Greece: the battle lines sharpen

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Last month's general strike in Greece was an impressive response to attempts by the government to crack down on strikes and protests against austerity. Nikos Loudos, a Greek revolutionary socialist, spoke to Despina Karayianni and Mark L Thomas about the developing movement


Last month's general strike seems to have been a big success. It comes against a background where the government has been taking a harder line, attacking strikes and occupations and becoming more vicious. Could you say something about the position of the government?

The government is trying to present itself as a lion, but in reality it's a mouse.

It's still in big trouble and faces political and financial dead ends. It hasn't found ways to cope with the workers' movement - that's why they are trying to present a harder line against those fighting back. But it's not working. And on the financial level it is constantly confronted with failure. The last set of data in January showed that the revenue of the state was 300 million euros below target.

The government had bet that the situation in the eurozone would be better, but this hasn't happened. Its hopes for privatisation and new investment being attracted to Greece haven't been realised either.

This is producing political crises inside the government. The polls show that New Democracy is holding onto some of its support, but it's already at a historic low of around 21 percent. Meanwhile there are some recent polls that put Syriza, the coalition of the radical left, in first place. The other two parties of the government coalition, Pasok and the Democratic Left, are also seeing diminishing electoral support. This creates more tension and more arguments inside the government, for example over using repression against the workers' movement.

There are calls inside Pasok for the party to leave the government, and a big part of the Democratic Left is either also calling to leave the government or for the party to distance itself from the austerity measures and other unpopular government policies.

All of this makes it very difficult for the government to simply carry on. One of the most hardline ministers recently suggested changing the law to make it more difficult to strike. It took just two days for the government to issue an official statement saying that it is not going to do this. It shows its weakness.

The government recently used emergency laws allowing for civilian conscription to try and break strikes by metro workers in Athens and the seafarers. It is the hardest measure it can use against strikers - the police hand out individual letters threatening strikers with jail if they don't return to work. But despite this the seafarers took part in the general strike on 20 February and no action was taken against them.

The government is trying to create fear but doesn't have the weapons to implement its threats.

The last austerity package that was passed some months ago was backed by only 153 MPs out of 300. Officially the parties that support the government were elected with 179 MPs. Everyone knows that the next austerity package will be even harsher, and create even bigger problems for the government. And it's already talking about a new package in April or May because of the financial situation that will impose new attacks on wages and so on. So it doesn't have any easy ways forward.

How are the unions responding to the crisis?

Last month's general strike was the first official one in 2013. It was important because the trade union leadership have been saying that they wouldn't call any more general strikes. They are deeply disorientated and fatalistic. They say, "We did everything we could, but the austerity measures are still there - we haven't stopped them. We can't do anything more."

The general strike, both its levels of participation and the solidity of the strike, showed that the situation on the ground isn't the one that the trade union leaders claim.

But even though the union leaders have become more conservative, they are also weaker and less able to resist the pressure from below for action than it was.

The latest example is over the seafarers. When they faced conscription, the union leaders were forced to call for solidarity strikes in support, echoing the calls from the left for action to support the seafarers, something perhaps even we didn't expect them to do!

And the mood on the ground is for more activity and more struggle.

A year ago revolutionary socialists were a minority when we argued that they way forward was not just 24 hour general strikes but all-out strikes. Now everywhere where the union bureaucracy allows a space for this to be discussed the majority are for it.

In a recent mass meeting of bus workers - maybe the biggest meeting that they have ever had - the leadership only won after bureaucratically dividing the two left positions calling for more strikes. The majority was for more strikes. But bureaucratic weapons can't work everywhere and forever.

Something else to add to the picture is the farmers' protests. Many small farmers have loans from the banks and are under pressure over their re-payments at the same time as the government is increasing taxes on the farmers.

Over the past few weeks hundreds, even thousands, of farmers have been moving their tractors next to motorways and trying to block them. In the last week they blocked the motorways for some hours and there were clashes with the police. On the day of the general strike where the blockades were near the cities the farmers participated in the unions' demonstrations.

The government was already very fearful about the farmers' blockades. But coordination with workers is another, and new, development.

The other side of the deep political polarisation in Greece is the rise of Golden Dawn. Has it been able to capitalise on its electoral gains to create a bigger and more rooted Nazi organisation?

Golden Dawn still poses a big threat. In the conditions of political instability that I have described it has been able to hold its electoral support. The polls suggest it is on around 10 percent and is posing the third party in Greece, ahead of Pasok.

But it hasn't been able really to capitalise on the streets and organise in local neighbourhoods. It hasn't been able to copy the example of Aghios Panteleimonas, the area of Athens where Golden Dawn members came to public attention a few years ago by posing as local citizens mobilising against migrants.

It is opening more local offices (getting into parliament gives them access to public money). But in reality it isn't visible and haven't been able to appear in public except in the centre of Athens.

It is more and more marginalised in local neighbourhoods. Even the public stunts it had been doing, such as giving away free food or medicine to poor Greeks for example, hasn't been able to continue.

We are past the point where the left was disorientated by the rise for Golden Dawn and trying to work how to respond. Now the whole left is clear that they are Nazis and that we have to push them to the margins and not let them appear in public in any neighbourhood

You are even seeing spontaneous movements in some areas, where even if one member of Golden Dawn appears people organise against them.

But it's not over. This is for two reasons. The government is pushing racism, nationalism and oppression to try and divide the movement. The government blames migrants for the situation in neighbourhoods, school and hospitals. This opens the way for Golden Dawn.

