SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 119 - June 2008

A Greek drama

General strikes & political ferment

THREE 24-HOUR general strikes have rocked Greece in recent months: on 12 December 2007, 13 February and 19 March 2008. Anger has erupted at attacks on state pension provision and corruption at the top of the political establishment. Each strike wave has increased in intensity, each general strike involving two to three million workers – out of a population just over eleven million. Pressure is piling onto the neo-liberal, ‘centre-right’ New Democracy government, led by prime minister, Kostas Karamanlis, which hangs by a thread with a majority of only one MP.

On Wednesday 12 December, mainstream media reported over 100,000 demonstrating in the capital, Athens, with more than 20,000 on the streets of Salonika. There were massive strikes and demos in all major cities, on a scale not been seen for many years.

The private and public sectors came to a standstill. Schools, universities, hospitals, telecoms, the state electricity company, Olympic Airways, banks, ports, boats, construction, cement companies, mines, and textile workers, all took strike action. The only things that moved during the protest hours were the trains and metro – to take workers and youth to the demonstrations. Then they stopped too.

The Greek trade union confederations in the private and public sectors, GSEE and ADEDY, had called the action as a matter of routine, one of the usual ‘general strikes’ called to let off steam. What they had done, in reality, was ignite the explosive anger of the working class and youth as the government’s plans to launch these latest attacks became increasingly clear.

On Wednesday 13 February, workers, pensioners and youth came out for the second time in a general strike. Up to 50,000 rallied in Athens, with demos in 63 other towns. On top of the pensions attack – which initially targets the new generation of young workers and those in the private sector (see box) – the government also plans to sell off Olympic Airways, and to privatise the public electricity company and the ports in Piraeus and Salonika.

The anger was magnified by numerous corruption and sex scandals involving establishment politicians. Working-class people hear on a daily basis about tens of millions of euros exchanging hands at the same time as they suffer from rising inflation and unemployment, as well as continual attacks on their living standards and rights. Soon after the December strikes, the labour minister responsible for the pensions bill was sacked. And around the same time, another MP was forced to go ‘independent’ as a result of another scandal, reducing New Democracy’s formal majority to one MP.

Incredibly, polls indicated that the former social-democratic party, PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement), was losing support even faster than the ruling party. These two bourgeois parties were registering no more than 50% combined support – a few years ago they were on 80%. In contrast, the ‘Communist’ Party (KKE) and SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) together were on more than 20% – in the early 1990s, they had around 7% combined. SYRIZA made the biggest gains, up to 10%, compared to 3% three years previously.

Again, on Wednesday 19 March, Greece experienced one of the greatest general strikes in its history, the culmination of three weeks of industrial action. Around 150,000 demonstrated in Athens. The following day, the bill on pensions going through parliament was met with mass protest rallies. Some strikes continued into 21 March, but the previous three weeks had seen one sector of workers after another out on strike.

Dockers were among the first to take industrial action, including strikes and a three-month work-to-rule. There were violent clashes with police ‘special forces’ in the big ports of Pireas and Salonika. Bin workers came out all over Greece, striking for 13 working days.

State electricity company workers struck for 18 working days, causing daily nationwide power cuts. The management took the union federation to court, the judges ruling that the strike must end and that the federation should not call any future strikes on the issue of pension cuts. But the strike continued. Nonetheless, the ruling encouraged other bosses to take legal action. However, advocates and lawyers went on strike from 17 March to 20 March and the courts ceased to function!

Bank workers struck for a week. Mass media workers were involved in several 48-hour strikes, while telecoms, bus, metro and tram workers took a number of 24-hour strikes.

Government propaganda failed to turn public opinion against the strikers: 85% want the pension bill scrapped. SYRIZA, which won 5% of the vote in the last general election in September 2007, shot up to over 15% in opinion polls. The ruling capitalist class fears that the two-party system it has relied on for decades is now in real danger.

