On 17-18th May, Greece was shaken by a general strike and protests in all major cities against a new round of austerity measures. As Arturo Rodríguez explains, Syriza has become the administrator of crisis-ridden Greek capitalism and is being used by the Troika to grind down the Greek working class.
On Wednesday 17th May, Greece was shaken by a general strike. The next day there were protests in all major cities against a new round of austerity measures. Unlike previous general strikes, which are regularly called as a formality and fail to mobilise significant sectors of the working class, this time important services were affected and various ports, hospitals, and airports were paralysed.
Police estimates said that, in Athens, 12,000 people came out on to the streets and, in Thessaloniki, there were 6,000. This was the largest numbers seen recently. On this occasion, the government’s attacks are particularly vicious and scandalous, and amount to a new, fourth memorandum.
The drama continues
On 18th May, new austerity measures were narrowly approved in parliament by the Syriza-ANEL coalition. This legislation brings about a lowering of the tax-free income threshold and the elimination of various tax benefits, which will see workers who eke out a living on a few hundred euros a month paying income tax. Unemployment benefits will be cut for the youth. It also introduces sharp cuts to the already miserable pensions (59% of pensioners earn less than 1,000€), which will be cut by 9% on average and in some cases by up to 18%. Those who owe money to the tax authorities are liable of being evicted and having their houses auctioned. It also facilitates lock-outs by the employers and collective redundancies. These attacks add yet more pressure to the battered and abused working people of Greece. According to a recent EU study, 35% of the Greek population faces poverty and social exclusion, while 22.2% faces severe material deprivations. The government has committed to cut spending by $5.4 billion by 2020. Additional public enterprises will be privatised, including parts of the electricity and the state oil company. These measures were passed by the Syriza government to unlock a new, $8.3 billion tranche of bailout funds – used overwhelmingly to repay old debts. Outrageously, this legislation has been passed as a prerequisite to discuss this new bailout, which is still being negotiated by the Greek government, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund.
The creditors demand a primary budget surplus equivalent to 3.5% of the GDP until 2022. The European Commission contends that on this basis a long-term solution to the Greek debt crisis will be found, insofar, they add, as the Greek economy grows at around 2% until… 2060! This is absolute folly. The Greek economy continues to be extremely weak. Last week it entered recession again. A 23% unemployment rate oppresses it like a tombstone. The extraordinary fragility of Greek capitalism is plain to all. This so-called long-term plan is nothing but a fig leaf to cover the crass self-interest of European, and namely German, capitalism, which has no lasting solution to the crisis of Greek capitalism other than to bleed the Greek people dry and pave the way for Grexit. With elections around the corner, and the spread of protectionist sentiments among sectors of the German ruling class, Berlin is unprepared to make even the slightest concession to Greece. Schäuble has clearly stated that no reductions to the Greek debt will be accepted. Not even symbolic concessions are now given to Athens in return for the sharp terms of the memorandum. The aim of the Commission is to force Greece out of the eurozone as part of the re-structuring and downsizing of the EU. Only then will the debt be renegotiated. The rottenness of the European Union, a rapacious, imperialist outfit used to manage the common interests of the European bourgeoisie, continues to stand out over the Greek question. All those who harbour illusions about the supposedly progressive character of the EU should take a look at its robber baron politics in Greece. It is not surprising that, according to a recent poll by MRB, 54.8% of Greeks call for a rejection of the new memorandum “even if this entails a break with the bondholders and the expulsion from the eurozone”.
The IMF has shown what appears to be a more lenient face towards Greece, calling for haircuts to the debt. At the same time, however, they are attempting to drop out of the bailout programmes, and have so far disbursed no money in the third memorandum signed in 2015. This only reflects the selfish interests of US imperialism, which pulls the strings in the IMF, and which wants Berlin to shoulder the Greek debt.
