Greece remains the epicentre of Europe’s slow-motion economic and political implosion. The June elections did nothing to resolve the crisis, and Greece continues to be profoundly polarized. On the one hand the fascist Golden Dawn party is growing rapidly, while on the other there has been a spectacular electoral shift to Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left). For a few weeks, it appeared that Syriza might emerge as the leading party in parliament. Ultimately, the conservative New Democracy (ND) took the helm in a coalition with the reformist Democratic Left and former ruling party, PASOK (the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, Greek affiliate of the Socialist International).
The new government’s willingness to implement austerity measures demanded by the hated “troika” (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) has not slowed Greece’s downward economic spiral. Most Greeks are extremely worried about the future, and many are angry. But to date, the trade-union leaders have made no attempts to initiate serious organized resistance. Instead, they have called around twenty toothless one-day general strikes which are essentially designed to let off steam.
Workers’ wages in Greece have fallen by a third since 2010, while consumption taxes have risen. During this same time Greece’s GDP has shrunk by almost a quarter, causing the ratio of gross government debt to GDP to increase (from 140 to 170 percent) despite the implementation of savage austerity measures. The official unemployment rate is around 25 percent—with youth unemployment over 50 percent. All public services have suffered deep cuts. One physician described the impact of austerity on the health care system:
“‘I think it will collapse,’ says Dr Kanakis. ‘Very soon. Because as the cuts continue, even very sick people can’t get treatment; even people with social security. My mother has a pension of 500 euros and this month had to pay the special austerity tax, collected through her electricity bill. It was 350 euros. She’s 80 years old. So tell me how she can survive?’”
—BBC, 7 February 2012
Life for many ordinary working people has become un-bearable. Dimitris Christoulas, a pensioner who took his own life in Syntagma Square in Athens last April , left a suicide note saying that he simply could not face the prospect of spending the rest of his life picking through rubbish bins for food.
It is a far different story for those at the top like Spiros Latsis, owner of a shipping company which holds €7.5 billion of Greek state bonds. Latsis also owns a 40 percent share of Greece’s national oil refinery ELPE (Hellenic Petroleum) as well as a major real estate company (Lamda) that was implicated in starting forest fires to clear land for “redevelopment.” Latsis and his ilk have long benefitted from a tax system grotesquely skewed in favor of the rich:
“Greek shipowners, who have gained from their profits being tax-free and who control at least 15% of the world’s merchant freight, have also remained low-key. With their wealth offshore and highly secretive, the estimated 900 families who run the sector have the largest fleet in the world. As Athens’ biggest foreign currency earner after tourism, the industry remitted more than $175bn (£112bn) to the country in untaxed earnings over the past decade. Greece’s debt currently stands at €280bn.”
—Guardian, 13 June 2012
Faced with a risky and uncertain future, Greek capitalists have opted to protect their money by sending it abroad:
“An estimated €8bn flowed out of the Greek banking system in May as speculation over the country’s possible exit from the eurozone mounted. Another €4bn was reported to have been withdrawn in the last two weeks—on top of an estimated €20bn since the start of the crisis in late 2009. Stories of rich Greeks sending their wives and best friends on ‘shopping missions’ to remove secret hoards kept in banks in Switzerland and Cyprus are legion.”
Part of the current huge public debt is attributable to a massive rearmament program undertaken by the Greek bourgeoisie in anticipation of a possible conflict with Turkey over Cyprus:
“Over much of the last decade, Greece—which has a population of 11 million people—has been one of the top five arms importers in the world. Most of the vastly expensive weapons, including submarines, tanks and combat aircraft, were made in Germany, France and the US.
“The arms purchases were beyond Greece’s capacity to absorb, even before the financial crisis struck in 2009. Several hundred Leopard battle tanks were bought from Germany, but there was no money to pay for ammunition for their guns. Even in 2010, when the extent of the financial disaster was apparent, Greece bought 223 howitzers and a submarine from Germany at a cost of €403m.
“In the new bailout agreement, Greece will pledge to reduce its defence spending by some €400m. Eurozone leaders have hitherto been notably more tolerant of Greece’s arms expenditure—though this is twice the size of the Nato average as a proportion of GDP—than it has of excessive spending on health or pensions.”
