Greece: On the edge of a volcano

Class struggle amid devastating crisis

Insultingly the capitalist media describe the four currently weakest eurozone countries as the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain). Of these four, Greece is now most in the sights of the capitalists internationally. While the lives of a majority of Greeks are, like in many other nations, standing on the edge of a precipice, the stronger eurozone countries are demanding that the Greek government follows even more the Irish road of direct cuts in wages and social spending.

Pressure is being mounted via the international money markets; the Greek government now has to pay more to borrow money. Next April and May it will have to raise over 30 billion euros on the international markets, and a further 24 billion by the end of the year. The international rating agencies are downgrading Greece’s credit worthiness; of course the capitalists are now not questioning the “worthiness” of these agencies which so spectacularly misjudged all the “toxic debt” etc that helped to undermine the world finance system. The rating agencies are useful “neutral”, “expert” bodies that can be used to help pressurise governments, although it is true that if a country seems to be unable to pay its debt then investors will pull out.

Wave of general strikes in 2008/2009

Deficit and eurozone crisis

Greece is approaching that situation with a mounting government deficit, an economy in recession and mass unemployment officially approaching 20%. In one way the crisis in Greece has, so far, been ameliorated by its membership of the eurozone, as this has helped to keep the cost of borrowing lower than it would otherwise be. However, having the euro has meant that the Greek capitalists no longer have their own currency which they could devalue. Also, having the euro means that in an extreme situation they cannot default on their debts without being thrown out of the eurozone.

Within the eurozone, tensions are building up over Greece, especially from Germany. German Finance Minister Schäuble said Greece will have to find its own “hard way” out of the crisis, while the chair of the Bundestag finance committee stated: “Germany will not take on the burden of Greek debts”. As talks took place between the Greek government and European Union officials, Stark, the German member of the European Central Bank (ECB) council, told the Italian daily ‘Il Sole 24 Ore’ that there would be no “bail-out”, adding that Greece’s problems were entirely “home-made” and that “markets are deluding themselves if they think that the other member states will at a certain point dip their hands into their wallets to save Greece”. The Greek government is scheduled to present a “stability plan” to the European Commission by the end of this month and it is meant to be finally agreed by 20 February.

This is certainly part of an immense campaign to pressurise the Greek population to accept cuts by playing on fears of what a small country of just over 11 million people can do on its own in a time of world crisis.

One result is the start of a semi-public Europe-wide debate on the medium and long term future of the euro, or at least who uses it. “There is a view in certain circles of Germany’s Free Democrats and Bavaria’s Social Christians, as well as pockets of the ECB itself, that a refusal to rescue Greece would be a salutary lesson to others that breach the rules. Greece’s ejection from the euro might, in their view, strengthen the eurozone. The question is whether such people will determine the outcome” (Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Daily Telegraph, London, International Business Editor). This is unlikely to happen in the coming weeks or months and is more aimed at stiffening up the Pasok government, elected last autumn, to continue with cutting living standards.

Youth revolt shook country in December 2008

Growing struggles

However despite its election victory this new Pasok government is hesitating, fearful of the workers’ reaction to savage direct cuts, and preferring the route of step by step attacks on living standards. This is not accidental. In the year up to last October’s snap general election there were three general strikes (in October and December 2008, plus April 2009) and the December 2008 strike was in the midst of the massive youth protest after the unprovoked police killing of 15 year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos.

But these were not the first protests, earlier there were three general strikes (December 2007, February and March 2008) amid a wave of struggles after New Democracy’s re-election in 2007, with three million workers striking in the March 2008 stoppage. This move to struggles outside parliament after New Democracy’s 2007 election produced a total of six one-day general strikes in 16 months. At the same time there were more waves of student and youth protests, notwithstanding the previous 10 months of continual protests and occupations against privatisation by university students between May 2006 and March 2007.