The Greek pension scheme swindle

THE GOVERNMENT plans to raise the retirement age to 65 years and cut pensions by up to one third. Currently, a worker who has completed 35 years in work, and paid into the social insurance funds, can retire at 58. Also, mothers in their mid-40s who have dependents have the choice of taking early retirement. These will no longer be possible. Industrial workers who work under particularly bad or dangerous conditions, and those on early pensions because of serious health problems, will have their cases ‘reassessed’. Through a farcical ‘voluntarily’ work scheme, by lowering pensions the government will force workers to work up to 68 years old.

Two thirds of all pensioners in Greece (1.6 million) receive less than €580 per month, already a starvation income. Over the years, better-off sections of the working class developed supplementary pension funds because of the low level of the state pension. In this way, they could get pensions of between €1,000-€1,300 – still a very modest amount. Now the government wants to cut these by up to 44% and to use the money to pay the deficits of the ‘poor’ funds.

Successive PASOK and New Democracy governments have blamed demographic changes – that the population is becoming older and pension and health funds cannot respond. Of course, demographic changes put pressure on pension provision, but the main reason for the deficits is that they have been looted in the past, and continue to be so, by Greek capitalists.

Between the mid-1950s and mid-1980s the funds were, by law, handed over to the central bank, which then lent them with next-to-zero interest rates to industrialists and ship owners, supposedly to help develop the economy. At that time, inflation in Greece was running between 20-25% annually. With the interest rate at around 0% the funds quickly vanished. In this way, €83 billion (in today’s prices), around 40% of current gross domestic product (GDP), was ‘lost’ – stolen and handed over to the capitalists.

The government has been required since 2002 to supply 1% of GDP annually to support the social security system. But it doesn’t! As a result, the Greek state is the greatest debtor to the funds, owing around €12.4 billion. Many private-sector employers follow the government’s example, yet none has ever been arrested or punished. This affects an estimated 1.1 million workers, close to one third of the labour force, and costs the pension and health funds an average of €5.4 billion every year. On top of all this, hundreds of millions of euros have been lost through stock exchange ‘investment’ scams.

The Institute of Labour of the Trade Union Confederation estimates that, if all the wealth of the pension and health funds had remained intact, there would be enough to pay a pension of €1,000 per month to every Greek worker. Also, by cutting back pensions and health services, ever larger numbers of people are forced to go to private insurance companies and hospitals.

Historic opportunity for the Greek left

Over the last year, Xekinima (CWI Greece) has been discussing its participation in SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left), which was set up in 2004. SYRIZA’s growth has dealt a blow against the two-party dominance of New Democracy and PASOK and has been greeted enthusiastically by workers and young people, radicalised by the current mass strike waves. Below is an edited transcript of a speech to a national meeting of SYRIZA (14-16 March) by ANDROS PAYIATSOS, general secretary of Xekinima.

"DEAR COMRADES, I’D like to give sincere greetings from my organisation that has openly and clearly moved towards SYRIZA in recent months. As many of you know, Xekinima is in a period of internal discussion about participating in SYRIZA. This process started ten months ago when Xekinima began to draw the conclusion that the only serious political developments on the left, with the real potential and perspective of having an impact on society and the mass movement, are visible in SYRIZA.

As a result, Xekinima called in the last election for a vote for SYRIZA. This was an important change as, previously, we had called for ‘a vote for left parties’ in general. These new conclusions still need to be transformed into resolutions at the next conference of Xekinima, set for the beginning of June.

We are here today to share our enthusiasm with you about the big steps forward on the left, and the rapid rise in the echo SYRIZA finds in society. The strong blow, which the two-party system has had to accept, has panicked the two parties of capital, New Democracy and PASOK. For the first time in two decades the left has returned to the stage and is sending society a strong message: to offer resistance, that the battle has not been lost, and that policies can be overturned and circumstances can change.

