Greece: the simmering revolt

Submitted by Matthew on 11 July, 2012 - 2:33

Ed Maltby and Martin Thomas visited Thessaloniki and Athens between 4 and 9 July to find out more about what the Greek left is doing. This is their report.


To build too much on quick impressions is foolish. Not to formulate impressions is worse than foolish. It leaves us guided only by generalisations and summaries which reach us only after being filtered by others’ preconceptions.

Foolishness can lead to learning, by way of us formulating impressions and having them shown to be wrong (and why). Flat reliance on general formulas given in advance cannot.

That said, here are our impressions of a week in Thessaloniki and Athens talking and listening to people from many different strands of the Greek left and labour movement.

Greece is simmering. It is not boiling. It is not simmering down, either. New open eruptions are likely, but in the autumn rather than now.

Syriza, the left coalition which soared from 4.5% in the 2009 election to 27% in the June 2012 poll, on a programme of reversing the Memorandum agreed by Greek governments with the EU, ECB, and IMF, and nationalising the banks under social and workers’ control, plans to convert from a coalition into a party, and has set itself the aim of building a mass membership linked to Popular Assemblies in neighbourhoods.

Syriza economist John Milios talked of a target of 200,000 members. Miltos Ikonomou, Syriza leader in Thessaloniki, cited a more cautious target of increasing Syriza membership in the city to 5000 from about 2000 today and 1200 a year ago.

Miltos told us that the planned Popular Assemblies have already started, with 100 at a first local open-air meeting in Thessaloniki. Other activists were more sceptical about how fast Syriza can or will go with the Assemblies, especially over the summer, when activity usually dips if only because of the heat.

One activist particularly sceptical of Syriza, Mihalis Skourtis of OKDE-Spartakos, opened his conversation with us by stating that the main thing is that, after the relative lull of the two election periods, all the organisations of the Greek left and radical left must get back on the streets. Now! Then he explained that, realistically, by “now”, he meant after the end of August.

We learned a bit about trade union structures in Greece. In Greece, a “union”, or a “first level union” anyway, is made up of workers in a particular firm or workplace or trade.

The Thessaloniki Trade Union Centre, for example, covers 250 “first level” unions, with a total of 100,000 members. The smallest of those unions has 22 members; the biggest, the local bus workers’, almost 3000.

The “first level” unions have sizeable autonomy. They can and do call strikes by assembling their members and having an on-the-spot vote. Workplace activists in Greece, unlike in Britain, do not have to go through a complex process of getting a remote national union leadership to run a postal ballot for a strike.

However, wider action depends on the higher “levels” of the union structure. There, things are not so good. The higher-level union offices and officials are (or have been) paid for by the government. They can and often do preside over dormant and neglected “first-level” unions. They can call one-day or two-day general strikes — sixteen of them so far — without serious follow-up and without serious organising in the workplaces.

Things are changing. Union posts come up for election every two or three years. Spiros, an activist with the Trotskyist group OKDE in Thessaloniki, told us: “Within the next six months or a year, the old Pasok officials will be voted out of the union leaderships. The biggest gainers can be the far left — more a broad spectrum of unaffiliated far left activists than the organised far-left groups.

“In the unions you can’t really separate Syriza and the far left. They work together. Sometimes rank and file Syriza activists are more left-wing than rank-and-file activists of Antarsya” [a coalition of ten revolutionary groups, which criticises Syriza harshly as rightward-moving reformist].

Other activists put it more cautiously, but agreed that big changes in the union leaderships are probable.

The other twist here, which must tend to shake things up even apart from the union elections, is that for some months now the Greek government has stopped paying the trade-union centres’ bills and the union officials’ wages. The government says it will sort out some new arrangement sometime, but has not said when.

Some activists suggested to us that Greek society is still in a process of emerging from decades of depoliticisation.

Giannis Vogiatzis, a long-standing activist of Xekinima in Thessaloniki, was very pleased with the large number of copies of its paper which his group had sold when Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras came to speak during the election campaign in Thessaloniki’s huge Aristotelous Square.

But, he noted ruefully, even then the square was not quite full; and Pasok and New Democracy had attempted no open election rallies at all in Thessaloniki. In the 1980s, he recalled, both Pasok and New Democracy election rallies would fill Aristotelous Square right from the sea front to the Venizelos statue.

Greece has probably as many different Trotskyist groups as Britain, and a swathe of other revolutionary groups more coloured by the tradition of the now diehard-Stalinist KKE (Communist Party of Greece).

Spiros from OKDE told us that all the currents of the revolutionary left have grown markedly in the crisis. “Nobody has doubled”, he cautioned. Some groups told us they had indeed doubled, or more.

In any case, the Greek revolutionary left is visibly more youthful and zestful than the British. The groups are smaller than they are in Britain, but they have a population one-fifth the size to draw from, and in proportion to population they are surely bigger.

We talked with many different groups. With OKDE, we ran up against stubborn political differences on attitudes to the European Union, on its call for a “Constituent Assembly”, and on attitudes to Syriza; but found their assessments of political life careful and thought-provoking, and their serious approach to work in trade unions and neighbourhood organisations undeniable. We found a group we knew very little about before we came to Greece, Kokkino, instructive and lucid.

