SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 155 - February 2012

Greece 2012: a new year of struggle

THE GERMAN and French governments are putting pressure on Greece to ‘find a solution’ to its debt crisis. They are threatening to deny another €130 billion bailout unless the Greek government reaches agreement with its bondholders. Investors are being urged to ‘write down’ half of the value of their holdings in Greek government banks. This action is being encouraged because of the desperate situation facing the euro, which French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, called "more tense than ever in the eurozone’s history".

However, it is the majority of Greek people who will be expected to take all the real pain to satisfy the markets. The unelected Greek prime minister, Lucas Papademos, had already started the year by announcing a new round of deep austerity cuts, preparing the ground for more large-scale confrontations between the government and the working class and youth.

Greece’s struggling families tried to make the best they could of Christmas. But, with the country set for a fifth year of deep recession, and the coalition government’s announcement of another €5 billion of spending cuts and €3.6 billion in new punishing taxes, and with unemployment officially at 18% (in reality, much higher), there was a noticeable lack of festive cheer.

Athens has been darker than usual, as many residents did not decorate the outside of their apartments with customary Christmas lights because they cannot afford the electricity bills. Many more homeless people are on the streets. There is a mass exodus by a new generation of migrants – Greek media estimate that 30,000 new ‘illegal’ Greek immigrants are in Australia, alone.

This desperate situation comes after another year of titanic struggles by the working class, including two 48-hour general strikes. The determination of the working masses to force the previous Pasok (Panhellenic Socialist Movement) government to stop its cuts was never in doubt. But they did not have a leadership equally determined to inflict a defeat on the government, or equipped with a viable alternative to the cuts agenda – a socialist perspective and socialist policies.

Last November, the Papademos government was imposed on the Greek people at the behest of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Union (EU) and the European Central Bank (ECB) - the infamous ‘troika’. The administration is made up of the ‘social democratic’ Pasok, right-wing New Democracy and the far-right LAOS party. During a visit to Athens in December, the troika demanded €2 billion more spending cuts, to be implemented by January. And it wants more savage cuts to be carried out before the ‘uncertainty’ of new parliamentary elections, originally due in February.

But the ruling parties fear that imposing more heavy cuts will prove disastrous for them in the polls, even if they postpone the elections as many speculate. They have good reason to be concerned. The left – including the KKE (Communist Party), Synaspismos (Coalition of the Left of Movements and Ecology) and Syriza – is gaining support, sometimes reaching 30% in polls.

When Greece joined the eurozone in 2001 there was much fanfare, especially from Pasok. Then, hosting the Olympics in 2004 encouraged illusions that society was going forward and Greeks could expect ever rising living standards. Within a few years, however, Greece was hit by deep economic crisis and working-class and middle-class people were being asked to pay for the crisis of the capitalist system with enormous cuts. Now, the younger generation face a future of worse living conditions than their parents. According to official figures, it will take until 2057 before the country’s debt is fully paid off!

The ruling class is under immense pressure from two sides: the working class, which is resolutely opposed to having to pay for the crisis; and the troika, which demands ever more severe cuts. But Greek ruling circles are also aware of the weakness of the leadership of the working class, and this allows them some room to manoeuvre and to carry out brutal austerity measures.

Last year was a trial of strength between the bosses and the country’s working people and youth. The summer occupation movement in city and town squares was largely made up of youth and was not under the control of the union leaderships. Its development played an important role in pushing back the far-right – an expression of counter-revolution – which had mounted vicious attacks against immigrants in previous weeks.

The class struggle reached its highest point in October, when the second 48-hour general strike had the potential to remove immediately the hugely unpopular and isolated Pasok government. This would have posed the question of an alternative government based on the interests of working class people. There were revolutionary elements in the situation, but the key missing factor was a revolutionary party with mass support to lead the struggle successfully.

The huge general strikes showed how little support the Pasok government had. Public-sector workers occupied government ministry buildings, kicking top bureaucrats out of their offices. This left visiting officials from the troika, who act like arrogant colonialists, unable to communicate with the ministries. There were also significant moves towards local neighbourhood struggles. Annual, second world war commemorations became the focus for unprecedented, open defiance of politicians and establishment figures.

But the two main left parties, Syriza and the KKE, did not lead the mass movements. Rather, they were compelled by the militant mood to come in behind the struggles. The KKE called for ‘people’s power’ to deal with the sovereign debt crisis, as ‘the first stage’ to resolve the situation. It argued that there was ‘not a revolutionary situation in Greece’ and that, therefore, it was not the KKE’s duty to fight for system change and socialism.

Yet the October mass struggle was a mighty blow against the Pasok government and played a key role in its eventual downfall. With a bold working-class leadership the October movement could have pushed on to fight for a government representing the interests of the mass of working-class people. In the absence of a far-sighted, revolutionary socialist leadership, however, the ruling classes in Greece and Europe were able to impose a new pro-capitalist ‘government of the bankers’ on the Greek people.

Not surprisingly, after months of major strikes and continuous social struggles, but without achieving their main aims, many workers and youth are tired. Some are exhausted and pessimistic. But these moods will not last for long. New struggles are on the agenda. Working people and youth will have no choice but to fight back against the new raft of cuts. Many will have learnt the lessons of 2011 and will fight to take democratic control of the unions from the bureaucracy, so that they are fully representative of the views and aims of the working class.

