Greece at the crossroads

Addressing public sector workers striking in defence of their pension rights on 10 May, the general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, Bob Crow, told the assembled throng:

“We should be taking action across Britain today, not just PCS, UCU and the other unions, but everyone taking action. We should be turning back the tide. The rest of the trade union movement has got to start waking up… We need the entire trade union movement to link up. Why is it they can take general strike action in Greece, Spain and France and we can’t?”

It’s a fair question. Why is it that the Greek masses, even those still confused by the siren songs of social democracy, seem to be so much more advanced in political maturity by comparison with the labour movement in Britain? This may seem strange at first sight. After all, Greece is, in terms of capitalist development, feeble by comparison with a monopoly capitalist titan like Britain. And whilst it is true that at this historical juncture every step of capitalist advance is also a step deeper into parasitism and dotage (with British imperialism celebrating the collapse of the economy with a nauseating outpouring of slavish adoration of its decrepit monarchy), the Marxist understanding of the relation between modern industrial development and proletarian advances in class organisation and consciousness might still lead us to expect that British conditions favour a more rapid development of political maturity than those obtaining in Greece, in whose relatively backward economy small-scale production still plays so marked a role.

A revolutionary history

To make sense of this apparent conundrum, we need to bear in mind the rich and painful revolutionary experiences the Greek masses have made over the last seven decades, most notably in resisting the invasion, occupation, starvation and postwar meddling inflicted in turn by Italian, German, British and US imperialism. Indelible in the memory of the people was the role played by the communists throughout in leading the national resistance against such an array of enemies, a memory which helps explain the substantial influence the KKE has exerted ever since within the organised working class. That influence has weathered even the party’s weakest period of dalliance with Eurocommunism, and has grown steadily stronger in more recent years, as a renewal of the party’s Marxist-Leninist orientation has made it possible for it to give crucial leadership in today’s resistance struggle against international monopoly capital and its domestic hirelings.

When the anti-imperialist resistance was crushed at the end of the ’40s, with the cream of the revolutionary working class and peasantry assassinated, incarcerated or exiled, the restoration of bourgeois dictatorship was from the first a brutal and fragile affair, relying heavily upon anglo-american muscle to prop it up and with naked class war never far below the surface.

The Junta years from 1967 to 1974 revealed the persistent fragility of bourgeois democracy, and Greece emerged from that brutal interlude with a political landscape which differed in some important respects from the more common western European models. In order to secure its support among the masses, social democracy found it necessary to associate itself with the anti-fascist resistance, expressing hostility to US imperialism and support for the Palestinian struggle. Such a form of social democracy, whilst still objectively functioning as an ideological prop for the bourgeoisie, was clearly a different kettle of fish from the Labour party, and gives us a sense of the kind of class pressure which obliged PASOK to jump through such hoops to maintain popular support. Now that PASOK’s brand of left nationalism has been exposed as a fraud by its capitulation to EU bullying, its mass support has abruptly evaporated.

6 May elections

In recent years it had seemed that the alternation of government between PASOK and New Democracy ND) bore some formal resemblance to the tick tock between Labour and the Tories (though that mechanism too is showing signs of wear). But with the economic shocks now being visited upon the Greek people, the shadow boxing between the two major capitalist parties has ended ignominiously, with both PASOK and ND submitting to EU diktat – yet neither after the inconclusive 6 May election able or willing to form a government tasked with implementing the super-austerity programme demanded.

The elections of 6 May gave a temporary boost to the Syriza coalition of left social democratic forces now pushing to fill the vacuum created by the abdication of the two major bourgeois parties. Whereas PASOK and ND accept EU diktat but won’t take responsibility for implementing it, Syriza asks workers to believe that an acceptable solution can be found within the EU imperialist framework, simply requiring the renegotiation of the offending Memorandum. Syriza invited the KKE to join them in this exercise in sowing illusions amongst the masses, despite the fact that the KKE had publicly stated before the election that under current circumstances it would not assist in forming a coalition with any other forces.

The bedrock of Syriza, if something so nebulous and eclectic can be said to have a bedrock, is Synaspismos, a party which began in the ’80s as a temporary electoral alliance between the KKE and their former comrades, revisionists of the Eurocommunist persuasion, who had rebranded themselves as the Greek Left. Counter-revolution in the Soviet Union served as a wake up call for comrades of the KKE to start reclaiming their Marxist Leninist history, leaving Synaspismos in the process. The rudderless Greek left then gathered about itself various other flotsam and jetsam of the rootless left and the resultant coalition eventually declared itself to be a political party. By 2007 its brand of left opportunism had bagged 14 seats in parliament and in the following years of deepening economic and social crisis its blend of revolutionary phrase making and social democratic practice has temporarily drawn towards it some of those hardest hit and most angry, including many young people and migrants. In the 6 May elections the party secured 52 seats, twice as many as KKE.

