Greece: September 26 general strike – very militant mood

The three-party coalition government of Greece – New Democracy, Pasok, Democratic Left - has reached an agreement on the next round of spending cuts of €11.5billion that is to be presented to parliament. But the Greek workers are not prepared to accept this without a fight. On Wednesday between 150,000 and 200,000 marched through Athens, 30,000 in Salonika and many more in other parts of Greece, with big rallies in many cities.

This was the first such strike since this latest coalition government was installed in June. The anger is boiling over in Greece as the bosses continue with their onslaught on living standards. An MRB poll last week showed in fact that over 90% of Greeks consider the latest planned cuts to be unfair and a burden on the poor.

Among the latest ideas being aired is the need for Greek workers to work a 6-day week and up to an 11 hour day! The age of retirement is to be raised from 65 to 67. The minimum wage, which has already been reduced to €550 per month, is to be lowered even further. The €5,000 income tax-free threshold is also to be reviewed. It used to be €12,000 but was reduced to €5,000, and now they are considering lowering it even further, thus preparing the ground to make the poorest of the poor pay taxes.

It is this constant pressure, with one attack after another, one provocation after another, that explains the enormous success of Wednesday’s general strike in the public sector, which has borne the brunt of the austerity measures. There was close to an 80% participation in the strike in the public sector. The private sector saw a somewhat lower participation of around 20-30%.

What was most significant was the participation of new layers of society, including the so-called “conservative” layers. Small shopkeepers shut up shop for the day and went on the demonstrations with their employees. Other sectors taking part in the general strike included doctors, teachers, tax workers, ferry operators, air traffic controllers, bank workers, and workers in the historic archaeological sites in Athens.

There were also many unemployed workers protesting and large numbers of young people. There was a heavy presence of people between the ages of 25 and 45, the most active layers, as well as large delegations of school students.

The numbers of youth present confirmed that a process of radicalisation is taking place among young people. We can expect to see movements of the school students and the university students in the coming weeks and months.

The public sector unions were out in force. Now many of the workers that were “public sector” find themselves working for companies that have been partially privatised, such as the electricity workers. Their union, the Genop - DEI, had a big presence, as did the transport workers, who find themselves in a similar situation.

At the end of the demonstration, once again, the brutal attacks by the police and the arrests and indictments of dozens of protestors further enraged those taking part. This police brutality has now become common practice and is contributing to a further radicalisation of the workers and youth of Greece.

Calls for all-out general strike

The mood on the demonstrations confirmed the willingness of the Greek workers to fight. Slogans such as "We won't submit to the troika!" and "EU, IMF out!", "People, fight, they're drinking your blood" could be heard.

This mood was reflected by Nikos Fotopoulos, head of Genop-DEI, who at a meeting of the GSEE Central Council proposed the calling of an all-out, permanent, general strike together with the occupation by the workers of state buildings and other workplaces. The leader of the Athens Metro workers supported this and added a call for the creation of committees of struggle in the workplaces, independent of the GSEE to run the strike. “Aftonomi Parenthasi” [“Independent Intervention”], the Syriza faction inside the unions, has moved to a militant stance, calling for preparations to escalate the level of struggle, and for a permanent strike movement.

However, what was also evident was that the workers feel there is no clear leadership at the top, and no clear perspective ahead of them. The contradiction between the militant mood of the workers and the vacillating nature of the top trade union leaders was evident. The mood among those gathered in the squares was ambivalent. One the one hand, one could see in peoples’ faces a combative mood, whilst, on the other, through discussions one could sense a deep sense of uncertainly about the future, a deep distrust, an open hostility towards the leadership of the trade unions, whilst there was some hope – albeit cautious – in SYRIZA and the political solutions proposed by its leadership.

All the talk on the demonstrations was about the situation in Spain and Portugal. In particular, the recent mass protests in Portugal that forced the government to retreat (See Portugal: government forced to retreat, workers should go on the offensive to bring it down) was widely commented on. It has created the idea that mass protests can actually achieve something. Of course, it is evident that the Portuguese government only beat a tactical retreat and is preparing new attacks; nonetheless the message that a militant stance pays has reached millions of workers.

Syriza leaders moderate their position

Tragically it is at such a juncture that Tsipras has been moderating the content of his statements. Syriza remains popular, as the polls indicate, but it has started already to disappoint many workers. For example, Tsipras, the leader of the party – while clearly opposing the government – has openly stated that it has the “right” to pass its austerity measures because “the people voted for this government” and that therefore because of this “will of the people” Syriza cannot call for the overthrow of the government! And yet that is precisely what the workers are seeking, a movement led by a serious party of the workers that can bring this government down and offer a serious alternative.