—Independent, 20 February 2012
A defining characteristic of the Greek ruling class—one it shares with many in Latin America—is a tendency to rely on military repression to control popular social mobilizations. In 1936, Greek capitalists supported a coup by pro-monarchist general Ioannis Metaxas which established a military dictatorship that only ended in 1941 with the invasion of Hitler’s forces. In 1967 the army once again seized power and Greece was ruled by the brutal “regime of the colonels” until 1974.
Since then the Greek bourgeoisie has found it more expedient to exercise power behind a democratic façade, with the assistance of a compliant, pro-capitalist trade-union leadership. The General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE), which represents private-sector workers, is partially state funded and closely linked to PASOK. In July 2010 the union leaders pulled the plug on a powerful truckers’ strike in defense of a closed shop, after their allies in the PASOK government sent in the military to scab. The bureaucracy prefers class collaboration to class struggle and seeks merely to moderate the demands of finance capital: “‘There is a common agreement among the social partners,’ said GSEE president Yannis Panagopoulos in a news conference. ‘The government is obliged to respect that, and must push our creditors to respect it too’” (Wall Street Journal online, 2 February 2012).
In 1981, when Greece joined the European Community, few of its producers were economically competitive. Since then the amount of foreign direct investment coming into Greece has been twice that of outward investment by Greek capitalists. The country imports most essential commodities, and its state sector has been primarily financed by foreign loans. Labor productivity is relatively low compared to the imperialist core countries of the EU, not because of the supposed laziness of Greek workers, as bourgeois demagogues contend, but rather because of a lower organic composition of capital—that is, less advanced technology and a relatively underdeveloped infrastructure. Greek workers have in fact been working more than most others in the EU to enable their employers to realize a rate of profit comparable to that of their European counterparts. In 2008, the average Greek worker logged 2,051 hours, compared to 1,659 in Britain, 1,492 in France and 1,422 in Germany (OECD StatExtracts).
While Greek membership in the EU increased the dominance of imperialist capital over the indigenous bourgeoisie, it did produce some short-term economic benefits:
“After a long period of economic crisis in the 1980s and early 1990s, in 1994 [the year that preparations began for joining the Economic and Monetary Union] the Greek economy entered a period of sustained growth which ended with the global financial crisis of 2008. During 1994-2007 GDP grew annually by 3.7 per cent on average: indeed, from 2001 to 2007, the Greek economy was the fastest growing economy in the Eurozone, after Ireland.…
“Rising domestic demand and profitability were the main drivers of private capital accumulation and GDP growth. The main determinant of increase in domestic demand was consumption, fuelled by rising real wages, rents and profits, and sustained public spending, tax cuts and tax evasion, and growing private borrowing. A second determinant was public investment in infrastructure—which accelerated in the years before the 2004 Athens Olympics—and private residential investment.”
—“Sovereign Debt Crisis,” in A triumph of failed Ideas—European Models of Capitalism in the Crisis, European Trade Union Institute
The global financial crisis, which punctured the illusion that sovereign debt within the EU was almost risk-free, starkly revealed the divergence between the euro zone’s weaker, dependent capitalist countries (Greece, Portugal, Ireland) and those at its imperialist core (Germany, France and the Netherlands). While Greek capitalists have important investments in banks, shipyards and industrial plants in Central and Eastern Europe—particularly in Bulgaria and Romania—on balance the Greek bourgeoisie remains dependent on its more powerful “partners” in the EU. This is reflected in the ownership structure of its financial sector. Deutsche Bank holds 10 percent of EFG Eurobank Ergasias, half of Greece’s Geniki Bank is owned by France’s Société Générale, while 67 percent of the Emporiki Bank belongs to another French institution, Crédit Agricole. German and French banks also hold significant quantities of Greek bonds, which is why Paris and Berlin are so anxious to avoid a default:
“Germany and France have suggested in recent days that rescuing Greece may be necessary to safeguard the euro zone, but both countries may have a more pressing motivation in the move—protecting their own banks.