Even before this latest economic crisis hit there was continuing and growing bitterness. Greeks had been told, firstly, that sacrifices were necessary to be able to join in the launch of the euro currency at the start of 2002 and then, secondly, that holding the 2004 Olympics would provide huge opportunities for the Greek economy and its future development.

In order to justify the implementation of neoliberal policies, Ireland was presented on many occasions as the model to be followed by Greece. At that time Ireland, unlike Greece, was booming. Today they have reached common ground, only now it is that both are in deep crisis. But Greece did not enjoy Ireland’s boom years. Officially around 22% of Greeks live below the poverty line, about 850 euros a month for a four member family. Poverty does not only hit the unemployed and pensioners but also those with jobs. Around 25% of all those in work receive only 700 euros a month in wages – the majority around 400 euros, in part-time jobs. 67% of these are young people, those up to the age of 34.

Back in 2008 a BBC journalist summed up the Greek situation: “This is a land of European prices and African wages. Many breadwinners hold down two or three jobs and still can’t make ends meet. Early in his tenure, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said that he wanted to break the power of what he called the pimps who really control the country. He didn’t refer to them by name, but they are widely believed to be some of Greece’s wealthiest media barons and industrialists. There is a common perception here that they use their newspapers and television stations to smear and undermine their opponents. They prefer compliant politicians who pose no threat to their oligarchies.”

But, of course, the New Democracy government had no intention of breaking the power of the “pimps”. Rapidly the unfolding economic crisis and the protests of workers and youth completely undermined the conservative New Democracy government and its leader, Costas Karamanlis, called early elections halfway through the parliamentary term. They knew that they would lose. But the Greek ruling class wanted the opposition Pasok party to deal with the crisis, hoping that its past history as a supposedly “socialist” party and its control over the trade unions would enable it to carry out the austerity measures capitalism is demanding.

Pasok government prepares for attacks

In the campaign for last October’s elections Pasok promised all sorts of changes, like higher wages, to make Greece “fairer”. This, along with the hatred towards New Democracy and the hope that Pasok would at least be a bit better, produced a complete turnabout from the September 2007 vote.

Today Greece is volatile, but with mixed moods. There is underlying anger at the situation, resulting in the Pasok government adopting what one of its insiders called “a salami-slice” approach to abandoning election promises and making cuts. Despite this, the new government is well on the road of implementing an anti-working class programme of savage cuts in wages, rises in indirect taxes affecting the mass of the population, cuts in public services and privatisation.

Almost immediately, as an attempted excuse for dropping its election promises, the new government started saying that the situation is far worse than they expected. For example the labour minister Andreas Loverdos said in December that joblessness had risen to over 18%, double the previous official figure, as EU-funded workfare schemes ended..

Pasok is attempting to portray itself as trying to avoid hitting the poorest sections of society and as enforcing sacrifices from the top. Wages have frozen for public sector workers earning over 2,000 euros a month, a seemingly high level, as the after-tax average wage is 1,010 euros a month. But workers’ allowances in the wider public sector will be cut by 10%. As the London ‘Economist’ commented: “This is harsher than it looks because allowances add an extra 60%-90% to basic salaries, and because they will in future be taxed in the 40% band, not the 10% one as now”. All of which adds up to wage cuts of at least 3% to 5%.

At the same time the budget cuts already agreed are severe. Only one in five public sector job vacancies will be filled. Social spending will be cut by 10%. The female retirement age will be raised. Higher taxes have been imposed on tobacco and alcohol. All these steps are being taken while unemployment is already nearly 20% and the Greek economy is expected to still shrink this year, albeit by just 0.3%.

In an attempt to ‘balance’ these measures the government, like previous ones, has announced that it will drive against tax evasion by large companies. Furthermore, as a symbolic step, ministerial Mercedes cars have been replaced with Skodas.

The continuing pressure from the international markets and the EU has enabled George Papandreou, the Pasok prime minister, to claim that Greek “national independence is threatened”, in an attempt to put at least part of the blame for the crisis overseas.