The soaring support for the left and SYRIZA in recent polls strengthens, in an indirect but clear way, the morale of ordinary people. It gives workers a perspective of being able to fight against capitalist policies. They are beginning to recreate a vision of an alternative society, which was ‘lost’ in the last period. This vision is, in our opinion, totally necessary to give the workers’ movement a perspective, to raise its morale and aims, and to win objectives. All these developments change the conditions of class struggle in favour of the workers’ movement, youth and ordinary layers of the population.

At the same time, this enthusiasm is accompanied by the problems which many speakers have raised at this conference. These problems concern the feeling of responsibility and duty. The responsibility for winning 3% [in the 2004 elections] or even 5% [in 2007] is really small compared to the responsibility for the 17-18% seen in recent opinion polls.

Questions raised

THERE ARE questions about SYRIZA, not only among the people who are active in the movement, but also in the broad layers of the population. Firstly, will SYRIZA maintain its percentages in the polls or will it decline again? The second question is much more important: if SYRIZA can maintain its support, will we finally have something really new, or will it make the same mistakes again that the traditional parties of the left made in the past?

And when we talk about mistakes we need to know what we mean. The huge positive traditions of the left have been mentioned at this conference, and justifiably so. The example of the EAM [National Liberation Front – the KKE-controlled resistance movement during the second world war against fascist occupation] and others, the heroism of the left and so on. However, to be clear and draw the right conclusions, we need the full picture of the history of the left.

On one side we have EAM and ELAS [National Liberation Army, EAM’s armed wing] and, on the other, we have Varkiza [where in February 1945, EAM/ELAS agreed a ceasefire with British troops and the armed Greek rightwing, handing over its weapons]. On one side we have Aris Velouchiotis [leader of the partisans of ELAS who resisted the disarming] and, on the other side, those who drove Aris into desperation and suicide, ie the leadership of the KKE and Zachariadis [KKE leader] in particular. On one side we have the Polytechnic [scene of the 1973 student uprising against the then military dictatorship] and, on the other side, we have the governments of PASOK who built on the tradition of the Polytechnic only to betray everything they stood for and abandon the socialist ideas that inspired the working class in the 1970s.

These were not mistakes, they were betrayals! The fights, the victims and the heroism characterised the mass movement of the ordinary layers of the population. The betrayals characterised the leadership of these movements. In our opinion, this idea has to penetrate the consciousness, especially of the young generation, which is mistrustful, as has been said by other speakers. It is mistrustful with justification: fortunately, the youth is mistrustful of today's leadership. At the same time, we all understand that mistrust alone is not enough. The lessons must be drawn! The past betrayals must not happen again. What do we do about that? How do we guard against new mistakes and new betrayals?

We have the opinion that SYRIZA should have high targets. The possibilities of strengthening the left and left ideas exist and are, from an objective view, unlimited. The question is: will the left in general and SYRIZA in particular use these possibilities? The answer is ‘yes’, but only under certain conditions. In particular, we have to focus the discussion on what are the conditions for success of the next steps.

Deepening the move to the left

FOR US, THE first condition is that the moves to the left that were shown in Synaspismos [Coalition of the Left of Movements and Ecology] in the last two to three years, and which were reflected in SYRIZA, not only have to go further, but also have to be deepened and consolidated. The reason SYRIZA was able to use the objective opportunities of the crisis in the system – an economic, social and political crisis – and the reason why the percentages for SYRIZA have soared are the moves to the left of Synaspismos and SYRIZA in the last period. Without that, the upswing in the left was impossible and unthinkable.

Most of you would agree to what I have just said. But this proposal to deepen the move to the left should not be seen as an easy process. The stronger SYRIZA becomes, the stronger will be the pressure pushing it to the right or into joining a centre-left government. There is not enough time to develop this issue but we want to emphasise, comrades, that this pressure should not be underestimated.