The KKE offered the following description of the political landscape which stood revealed after the collapse of PASOK and ND at the 6 May elections. The result of those elections, they maintained,

“leads to the reinforcement of the tendency for the renovation of the political scene, as it had been formed for three decades with the rotation of ND and PASOK in the government since these parties have suffered a heavy defeat. The reversal of the political scene, in the form it took with the election result, does not constitute any political overthrow. In the conditions of justified anger and indignation, the logic of punishment and the illusion that there exist immediate solutions from above and through negotiations, prevailed.”

The KKE adds: ” Despite the spectacular decline of ND and PASOK the election result does not constitute a new era in the correlation of forces between the people and the monopolies, an overthrow or a ‘peaceful revolution’ as has been said. The reforming of the bourgeois political scene, which still finds itself in a transitional phase, serves the attempt to inhibit the tendency of radicalisation, and the liberation from the bourgeois and political influence. Its main characteristic is the restoration of the centre-right and centre-left, the recomposition of social democracy with the forces of Syriza initially as its core. The power of the monopolies needs the renovated bourgeois political system, and possibly with the creation of new parties, to provide the respective alliances and coalition governments. This possibility to attempt the renovation of the system is based on the fact that the forces of the “EU one way-street”, the forces that serve the interests of capital, of the capitalist system, were not reduced in terms of their overall vote.”

17 June elections

The collective failure of bourgeois nerve, encompassing Syriza no less than its more obviously reactionary stable mates, obliged the ruling class to return to elections in June, when the conservative ND beat Syriza by a narrow margin.

In the period preceding the 17 June elections, the KKE spelt out how it proposed to discharge its responsibility to the masses. Whilst making it clear that the communists would contest any new elections with full seriousness, fighting on a revolutionary platform, they also warned against any temptation to become mesmerised by the bourgeois political process.

“The people should not have a position of “wait and see” regarding these processes that start with the attempt to form a government. The hard core of the bourgeois class, the business groups as well as… the EU and the IMF will play an active role in the renovation of the political system. They seek to provide substitutes to the people as soon as possible before the workers and people’s radicalism, the organisation and the initiative of the people becomes stronger and acquires mass characteristics… The renovation of the bourgeois political system must be confronted by the people’s vigilance and readiness along with the mass organisation and struggle in the workplaces , in the sectors, the offices, the people’s neighbourhoods, the countryside, in schools , universities and vocational schools with immediate demands to repel the new measures which are on the way. No toleration for the slogans of renegotiation, the gradual disengagement from the memoranda and the loan agreement in the framework of the bodies of the EU and the IMF… The role and the responsibilities of the party increase. It is the irreplaceable and decisive force for the people’s movement that will struggle, counterattack and have the prospect of the conquest of the workers’ and people’s power and economy, for the disengagement from the EU and the unilateral cancellation of the debt, the socialization of the means of production, the productive cooperatives of the people , the nationwide planning for the utilization of the development potential of the country with workers’ and people’s control from the bottom up.” (All quotations from the Statement of the CC of the KKE on the election result of the 6th May 2012)

The hairsbreadth victory of ND in June prompted a collective sigh of relief from the markets but does nothing to resolve the crisis, neither for the masses nor for capitalism itself. At time of writing the expectation is that ND will form a government in coalition with PASOK and the former Euro communist renegades of the Democratic Left. This resolves nothing either for capitalism (with the Eurozone crisis ripening daily) or for the Greek masses facing austerity. Jobless figures show that already by March youth unemployment topped 50%, lines are forming outside soup kitchens and the sick are deprived of medicine as the state fails to reimburse pharmacies.

Meanwhile the growing anger of the masses against the social destruction wrought by the crisis which expresses itself under the conditions of bourgeois democracy in a bubble of support for Syriza must sooner or later outgrow that left social democratic coalition and set out again on the revolutionary road, a road to which historically the Greek proletariat is no stranger.