Tsipras continues to give interviews with a lot of high-sounding phrases, such as: “we need a different Europe, one that is not held in bondage by banks, profit and the markets, but rather one orientated towards democracy, solidarity, equality and the dignity of labour.” [Tsipras interview: ‘The drachma is not an option’] But how this is to be achieved remains very vague. For instance, in the same interview he says that, “what is needed is a strategic concept of a productive reconstruction.” Later on he adds, “We have tabled comprehensive proposals, and they include an aggregate solution for the debt of the South, a moratorium with lenders [on debt servicing] while linking repayment with growth, the issuing of a eurobond and direct borrowing from the European Central Bank.”

How “growth” is supposed to be achieved in the present global economic climate he does not explain. The fact is that Greece is in a state of almost permanent recession. This year the economy is expected to contract by around 8%. This comes on top of five years of economic decline. Unemployment is expected to reach 30% by year’s end, and among the youth the figure is close to 55%. On the basis of capitalism there are no policies that can ovoid that. Tsipras sees as possible a solution within the confines of the capitalist system, within the European Union, within the euro and with the European Central Bank continuing to play a role. This is utterly utopian.

Relentless pressure of the troika

The policies that the EU is imposing on Greece are being carried by the present coalition government. And to make sure that it sticks to these policies the European Commission has its “Task Force for Greece” headed by Horst Reichenbach that directly monitors the implementation of the austerity measures by the Greek government. These “European observers” are ever present in the corridors of the Greek ministries, keeping up the pressure, making sure that every dot and comma of their austerity measures are carried out. The only possible concession the IMF and EU have made to the Greek government is that they might consider extending the terms of repayment, but this would add a further €20billion to the final bill!

The dilemma the EU and IMF are facing in relation to Greece is that for them to be seen as being in any way “soft” on Greece would set a precedent for Portugal and Spain. They are negotiating with Spanish premier Rajoy and are concerned that anything they grant Greece, Spain would also ask for. The problem is that Spain is a much bigger economy than Greece and any concession on that front would cost far more. Thus, in spite of the serious political problems that flow from the austerity measures, the EU has no other option but to keep up the pressure on the Samaras government.

It is this pressure that is the source of the extremely unstable political situation in Greece. Even Stournaras, the finance minister, has been forced to reflect the unease in Greece, when he told the IMF that with the measures they are demanding, “You want to destroy the political system in Greece”! Even the Prime Minister Samaras has blurted out, “I don’t know what they want... they are pushing us...”

There have even been rumours that Greece has been asked to start printing Drachmas in preparation for what is to come in the next few months. For in spite of all the austerity, all the cuts, Greece’s budget deficit stands at over 8% of GDP, an unsustainable situation.

Unstable government

This constant pressure is opening up cracks within the parties that make up the coalition government. Pasok and the Democratic Left [Dimar] are important component parts of this government, but already about half of the Democratic Left MPs have announced that they will be voting against the proposed measures. This they are doing, for they can see the writing on the wall. They understand that their parliamentary careers are at risk, and they are preparing to offer their services to a future Syriza-led government, in the hope of maintaining their seats. Even some of the Pasok MPs are considering voting against, for the same reason.

The latest opinion polls in fact indicate the following expected voting patterns were elections to be called today. Both New Democracy and Syriza stand at around 24-25% each; Pasok stands at 7%; Democratic Left is at 4.2%; the KKE is at 4.5%, while the Golden Dawn on the far right is expected to increase its vote by 4 percentage points to around 10-11%. Thus only around one third of those intending to vote would vote for parties in this government.

Therefore, how long this government can last is unclear, possibly only a few months. In the next few weeks it is expected that the unions will call another general strike, this time one of 48 hours, further increasing the pressure from the working class. The workers simply cannot afford not to fight. Already, many workers are not receiving their wages; and this is particularly the case among public sector workers.

The fact that Tsipras and other Syriza leaders have been in talks with top European officials, among which Horst Reichenbach, is an indication of which way the Syriza leadership is beginning to lean. The only really viable alternative to the present coalition government is some alliance centred on Syriza, and clearly the bourgeois are testing the ground to see how far they can push Tsipras to adopt a “statesmanlike” stance. The fact is that any “talks” with such people will not lead to any alleviation of the austerity. What the bourgeois are considering is whether they can involve Tsipras at some stage. They know that this government is very weak and unstable and are therefore looking to the “moderate” leaders of Syriza, as an option for the future.

This reiterates what the Marxists have always maintained: only by breaking decisively with capitalism can the interests of the workers be defended. That means posing clearly the need to nationalise the banks and the commanding heights of the economy. Unfortunately, there is no longer any mention of nationalisation; now the leaders of Syriza talk of a “social economy”.

It is this ambiguous position of the party leadership which is sowing confusion on the left. Many workers and youth would like to get organised, and Syriza would be the obvious candidate for them to join. But although some have joined the party, there is no mass influx into Syriza at this stage. This reflects the fact that there is a huge gap between what the militant workers and youth want, and what the Syriza leaders are offering. This contradiction must be resolved. And the only way to do this is via the party adopting a fully fledged Marxist programme.

The KKE

The Communist Party of Greece, the KKE, is facing a serious crisis. Its vote has collapsed to historically low levels. It continues to present militant rhetoric, but its sectarianism is leading the party into a blind alley.