And now the government is not just attacking migrants. It also blames the "factors of instability" - that is attacking the left and the unions too.

Golden Dawn can capitalise politically when their arguments are considered mainstream. Recently a former Pasok health minister said that Golden Dawn is the first real civil movement in Greece in 40 years! When he was health minister he said that migrants should be pushed out of the hospitals to free up resources.

The second reason Golden Dawn remains a threat is that it is still under the protection of the police and parts of the state. It may not be able to build openly in local neighbourhoods but it is able to carry out physical attacks on migrants at night, for example storming houses of migrants in the poorest neighbourhoods, thanks to the protection of the police.

What is the next step for the anti-fascist movement?

The success of the anti-fascist mobilisation in Athens on 19 January has opened up more possibilities for us.

One example is the campaign we are launching over the government's plans to reverse even the limited rights the children of migrants have to take Greek nationality, something granted by the previous government.

It is using a court decision that declared that blood is the main thing behind nationality and so people who don't have "Greek blood" can't be given Greek nationality. This is a racist and barbaric ruling. It means that children of migrants born in Greece, who have no other nationality, become illegal when they reach 18.

So we are creating a united front around this specific issue. The first step is on 21 March when the teachers' unions holding the global day against racism to open up these issues in schools and on the 30 March they will demonstrating for the right of children of migrants to have Greek nationality.

What are the responses of the different political forces on the left to the crisis and what are their current strategies?

The government's attacks on Syriza and the left in general are getting nastier.

But Syriza's position in the polls creates problems for the ruling class because they know that they don't have the easy solution of elections to resolve their political dead end. They aren't sure that elections would deliver a government they could control.

But Syriza is moving to the right. At its last conference, the leadership won a shift to more conservative line against the left. In fact, it was able to divide the left, winning part of it over to the leadership's line.

Syriza's leadership is focused on the next elections. They are trying to present themselves as a party that will not cause any instability. They are posing as a "normal" party claiming that they are not as radical as the media suggests they are.

Tsipras, Syriza's leader, recently made two international tours. One was to Latin America, where he met with Lula and Rousseff (the former and current Brazilian presidents) and Cristina Kirchner, the Argentinian president. Tsipras used this as an opportunity to say that a Syriza government would not be different from these governments, which are not radical.

The second tour was to meet European leaders, where he tried to present Syriza as the most credible force for saving the institutions of Greek society and defending the euro.

Syriza's leadership is arguing that we don't need radical solutions or any collusion with the capitalists or bankers or the eurozone and its leaders. We say we can find moderate solutions instead. The result of this is also that it is trying to distance itself from any radical action in the unions and wider movement.

So Syriza agrees with the union leaderships that escalating the struggle won't lead anywhere. It argues we need political change instead, in other words a new government. It says that more radical action, like all-out strikes, would lead to more instability and would harm Syriza's prospects for getting into government.

Revolutionary socialists are not the only ones to criticise Syriza's rightward shift. Recently a Syriza MP, Sofia Sakorafa, who isn't someone from the left, but a former Pasok supporter said that trying to appease the government and the ruling class doesn't make Syriza more credible. In fact it makes it less credible because people stop seeing Syriza as their tribune and instead they see it building bridges with the other side.

How is the Communist Party (KKE) positioning itself?

In contrast to Syriza, it is throwing itself into supporting specific struggles. For example, it was the major force organising solidarity for the seafarers' strike.
But its overall perspective for the movement is not that different from Syriza. It argues that the workers' movement is very weak (and this is its explanation for its poor results in the last election). As a result, in the unions it has been voting alongside the union leaderships against proposals for an escalation of the struggle put by the left wing Antarsya coalition and other radical left forces. A recent example was in the confederation of the civil servants when Antarsya proposed a five day strike. With the votes of the KKE it would have passed. But instead it backed the leadership for just a one day strike.

Its pessimism leads it to echo the position of the trade union bureaucracy about the way forward. But there is a growing gap between the leadership of the KKE and its supporters its proposing what those people who support them want. Such people are expecting more action, but the KKE leadership isn't organising in that direction.

Can you say something about Antarsya's role and perspective?

The lesson of the past month is that there is a lack of coordination between different groups of workers. In response to the conservatism of the bureaucracy there is an increase in struggles organised by the rank and file, but there is a gap with a lack of coordination these workers.

More parts of the movement are realising that this is a problem. That's why we've had many initiatives coming from different parts of the movement trying to coordinate action, for example we have seen calls by the metro workers and workers in the hospitals to try and address this. On the political left, only Antarsya is trying to help turn such calls into reality and this is our main current focus in the workers' movement.

This is already having results in some unions and Antarsya is making gains in union elections. The elections among the hospital doctors' union in Greater Athens saw Antarsya become the second-biggest force in the union. Pasok used to be the biggest - now it's fifth.

At its recent conference the lecturers' union, which had been run by the left but then passed to the control of more conservative sections of the union, had its conference recently and is now run by an alliance between Syriza and Antarsya supporters in the leadership.

But we have more work to do to make sure we are not only an electoral force in the unions but a real force that can coordinate action.

The political gap between what Syriza is saying, with its increasingly cautious position, and the needs of the struggle is also more obvious than it was a few months ago. We are more in need of a clear answer to the government's blackmail.

Antarsya is fighting in the movement for radical measures against the capitalists - we have to take the banks under public control, to take industries under workers' control, to break with the euro - to break with the blackmail that makes even Syriza say we have to save the euro.

Antarsya is a force for organising the coordination of the real struggles on the ground and proposing credible political answers to the crisis.