“German and French banks carry a combined $119 billion in exposure to Greek borrowers alone and more than $900 billion to Greece and other countries on the euro-zone’s vulnerable periphery: Portugal, Ireland and Spain;
—Wall Street Journal, 17 February 2010
The imperialists have sought to extricate themselves from this predicament through writing off some of the debt and extending new loans to cover continuing repayment of the rest. In exchange for this self-serving “bail out,” they insist on a massive reduction in popular living standards: with each tranche of funds, the prescriptions for austerity have become progressively harsher. In order to avoid outright default:
“‘Greece has to legally commit itself to giving absolute priority to future debt service,’ said the document, said to have been circulated by German officials. ‘State revenues are to be used first and foremost for debt service.’”
—New York Times, 9 February 2012
Whenever Athens has shown any hesitation in the face of working-class resistance, the troika has bared its fangs. In October 2011, after Prime Minister Giorgios Papandreou proposed a referendum on a draconian bailout, he was promptly replaced by unelected technocrat Lucas Papademos. When Syriza suggested that it might not feel obligated to meet all the demands of the troika if it took power, François Hollande, the French president, responded with a “friendly” threat:
“I must warn them, because it is my duty, because I am a friend of Greece, that if the impression is given that the Greeks want to move away from the commitments that were taken and abandon all prospects of revival, then there will be countries in the eurozone that will want to end the presence of Greece in the eurozone.”
—Guardian, 14 June 2012
It is entirely possible that at some point in the future the senior partners in the EU may decide to cut their losses and expel Greece from the euro zone. This is a course that has been discussed by the influential Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for some time. Thus far, however, there seems to be an imperialist consensus that the risk of a Greek departure setting off an uncontrollable chain reaction of events makes it wise to continue to exploit the Greek people within the euro zone. On the other side, various left nationalists, including the Greek Communist Party (KKE), argue that leaving the EU would be a net benefit for Greek workers. In fact, such a move would merely change the political banner under which a continuing (and perhaps even intensified) capitalist austerity drive would be conducted. A shift from a European to a national autarkic framework would also likely increase the temptation for the Greek bourgeoisie to resort to a military/authoritarian “solution” to rising popular resistance.
The increasingly desperate situation facing Greece has provided fertile ground for the fascists of Golden Dawn, who specialize in pogroms against immigrants and the left. Police officers constitute a major part of the fascists’ core support: “There have been accusations of police bias after it emerged that 50 percent of Athens police officers voted for Golden Dawn. Suspected perpetrators are often arrested but not charged” (Telegraph, 13 June 2012). During a live television debate prior to the June election, viewers saw Golden Dawn in action when spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris threw water into the face of a Syriza MP and punched a female KKE representative.
Crushing Golden Dawn is a matter of life and death for the left and organized workers’ movement, but the trade-union bureaucrats, Stalinists and social democrats have shown little appetite to combat the growing fascist danger, nor have they undertaken any serious struggle against the anti-immigrant hysteria that fuels the ultra-right.
Loss of confidence in the political parties identified with the status quo translated into a surprisingly strong support in last spring’s elections for the “radical left.” Syriza is a lash-up of a dozen different groups ranging from social democrats and eco-socialists to the ostensibly Trotskyist International Marxist Tendency and the Maoist KOE (Communist Organization of Greece). Syriza’s electoral surge came in the midst of a wave of street demonstrations and strikes—expressions of growing anger at the endless assault on living standards. Although Syriza promised that, if elected, it would reverse many of the austerity measures already enacted and block further attacks, its program puts the interests of Greek capitalists ahead of workers. While pledging to refuse to pay off debts to foreign investors, Syriza’s charismatic leader, Alex Tsipras, also claims to be committed to keeping Greece in the euro zone. But defaulting on outstanding loans would mean exiting the common currency through the back door.
While talking about fighting austerity, Tsipras revealed in an interview with Time magazine a few days before the June election that his party really stands for more “targeted” cuts:
“If you go to the offices of members of parliament or of the ministers, you will see that there are dozens or hundreds of ‘dispatched’ and some of them might even be sinecure jobs [where they’re paid without doing anything].
“We need to deal with this dysfunction and this irrationality but not with horizontal cuts and lay-offs. Because if you do it this way and not in a targeted way, you will destroy completely the state, you will destroy the welfare state, you will have no hospitals, no schools.
“Therefore, the public sector, and how you will bring health to it, how you will make it more effective, and more socially efficient, is a very sensitive issue, that we have to approach with attention.”
