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Socialism Today 159 - June 2012

Socialism Today 159 - June 2012Greece: workers versus capitalism

The elections on 6 May were a clear rejection of austerity by the majority of people in Greece. With a re-run due on 17 June, the political establishment and international capitalists are waging a fierce propaganda war to get the result they desire: a government pushing further savage cutbacks. Alexis Tsipras, leader of the left-wing coalition, Syriza, called it "a war between peoples and capitalism". TONY SAUNOIS (CWI) and ANDROS PAYIATOS (Xekinima – CWI Greece) report.

THE GREEK ELECTIONS on 6 May resulted in a political earthquake. Powerful aftershocks are still hitting the global economy, the EU, and Greece itself. These are now set to be the precursor to even stronger political and social upheavals.

The workers’ organisations and youth in Britain and the EU need to extend their solidarity to the Greek workers. The workers’ movement needs to oppose the demands that the ‘troika’ (European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund) and others are making for Greek workers to accept more austerity. Such solidarity is part of the workers’ struggle in all countries against the attacks on them by their own ruling class and governments.

The elections shattered the old established political allegiances, but no coalition of parties from either the left or right were able to form a parliamentary majority. The government has been left paralysed, and new elections have been called for 17 June. This parliamentary paralysis is a reflection of a Greek society in turmoil. There are powerful features of revolution and counter-revolution. Martin Wolf warned in the Financial Times: "Looting and rioting could occur. A coup or civil war would be conceivable". (A Permanent Precedent, 18 May)

Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left), whose share of the vote leapt from 4.6% to 16.78%, emerged as the second most successful group in the elections. This tremendously positive development, which has given hope to many workers and socialists that something similar could take place in their own countries, has terrified the ruling class in Greece, along with Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Mariano Rajoy and the other capitalist political leaders. It has thrown down a potential challenge to the troika and its austerity diktat.

The crucial question is: can this left advance be pushed further and channelled into a bigger victory in the second election? Will the Greek working class and its organisations embrace a rounded-out revolutionary socialist programme? Without this it will not be possible to resolve the crisis in Greece or begin to solve the devastating social consequences of the austerity packages thus far introduced.

As the elections also demonstrated, if the left fails to meet this political challenge with the correct programme, slogans, intensity of struggle and methods of organisation, then the far-right can step into the void. The growth of the fascist Golden Dawn, which emerged from the election with 6.97% of the vote and 21 MPs, is a serious warning to the Greek and European working class. It illustrates the threat which will emerge as the crisis deepens if the left fails to offer a real alternative to capitalism.

The collapse of the established political parties, especially New Democracy (ND) and the PanHellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), was the clearest manifestation of the overwhelming rejection of the parties which have slavishly followed the austerity demanded by the troika. Under ND and Pasok governments, and their outgoing coalition, Greece has been under effective occupation from international bankers, the ECB, IMF, and EU. The European capitalist classes have adopted a modern version of colonial rule, appointing EU commissioners as overseers in each government ministry.

The stooge parties of the EU have been vomited out by the Greek people. In the last three decades, ND and Pasok garnered between 75% and 85% of the votes in each election. Their combined vote this time was a mere 32.02% – 18.85% for ND, 13.18% for Pasok.

Brutal attack on living standards

THE GREEK WORKING and middle classes have suffered a brutal attack on living standards and working conditions for years. As a result of the economic crisis and austerity packages, Greece’s GDP (total output) will have fallen 20% from its 2008 level by the end of 2012. This is one of the largest ever falls in GDP suffered by any capitalist country since the depression of the 1930s.

These are not cold statistics. The lives of millions of working- and middle-class people have been shattered. The social consequences have been devastating. Public-sector workers have seen wages slashed by 40%. A cup of coffee costs the same in London or Athens. Yet in Greece many workers are paid only €400 per month, a pittance. These are literally starvation wages for many. The church estimates it is feeding 250,000 people at soup kitchens every day. Healthcare patients are expected to pay in advance for treatment, and the number of hospital beds is being slashed by 50%. One hospital refused to release a newborn infant until the mother paid the bill. Thousands of schools have been closed down. Many tens of thousands have fled the cities and gone back to the countryside where they can live with families and at least get access to food.

