The Greek working-class movement from the 1930s to the present day

Some background

Greece is a very different country to the UK.  During the 19th century in Greece and the whole Balkan region the impact of the industrial revolution was almost non-existent.  For example, the first railway line there was built in the last decade of the 19th century. So it was not possible to have a proper working-class movement in the 19th century.  Of course, there were political struggles of the people, but they were spontaneous in nature, more like the ones of the peoples of western Europe in the Middle Ages.  At the beginning of the 20th century, however, this situation started to change.  The country slowly started to be industrialised especially in Athens, and at the same time the first socialist and anarchist groups and societies were formed.  In the Balkan wars of 1911/12 the Greek state doubled in size both in terms of territory and in terms of population.  It expanded towards the north with the dissolution of the Ottoman empire.  It was in these newly integrated areas that in 1918, inspired by the Great October Revolution, the Socialist Party of Greece (SEKE) was formed.  This party two years later, at its Second Congress, decided to affiliate to the Third International, and at its Third Congress in 1924 it changed its name to the Communist Party of Greece (KKE).

It is no coincidence that, also in 1918, the first Congress of the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE) [the equivalent of the TUC] was held. That decade, at the beginning of the 20th century, saw the birth of the Greek working-class movement in modern terms.  It is no overstatement to say that for the next five decades the development of the working-class movement in Greece was synonymous with the history of the KKE.

Greek-Turkish war, 1919-22

Another major event in the 1920s was the Greek involvement in the disastrous Greek-Turkish war of 1919-1922, which was forced on Greece, since it was acting as a tool of British imperialism in the region.  The result was disastrous for Greece, and, under the new regime of Mustafa Kemal in Turkey, which was trying to build a national state, by means that included ethnic cleansing, around 2 million refugees fled from Turkey to Greece. That was a huge number considering that the Greek population was then about 5 million, and it presented a huge problem for the Greek ruling class.  These people were more educated, with a higher level of political consciousness, and they contributed significantly to the development of the working-class movement. 

KKE in the 20s and 30s

Despite all this, the newly formed working-class movement in Greece was not in an easy situation.  In the 1920s, and in particular from 1925-27, the dictatorship restricted political freedom. In addition, the newly formed communist party was afflicted with both Trotskyism and factionalism and failed to attract significant mass support. Even when parliamentary democracy was restored in Greece the situation did not improve.  In 1929, the Greek parliament voted in a new law called Idionymon,  a special legislative provision that gave the state the right to imprison people just for supporting political ideas in favour of the need to overthrow the regime – i.e., not only for taking action against the state, but even for having ideas opposed to the bourgeois state.  With this law the ruling class succeeded in the course of a single year to dissolve almost every workers’ organisation in Greece.  This put the undeveloped KKE into a state of semi-legality.

In the 1930s the fate of the KKE changed as a result of an order from the Comintern, that had personally been suggested by Stalin.  A young 28-year old comrade, Nikos Zachariadis returned to Greece and was appointed General Secretary of the Party.  He had previously been organising the Young Communist League in Greece from 1923, had been imprisoned, and had then fled to the Soviet Union.  Having lived in Moscow for eight years, and being a graduate of the famous International Lenin School and the Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV), this comrade had the necessary skills to restore order to the highly-factionalised Greek Communist Party, to establish democratic centralism and to organise the party as a proper revolutionary party.  As a result, not only did its influence in the working class increase in the succeeding years, but even in electoral terms, the party influence increased in just four years from one per cent to about ten per cent.

Nevertheless, despite the rise of the working-class movement in the 30s, the rise to power in 1936 of the fascist-like Metaxas dictatorship could not be avoided.  This regime was not very different from its Italian counterpart, the Mussolini regime, but it did not have very massive support.  This regime did away with political rights, and political parties were banned – including the communist party, as well as the Greek equivalent of the TUC.  Most KKE members and supporters were put in prison or exiled to barren islands in the Aegean Sea, and the Party Secretary was cast into prison. By 1940, just before Greece became involved in the Second World War, the Greek Communist Party had almost collapsed.  The Greek security police had been extremely effective in disbanding the Party organisation.  Not only had the police captured three quarters of the KKE’s members, but it had also managed to produce a series of fake issues of Rizospastis, the Central Committee newspaper.  In that way the authorities managed to generate huge confusion among those party members who were still free, but scattered underground.