This pressure will come from the bourgeoisie. It will be suffocating. It will come from the mass media, from PASOK, and even from the ‘public opinion’ that is influenced by the mass media and the bourgeois institutions. The pressure will also come from inside Synaspismos and from other parties in SYRIZA. If SYRIZA underestimates the dimensions and the complexity of the pressure, it will fall into the trap and gamble away an historic opportunity.

New formations

WE WOULD STRENGTHEN this argument by pointing to examples from recent European and worldwide experience. Some people may say that the reference to past decades is a past far removed from today and has a doubtful meaning. But let’s see which way the parties of the left took in the last two decades. In yesterday’s discussion, I had the impression that some of the comrades who spoke adopted the attitude of avoiding a real and honest discussion on problems characterising the new left formations, in Europe and internationally, wanting to sweep them under the carpet.

In the last 15 years there have been a lot of examples of ‘new formations’ on the left, particularly in Europe, but also worldwide. One of them is Rifondazione Comunista. This party inspired great movements in the past period. It brought millions of people on to the streets and helped to strengthen the morale of the movement in the whole of Europe.

Where does Rifondazione stand today? It couldn’t resist the temptation of seeking ministerial seats in the Prodi government. It became jointly responsible for implementing neo-liberal policies. The results, 20 months later, are that the menace of Berlusconi threatens to come back and Rifondazione finds itself in a deep internal crisis.

This is not a mistake. The leadership of Rifondazione stabbed a knife into the body of the Italian left, the Italian movement, the European left and the European movement. Nothing less! We have a responsibility to make this clear to the Greek movement. We have to explain who is responsible for it. At the same time, we must understand why. When and/or what will it mean if the parties on the left repeat this sad history?

The Socialist Party in the Netherlands and Die Linke [The Left] in Germany were given yesterday as good examples to follow and as a counterweight to the ‘Italian problems’. We cannot agree with this. The leadership of the SP in the Netherlands says publicly ‘yes’ to participating in a coalition government with the Dutch Labour Party. How can this be seen as positive? Die Linke in Germany doesn’t only say yes [to participation in coalition governments], it also does it already on the level of some of the federal states, many of which are far bigger than Greece!

A characteristic example is the regional government in Berlin. There, Die Linke is together with the Social Democrats in a government coalition that implements neo-liberal policies. Today, Die Linke is getting 14% in opinion polls. If it were invited tomorrow to go into a government coalition on a national level, there is no doubt about which kind of policy it would support.

Which way did these formations go after the initial euphoria? They moved to the right, almost without exception. And this paved the way for a split in some formations, like Respect in Britain last year. Or some of them disappeared, after some internal degenerate conflicts, like the SSP [Scottish Socialist Party] in Scotland.

The experiences of these old and new formations raise the following questions: how can SYRIZA avoid this path? How can we avoid this way? The aims and intentions are good. This is without any doubt. But are good intentions enough?

Political proposals & programme

THE FIRST STEP to assure the future of this ‘new left’ building up in Greece – up to a certain point (an absolute guarantee is not achievable) – is its political proposals, its programme, if it is called on to take governmental responsibilities. This issue is not abstract. If a political formation achieves 17-18% support, the question will certainly be asked: ‘What will it do when it is called to govern?’ On this question, the left cannot answer: ‘This doesn’t bother me’, or ‘this question is not important at the moment’. The left has to put its proposals very clearly.

The left also can’t say that ‘the proposals we make today must reflect the movement and its intensity’ or things like this. That is not enough. The movements cannot develop without political demands that come from the left. Both the movement and the left are linked together. If one of them is missing, the other one is in danger of becoming undermined.

In principle and in general the political proposals of the left, and of SYRIZA in particular, have to be presented openly before society. In this way they arm the members and supporters of SYRIZA politically and become the property of the mass movement. If the ideas of the left are not abstract but become concrete proposals and a programme for the mass movement of the working class, then the way for big changes is opened up. As a second point, the proposals have to be posed to the others on the left, particularly the KKE, to call them to united action on the basis of such a working-class programme.