—Time, 31 May 2012
Syriza’s leaders have made it abundantly clear that they can be trusted to administer the affairs of the bourgeoisie “responsibly” and to ensure that Greece remains in the EU. Tsipras told the Observer (5 May 2012) that what Greece needs is a “Roosevelt-style New Deal” to restore “fairness” and economic stability. In the run-up to the elections, Syriza even refused to participate in an anti-fascist demonstration in Athens in order to avoid any risk of tarnishing its electoral “respectability.”
The Stalinist KKE, which for decades has been supported by between five and ten percent of the electorate, has significant influence within the unions. The KKE ruled out any sort of coalition with Syriza, which it denounced for aspiring to “manage capitalism” on behalf of the bourgeoisie:
“As you may be aware the possibility of forming a ‘left’ government was a significant issue in the recent elections. And they persisted in calling on the KKE to participate in it. Our party refused from start to finish to participate in such a government as it is very well aware that no government which manages capitalism, the power of the monopolies and private ownership of the means of production, no government which implements a programme based on capitalist profits, on the competitiveness, productivity and profitability of the major business groups can follow a political line in favour of the working class and popular strata.”
—http://inter.kke.gr/News/news2012/2012-09-20-omilia-eliseou, 14 September 2012
Yet while refusing to consider participation in a left reform-ist coalition with Syriza, the KKE simultaneously promoted its own opportunist cross-class political bloc:
“We place more emphasis on the alliance policy which we had elaborated at the 15th [congress] and our subsequent congresses regarding the construction of a socio-political alliance, the construction of the Anti-Monopoly Anti-imperialist Front of Struggle based on the alliance between the working class, small and medium-sized farmers and the urban petty bourgeois strata, with the participation of women and youth.”
The precedent for this “anti-monopoly” unity with supposed progressives (a category that inevitably includes a section of the capitalists) lies in the KKE’s history of popular-frontism. In 1936, when the KKE derailed a general strike in the hope of attracting a bourgeois partner in government, it opened the door for the Metaxas dictatorship which jailed thousands of working-class militants (including many KKE cadres). The KKE joined a “national unity” coalition government in 1944, only to have its right-wing partners (backed by British occupation troops) turn on it a few months later in the prelude to a vicious civil war that lasted until 1949. Forty years later, in 1989, the KKE once again joined a capitalist government—this time with the conservative ND.
Today, in pursuit of a similar cross-class alliance, the KKE in its practical activity advances a program of minimal reformism—deferring any movement in the direction of socialism to the indefinite future. The KKE’s denunciation of Syriza’s pro-capitalist opportunist program has nothing in common with a principled Marxist rejection of class collaboration. It is merely demagogy motivated by organizational rivalry.
The depths of the KKE’s cynical Stalinism were revealed by the presence of Golden Dawn thugs at a rally of workers on strike at the Elliniki Halivourgia steel works in February 2012. According to the left-communist Internationalist Communist Tendency (ICT), the fascists were personally welcomed by the president of the union branch, Giorgos Sifonios, a well-known KKE supporter:
“PAME, the trade union coalition of the Greek Commun-ist Party (KKE) has played a key role [in the strike], trying to promote their fighting prestige (‘make all Greece into Elliniki Halivourgia’) and using it as a weapon for their trade union and electoral tactics.
“On Friday 17 February a group of the notorious fascist party ‘Xrisi Afgi’ (‘Golden Dawn’) visited the factory; they passed unmolested through the gate, took the microphone and made a speech to the strikers expressing their ‘solidarity’ in the presence of some members of the union. Then, the president of the factory trade union welcomed the fascists, saying that ‘all Greece is with us.’
“See a full video below.
“First you see the Nazis making a speech and then the president welcomes the Nazis. The union’s president, Giorgos Sifonios, is a member of PAME and he was a candidate of the KKE in the district elections in 1998. Until now PAME haven’t given any explanation, and they haven’t tried to dissociate themselves from that event. So, it is justified to assume that the president acted according to party policy. Otherwise, they would have expelled him immediately.”
—Internationalist Communist Tendency, 21 February 2012
The ICT reported that the local union leadership subsequently declared the Golden Dawn visit to have been a “provocation” and, in classic Stalinist fashion, sought to make an amalgam between the fascists and the KKE’s leftist critics:
“We declare that the steel-workers are beyond the reach of ‘Golden Dawn’ and several other alleged revolutionaries. The steel-workers are part of the organized class movement, which was and remains the main supporter of their cause. It is no coincidence that all these groups, inside and outside of Greece, made accusations against PAME, which from the beginning remains the main supporter of our struggle.”