Second World War

Greece became involved in the Second World War in the 1940s, when Benito Mussolini demanded of the Greek government the right to use its territory to support the African front and also to establish a base for the Axis powers in the Balkans.  Although the Metaxas regime had ideological affinities with the Mussolini regime, it refused.  It may seem strange but there were many crucial factors that forced the Metaxas regime to  take that position.  The main factor was pressure from the Greek people whose strong anti-fascist sentiments would not allow alignment with the Axis powers.  The second factor was the traditional relationship of the Greek state with Britain. Since the birth of the modern Greek state it had been something of a British protectorate. Since even under its fascist-like regime, Greece’s connection with the British was strong, it would have been strange if Greece had not allied with British imperialism.

Mussolini’s Italian army attacked Greece in October 1940, but was unsuccessful in this initial fascist offensive, with the Mussolini forces being repelled back into Albania.

However, when Yugoslavia collapsed under the fascist forces in the spring of 1941, the Germans invaded Greece and, within 20 days, were in Athens.  A quisling pro-German Nazi government was formed in Greece and the previous government fled to exile in Cairo.  All the communists who were in prison were handed over to the Nazis, including the Party General Secretary, Zachariadis, who was transferred to Dachau concentration camp.

National Liberation Front (EAM)

Despite the difficult situation, the Greek communist party responded really effectively to the new conditions.  It was the first communist party in Europe to call for a national regime. The call was made in an open letter from the imprisoned General Secretary to the Greek people, calling on them not only to fight against the Nazi invaders but also to fight for a new society, a totally different society to that of the old regime. A major step towards that took place in July 1941, just two months after the German fascist invasion.  The party took the initiative of forming the National Liberation Front (Εθνικό Εργατικό Απελευθερωτικό Μέτωπο, EAM) which would bring the country’s labour union organisations together, and another three minor left-wing parties participated in this front. The communist party, the largest party, was in a dominant position.  Their general experience and their particular knowledge of the underground struggle were crucial for the success of the liberation front. When the EAM was founded, its declaration not only included “the liberation of the nation from the colonialist yoke” but it also had as a principal aim to guarantee the Greek people their “sovereign right to determine their own form of government” after liberation.

The biggest problem facing the Greek working class at that time was literally the question of survival. Food and resources were being commandeered by the German troops either for their own needs, or for the African or Soviet fronts. A great part of the Greek population starved to death, and the unusually heavy winter of 1941/42 did not help at all.  In just two months, one third of the population died of hunger.  The first act of the resistance against the Nazi regime was actually to organise public dining rooms to ensure the survival of our people.  The armed struggle would follow, of course.  Not much later, in the autumn of 1942, the Greek Peoples Liberation Army, ELAS, was formed.  Of course, there were some other guerrilla organisations too, but they were either right wing or politically neutral – primarily backed and financed by the British.  The overwhelming majority of Greek people in town and country sympathised with ELAS guerrillas precisely because they were not helped by the British in contrast with all the other organisations.  Many of them became partisans.  By the winter of 1942/43 ELAS had already become a powerful semi-conventional army with the ability to attack German and Italian forces.  Most areas in the country, apart from the main cities, had passed from the control of the Axis powers to that of ELAS.  The national liberation front had already gained up to two million members, making it the most massive political organisation ever to exist in Greece – the country at that time had a population of 6 million people.  This showed the massive support there was for the Front.  ELAS membership stood at about 150,000. Even an auxiliary revolutionary navy was formed.  Most importantly, in the liberated areas in the countryside, a new form of political organisation was formed in the villages and small towns. Not only was the population saved from hunger, but for the first time ordinary Greek people, including women, were involved in determining their everyday lives, and for the first time they could be involved in political life under the leadership of the communist party members. 