Significantly the new government was immediately met by some small strikes as it was being formed last year, but at present the mood of much of the population is that there is no alternative. But this is not a fixed mood.

At the beginning of 2008 amid the mass struggles against the then New Democracy government, Syriza, a new left political formation, which had received 5% in the 2007 election, shot up to between 17.5% and 18.5% in opinion polls. The fundamental reasons for this were the lack of any real alternative policies from Pasok, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the fact that Syriza was then taking steps to the left. At that time Pasok was scoring 22% in the opinion polls.

Later, a combination of Syriza moving to the right politically and a massive ‘lesser evil’ vote for Pasok, contributed to Syriza’s vote actually falling last year to 4.6%. But now Pasok is again in office and under even more pressure and scrutiny than before.

It was disappointment with the end results of Pasok’s 1993 to 2004 period in government that prepared the way for the growth in Syriza’s support in early 2008. Now with Pasok in government again, in a deep economic crisis, there is the possibility that Syriza could dramatically develop. Pasok’s ‘lesser evil’ vote is not stable and its support could rapidly decline again as in early 2008. But this is not automatic and depends on what Syriza, a coalition of various left groups and parties, does. The Greek section of the CWI, Xekinima, has joined Syriza, after closely collaborating with it for some time, and has played a significant role in arguing for Syriza to adopt clear socialist policies, an active involvement in struggles and to recruit a mass membership.

A feature of the situation is the strength of the Communist Party (KKE), particularly amongst industrial and building workers. Partly this is historical; including its role in fighting the Nazi occupation, and the legacies of both the 1946-49 civil war and the 1967-74 military dictatorship. But the other basis for its support is the bitter disappointment with Pasok, a party which when it was founded in 1974 spoke of “socialism” but today is fundamentally a capitalist party with electoral support from part of the working class.

However, despite its base amongst militant workers and the left rhetoric it uses today, the KKE does not put forward a consistent socialist programme or approach. Furthermore the KKE has not broken from its Stalinist past; indeed at its last congress in 2008 the party formally reinstated Stalinism, saying the collapse of the Soviet Union was the result of the policies followed after Stalin’s death. All this, combined with a very sectarian approach to joint struggle with other forces, has meant that despite its own loyal support it has been so far unable to significantly gain from disappointment with Pasok. While its vote has increased by a third since 2000, it has not regained the level of its highest ever parliamentary vote whilst standing on its own back in 1985.

The KKE’s sectarianism extends to effectively refusing to attempt to form united fronts with sections of workers and youth who do not immediately follow its leadership. This approach often divides movements.

Once again this has become an important issue. Currently there is an extremely reluctant acceptance of what the Pasok government is doing, with a big majority willing to accept some kind of cuts in order to find a way out of the crisis. However there is a widespread reluctance amongst workers to accept wage or social cuts combined with the feeling that the rich should pay most. Reflecting this general mood there was only a limited turnout for the 17 December general strike called by PAME, the KKE’s trade union front, and supported by Syriza. Unlike the six general strikes between 2007 and 2009, the Pasok controlled trade union centres, GSEE (Greek General Confederation of Workers) and ADEDY (Confederation of Public Servants), opposed the strike. For the first time the GSEE issued a statement not only stating that they had not called the strike but also warning workers that they would not be “protected” if they struck, meaning they would be open to retaliation by the bosses. Courts actually declared the strike illegal in the shipping and gaming (casino and betting) industries.

Despite its small size the 17 December protest received wide international publicity. It was a reminder of the recent struggles in Greece. The mass movements between 2007 and 2009 were a reaction to the developing crisis and the 2007 re-election of the New Democracy. However, because those movements were confined to being protests, rather than struggles to change society, the mass desire for change was then expressed in Pasok’s election win. Now many workers are watching what Pasok does and the further this government goes down the road of attacking living standards the shorter its life will be.