The middle class is being destroyed, with many becoming homeless, left to queue alongside the most downtrodden immigrant workers at food lines and homeless camps. These camps appear like a southern European version of the favela shantytowns of Brazil. Unemployment has soared to over 21% – an astonishing 51% among the youth.

The right wing, and the fascist Golden Dawn, have tried to whip up nationalism and racism by targeting illegal immigrants, whose numbers are estimated in hundreds of thousands. This is a major challenge for the workers’ and left organisations. Emergency measures to house and feed these people through the introduction of a special public works programme should be demanded by the left: a programme not at the expense of the Greek workers, but funded by the EU.

Workers fight back

THE GREEK WORKING class has tenaciously fought against these attacks and each government which has enacted them. Pasok replaced ND in the autumn of 2009, only to cave in to the diktats of the troika by applying the most vicious attacks against the Greek workers since the end of the civil war in 1949 – and ignoring its own promises to the contrary. Pasok’s support then collapsed as workers rejected its policies. The trade union leaders have been compelled, since the beginning of 2010, to call 16 general strikes – three of them for 48 hours – by the pressure of the workers. Still, the attacks have continued to rain down on the Greek population. The failure of the trade union leaders to take the struggle forward led to exhaustion among workers as one general strike followed another, appearing to lead nowhere. Now in the elections they have vented their rage against the pro-austerity parties.

Tens of thousands have emigrated, out of desperation. Many more are on the waiting lists. It has been estimated by the Greek press that there are currently 30,000 illegal Greek immigrants in Australia alone. Some have even gone to Nigeria and Kazakhstan, so desperate has life become.

Others, driven by desperation and the humiliation of the plight they find themselves in, have taken a more tragic exit. The international press featured the suicide of 77-year-old retired pharmacist, Dimitris Christoulas, who shot himself in front of the Greek parliament because of debt. The trigger was effectively pulled by the troika and its policies. Having increased 22%, the suicide rate in Greece is now the highest in Europe. One radical journalist who recently returned from Greece witnessed a Mercedes car driven into the sea by a small businessman who killed himself. Under Greek law debts cannot be passed onto the family. These are conditions reminiscent of those described in John Steinbeck’s epic novel about the US depression, The Grapes of Wrath.

There is bitterness, hatred and anger directed toward the Greek rich elite and their politicians who cannot safely walk the streets or enter public restaurants. The rich are transferring their money to Switzerland and other European countries while the mass of the population is left to suffer the consequences of the crisis. In the elections, the Greek people punished all those politicians and parties which had implemented the austerity policies.

The thorny issue of coalitions

THE LEADERSHIP OF Syriza, particularly its top figure, Alexis Tsipras, correctly took a bold stand by refusing to join a coalition with either Pasok or ND because of their support for the terms of the bailout and their continuing acceptance of austerity. He offered, instead, to form a left bloc with the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and tried to include the split from Syriza – Democratic Left – in order to fight for a left government.

Although limited, he proposed that this left front be based on a programme of freezing any further austerity measures, cancelling the law which abolishes collective bargaining and slashes the minimum wage to €490 per month, and launching a public investigation into the Greek debt, during which there would be a moratorium on debt repayments. This programme, although inadequate to deal with the depth of the crisis in Greece, would have been a starting point for developing the struggle against austerity and as a basis for a programme necessary to break with capitalism.

Scandalously, the leadership of the KKE refused to even meet with Tsipras – a continuation of its previous sectarian approach towards Syriza, the rest of the left, and the trade union movement. Syriza had correctly proposed a left front together with the KKE and Antarsya (Anti-Capitalist Left Coalition in the elections). This was refused. The idea of a left front of Syriza and the KKE was something initially campaigned for by the Greek CWI section, Xekinima, in the period 2008-10. Though viciously attacked initially, this idea gradually developed support and was eventually taken up by Tsipras and the Syriza leadership.

Had such a joint election list been formed it would have emerged as the largest force and got the 50-seat bonus in parliament which the Greek election system gives to the largest party. Even if this was not enough to form a parliamentary majority, it would have put the combined left forces in a commanding position to enter second elections and to offer the realistic prospect of a left government.

