A short biography of Constantinos Speras (Κωνσταντίνος Σπέρας), a Greek anarcho-syndicalist, and one of the pioneers of the working class trade-union movement in Greece. He spent the biggest part of his life in prison and in exile, until his murder in 1943 by Communist-led Greek partisans during the Axis occupation of Greece during World War II.
Constantinos Speras was born in Western Lotzia on the island of Serifos. Constantinos' father was Georgios, a seafarer by profession. His mother was Polyxeni, née Peloponnesios. He was referred to as "Kostas" or "Konstantis" among relatives and friends. One of his great grand parents was named Knomos, but due to poor records it is unknown if this was his grandfather’s or great grandfather’s name. He was adopted by Theofilos Speras, a descendant of the Phanariotes Sperantzas family, which had moved to the Cyclades islands from Romania. In the Cyclades, the "Sperantzas" name eventually became associated with church builders.
Speras married Eleni Vardoulakis and had two daughters, Moscha, Paraskevi. He would eventually remarry to Marina Stamataki, and have a third daughter, Artemisia-Nefeli.
Raised on the island of Serifos, Speras moved to Alexandria, Egypt, in 1907 at the age of 14. In Cairo, he studied in the French Collège-des-Frères (The Brothers' College). Speras’ third daughter, Artemisia-Nefeli, recalled two stories from this period in her father's life. The first was that he won a teenage swimming contest, but the headmaster presented the award to the son of a prominent family from the Greek community of Alexandria. The second was that Speras was accused of cheating during school exams, and he reacted by throwing an inkwell straight at the headmaster, splitting his head open.
In Egypt he became a tobacco worker and came in contact with anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists. These were mainly Greek and Italian immigrants, who during that period were very active among the tobacco workers of Alexandria and Cairo. He travelled to many European countries and was fluent in French and Arabic. When he returned to Serifos, financial hardship forced him to sell his mother’s allotment, and he was soon immersed in intense syndicalist and political activity. He was among the founding members of the Worker's Centre of Athens (Ergatiko Kentro Athinas - EKA) in March 1910, and became a member of the Socialist Centre of Athens (Sosialistiko Kentro Athinas) at a time when socialists of various orientations rallied behind this organization founded by Nikolaos Giannios.
In March 1914 he found himself in Kavala, where he participated in the large tobacco workers’ strike, during which he was arrested and sent to a prison in Tripoli.
The 1916 Serifos miner's strike
In 1916, at the request of the local miners, he returned to Serifos, where he set up the local union, the Union of Workingmen and Miners of Serifos (Somateio Ergaton Metallefton Serifou) and became its first president. He also drafted the union’s "Constitutional Resolution", which is considered[attribution needed] as one of the most radical and revolutionary of that period. As the union’s president, he undertook the defence of the rights of the workers against the absolutism of the mining company, which maintained very close links with the government in Athens.
When the workers realized that their continuous protests to the Syros and the Athens newspapers bore no results, the historic miner's strike of 1916 broke out. The strike was brutally suppressed by royalist gendarmes, who came to the aid of the mine owners. The clashes between the miners (assisted by their families) and the troops left four workers and four gendarmes dead and dozens injured. The dead workers were Michael Zoilis, Themistoklis Kouzoupis, Michael Mitrofanis and Ioannis Protopapas.
In the wake of the strike Speras was arrested and imprisoned along with other strikers in the Syros jail. It was there that he wrote a chronicle of the events of the strike, which was published in 1919 under the title 'The Strike of Serifos, that is a narration of the bloody scenes of 21 August 1916 in the mines of Megalo Livadi of Serifos'. In 1917 he was transferred to the jail at the Firka Fortress in Chania, Crete. While there, he addressed an appeal to the Labour Centre of Chania (Ergatiko Kentro Chanion), seeking their support.
In August 1918, Speras in collaboration with Kostas Bastounopoulos, a moderate socialist, and others founded in the town of Ermoupoli of the Syros island, the Educative Labour Society (Morfotikos Ergatikos Omilos). The Society assisted in the publishing of the newspaper Ergatis (Worker), the organ of the Labour Centre of Cyclades (Ergatiko Kentro Kykladon)
First congress of the GSEE
Speras actively participated in the fermentation that led to the foundation of the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE), representing the anarcho-syndicalist tendency. This tendency comprised a large number of delegates and its main representatives were Speras, Giannis Fanourakis, and Stavros Kouchtsoglou. Kouchtsoglou was one of the most prominent Greek anarchists of that period. He was self-taught and was very active in Egypt, Greece and Turkey. He wrote pamphlets and articles and had personally met Errico Malatesta.
The first congress of the GSEE was convened between October 21, and October 28 of 1918. Speras was first to address the delegates in his speech that upheld the principle of class struggle. He argued that the Confederation should remain free from the influence of all political parties, and backed the anti-parliament action of the Confederation members. These positions were in full agreement with those that the European anarcho-syndicalists would adopt five years later during the Congress of Berlin, which convened from 22 December 1922 until 2 January 1923.