Confronted with the callousness of the EU, Syriza has tried to lean on other imperialist powers, especially Russia and China. Only a few days ago Tsipras met Xi Jinping and far-reaching economic agreements were announced. Indeed, Greece is to play an important role in the Chinese “silk road”, providing an outlet for Beijing to the Mediterranean. Chinese state company COSCO has bought a majority stake in the port of Piraeus, and one of the most important bidders in the privatisation of the Greek electricity company is the China State Grid. But it is risky business for a small, downtrodden country to try to balance itself on powerful imperialist nations, and rather than exploit their antagonisms in the interests of Greece, these powers are exploiting Greece’s weakness and vulnerability in their own voracious interests.
Shamefully, Syriza continues to serve as the pliable instrument of the European and Greek capitalists and to provide the Commission with its customary pound of flesh. Its promise of a way out of the crisis and the memoranda and of debt relief is crumbling under the new austerity measures, the unwillingness of the EU to ease the country’s debt, and the incapacity of Greece to enter the bond market and to service its debt independently. To make matters worse, Tsipras’ erstwhile defence of “the constitution” and “democracy” has come to nought, as he now signs a new memorandum without a popular mandate, passing legislation that will have to be continued on the next parliamentary term, and which contain measures that are likely to be deemed unconstitutional, trampling on basic bourgeois democracy. Syriza has become the administrator of crisis-ridden Greek capitalism and is being used to grind down the Greek working class and the impoverished middle classes.
The absolute degeneration of Tsipras and his clique, however, flows not from their moral bankruptcy, but above all from their political bankruptcy, and their attempt, however honest in the beginning, to resolve the problems of the Greek working class within the bounds of capitalism and imperialism. This reformist strategy contained the germs of betrayal and defeat from the outset, and should serve as a ghastly example to other movements of the radical left about the dangers of trying to negotiate with the capitalists and to appeal to their goodwill. Progressive reforms can only be wrested from the bourgeoisie through revolutionary methods, through mass mobilisation, organisation from below, by breaking with the capitalists and their institutions and leaning on the solidarity of the international working class, and through the expropriation of the big banks and monopolies.
Tsipras’ popularity has now collapsed, he has become one of the most hated politicians in the country. According to recent polls, right-wing New Democracy has a fifteen-point lead over Syriza. The government’s betrayal, although couched in a language of survival and of “building hegemony in the long term”, only paved the way for the demoralisation of the working class and for the gradual collapse of Syriza, which is faithfully following the path of the PASOK. Opinion polls reveal a widespread sentiment of bitterness, cynicism, and disillusionment. A recent study by Kapa Research revealed that 72% of Greeks feel disappointed, 64% are angry, 41% feel afraid, and 71% uncertain about the future. In this context, we could see further cracks in the government, which over the months has lost MPs and has seen its parliamentary majority narrow. It would not come as a surprise if Tsipras called for new elections as an act of desperation.
Syriza has burnt its bridges with the masses. This last memorandum is not only a blow to its fading reserves of social support, but it is also a provocation and a revulsive against the tremendous apathy and passivity that had ensured a certain degree of social peace in the last two years.
The class struggle and the KKE
The general strike last Wednesday was followed by marches and demonstrations by pensioners on Thursday. These protests take place in a context of relative upswing in the class struggle after years of stagnation. In recent months there have been marches by school students, pensioners, farmers, the anti-fascist movement, and localised neighbourhood struggles. Last Monday, there was an important rally against the construction of a new football field in Nea Philadelphia. On Thursday the 25th, there was a strike of delivery workers, organised independently of the trade union federations on a militant, grassroots basis, and which included a mass motorcycle parade. Although there is still a long way to go, and the burden of the economic crisis and of emigration weigh down on the workers and the youth, the class struggle follows its course and the pressure of events will gradually dissipate the demoralisation that set in after Syriza’s capitulation.
The idea is setting, especially (but not exclusively) among the most advanced elements of the youth and the working class, that the current, desperate situation of endless attacks, provocations, and crises cannot be stopped without the active intervention of the masses in political life. It is significant that an EU-sponsored study revealed that 67% of the Greek youth would join a violent insurrection against the government –the highest such figure in Europe.