Such a programme is also the best way to answer the pseudo-left and false appeals for ‘unity’ by the PASOK leadership. If these ideas become concrete, if this programme is in the service of the interests of the working class, then PASOK will forget its unity appeals and go on the offensive. It will reveal its real character as a party of the bourgeoisie, and people still supporting PASOK will see through its bluff.

Basic programme points

THUS THE CENTRAL issue is the programme, a programme in the interests of the working class. The whole of SYRIZA and all its components more or less agree to the following points: a drastic increase of wages and pensions; a 35-hour week, seven-hour day, five-day week; stop the flexibilisation of work; for permanent working contracts; in defence of social insurance, removing all anti-insurance laws from previous years; for mass investment in the public health and education systems; and many more issues like racism, gender equality, environmental questions and so on.

But, immediately, a number of crucial issues come up. Does any one of you, comrades, believe that capital or the EU will accept such a policy without hard conflicts? This won’t be the case. This leads us to the next question. Is SYRIZA prepared for such conflicts? We go further. Will SYRIZA, if it is called to take power, go on and renationalise the privatised companies? Will it nationalise all strategic economic units that are controlled by the 50 families that dominate the economy, so that the economy works for people’s needs and not for the profit of big capital? Will SYRIZA introduce a totally different model of administration, with accountable and removable administrations in all public companies, without special high wages or privileges, and develop an administration of a majority which is made up of workers’ representatives who can be recalled at any time?

If the left wants to remain true to its principles and proclamations, then everything that I have mentioned is necessary. But all of this means a frontal conflict with domestic and foreign capital. I ask you again comrades: is SYRIZA prepared for this conflict?

No, it isn’t. Not today. But the discussion has just started. And this is really important, a discussion that concerns the programmatic make-up of SYRIZA. This allows SYRIZA to prepare itself. In this way it can prepare for its historical contribution. If this is not done it cannot develop, and we will see the repetition of the big losses and disappointments of the past.

The explosive growth of SYRIZA puts before it heavy responsibilities and puts it under strong pressure, from the bourgeoisie, PASOK, the mass media and so on. But also under the pressure of society and the workers’ movement.

The only way to deal with the pressure of the ruling class and the positive pressure of the movement is to answer two decisive questions.

First, to give the proposals for a ‘new left government’ of the country – already raised by Alekos Alavanos [leader of SYRIZA’s parliamentary group] – a content that is concrete, practical and understandable to ordinary layers of the population. This content has to transform the programme into a tool and a guide for how to act.

Second, in the same way, content has to be given to the words ‘socialism with freedom and democracy’ in a concrete and practical manner, understandable to the large masses of the population. We repeat that this slogan has to become a programme of how to act.

Only in this way can we prepare for the big struggles that will come. Only in this way can the left prepare for the future. Only in this way can SYRIZA enact social transformation and open up new ways. Only in this way can the cynicism caused by past defeats and disappointments be ended. Only in this way can the left internationally, from Europe to Latin America, be given an example to follow."

SYRIZA: a glossary

SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) is led by Alekos Alavanos and was launched in January 2004 in time for legislative elections in which it won 3.1% of the vote. Alavanos was elected an MEP in 1981 for the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), and later as a Synaspismos MEP (elected 1989, 1994 and 1999), an MP since 2004 and Synaspismos president 2004-08.

SYRIZA is made up of the following organisations:

Synaspismos (SYN – Coalition of the Left of Movements and Ecology): Founded in 1991 out of an electoral coalition in which sections of the KKE and the Greek Left (EAR – successor to the Euro-communist KKE-Interior) were the largest components. Alexis Tsipras was elected party president at the congress in February this year, replacing Alavanos who resigned in order to deal mainly with SYRIZA.

Renewing Communist Ecological Left (AKOA): A left split from the KKE-Interior, with about 350 members and a well-known weekly newspaper selling up to 2,000 copies per week.