The representatives of the various socialist tendencies of the era put forward views opposed to those of Speras and the other anarcho-syndicalists. They argued in favour of the close interrelation between the GSEE and the Greek Socialist Party (Sosialistiko Komma) - which was founded a few weeks later. In this frame they presented a draft resolution, whereby the Confederation had to remain independent solely from any bourgeois influence. The issue was debated long and hard during the Congress and the representatives from both tendencies stood their ground doggedly. E. Delazanos - one of the delegates from the Proodos (Progress) Federation and a close ideological ally of socialist N. Giannios - addressing the Congress shortly before the voting said: "Workers beware! Do not fall for the beautiful words of the anarchists. The first instance of anarchy must be crushed. 'Outside of all politics' is an anarchist slogan, which in effect serves the interests of the bourgeoisie."
In the voting that was carried out, the authoritarian socialists’ resolution was voted 158 to 21. This voting marked in a tragic way the course of the working class movement of Greece, which henceforth was to be dragged on, tied to the influence of the state or the political parties - particularly the Communist Party - and their objectives, so that we can now answer with certainty the question "who really did serve in practice the interests of the bourgeoisie?"
However, Speras was elected member of the Supervising Committee of GSEE and his election confirmed the dynamism of the anarcho-syndicalist tendency during that period.
The foundation of SEKE
A few weeks later, on 4 November 1918, the most prominent representatives of the anarcho-syndicalist tendency participated in the founding Congress of the Socialist Worker Party of Greece (Sosialistiko Ergatiko Komma Elladas; SEKE), which subsequently evolved into the Communist Party of Greece (Kommounistiko Komma Elladas; KKE).
Judging by the positions they upheld in the period from the founding Congress of the organization to the second congress, it is obvious that the anarcho-syndicalists did not oppose the creation of an independent and multifarious socialist body. It did not take long before things between the two hostile tendencies came to a head.
In March 1920, Kostas Speras participated as special secretary in the conference of miners and coal miners held in Athens, aiming at the foundation of the Miners’ Federation.
In April, 1920, the SEKE held its second congress. There Constantinos Speras and Giannis Fanourakis were expelled from the party as anti-party elements. The newspaper O Rizospastis (The Radical) - the official organ of the Greek Communist Party - also reported an attempt to expel Speras from GSEE. However this turned out to be impossible, due to the considerable influence that Speras exerted on the Athens working class and on a large number of its delegates.
On 17 May 1920 Speras was arrested and the newspaper Kokkini Simaia (Red Flag), the organ of the Communist Organization of Athens (Kommounistiki Organosi Athinas) reported: "...to us this is an honour because our comrade is jailed for his working class ideology..."
The second Congress of GSEE
In 1920, the second congress of the GSEE was convened between 30 September and 3 October. Speras participated as the secretary of the Association of Tobacco Workers of Athens, the anarcho-syndicalist tendency turned out particularly strong, consisting of one-third of the delegates.
As soon as the Congress opened, Speras proposed the withdrawal of GSEE from the Trade-Union International of Amsterdam, a social democratic organization. The opposition to this proposal came from the part of the SEKE. It must be noted though, that during that period, all the major working class anarcho-syndicalist federations were actively participating in the process of the foundation of the Comintern.
The central issue of the Congress was GSEE’s collaboration and interrelation with SEKE. Speras and the other members of the anarcho-syndicalist tendency advocated the independence of the Confederation, while the SEKE members insisted on the collaboration between the two bodies. The latter view was voted 157 to 54.
The second issue of the Congress was the question of the parity between SEKE and GSEE. The anarcho-syndicalists, through Giannis Fanourakis, argued that the two bodies (SEKE and Confederation) should be represented by an equal number of delegates, who would stand on an equal footing in all political issues. The SEKE supporters insisted that the party should assume the guiding role and in the subsequent voting they confirmed their domination with 107 delegates voting for their motion against 40. As a matter of fact, when during his address, N. Dimitratos (one of the SEKE supporters) attributed the political guiding role to SEKE and the responsibility for the trade union movement to the GSEE, Speras reacted furiously. Reading a relevant circular of the Comintern, he upheld the unified and mass character of the Confederation and denounced “those who sought to divide” the working class.
In his addresses, Speras supported the direct democratic operation of the unions. He contended that the workers should directly participate in the decision-making process through rank and file assemblies. Thus he came in direct opposition with the SEKE leadership group, who upheld that this right belonged exclusively to the industrial workers.
The contribution of the anarcho-syndicalist group in the amendment of certain statutes of the GSEE was equally important. They proposed the decentralization of the decision-making process from the Federations to the local Labour Centres. Speras also advocated that workers should be organized not in craft union federations but in unified workplace federations, a principle upheld until the present day by the anarcho-syndicalist organizations.
Nea Zoi and The Independent Workers Party
Despite his ejection from SEKE, Speras maintained his influence on the working class masses. He was elected secretary of the dynamic Federation of Tobacco Workers and induced many to abandon SEKE. Along with them, he formed a cohesive group, Nea Zoi (New Life), which in March 1921 published a bi-weekly communist newspaper under the same title. While a communist organisation, Nea Zoi was not exclusively Marxist or Leninist. Most members were anarcho-syndicalists or anti-authoritarians, and had no adherence to the “orthodox” Communist Party etc. At the start they supported the Third International but withdrew their support as many anarcho-syndicalists and anarchists did in this period.