Following these developments, by March 1944, the national liberation front (EAM) had control of most of the country, apart from the two big cities, Athens and Thessaloniki.  This allowed for the formation of the so-called ‘Mountain Government’ to rival the pro-British exile government in Egypt (Cairo).  Let it be noted that it was historically the first time that women were given the right to vote in Greece, and they would have to wait for another 35 years to vote again.  Anyone who witnessed this period in Greece, would be obliged to conclude that a Greek revolution had almost been accomplished since the communist-led forces controlled almost all the country except the two big cities.

Pro-British National Unity Government

With the approach of liberation, the Party leadership, that had replaced the General Secretary imprisoned in Dachau, was set to make a series of fatal mistakes.  Firstly, in May 1944 in Lebanon and in 1945 Caserta in the south of Italy, it signed agreements for the formation of a National Unity Government in which most of the ministers, the prime minister, and all the main cabinet posts were occupied by pro-British politicians from the exiled government in Egypt, while the communists just held some minor posts.  That was in glaring contrast to the situation in  Greece, where the people’s revolutionary army, ELAS, controlled 95 per cent of Greek territory.  Some people will see that as treachery by the party, but the motives for those decisions of the leadership are not clear.  Perhaps at that time, with the war not yet over, the party leadership did not want to create an open conflict with the western allies, or break the unity of the anti-fascist and anti-Nazi movement.  Of course, it in effect amounted to betraying the Greek partisans.  This National Unity Government was headed by the pro-British George Papandreou, the grandfather of the current prime minister.  George Papandreou returned to Athens as prime minister in October 1944, after the liberation of Greece.  But even though the communists had made huge concessions, he and, of course, his British imperialist backers, violated the agreements that had been made.  George Papandreou allowed 40,000 English soldiers to invade Athens and to use the pro-Nazi security organisations set up by the Nazi regime in Athens to establish their authority and to strengthen their grip on the country. So the traitors and collaborators not only were not punished, but were even used by the new regime to establish its authority.

The Greek responded with peaceful demonstrations in the streets of Athens. On 3 December 1944, one month and a half after liberation from the Germans, the British attacked those unarmed demonstrators and killed many people.  This being the situation, the Greek communist party, literally in order to protect the population (not to create a civil war) had to move ELAS units to Athens. In December 1944, for one month, ELAS units were fighting the British troops in Athens.  Churchill was so determined brutally to force Greece to remain in the western camp that he even brought Indian soldiers to the streets of Athens to fight the Greeks.  After one month, ELAS had to retreat from the streets of Athens.  It was partially defeated, but even so, at the beginning of 1945, ELAS still controlled the rest of Greece, apart from Athens where the British army had control, and most ELAS units were intact because the communist party, perhaps mistakenly, had decided not to launch a massive attack against the British forces in Athens in 1944 and it did not use the majority of the partisans.  Perhaps it did not want to provoke the west, perhaps it was a mistake – nowadays the party rather thinks it was a mistake.

Treaty of Varkiza

But even a worse mistake of the leadership followed.  Two months later it agreed to sign the infamous Treaty of Varkiza.  That provided for the complete demobilisation of ELAS, the partisans.  ELAS was forced to disarm, although it had controlled all of Greece apart from Athens.  The leadership of the party said that the objective from now on was a “people’s democracy” to be achieved by peaceful means.  Of course, if you take a step backwards in a situation like that, the other side will take advantage of it.  In effect, the other side did not even respect the Treaty of Varkiza.  In the following two months 40,000 Greek communists were imprisoned, sent into exile, tortured, and more than 2,000 were killed for their political beliefs.  Everyone can now see the disastrous effects of the party leadership’s low profile tactics of the time.