—cited by Internationalist Communist Tendency, 23 February 2012
One of the KKE’s more prominent competitors on the left is Antarsya, a politically unstable reformist bloc which includes the Greek affiliates of two international ostensibly Trotskyist formations, the SEK (sister organization of the Cliffite SWP in Britain) and OKDE-Spartacos (affiliate of the Pabloite “Fourth International”). In an attempt to carve out a niche to the left of Syriza, Antarsya employed somewhat more radical rhetoric:
“What is needed is the mobilization and organization of goals and demands, put today on the agenda by reality itself (cancellation of debt, leaving the euro zone and the EU, nationalization and workers’ control). This can be achieved by a united front of the break with the system and the revolution, the escalation of the workers’ and popular uprising with strikes, occupations, demonstrations and by the organization and coordination of struggles at the rank and file on the basis of an anti-capitalist program. This is the way to the power of working people, true democracy with a contemporary socialist and communist perspective. That is the left ANTARSYA struggles for.”
—Links, 21 April 2012
Contrary to the expectations of those who imagine these conflicts as the unfolding of an inevitably “revolutionary” objective process, the experience of over a century of workers’ struggles shows that spontaneous turbulent mass struggles that threaten bourgeois stability, yet lack an effective leadership with an overall strategic plan to overturn capitalism, often have the effect of dissipating revolutionary energy and can thereby help pave the way for defeat. Rather than posing the urgency of constructing a revolutionary challenge to the current reformist leadership of the workers’ movement, Antarsya applauds instances of semi-spontaneous resistance and expresses the hope that the objective dynamic of the struggle will somehow surmount all obstacles:
“We have demonstrated our strength during the great general strikes, the occupation of the ministries, the unique lessons in democracy and struggles during the occupancy of public squares. We can see it every day in small and large conflicts, in the heroic struggles of Chalivourgia (steel industry), in the movements of civil disobedience (‘I do not pay’). It is shown by the many forms of organization and coordination of struggles by the rank and file, outside of and against the institutionalized trade unionism of GSEE and ADEDY, by developing new forms of solidarity, self-organization, and self-determination. The popular uprising, the continued popular and labor war that is increasing its strength, will lead to victory!”
—International Viewpoint No. 447, April 2012
In 2010 Antarsya had polled almost two percent of the votes in regional elections, but as the 2012 national election neared, it became clear that Syriza’s overwhelming momentum would marginalize its competitors on the left. This was not lost on various international tendencies that had previously displayed a more critical attitude toward Syriza. A few weeks before the May vote, for example, Workers Power and its League for the Fifth International (L5I) complained that:
“the ‘anti-austerity’ and ‘anti-neoliberal’ government conceived and proposed by SYRIZA would not touch the foundations of Greek capitalism. It does not even call for the expropriation and nationalisation of large scale monopoly capital. Unsurprisingly for a reformist party, it has a purely parliamentary conception of such an ‘anti-austerity government’. SYRIZA presents the bourgeois state apparatus, which has served numerous Greek capitalist governments so well and which is tied by a thousand threads to the ruling class and imperialism, as a tool which could be used by a ‘left government’ for its own purposes. It has no strategy, no plan, for how to respond to the inevitable sabotage and overt attacks by the ruling class and the EU/ECB/IMF if even the slightest attempt were made to stop following the demands of the Troika.”
—League for the Fifth International, 25 April 2012
When the votes were counted, Syriza’s impressive showing led Workers Power to awkwardly attempt to reposition themselves. Instead of focusing on the coalition’s commitment to the capitalist state and the preservation of the “foundations of Greek capitalism,” the L5I began fantasizing about Syriza somehow morphing into an instrument of revolutionary struggle:
“With its huge reserve of support, Syriza can and should now transform itself into a fighting party of the class struggle. And it can do this if the left is both unsectarian in its drive for militant united action and unsparing in its criticism of reformist backsliding.