Internationalist Workers’ Left (DEA): A split-off from the Socialist Workers Party of Greece (SEK) in 2001, with around 300 members, mainly in Athens.

Kokkino (Red): Split from DEA in 2004, with around 100 members.

Movement for the United in Action Left (KEDA): Formed from a split from the KKE in the early 2000s, including Yiannis Theonas (former KKE MEP) and Mitsos Koslopoulos (former secretary general of the General Confederation of Greek Workers and former president of the KKE parliamentary group, who subsequently left KEDA’s leadership and became inactive in May 2007). KEDA retains a presence in some trade unions.

Active Citizens: Led by Manolis Glezos, who brought down the Nazi flag from the Acropolis during the occupation of Athens and raised the Greek flag in its place.

Other independent left individuals.

Communist Organisation of Greece (KOE): One of the Maoist groups which broke from their traditions and entered the Greek social forum, with about 1,000 members. Worked with SYRIZA since 2004 and formally joined in June 2007.

Ecological Intervention: Joined SYRIZA in August 2007.

Democratic Social Movement (DIKKI): A split from the former social-democratic PASOK in the mid-1990s, whose members call themselves ‘patriotic socialists’. After a long and unfruitful collaboration with the KKE, DIKKI approached SYRIZA in August 2007, joining in March 2008.

Formed in 2004, SYRIZA made no inroads in the general elections in the beginning of that year, increasing support for Synaspismos by a negligible 0.1% (to 3.1%). This caused an immediate crisis.

Synaspismos broke away and SYRIZA was dissolved. Synaspismos went into an alliance with DIKKI, hoping to gain support from PASOK voters, but the result in the euro-elections of the same year was again one of stagnation.

This time the crisis broke inside Synaspismos: its president was forced to resign and was replaced by the more left-wing, Alekos Alavanos. The programme adopted at the congress was a move to the left, raising the need to rebuild SYRIZA.

SYRIZA was relaunched, officially, in June 2007, adopting an anti-neoliberal programme, which mentions socialism explicitly.

In the previous period, Alavanos had become a prominent personality on the left as the main opposition to government policies. Under his presidency Synaspismos/SYRIZA took part in the struggles that were developing to a much greater extent than ever before. SYRIZA’s support for the education struggles was of decisive importance – the KKE and PASOK were initially against the university students’ struggle. SYRIZA was advancing at a time when PASOK, under the leadership of George Papandreou, was in deep crisis.

The turning point for SYRIZA came in the summer of 2007. It won 5% in the elections of September 2007, the KKE 8%.

The failure of PASOK to win caused a massive crisis in its ranks, giving an additional push to SYRIZA – by January 2008 its support in opinion polls rose to over 10%.

In February, Alavanos stepped down as president of Synaspismos, proposing Alexis Tsipras, a 33-year-old member to take the post. Tsipras was elected with 70% of the vote of the congress, supported by the leftwing of the party. This renewal pushed up support in the polls to 17-18%. Alavanos took over the leadership of SYRIZA’s parliamentary group.

Papandreou reestablished his control of PASOK at its latest congress, and is attempting to move to the left. He has even been seen on picket lines and demos. PASOK is openly calling on SYRIZA to agree on a future coalition government programme. The rightwing of Synaspismos, which controls the majority of its MPs, wants to join PASOK in government.

The result of the September 2007 general election gave 152 parliamentary seats to New Democracy, 102 to the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), 22 to the KKE, 14 to SYRIZA, and 10 to the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS – right-wing, nationalist populist). Since then, however, the New Democracy majority has been reduced to one seat as a result of sex and corruption scandals. Despite this it has been able to continue in government and apply its neo-liberal policies. The main reason for this is the unwillingness of the trade union leaders to fight battles to the end, which inevitably would mean bringing the government down, in line with the feelings of the majority of activists in the working-class movement.



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