Fight against the British and Americans

In the meantime in 1945, the General Secretary came back from Dachau, following Nazi Germany’s collapse, and again took the post of General Secretary.  He tried to correct the previous mistakes of the leadership.  The party reversed its former political position and literally, once again, for the survival of the Greek working class, announced the organisation of a new armed struggle against the pro-British regime.  In the 1946 elections, the communist party did not participate because it considered that these elections could not conceivably be fair because of the presence of the British army.  According to impartial observers, if free and fair had been held, the Greek Communist Party would have secured 60-70% of the vote.  This is corroborated by the massive abstentions of the Greek people following the Party’s call for a boycott of the elections. 

After these fraudulent elections and the return of the King to Greece, fighting resumed.  For the next three and a half years, the partisans fought against the government and army that was backed by Britain and then by America.

In 1947, Britain could no longer afford to devote millions to its cause in Greece. In just one year, back then, it had spent £85 million.   Financially it was weak following the Second World War, especially in view of the rising liberation struggles in its colonies.

The US took over from Britain.  It announced that it would step up support to fight what it called the communist threat in Greece.  This was the beginning of a long and troubled relationship between Greece and the United States.  Effectively, for the following decades, the US Ambassador was to be the real government in Greece, up to almost the 1980s.  In 1947-48 the American forces launched a series of major offences in the mountains of Greece against the Greek partisans. They used napalm bombs for the first time in the Greek mountains, the ones that they subsequently used in Vietnam.  But despite the strength of the US troops they could not achieve their goals thanks to the heroic resistance of the Greek partisans who had the support of the majority of the Greek population.

Tito-Soviet split

The situation changed dramatically in June 1948 after the Tito-Soviet split. That was a crucial moment for the partisan movement because, owing to its geographical position, Yugoslavia was the main supporter and supplier of the Greek partisan movement.  Neither Bulgaria nor Albania could help that much, because it was the Greek-Yugoslav border that was most suited for such arrangements.  The party leadership had to make a decision about what to do after the Tito-Soviet split.  Obviously, for the short-term good of the partisan movement, they should have taken Tito’s side.  Such a course, however, would have been pointless, because if you sell yourself to the wrong political line what would happen next?  Even if you won the war, what would you have?  A Tito-aligned regime that would make openings to the West?  Some people think it was a mistake that the Greek communist party took the ideologically correct decision to align with the USSR and denounce Tito.  The result was that Tito decided to stop helping the Greek partisans and closed the Greek border.  Nevertheless the fighting went on for a further one and a half years. At the end of 1949, however, despite the Greek communist party’s heroic and brave struggle, it was forced to declare a ceasefire and retreat to Bulgaria.

After the Greek Civil War

In the aftermath of that revolutionary struggle, the Greek Civil War, all hell was let loose: while about 300,000 Greek refugees fled to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, in Greece a regime of terror was established. About half a million Greeks were exiled to concentration camps in isolated uninhabited islands in the Aegean Sea.  Greece has many such small islands on its coastline which is as long as the whole of Africa. There were plenty of places to house political prisoners!  Political freedom was once again suppressed.  All this happened within living memory – in the 1950s.  In this American-style parliamentary democracy, many left-wing parties, the communist party and other communist sympathisers, were declared illegal.  Anyone applying for a job had to sign a declaration to the effect that he was not communist.  Refusal to sign could lead one to imprisonment or even to execution. In the 1950s, there were quite a few people executed for political reasons.  If the police found out that someone had not voted in the 1946 election, such a person was only too likely to face persecution by the police for being a communist or communist supporter.

During this time there were elections, and governments changed.  There was political stability, but the real government was run from the American Embassy.  There was heavy presence of American troops, and everywhere there were American bases.  The soldiers from those military bases could go out in the street and commit whatever crimes they wanted (drunken driving, killing people, raping women) and they could not be touched by Greek law because they were American soldiers.  More or less they acted like an occupation army.