Although the strike on Wednesday had a greater following than on previous occasions, it was still far from the type of action that is needed to revert the political situation of stagnation and defeat. Indeed, the leaderships of the trade unions continue their harmful policies of defeatist, ritualistic general strikes with no adequate preparation and, most importantly, with no clear perspectives for victory. The trade union bureaucracy has become a formidable brake to the movement, and a genuine, democratic congress of the ADEDY-GSEE federations for the selection of a new leadership is a necessary demand. In the current context, a general strike against austerity would only succeed with patient preparation, through assemblies in the workplaces and the neighbourhoods, with the collaboration of the different organisations of the radical left and the labour movement, with clear demands, and combining strike action with a broader political, united front against the memorandum. Indeed, such a movement would need to put forward a perspective for political change, for a clear way out.
In this context, the Greek Communist Party, the KKE, has to play an important role. It is the only genuine force of opposition in parliament and the only mass party of the anti-capitalist left, with a powerful trade union front. Although it has a long history of heroic struggles, for decades it has been blighted by the pernicious influence of Stalinism: of class collaboration, nationalism, social conservatism, and bureaucratism, and, especially in recent years, by a sectarian attitude to the class struggle.
However, the pressure of events is being felt even inside the notoriously hermetic and monolithic KKE, which has experienced significant changes. It has abandoned the Stalinist two-stage theory, criticised the Popular Front strategy followed during the Second World War and its aftermath, and, despite some limitations, has adopted a proletarian, anti-capitalist, and, significantly, internationalist position to the question of the Greek crisis. This turn to the left has been consolidated in the recent party congress in March, which contained numerous positive elements, and, although there are still many shortcomings, the party is moving in the correct direction. This evolution in the party’s rhetoric, worldview, and programme has not fallen from the sky, but flows from the living class struggle, which is making its pressure felt inside the KKE and is forcing it to draw conclusions and move away from previous flawed positions and from its sectarianism.
During the debate on the new austerity package in parliament on Thursday, communist MP Dimitris Koutsoumpas delivered a speech that any genuine revolutionary Marxist could have endorsed, attacking the attempts to lean on the EU but also on the “shrewd” imperialists of China and Russia, and pointing that the only genuine solution for the working class, in Greece and abroad, is the expropriation of the capitalist corporations and the socialist transformation of society, the only strategy that can offer a way out to the horror without end that is capitalism. He ended by calling for mass mobilisations, and making an appeal for unity in the struggle, and to discuss and debate the positions of the KKE in the movement. This is key. It is not enough to have a broadly correct position, to be armed with a revolutionary programme, but to be able to connect it with the living struggle of the masses and to win them over through correct tactics.
Despite the prescience of the KKE, which predicted Syriza’s capitulation and criticised it from the left, the party has been unable to make any significant electoral gains, and hovers at around 8% in opinion polls. There is tremendous potential for a force like the KKE to grow in the current context. Half of the electorate, according to recent polls, mistrust both Tsipras and conservative leader Mitsotakis. The reason for the incapacity of the KKE to tap into this potential has been the sectarian, self-sufficient attitude of the party and its reluctance to fight alongside other forces, to relate to the existing level of consciousness and to the concrete tasks of the struggle. Moreover, despite their bold verbal attacks against the new memorandum in parliament, they failed in practice to prepare a real mass movement against it, endorsing the defeatist and poorly organised general strike.
Only by collaborating in a comradely manner with other left-wing parties and organisations, with the unions, the social movements and more broadly with the fighting youth and working class, by discussing with them in an open and friendly manner, can the KKE win over the sympathy of the Greek masses and lead the working class to the conquest of power and the socialist transformation of society. There is a desperate need for unity in the movement, to regroup and to go on the offensive. The radical left party Antarsya has made an appeal to the Communist Party for a political and trade union united front. This is a step in the right direction, but coming from a small organisation like Antarsya, it is insufficient. If the KKE made an honest call for a united front with all the forces of the left and the labour movement against the memorandum, with a clear programme and an ambitious roadmap combining mass mobilisations, strike action, and parliamentary pressure, discussed and organised from below in open assemblies, the way would be paved for the defeat of the memorandum, for a new turn to the left in society, and, eventually, for a genuinely anti-capitalist, revolutionary government.