While the KKE refused to even consider joining a left coalition government, it has been prepared to join a capitalist coalition in the past. The KKE entered a coalition with ND in 1989. KKE general secretary, Aleka Papriga, has argued that they have learnt from this experience, using this to justify not joining forces with Syriza. However, a united left front, on the basis of fighting against austerity, is entirely different from joining a pro-capitalist government with ND.

A working-class left front led by workers’ parties could have served to unite in action the fragmented left forces in Greece. It could have led to the building of a powerful, organised movement outside parliament as a basis to challenge capitalism. Unfortunately, other left forces, like Antarsya, also adopted a similar attitude during the first election. However, Antarsya now faces huge pressure from below, and sections of its ranks are demanding a united front of some kind with Syriza in the 17 June elections. The issue is still being debated, with the majority in the leadership wanting to stand against Syriza. If this line is adopted by Antarsya, it will pay a heavy price with a serious fall in its support. Antarsya won 2% in the 2010 local elections, and 1.2% on 6 May.

The sectarianism of the KKE leadership has provoked opposition within its own ranks as well. Some party members said that they would vote for the KKE but urge others to vote for Syriza. A continuation of this policy is certain to increase opposition in the ranks of the KKE, and raises the possibility of a split within it. The KKE has paid a price for this sectarian policy. Its vote only increased by 19,000 (1%) to 8.48% in the May election. An opinion poll for the June election gave it 4.4%.

Despite the inadequacy of Syriza’s programme, its clear stand against austerity and refusal to enter coalition with any pro-austerity parties means it is strengthening its position. It is likely to emerge even stronger in the June elections. Opinion polls have put it on between 20% and 26%.

Tsipras has threatened not to pay the whole of the national debt, cut defence spending, and crack down on waste, corruption, and tax evasion by the rich. He has supported public control of the banking system, at times implying nationalisation. He has also spoken favourably of Franklin D Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’. It is a radical reform programme but does not break with capitalism. However, it is a starting point for an emergency programme of public works linked to the need for the nationalisation of the banks and key sectors of the economy, and the introduction of a democratic socialist plan.

The rapid electoral growth of Syriza has important lessons for other left forces in other countries. Such organisations can experience a rapid electoral growth from a low base when objective conditions are ripe. They need to establish a firm and clear profile to fight for workers’ interests to capitalise on the situation when other political parties have been tried and rejected. The electoral success achieved by the United Left Alliance in Ireland, especially the Socialist Party, illustrates this.

Syriza’s refusal to join a pro-cuts coalition with Pasok and ND, even on the basis of their promise to renegotiate the memorandum with the troika, is in marked contrast to other left forces and parties at this stage. In Italy, Rifondazione Comunista entered such coalitions at the local level and consequently destroyed its support. The Izquierda Unida (IU – United Left) in Spain, whose support grew in the recent election, has also now wrongly joined a coalition with PSOE in Andalucia. A continuation of this policy could erode the growth and development of the IU.

The pro-cuts parties, led by ND and Pasok, along with the troika, are desperately trying to turn the second election into a referendum on membership of the eurozone and the EU rather than on their austerity policies. They, along with the EU establishment, are launching a clear campaign arguing that to oppose the austerity package will mean Greece being ejected from the euro and probably the EU.

The EU and the euro

THIS IS A central issue in the Greek crisis and it is crucial for the left to have a clear policy and programme to face up to this question. Unfortunately, despite taking a bold stand against austerity and coalition with ND and Pasok, Tsipras and the Syriza leadership are not arguing for a clear alternative. In part, this reflects the pressure of a majority of Greeks who, while rejecting austerity, want to remain in the euro – 79% according to a recent poll.

This reflects an understandable fear of what would follow if Greece was ejected from the euro, including the potential isolation of Greece’s relatively small economy. The Greek masses are terrified of being thrown back to the social conditions of the 1950s and 1960s, or the high inflation of the 1970s and 1980s. Syriza and the left need to answer these fears and explain what the alternative is. It is clear that Tsipras is gambling that the EU would not throw Greece out of the eurozone because of the consequences it would have for the rest of the EU. Yet this is not at all certain.