After Stalin’s death

Going back to the end of the revolutionary struggle following the Civil War, most party members and partisans fled to Eastern Europe and the USSR.  The Greek communist party being illegal, its Central Committee was moved to Tashkent in the USSR.  The event that now affected not only the Greek workers’ movement, but the workers’ movements everywhere in the world, was the death of Stalin and the changed policy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union after it.  After 1953, the General Secretary of the Greek communist party many times openly opposed the counter-revolutionary politics of Khrushchev.  In May 1956, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union openly intervened in the internal affairs of the Greek communist party that was then based in the USSR and engineered the removal of Zachariadis from the post of General Secretary.  One year later the Khrushchevites engineered his expulsion from the Greek communist party, along with a significant number of his supporters.  Zachariadis spent the rest of his life exiled by the Khrushchevite revisionists to Siberia, where he died in 1973 (in Surgut), officially from a heart attack.  However, some people claim that he committed suicide and others claim that he was assassinated.  We do not know what happened because records pertaining to his death still remain secret.  This influenced what happened in Greece as a pro-Khrushchev leadership was forced on the illegal Greek communist party.  This in turn affected the struggle of the communist party to continue functioning illegally in Greece in the 1950s and 1960s.  Nevertheless, since the working-class movement, despite the revisionist influence, was one way or another, again rising up in Greece, the Americans had to take off the mask of parliamentary democracy they had donned in the 1960s.  In its place a Colonels’ junta, a Colonels’ dictatorship, was installed in 1967 which ruled for seven years.  This was not in fact a great change from the previous regime: an ‘elected’ government with ‘free’ elections – in which parties were declared illegal and therefore barred from standing – the difference was not so great.

Legalisation of KKE

With the collapse of the Junta in 1974, with more money flowing into Greece from the West, there began, under pressure from the Greek people, a gradual democratisation of the Greek political scene.  In 1975, after almost 30 years, the Greek communist party became legal again.  One or two years later, all the prisoners returned from exile.  As some people had spent over four decades in exile, their families often could hardly recognise them.

However, the advantage of all the political changes for the better was taken by a smart and charming person, Andreas Papandreou, the son of George Papandreou and the father of the present prime minister (we had three generations of Papandreou prime ministers!).  Being quite smart Andreas could sense the strong anti-imperialistic feelings of the Greek people, and he took great advantage of them.  He founded a new party, PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement) which is today the governing party. He declared when he founded it that he was not forming a social democratic party; he was forming a genuine socialist party.  In the 1970s the slogans were: ‘Bravely against the Americans’, ‘Bravely against NATO’, ‘Bravely against the American bases and against the EU’. The party displayed portraits of Marx and Che Guevara.  And in this way he managed to capitalise on that whole climate of democratisation in Greece.

For its part, the KKE did not react effectively.  On the one hand it was under the influence of the revisionist Soviet Union back then and, on the other hand, its leaders, after spending so many years in exile in the USSR, had perhaps rather lost touch with Greek society.  Moreover, the party itself had not operated as a legal party throughout most of its existence. Now that they were legal they found it difficult to play the game of parliamentary democracy.

The newly founded socialist party, PASOK, grew very rapidly in influence and, after six years, it found itself in government.  It completely dominated the political scene.  Of course, after becoming the government, nothing it had promised was implemented.  Under PASOK, Greece stayed in NATO; entered the EU; the American bases stayed; but thanks to his charisma the PASOK leader was still able to continue deceiving the Greek people.  Up to a point it could be said that the PASOK government contributed to the democratisation of Greek political life, but it was not PASOK that did that, it was pressure from the Greek people.

For the first time the Greek resistance movement was recognised.  Greek school books were altered so that they no longer referred to the Greek partisans as “agents of the Soviet Union” and “traitors to their country”. And they at least recognised it as having been a Civil War and not merely a question of communist bandits active in the countryside serving the interests of the USSR.  There was, to some extent, democratisation.