RCG jump on the Syriza bandwagon

The Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG) appears to have joined the long and winding queue of British lefties wanting to pledge allegiance to Syriza, jostling in the company of the whole left Labour and Trot rabble whom they habitually affect to despise. The summer issue of “Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism” points in at least two directions at the same time. In the lead article, David Yaffe correctly explains that the dominant powers in the EU are using the new fiscal pact to “create the fiscal and political union necessary for a strong European imperialist bloc”. Strengthening the hand of European monopoly capitalism in its struggle for markets against all rivals, especially the US, is after all the core reason for the EU’s existence. It is well that the author warns us that the much-lionized leader of Syriza declares himself as “not against a united Europe or monetary union”. And lest it be supposed that the united Europe Tsipras refers to is not the existing gang of monopoly capitalists headquartered in Berlin, but some other as yet to be realised socialist Europe united in brotherly love, one of his aides is on hand with the assurance that “we will not proceed with any unilateral action that might question Greece’s membership of the eurozone”. From Yaffe’s own account it is clear that it would be a big mistake for workers to suppose that salvation from austerity might be found under the auspices of the EU.

Yet having issued these useful health warnings, he switches straight into a call for “a united front with Syriza to defeat the austerity pact”, and castigates the KKE for its “sectarian refusal” to join such a front! In a re-run of the classic Trot line which blames the KPD for the rise of Hitler, we are warned that such “sectarian” behaviour risks promoting the rise of the fascist Golden Dawn. The KKE, we are told, “plays into the hands of right-wing and national chauvinist forces” by choosing not to support Syriza’s electoral promises to deliver an austerity-busting renegotiation of the Memorandum within the EU framework.

The reality is that no such escape from austerity can be achieved either within or without the EU, with the Euro or with the Drachma, under the conditions imposed by the crisis of capitalism. The KKE warns the masses not to fall for these false dilemmas, and instead to unite behind the struggle to denounce the debt and overthrow capitalism.

As for the fascist threat, in the case of Greece now, just as was the case of Germany in the ’30s, it is social democracy that has kept the bourgeois foot jammed firmly in the door of organized labour for so long, thereby disarming the masses when capitalism inevitably reverts to barbaric type when full-blown crisis returns. Totting up the votes of the “anti-austerity” parties and concluding that the elections could have delivered an effective “anti-austerity” government in Athens may be good arithmetic but it is bad politics. On the hustings even the “pro-austerity” ND and PASOK had to hint at the possibility of tweaking the Memorandum to soften the more draconian measures, and as noted earlier the leader of “anti-austerity” Syriza has disavowed any intention of rocking the Eurozone boat. The real divide is not between those forces that are “pro” or “anti” austerity, but between those forces that help divide and disorganize the masses by spreading illusions in the prospects of dodging austerity within the confines of capitalism, and those forces that are consistently working to unite and organize the masses behind the perspective of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. We leave it to comrades of the Revolutionary Communist Group to decide on which side of this divide they would prefer to rest.

Lessons for the working class in Britain

Temporary political groupings in the UK like TUSC and Respect might well envy Syriza its current dizzying successes on the Greek hustings, dreaming that Galloway’s one-off election victory in Bradford and TUSC’s subsequent modest progress in the local elections might prove to be straws in a similar left opportunist wind.

In a recent National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) newsletter, we find the following sentiments: “Bravo the Greek workers! After years of battling massive cuts to living standards with general strike after general strike, they have now taken the fight against this terrible austerity to new heights. The huge increase in the vote for Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) in the recent general election of up to nearly 17% and 52 seats in Parliament shows that workers and the impoverished middle class have had enough.”

Syriza’s success in the May and June polls is indeed a reflection, albeit a distorted one, of the massive groundswell of proletarian anger which certainly has sparked “general strike after general strike”. But before one is tempted to conflate the progress of the working class towards their social emancipation with the progress of Syriza up the greasy pole of bourgeois democracy, consideration should be given to the enormous significance of both the KKE and the popular front PAME movement which it mobilises in forcing through the strike struggle in the teeth of opposition from the large sections of the trade union movement which remain hamstrung by their fealty to PASOK. The role of Marxist Leninist leadership, wilfully ignored or written off as “sectarian” by the sectarians of the British left, is the one aspect of the Greek class struggle which would most reward serious study by workers in Britain.

Bravo the Greek workers indeed. And bravo the progress they continue to make in breaking the chains which would bind them to social democracy. Let this serve as a good example to workers in Britain engaged in their own struggle to break the link with Labour and all its Trot and revisionist satellites.