Time is needed for the revolutionary left as well as for the general processes of politicisation. More or less the whole revolutionary left has the broad idea that they can win large numbers of workers to revolutionary socialist organisation as the reformist leadership of Syriza is put to the test and found wanting. Some also point to a risk that if the revolutionary left cannot achieve that, then demoralisation which will follow the Syriza leadership being put to the test and doing badly will throw the political initiative into the hands of the far right.

Yet the revolutionary socialist left is divided by large differences: over attitudes to Syriza, over attitudes to the euro and the EU, etc. For it to surge forward, it will need to unify — or at least, some sizeable chunk of it will need to unify — around a political synthesis achieved through thrashing out those differences.

All discussions on political evolution in the Greek working class are in the shadow of the bulk of the KKE, which is Greece’s oldest political party and arguably also its most deeply-rooted. The KKE was down to 4.5% of the vote in June 2012 (from 7.5% in 2009, 8.2% in 2007). Stefanos from OKDE told us that despite the KKE’s revolutionary-ish dialect, its life is in fact heavily focused on electoral success, and the electoral setback is grave.

KKE systematically organises its own demonstrations and rallies away from the main activities of the trade unions and the left, even on general strike days. When many thousands of young people come to events like the annual Anti-Racist Festivals in Thessaloniki (29 June/ 1 July) and Athens (6/8 July), all the rest of the left are there, but absolutely not the KKE.

Andreas Kloke from OKDE-Spartakos told us that the KKE is “the most right-wing part of the movement, and also always trying to split the movement” — and this despite the fact that Spartakos is a member in good standing of the Antarsya alliance, which in its official comment on the June election result deplored the fall in the KKE vote as “not a positive thing”, as indicative of the movement becoming less radical.

KKE stands like a large stone in the way of a flow by the Greek working class towards revolutionary socialist politics. Time will be needed, again, to wear that stone down sufficiently, or push it aside.

In May 1917, in the maelstrom of the Russian Revolution, Lenin struck his keynote as follows: “We Bolsheviks must patiently and perseveringly explain our views to the workers and peasants. Each of us must forget our old view of our work, each, without waiting for the arrival of an agitator, a propagandist, a more knowledgeable comrade who will explain everything — each of us must become all in one: agitator, propagandist and Party organiser. That is the only way we can get the people to... think over their experience and really take power into their own hands”.

That politics in Greece may need a good run of “patiently explaining” does not mean that times are dim. However, the rise of the Golden Dawn neo-Nazis may limit the time for “patiently explaining”. They got 7% of the vote in both the May and June elections.

Assessments on the Greek left vary. Some say that the bulk of the Golden Dawn vote is atomised and incoherent protest, and social agitation and action will undercut it. The SEK (Greek group linked to the SWP in Britain) calls for the Greek state to ban Golden Dawn, though the Syriza reformists we discussed with did not. Some anarchists resort to single combat with Golden Dawn over the heads of local communities. In any case, no coherent and united response by the left to Golden Dawn has emerged yet.

When we went to the Trade Union Centre in Thessaloniki, a water worker, Costas, not only answered our questions about water privatisation in Greece, but also asked us a question. Is Thessaloniki as we expected? One of us replies that what we have been told by many people indicates that there is great trouble and suffering behind closed doors, from unemployment and poverty.

Yes, replies Costas. Things look “normal” in and near the city centre. But it is different further out. “People are sleeping in doorways, and sorting through garbage heaps to find something to eat. That didn’t happen before”.

Costas believes that the trade unions in other countries “must inform people that the problem with have in Greece is a problem will will have in every country. It is a system problem. When they are done with us, and with Spain and Italy, they will go on to others, maybe France.

“We have to change the rules where everything is privatised and everything goes to a few people”.

Both Thessaloniki and Athens look at first sight as if they were built in a hurry, by erecting long rows of middle-rise concrete-box-buildings, from about the 1960s, and at the edges sometimes slapdash, though in the centres round patches of Roman, Byzantine, or classical ruins. In and near the city centres, there are some shuttered shops and cafes, and some beggars. But nothing dramatic. The remaining cafes have plenty of people sipping iced coffee through straws, playing backgammon, and chatting. Public transport works, rather better than in England. In the evenings, when cooler temperatures arrive, hundreds of young people sit and stroll round the White Tower in Thessaloniki, chatting and socialising rather than raging or rioting. Superficially, Greece today looks less like a country in the grip of crisis and acute decay than Thatcher’s Britain or Volcker’s and Reagan’s USA did in the early 1980s.

There are political posters on the walls, but not a huge number. As in France, for example, graffiti on walls are more common than in England, but mostly not political. In a week we saw only one public street paper sale or stall by the left, an ineffectual group of KKE youth trying to sell Rizopastis. The main papers of the left — Syriza’s Avgi and Epohi, the KKE’s Rizopastis, and Prin (from the New Left Current, the biggest group in Antarsya) sell mainly through newspaper kiosks and newsagents. (Unlike in Britain, a law obliges the wholesalers to supply all papers above a certain print-run, without discrimination against the left). The cities do not look like Lisbon or Oporto in 1974-6.

But to be suffering, outraged, thoughtful, rebel-minded, does not necessarily mean to parade the streets looking “abnormal”, with a rictus of rage always on your face, or ostentatiously in rags.

Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s best-known economist, says that now: “Greeks are in a catatonic state one moment, in a state of rage another”. What looks “catatonic” to professor Varoufakis may be, in real life, people thinking things through.

• Many other reports from Greece will be posted as we type them up here

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