The most recent example of this has been the KKE’s intervention, though its trade union faction PAME, in the recent Hellenic Steel workers’ strike at the plant in Elefsina, about 18 kilometres from Athens. The strike was very militant and lasted seven months. Unfortunately, there was no coordination with other plants. While PAME has the leadership at the plant in Elefsina, at the other plant in Volos, further to the north, it is PASKE (traditionally the PASOK faction in the unions) that has the leadership.

PAME, instead of appealing to the ranks in Volos, accused the workers as a whole of betraying the strike, of being “strike-breakers”, making no distinction between the rank and file workers and their leaders. It is thanks to this that the bosses were able to isolate the Elefsina workers and eventually to break the strike. Had there been joint, coordinated action a 20-day strike would have been sufficient.

The strike of the Hellenic Steel workers in Elefsina had become a symbol for the working class, especially for the Communist workers. But it has to be said that the KKE leaders were using the strike for electoral purposes, hoping that a militant stance – albeit a sectarian one – at the plant would benefit the party in the polling stations. This did not materialise and, furthermore, once the elections were over the KKE leaders left the workers to their own devices. The defeat of the strike then came as a big shock to the KKE electorate and the party ranks.

Another shock to the KKE ranks was the closing down of the party’s TV channel (Channel 902) after 20 years of broadcasting. It was closed almost overnight in a snap 24-hour decision. The reason given was lack of money to keep running the channel. Had the leaders been genuine revolutionaries they could have campaigned among the ranks and wider supporters of the party for help. Instead they just closed down.

All this is fomenting tension within the KKE. The next party congress is expected to take place in March 2013, where the present leader Papariga is stepping down. Two candidates will contest for the leadership and thus we will see an open conflict erupting within the party. This provides all those honest militant rank and file communists, who want to see a strong Communist Party, with an opportunity to intervene and fight for the party to adopt the genuine Leninist policy of the United Front and put an end to the sectarianism which has dominated the party for so many years.

Golden Dawn

At the other end of the political spectrum we have the Golden Dawn, the openly neo-Nazi organisation that has hit the headlines in the recent period because of its sudden electoral successes. The question has to be posed: does the Golden Dawn represent an immediate fascist threat such as that of Hitler or Mussolini in the past? The leaders of the Golden Dawn have called for the creation of stormtroopers, emulating Hitler’s tactics. But whereas in the 1930s Hitler managed to muster a million members, today in Greece the Golden Dawn manages to gather no more than 500 to 600 in its rallies. It only has 32 branches in the whole of Greece, with around 700 active members. All this indicates that it is not a mass party. It does not represent a mass fascist reaction.

However, what it does represent is the crisis of the present parliamentary system, with all its corruption on a grand scale. It expresses a protest vote of people who are fed up with the whole system, but these voters are not people who are prepared to mobilise against the labour movement. We are not seeing classical fascism in Greece today. In fact those social layers that historically would have backed the fascists and would have actively mobilised behind them, the petit bourgeois, are presently taking part in the big workers’ mobilisations against the government. Lawyers, doctors, professionals in general, shopkeepers, are all very close to the labour movement.

In fact the Golden Dawn has thus far avoided attacking workers and their activists are not very visible. This explains why any attacks that the Golden Dawn does carry out are at the level of individual attacks on immigrants by small groups of fascists. Even on this front they have not fared well. The immigrants have been fighting back, and we have seen massive mobilisations, in particular of the Pakistani immigrants. Back in July and August we saw public rallies of Pakistani immigrants, with up to 4000 out in Syntagma Square protesting.

Thus the fascists of the Golden Dawn are not an immediate threat to the labour movement. In fact, the Greek bourgeois have openly attacked the Golden Dawn, exposing their activities, as they understand that to move in the direction of fascist reaction today, rather than solving their problems, would exacerbate them, as this would simply be seen as a provocation by the workers and youth, who would be pushed in an even more radical direction. However, in the future they could be part of a general reactionary onslaught against the workers’ movement.

Before that happens, however, there will be many movements of the working class. The general shift is to the left, but the workers and youth of Greece should take the electoral successes of the Golden Dawn as a warning of what could happen if the workers’ leaders do not break once and for all with reformist politics and adopt a revolutionary Marxist programme.

The whole situation in Greece is preparing for the downfall of the present government, and at some stage Syriza will have to govern the country in one way or another. The party leaders must change course if they wish to represent faithfully the workers’ desire for real change.

September 28, 2012

Note:

Supporters of the journal Epanastasi [Revolution] and the magazine Marxistiki Foni [Marxist Voice] received a spectacularly positive reception on the rallies, where they handed out their material and discussed with new and seasoned comrades their proposals for the next steps of the movement. In Athens, they ran out of printed copies to hand out within an hour thus once more proving that Marxists constitute a potential rising political force within SYRIZA and its youth wing that is in its formative stages.