Stormy developments on horizon

This Pasok government has taken office in crisis and will be faced with even more stormy developments than during the previous 1993–2004 one. Already there is a significant section of Greek workers and youth who expect little or nothing from this government. Within Pasok there is unease, with a large vote against the new party leadership that was proposed by George Papandreou after the general election and reports of the “deep Pasok” grouping demanding a bigger state economic role in opposition to the “new Pasok” elements around Papandreou. A future split in Pasok cannot be ruled out and it is by no means guaranteed that this government will last its full four year term.

Inevitably, given the traditions of the Greek working class, struggles will develop. Already the attacks on public sector workers have forced ADEDY, which opposed the 17 December action, to say that it is preparing “carefully calibrated”, ie very limited and mainly token, actions. But such is the depth of the crisis in Greece, it is entirely possible that large-scale protests by workers and youth can develop whether or not the trade union leaders want it.

In this situation the question of what can and should be done will be very sharply posed. Simply repeating a series of one day general strikes will not only fail to take the movement forward but could eventually lead to a demobilisation; even the six general strikes in 2007 to 2009 were not all equal in strength. A successful strategy will need to be based upon a socialist programme that can show a way out for Greek society and a strategy for bringing to power a workers’ government that will implement it.

However if the movement fails to show a way forward it can give more space to the far right to spread its chauvinist, anti-migrant propaganda. The far right party Laos was the “second” victor in October’s general election and is now the fourth biggest party. Although the fascist Chrysi Avyi (Golden Dawn) gained only 19,600 votes in the last election, this reflects a notable growth in its forces and it has carried out open attacks on migrants’ living accommodation.

The deteriorating situation in Greece, particularly the increasing lack of any attractive future, can lead to more outbreaks of pointless rioting by desperate youth attacking symbols of capitalism and, possibly, a more serious development of ‘urban guerrillaism’ that has already seen attacks on police stations, banks and, most recently, outside the parliament building. These methods have never led to the overthrow of capitalism and can never do so as they are not based on building a mass socialist movement of workers and youth. But they can give the state more excuses to introduce repressive measures.

Socialist Alternative needed

In this situation Syriza has a responsibility and opportunity. Its early 2008 opinion poll ratings showed the possibilities it has, but it is not at all certain that it can measure up to the tasks before it. It is not simply a question of Syriza increasing its support. As Xekinima argues within Syriza, it needs to combine a socialist programme with active participation in struggle. In this way it not only can win support away from Pasok but also, by proposing joint actions, can involve KKE supporters in common struggle; already opinion polls show that three quarters of KKE supporters think the KKE is too sectarian in its approach.

Syriza needs to be clear in rejecting participation in capitalist governments, something that both the KKE and members of Synaspismos (currently the largest force in Syriza) did between 1989 and 1990, including a three month spell of both of them in coalition simply with New Democracy. Today there is still a significant layer inside the leadership of Syriza, basically the right wing of Synaspismos, who have four or five out of the 13 Syriza members of parliament, that would like to be in coalition with Pasok. This is despite the fact that such coalitions would mean attempting to work within the confines of capitalism. Already, at local level, there are now quite a few local coalitions with Pasok. In the future it is possible that the ruling class would want to trap Syriza in capitalist governments in order to try to channel mass movements into ‘safe’ channels. If Syriza is going to be a force that changes society, then it has to be clear that it stands for ending capitalism and not working within it.

Greece, like many countries, has entered a new period. The level of recent class struggles in Greece does put that country in a different league at present. But while willingness to struggle is vital, on its own it is not enough. The working class needs to see both a socialist alternative and the concrete steps necessary to achieve that goal. The challenge for Marxists in Greece, as elsewhere, is to help create the force that can change society.

Robert Bechert attended last December’s successful congress of Xekinima, the CWI in Greece. This article is based on discussions that took place there.

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January 2010