed – the Second World War immediately reduced the population of the towns to famine by cutting the trade routes.

The indigenous bourgeoisie, particularly the ship owners, did not invest their profits in Greece. Modern equipment in the ports or the railways was the work of foreign capital, and more suited to their needs than those of the country – the first railway constructed in Greece was built by the French company which ran the mines at Laurion, to transport ore to the port which it was expor- ted from. The road network was only really developed along the coast and the mountainous majority of the country remained landlocked and isolated.

In fact the only sector touched by modernity was the army and the navy, the first formed by France, the second by Britain. The army regulated political life. There were countless coups aimed at “modernising”, “Europeanising” or “stabilising” Greece. A task which always had to start again. Each party had its fraction in the army and the navy, but the malicious gossip was that each party was only an outgrowth of a fraction of the army.
But there had existed for a short while another modern formation, modern in its objectives, its mode of organisation and its base in the workers. This was the young communist movement – the Communist Party and the archeiomarxist party – young in all senses of the word, at a time when you could lead the Communist Party at the age of twenty five!
Paris, August 1989
Olivier Houdart
***
The book was published in two volumes in Athens in February and December 1977, under the title Memoirs – sixty years under the flag of socialist revolution by Vergos editions. It was reissued in facsimile in 1985, by Ypsilon editions, in one volume. The French edition differs slightly from the Greek edition in the following points: the repetition between the two volumes has been removed and texts have been moved to appendices. The “Debates of Achronafplia” and the “Reply” to P. Pouliopoulos have been placed at the end of the book whereas in the original they appear inside Chapter 5, so the appendices of the French edition do not appear in the Greek edition. I am particularly grateful for the help of my friends Phedon Metalinos and Michel Volkovitch.

(6)
Translator’s Note – This is perhaps misleading. According to Yannis Tamtakos, long-term friend of Stinas and
member of his tendency during the war, Stinas always called himself a marxist. He “moved closer to the anarchists”
in the sense that he became a popular figure with many young anarchos who knew that he hated Stalinism and Greek
nationalism but, often, didn’t really understand what his politics were about.