The KKE, on the other hand, opposes the euro and the EU and attacks Syriza for its attitude on these issues. Politically, this is one of the justifications it uses for not joining a left front with Syriza. While the KKE formally speaks in very radical rhetoric about a "people’s revolt" or an "uprising", it adopts a propagandistic, abstract approach in practice. This is totally unfitted to the class polarisation and willingness to struggle which currently exists. It even justified not joining a left governmental front because, "what would then be the character of the opposition?" Opposition to the EU and the euro on a nationalist basis means the KKE is trapped in a capitalist framework. What is necessary is an internationalist socialist approach that links together the struggle of the Greek workers with the working class in other EU countries and beyond.

It is true that a section of the European ruling classes is terrified of the consequences of throwing Greece out of the eurozone. The Centre for Economic and Business Research estimates that a ‘disorderly’ collapse of the euro caused by Greece leaving could cost up to $1 trillion. An ‘orderly’ collapse would cost 2% of EU GDP – $300 billion. Such a development would have massive consequences for the whole of the EU and could result in the break-up of the eurozone, with possibly Spain and/or other countries breaking from it.

However, the overriding fear of the German ruling class and others is that, if substantial concessions are made to Greece then Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland would clamour for even more. This they cannot risk. Thus, the Centre for Economic and Business Research concludes: "The end of the euro in its current form is a certainty".

Tsipras and Syriza mistakenly believe that it is possible to remain in the eurozone and, at the same time, not introduce austerity policies against the working class. Yet the euro itself is an economic corset which allows the larger capitalist powers and companies to impose their austerity programme throughout the eurozone.

Syriza is correct to say it will refuse to introduce austerity. But how would it then face up to the threat of Greece’s ejection from the euro? This is the inevitable course events are now taking. It is not credible simply to respond by saying Greece will remain in the euro and oppose austerity. If it did this, and a left government was thrown out of the euro, Syriza would not have prepared itself to answer being blamed by the right wing for this development.

While most Greeks fear being ejected from the euro at this stage, that does not mean that the euro can or will be accepted at any price indefinitely. Syriza needs to respond to this attack by clearly explaining that, if we reject austerity, they will eject us from the eurozone. Even without a government opposing austerity Greece could be ejected from the euro.

Faced with such a situation, a left government should immediately introduce capital and credit controls to prevent a flight of capital from the country, nationalise all banks, finance institutions and major companies. It should cancel all debt repayment to the banks and financial institutions. The books should be opened to inspect all of the agreements made with international banks and markets. The assets of the rich should be seized and safeguards given to small savers and investors. It should introduce an emergency reconstruction programme drawn up democratically as part of a socialist plan which would include a plan to assist small businesses.

At the same time, Syriza and a democratic government of workers and all those exploited by capitalism should appeal to the working people of Europe – especially those facing a similar situation in Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Italy – to join them in solidarity and begin building a new alternative to the capitalist EU and euro. The massive crisis erupting in Spain and elsewhere would mean that working people would rally to such a call. This could be the first step to the formation of a voluntary democratic socialist confederation involving these countries as a step towards a socialist confederation of Europe. Such a process should be begun now with direct links being built with the left and workers’ organisations in these countries.

Unfortunately, a failure to boldly answer the threat of being ejected from the euro will only serve to partly disarm the movement against austerity. It may prevent Syriza from emerging as the largest party. The Greek ruling class and the troika are campaigning to make the election about membership of the euro, not about austerity. They are attempting to terrify people out of voting for Syriza and to rally fragmented right-wing voters around ND – as well as from the right-wing parties that failed to enter parliament. However, after years of austerity measures and brutal attacks it is not certain this strategy will succeed.

Despite Syriza’s weakness on the EU and euro, at the time of writing it seems certain to increase its support and has a serious possibility of becoming the largest party in close competition to ND. Recent polls have put both parties at between 20% and 23% of the vote.

New phase of the struggle

SHOULD SYRIZA EMERGE in the lead or at the head of a government this would not signal the end of the crisis. Nonetheless, it would begin a new phase that the workers’ organisations need to urgently prepare for if they are to take the struggle forward. Syriza needs to be strengthened by workers, youth, the poor, and all those opposed to austerity joining its ranks and getting organised. Syriza, as a coalition, is now attempting to broaden out to begin including social movements and organisations.

Tsipras has rightly called for the left to come together in a united front. This needs to be given a concrete, organised expression through the convening of a national assembly of rank-and-file delegates from the left parties, trade unions, workplaces, universities, neighbourhoods and community organisations. Local assemblies of elected delegates from these same spheres should be urgently formed under the initiative of Syriza to prepare for the coming struggles and to ensure that a future left government carries out policies in the interests of working people.