There are crucial industrial disputes taking place now, despite the general downturn in class struggle. Steel workers have been on strike for three months. Journalists are taking action. Workers in the mental health sector, which is fundamentally government financed but run privately, were told in the run up to Christmas that they could either take a 50% wage cut or face 50% job losses! More assaults on public-sector jobs and working conditions are set for the months ahead. Sections of the pro-Pasok unions have announced they are no longer linked to the party due to its vicious cuts record.

Moreover, the ruling parties are divided on how to press ahead with the austerity programme. When in opposition, New Democracy and LAOS opportunistically opposed some cuts. Now, in a coalition government with Pasok, they are increasingly exposed as also standing for yet more misery.

In this situation, the left parties are picking up support. Between them, Syriza and the KKE are getting up to 30%, according to most polls. In one survey, 60% of KKE voters wanted a coalition with Syriza. In recent months, joint activities have taken place between the two parties, mainly due to the pressure of the workers’ movement and despite the unwillingness of the KKE leadership.

In the political situation opening up, the left parties will have a unique and historic opportunity to play a decisive role. But, to bring about the kind of fundamental changes required to provide real and lasting solutions to the deep problems faced by the workers and society, the left must adopt a radical socialist programme and fight decisively for system change.

Supporters of Xekinima (CWI Greece) argue for a ‘united left’ to contest the elections, to fight for a majority left-wing government. The left must avoid the trap of going into coalition with pro-capitalist parties, which would mean aiding the anti-working class cuts agenda. It should call for no cuts, non-payment of the debt, huge investment in jobs, housing, health and welfare, and for the major planks of the economy to be taken into democratic public ownership and management.

Although more on the left are now calling for nationalisation, there is still a paucity of socialist perspectives and policies coming from the larger left parties. The Syriza leadership calls for the ‘freezing of the debt’, rather than for a refusal to pay the monstrous burden imposed on the Greek people. The KKE only offers abstract slogans, calling for a ‘people’s government’. It does not advocate any practical alternative.

The lack of a viable socialist perspective from the main left parties partly explains why an increasing number of commentators and sections of the left are now calling for Greece to exit the eurozone as a way to ‘solve’ the crisis. It is true that leaving the eurozone would probably lead to the rapid devaluation of a Greek national currency and allow for cheap exports from Greece. Those supporting this move claim that Greece would then be able to export its way out of recession and pay off its national debt.

A devalued currency, however, will also mean more expensive imports and a hike in inflation. What is this but austerity by another name? Also, where would Greece export to? The EU is facing a double-dip recession and even Germany’s economy is slowing down. China and the other BRICs are heading towards slowed growth, even a hard landing in some cases. Greece leaving the euro would also likely trigger a flight of capital from the country and a ‘strike’ of foreign investment into Greece.

At the moment, the majority of Greeks do not want to leave the euro, fearing it means even worse economic crisis and a steeper decline in living standards. But, as the crisis deepens and cuts continue, the demand to leave may grow and could even become a majority. Staying in or leaving the eurozone is not an issue of principle for socialists. Remaining with the euro has meant Greek workers facing the draconian dictates of the troika, which has ruined so many livelihoods and lives. But exiting the euro, within the framework of capitalism, is no solution for working people, either. Xekinima calls for a socialist, internationalist solution, which would see the major parts of the Greek economy taken into democratic workers’ control and management. This is linked to solidarity with the struggles of European workers fighting their own cuts, as part of a common fight to transform society, for a socialist federation of Europe.

Such an approach is vital. Fascist groups, like Golden Dawn, are again trying to exploit the mood of despondency and alienation among sections of the most downtrodden in society. They have stepped up attacks on immigrants and launched a so-called ‘youth should fight for a future’ campaign in the poorer areas of Athens. Some of the left, particularly Synaspismos and the KKE, decided to ignore the neo-fascists. But this only gave the far-right confidence to build, unhindered by serious opposition. Golden Dawn even managed to recruit bus drivers in Athens. However, workers and other activists, led by a Xekinima member on the executive committee of the bus drivers’ union, campaigned against this far-right poison. The fascists were successfully exposed and their influence seriously weekend in the course of the last few months of 2011.

Greek workers in 2012 face increasing austerity measures without respite. The troika demands that more cuts are agreed before further loan instalments are given to Greece. These cuts will further reduce the living standards of the working class, hitting the poorest and most vulnerable hardest. Women are worst affected: one in five is unemployed and, on average, women workers get 20% less in salaries than men. Domestic violence is rising, linked to a sharp surge in drug and alcohol abuse, a result of joblessness and a collapse in living standards.

At the same time, the government takes a timid approach to the tax evasion of the elite in society. Workers earning a paltry €5,000 a year are now eligible to pay income tax. The government’s privatisation plans are to be stepped up, including the sell off of Athens international airport. All this marks a clear intent by the bosses’ and big bankers’ government to carry out yet more assaults on public-sector jobs and conditions, and on the working class and poor as a whole.

The apparent quiet in Greek society is an illusion. The Papademos government is not enjoying a honeymoon. The mood beneath the surface is boiling and political polarisation increasing. The conditions for more class conflicts are maturing, and 2012 promises to be another tumultuous year.

Niall Mulholland, CWI


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