The agreement of Tsipras to put austerity measures to the Greek parliament caused outrage and dismay on the streets of Athens.
However speaking to people soon after the overwhelming “oxi” (no) to any acceptance of austerity measures, there was a general feeling approaching euphoria.
I was in Crete the week before Tsipras’s turn where there had been a huge “oxi” vote of about 70%. The “oxi” vote there, as elsewhere, defied an immense press campaign predicting impending doom. A taxi driver told me that he had stopped watching the TV news — "all they do is try to scare you" he said.
I talked to Eleuthera, a waitress who came from Athens and now lives in Crete. Her name in English means freedom and gives an idea of her political ancestry. She told me not only that everyone wants to remain in Europe but all the political parties, Pasok, New Democracy were now saying they wanted a better deal.
But there is something particularly surprising when you talked further with those who voted “oxi” who weren’t committed political activists. The vote had already become a huge act of `’national pride” and there was tremendous pride not only in “oxi” but also in Tsipras.
Only a few days later things were to change dramatically as Tsipras achieved no concessions from the Troika and agreed to propose the extensive austerity plans to the Greek parliament.
I arrived in Athens on Monday, 13 July, the day a deal was reached in negotiations with the Eurogroup.
Outrage was widespread but the predominant mood was one of despondency. On that night there was a demonstration in Syntagma square outside the Greek Parliament. It was quite small — probably less than three thousand. There was a wide spectrum of anti-austerity activists present, including Syriza members from the youth wing and the left of the Party. I spoke with a number of the youth wing — traditionally amongst the most critical of any concessions being made to austerity. But it was clear that there was considerable disorientation and understandable disillusionment amongst them.
It was not possible to get any of them to go on the record for an interview. Undoubtedly that was partly because they were all very busy but one key activist admitted to me that he really did not know what to say that was positive.
I asked whether the Syriza organisation could be mobilized against any deal — but no, the general view was that Syriza’s workplace and geographical membership had not coalesced sufficiently for there to be any serious debate. The common view was that Syriza would fracture along pre-existing political alignments.
I also asked whether trade unions might be brought out in major strike action. Activists of the far left coalition, Antarsya, I spoke to, some close to the SWP’s Greek organisation SEK, were highly optimistic of a strike call that had been made by the public sector union ADEDY for the following Wednesday — the day that Tsipras’s austerity proposals were to be put to the Greek Parliament.
The Syriza youth activists scorned that optimism however. “There will be only 300 in the Square on the day”— one prominent Syriza youth activist said. The picture he painted was of a trade union movement still dominated by former Pasok activists where there was no organised anti-austerity movements amongst the rank and file.
Both the pessimistic estimation by activists of Syriza, as well as the optimistic one by Antarsya, about the Wednesday ADEDY strike action were exaggerated.
The strike that took place on Wednesday primarily affected the Metro rail system, although the shutdown was in no way total.
Speaking to union organisers on the day, they admitted that it had been a difficult job getting their members out. No other union had organised action and it had been difficult to map out to their members where they would go from here.
A union demonstration of several thousands took place during the middle of the day attracted the radical left but there were no radical Syriza contingents that I could identify.
A larger gathering and protest was planned for the evening as Tsipras’s proposals were to be put to Parliament. But again the surprising thing was the lack of the contingents from the left of Syriza.
Instead it was the radical left outside Syriza who largely congregated outside Parliament. Undoubtedly Syriza anti-austerity activists would have been busy lobbying Syriza parliamentarians but there seems to have been no attempt made to mobilise the hundreds of thousands who had celebrated the “oxi” vote only 12 nights previously. The reach of the Antarsya and anarchist activists who did congregate outside Parliament clearly did not go as far as being able to organise those hundreds of thousands.
The impression of division on the Greek left was further underlined that night by the KKE (the Greek Community Party).
At 8:20pm a very loud and large demonstration of the KKE and their associated PAME trade union fraction started to arrive in the square. Being somewhat naïve, I expressed my pleasure to some of those already in the Square at a seemingly unusual display of unity from the KKE — who have been highly sectarian and refused to even join the “oxi” campaign, calling instead for an abstention.
“They are laughing at us”, “They are contemptuous of us” I was told. And this wasn’t said by a young anarchist but by a non-organised Syriza supporter who told me how he had served in prison in the 90s for his political activism whilst in the army, and had been in the KKE. He told me that the KKE were as “blind and unthinking” as “a religious cult”.
True to his prediction, the 25,000 strong KKE march entered the bottom end of the square and then left it on the other side — not to be seen again. Throwing tens of thousands of what were essentially recruitment leaflets into the air and onto the floor — for that was their mission on the night.
The 30,000 or so remaining were eventually tear-gassed out of the square after Molotovs were thrown by anarchists at some banks.
The anarchists are strong in comparison with the UK. After the Nazi occupation, the 46-49 Greek civil war and the military dictatorship of 67-74, awareness is strong amongst Greek workers that the battle against imperialism’s demands on Greece usually ends up with violent confrontation.
But what Greek workers need more than pitched battles with the police is debate, argument and mass organisation. The premature curtailment of the protest on that night was unfortunate — it led to a dispersal at the very time when people were joining the protest.
The “oxi” vote and the huge demonstration showed the huge strengths of connecting around a struggle from a parliamentary government such as Syriza. The Greek workers need an anti-austerity left that knows how to build on the parliamentary struggles that Syriza has headed, that is capable of building in working class neighbourhoods and in workplaces.
The collapse of that battle in parliament, as well as the events in Syntagma Square outside, also show how being dependent upon the parliamentary struggle and not energetically enough connecting with or challenging it can allow a crucial moment of mass defiance to be lost.