The ruling class is beginning to feel threatened by the emerging challenge of Syriza and the left. There is the threat of a collapse in society if the left does not seize the moment. Government funds may even run out before the election on 17 June.

Although in a different era, there are some parallels between the situation in Greece and that which developed in Chile 1970-73. There are also many parallels with developments taking place in Latin America today in countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, and Argentina. In Chile 1970-73, a massive polarisation developed in society. The right wing and ruling class prepared their forces – they could not allow the impasse to continue. The fascist organisation, Patria y Liberdad, marched, bombed and attacked local activists and acted as an auxiliary to the military which struck in a deadly coup on 11 September 1973.

Golden Dawn, which praises the former Greek military dictatorship and Hitler, can act as a fascist auxiliary should the ruling class, or sections of it, conclude they have no alternative but to ‘restore order’ through military intervention. Although this is unlikely to be the first recourse of the ruling class, it could eventually move in this direction. If Golden Dawn’s support declines – as the polls indicate it will in this election – it would be positive, but it would not be the end of the threat posed by this fascist organisation.

Its leader, Nikolaos Michalokiakos, threatened those who have "betrayed their homeland… the time has come to fear. We are coming". It cannot become a mass force in its own right but, like Patria y Liberdad in Chile, it can become (and already is) a vicious organisation that can act as an auxiliary to attack minorities and the working class.

Golden Dawn is sending its ‘black-shirt’ thugs to attack immigrants who suffer daily beatings and threats from them. According to press reports, in Gazi, Athens, it left leaflets outside gay bars warning they would be the next target, and attacked gay people leaving the bars. This poses the urgent necessity of forming local anti-fascist assemblies that should establish groups to defend all those threatened by fascist attack.

Being pushed further left

IN THE ELECTION, if Syriza emerges together with other left forces to win a parliamentary majority, a left government headed by Syriza and Tsipas could be pushed rapidly towards the left under the pressure of the mass movement and depth of the crisis. This is also a fear of the ruling class. Such a development would also set an example in other countries such as Spain and Portugal.

A government of this character could at some stage even include features of the Salvador Allende government in Chile 1970-73, as well as some from the governments of Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and Cristina Kirchner in Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina. This could include taking measures that attack capitalist interests, including widespread nationalisations. While, at this stage, Syriza and Tsipras are not speaking of socialism as an alternative, this could change. In an interview in The Guardian, Tsipras said it is "war between peoples and capitalism". (19 May)

This represents a significant step forward but illustrates how he and the Syriza leadership could be pressured by the situation to go even further to the left. When first elected to power in Venezuela, Chávez did not make reference to socialism. Such a scenario in Greece is not at all certain but cannot be excluded at a certain stage. Particularly under the impact of the deepening crisis and class struggle, demands like nationalisation, and workers’ control and management, can be embraced by wide sections of the working class.

Should the pro-cuts parties be able to cobble together a coalition – on the basis of ND becoming the largest party and gaining the 50-seat bonus – then it would lack any credibility, authority or stability. Any such parties forming a government with such low levels of support would effectively constitute a coup against the majority of the Greek people by minority pro-austerity parties. They would face intense anger and bitter struggles by the working class. Such a government would face the huge anger of society and a ferocious struggle of the workers to get rid of it, particularly as they will see the powerful possibility of a left government around Syriza, which would, under these conditions, be the main opposition force, deepening its presence and roots in society.

In this situation, Syriza should prepare a struggle against the government and the capitalist system. Xekinima, the Greek section of the CWI, would propose that, under these conditions, the central slogan should be for a struggle to bring these institutions down through strikes, occupations and mass protests.

The rapid growth of Syriza is an extremely positive development. However, the depth of the social and political crisis unfolding in Greece will put it to the test along with all political forces. If it does not develop a fully rounded-out programme, set of methods, and approach of struggle that can offer a way forward to the masses, then it can decline as rapidly as it has arisen. To assist those forces in and around Syriza in drawing the necessary political conclusions as to the tasks needed to take the struggle forward, the strengthening of the Marxist collaborators of Syriza in Xekinima is also an urgent necessity.


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