The group exerted an important influence over the working class of Athens, and Speras and Fanourakis participated in the administration of the Labour Centre of Athens (EKA) for a considerable period of time. They collaborated with other groups and organisations which had been formed in the wake of the far left’s expulsion from SEKE, such as the group Kommounismos (Communism) and the Anexartiti Kommounistiki Neolaia (Independent Communist Youth), both followers of the tenets of Bolshevism.
In November 1921, following the strike called by the Federation of Tramway Workers, Speras was once again arrested and jailed in the Sygrou Prison.
In the winter of 1922 the organization Nea Zoi (New Life) founded the Independent Labour Party (Anexartito Ergatiko Komma; AEK). Similar moves by syndicalists were to take place a few years later in Europe, including the 1932 founding of the Syndicalist Party of Spain, by Angel Pestaña, a reformist former member of the Spanish CNT.
The majority of the new party’s members were workers. The newspaper Ergatiki (Labour Gazette) reported that workers were joining the new party en masse throughout Greece. Its labour oriented character, as well as its distance from the tenets of the Comintern, were reflected in AEK’s "Declaration of Aims and Principles": The workers, through their unified confederation, over and beyond their political differences, can promote their interests.
The of AEK was dissolved in 1925, as a result of repression under the dictatorship of Theodoros Pangalos.
Expulsion from the GSEE
On the afternoon of the fourth day of the third GSEE congress, Tuesday 30 March 1926, Speras was ejected from the GSEE despite the protests of various delegates. This had followed a relevant proposition by Tzimas, a delegate of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). Avraam Benaroya, Speras’ principal opponent ever since the GSEE’s first Congress, gave testimony which characterized Speras as "an enemy of the working class," and the expulsion as "fair".
In his defence, Speras argued that the attack against himself was orchestrated by the leadership of the KKE (formerly the SEKE), and had been initiated on the second day of the Congress by the KKE delegates Giakoumatos, Marnieros and Evangelou. Speras also denounced the Communist Party for unleashing a war against him, as a result of which he could not even get a job. The reason, Speras’ claimed, was his opposition to the adhesion of the GSEE to the Comintern. Speras defended himself as an anti-militarist and countered the accusation that he was a "state agent." He denounced Evangelou (one of the leaders of KKE) for attempting to bribe his way to the post of General Secretary of the GSEE over the sum of fifty thousand drachmas promised to the Alliance of the Working Classes (a socialist grouping) via Vouros, a journalist.
Little is known about Speras’ life following his ejection from the GSEE. From 1930 onwards he worked as a ticket booking clerk in the Athens-Piraeus Electric Railways. For a brief period he resided in the area of Kolokynthou, and subsequently moved to Metaxourgeio, at 68 Kolonos Street, in the ground floor of an old two-storied house. His home consisted of a bedroom, a hall and a kitchen. In 1931 he married again to Marina Stamataki and had a third daughter, Artemisia-Nefeli.
It is certain that he participated in the railway workers movement and in the big strikes that broke out during that period. It is equally certain that he clashed with the leadership group of this trade-union (under the leadership of D. Stratis).
Speras wrote a History of the Working Class Movement, which unfortunately was stolen in 1957 by D. Stratis and has been missing ever since.
During his life Speras had been arrested, jailed or sent in exile 109 times. His last stint inside a jail was during the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas, during which he spent time in the prison of the island of Skopelos. He was released, half dead, shortly after the Greco-Italian War was declared. His life had been saved by a doctor from Serifos who treated him totally for free. During the Axis occupation of Greece, he was living with his family at Metaxourgeio.
On 14 September 1943, captain Orestis summoned Speras to a meeting in the village of Mandra, which was a remote place outside of Athens. "Orestis" was a pseudonym of Christos Moudrihas, a prominent KKE rank and file and one of the leaders of the communist led resistance forces. Sensing the danger to himself, he bode farewell to his family and left off for the meeting. Shortly afterwards Moudrihas and his followers decapitated him and scattered his remains somewhere in West Attica. The precise location remains unknown. On 28 October 1943, the newspaper O Rizospastis (The Radical) - official organ of KKE to the present day - printed the following line: "...we arrested that creep Speras..."
In his recollections, Agis Stinas wrote that the name of Speras figured in the lists of proscriptions, drawn up by OPLA, alongside those of other working class militants, members of the communist Left Opposition or anarchists who opposed the KKE.
Constantinos Speras was one of the pioneers of the working class trade-union movement in Greece. He spent the biggest part of his life in prison and exile. He fought with all his might for the emancipation of the working class, for an autonomous trade-union movement, for a society without slaves or bosses. He represented revolutionary syndicalism and as a consequence he incurred the wrath of the state and the Communist Party. He was slandered, his work and actions were distorted and eventually he was murdered, along with dozens of other working class militants, in the name of the one and only “orthodox” way to socialism.