“At the heart of the party’s programme must be the recognition that only a workers’ government, controlled and supported by organs of struggle, action committees, self-defence militias, arising from a political general strike and put into power by a mass uprising of the working people, will be able to implement a programme that delivers genuine improvement in the situation of the masses and breaks decisively the entrenched power of the capitalist class.”
• • •
“Overcoming this situation means revolutionaries now need to be where the bulk of the Greek working class today places its hopes—in Syriza, campaigning for it to become a democratic, class-conscious party. Concretely, this means launching an organised campaign to free Syriza from the influence of reformism and fighting for it to adopt a revolutionary programme and structure.”
—League for the Fifth International, 8 July 2012
The Fifth Internationalists did not attempt to explain why, only a few weeks earlier, they had been sagely intoning that it is “wrong to suggest that the reformist parties could carry out a ‘socialist programme’” (League for the Fifth International, 25 April 2012).
The fact is that Syriza (like Antarsya and the KKE) stands as a reformist obstacle on the road to working-class victory. Syriza openly declared that if elected it would use its political capital to defuse the anger of working people and seek to stabilize Greek capitalism.
Greek workers have shown a willingness to vigorously defend themselves against a social system designed to enrich the few at the expense of the many. The essential problem confronting the Greek masses is one of leadership—their leaders are committed to operating within a parliamentary-reformist straightjacket and resigned to the necessity of bailing out the bosses. Their concern is merely to negotiate the timing, extent and severity of the concessions that they agree have to be made. They are, however, shrewd enough not to spell this out too clearly, and instead work overtime to channel discontent into various nationalist, class-collaborationist dead-ends.
The main enemy of the Greek workers’ movement is the Greek bourgeoisie, which has viciously oppressed its “own” people for decades in partnership with its European imperialist allies. The immediate objective of class-conscious militants in Greece must be to organize support for an aggressive extended general strike aimed at breaking the capitalists’ austerity offensive. A successful general strike could only be organized by structures that bypass the existing bureaucratic union leadership—elected strike committees in each workplace that send delegates to co-ordinating bodies at the local, regional and national levels. One of the most essential tasks in carrying out such a perspective would be the creation of effective workers’ self-defense units to disperse strikebreakers and defeat the fascist thugs of Golden Dawn.
A better life for Greek workers requires a struggle against the rule of capital and its institutions—both national and international. And that poses the question of forging a new revolutionary leadership—a combat party modeled on the Bolshevik Party that led the October Revolution of 1917. Fighting for full citizenship rights for immigrants, a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party would act as the champion of all the downtrodden and oppressed, and would demonstrate that a working class that rises to its feet can soon bring the capitalist class to its knees.
Greek workers need an internationalist communist party committed to the fight for proletarian power. Following the example of the Bolsheviks, such a party would advance transitional demands aimed at deepening workers’ struggles and exposing the pro-capitalist politics of the union bureaucrats and their partners in the reformist left. To address the problem of growing unemployment, revolutionaries would demand the construction of public works on a massive scale, as well as a sliding scale of wages and hours to distribute work among all those able to perform it, while also ensuring that purchasing power is not eroded by inflation. A mobilized, militant workers’ movement would demand an end to capitalist secrecy and an opening of the books of the banks and commercial and industrial enterprises to expose the massive swindles and outright theft that have helped bring Greek society to the brink of the abyss. When the imperialist financial agencies demand the dissolution of public sector companies as part of their “rescue” plans, the workers’ movement must respond by mobilizing the masses to seize the means of production, transport and communication in order to lay the basis for constructing a new society in which planning replaces irrational speculation.
A socialist revolution requires the expropriation of the capitalists—both foreign and domestic. It can only be secured by dismantling of the capitalists’ repressive apparatus, and replacing it with new institutions of proletarian rule. On this basis, the road is open for humanity to eliminate the insanity of an economy geared to maximizing private profit for the few, and create a social system dedicated to meeting the needs of all.
A revolutionary breakthrough in Greece would, of course, immediately be targeted by every imperialist power on earth. But the victorious Greek workers could count on an enormous outpouring of enthusiastic support from billions of victims of capitalist austerity—just as the Russian workers could after their revolution in October 1917. The birth of a Greek workers’ republic would dramatically reconfigure global politics and signal the beginning of a struggle to create the Socialist United States of Europe—an event of world-historic importance.