The main effect, however, was that PASOK, Andreas Papandreou in particular, proved to be much more effective than the Germans, the British or the American tanks in disorganising completely the Greek workers’ movement by projecting themselves as the popular protectors of the people. PASOK members used to attend parliament without wearing jackets, just in t-shirts, exuding a ‘revolutionary’ image. Even Andreas Papandreou, who was half American and had an American wife, still spouted hugely anti-American propaganda.  He laid claim to having a very good relationship with Yasser Arafat, with Gaddafi, and with every anti-imperialist movement in the whole world.  None of this really bothered the Americans as they could see clearly that he was acting in their interests. 

Counter revolution in USSR

Another major blow for the Greek working-class movement was the final victory in 1989/91of the counter-revolution in eastern Europe and the USSR.  The working class in Greece and almost everywhere around the world was demoralised by this. It became the trendy thing to be apolitical, not to discuss politics, to say ideology was a thing of the past.  Some people declared it was the “end of history”.  Of course all those things were an illusion.  The bourgeois class was well aware of it and took advantage of the collapse of the USSR to withdraw all the concessions it had made in previous years.

After the victory of the counter-revolution in the USSR, the Americans and the Western Europeans stopped financing Greece because they no longer had the need to create a showcase for capitalism on the border between East and West. The Greek bourgeoisie, no longer having anything to fear, intensified the exploitation of the Greek working class.   The conditions of the working class deteriorated, although the flow of immigrants from Asia to Greece did help, initially at least, to contribute a bit to the prosperity of the native population. But this was not to last for long.

KKE accept Marxism Leninism as its ideology

One good thing, however, was that the Greek communist party, despite having been for many years under revisionist influence, to some extent in the 1990s managed to reorganise itself.  It not only survived the counter revolution, at a time when most communist parties in Western Europe either ceased to exist or were transformed into democratic socialist or democratic left parties, or evolved into the euro-communist version of social democracy.  The KKE not only managed to survive all this but also, freed from the grip of Soviet Khrushchevism , was able to make a fairly effectively analysis of the causes of the victory of counter revolution and to establish itself as a worthy leader of the Greek working class, armed with Marxist-Leninist theory and ideology.  It emerged also with a new leadership, after suffering two splits that generated left-wing democratic parties.  It is quite interesting to note that even the General Secretary of the KKE in the 1990s wanted the party to change its name to ‘Democratic Left’ and abandon democratic centralism and become effectively a social democratic party.  But the KKE managed even to expel its General Secretary.

In the 1990s, under its new leadership, armed with Marxist-Leninist ideology and respecting the party’s revolutionary history and the blood of the thousands of Greek communists who had made the ultimate sacrifice over previous decades, the KKE managed to stand alongside the Greek working class against the class enemy.  Of course, the situation now in Greece is not what it should be under the current conditions, but it is still true that Greece is one of the few European countries where a militant working-class movement exists.  There is a communist party that, despite mistakes it has made in the past, remains a proper revolutionary party, accepting Marxism Leninism as its ideology, faithful to democratic centralism, recognising the revisionist turn in the USSR at the 20th Congress in 1956.

So, even if the party influence is not huge, it can manage in the elections to get something like 10 or 11 percent.  The situation is much better than in most European countries. Despite all the sorrows and pains of the 20th century, undoubtedly the era that began with the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Great October Revolution has not finished.  The road of the great revolutionary struggle is continuing and is still ahead of us.

Imperialism knows that very well – that is why it is afraid of us. That is why there was a proposal for the EU to declare communist symbols illegal. That’s why if anyone goes to the Baltic countries, like Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland, holding a communist newspaper from Greece, having a hammer and sickle, that person can be arrested just for that.  That’s why in the Czech Republic, although the party is quite revisionist, its communist youth organisation was declared illegal three years ago.  All this shows that imperialism is still afraid of the working class despite the defeat of the late 20th century.  Their fear shows very well that the 21st century, comrades, will be the century of our victory.