Greece: militant mood emerges under new right wing government

After playing for time before last year’s Olympic games, the Greek ruling class is preparing an all-out attack on the workers of Greece. The Greek economy is beginning to slow down and this is adding to the problems of the ruling class. A recent wave of strikes and general strikes indicates that Greece is clearly moving towards a period of renewed class conflict.

Greece is clearly moving towards a period of renewed class conflict. After playing for time before last year’s Olympic games, the Greek ruling class is preparing an all-out attack on the workers of Greece. The Greek economy is beginning to slow down and this is adding to the problems of the ruling class.

The government’s economic growth target for this year was 4%, but now the real figures seem to indicate growth this year will only be between 2.5 and 2.9%. This is a problem as government budget spending was based on the target and not the real figure. Overall public debt now stands at 112% of GDP, and the annual budget deficit stands at a staggering 6% of GDP, well above the EU limit of 3%! This means Greece, like all EU member countries, is under big pressure to cut public spending.

On top of the public debt is the growing indebtedness of the population as a whole and of the private companies. Last year the debts of Greek families grew by 25%, and now the combined debt of families and the corporate debt stands at 118billion euros, or 71% of GDP. This is a process similar to what we have seen in all the countries of Europe. Ordinary working people are struggling to keep up their standards of living, and can only do so by getting into further debt. Some families have no other way of surviving!

In February the government increased VAT on basic goods by 1%, and this measure alone has meant that the average working class family this year will lose the equivalent of 306 euros of purchasing power. In September there is going to be another 1% increase and so next year each family will lose a further 470 euros.

Inflation now stands at between 4 and 4.3% (according to European Commission figures). But the unions signed agreements on wages that only guarantee a 3% increase. Therefore in spite of all the struggles over wages, real wages are going down.

Weak capitalism

On top of this is the crisis in industry. Although GDP has been going up, industrial production in 2004 fell by 1.8%. Unemployment now stands at 520,000 (out of a population of 10.5 to 11 million), or 10.5% of the active labour force. This is expected to rise to 11.5% in 2006 (and according to the Communist Party studies, it could rise to 17%). Many factories have closed, for example in the textile industry, with 3000 Greek companies moving their plants to Albania, Serbia and Bulgaria, taking advantage of the much lower wages in these countries.

Greek capitalism is weak and cannot compete with the much more powerful countries of the EU, such as France and Germany. In fact, only Portugal, of the previous 15 EU members, is in a worse position than Greece. Thus its industrial base is being weakened. Added to this is the huge level of debt, especially the public debt.

In these conditions the government is now preparing to go onto the offensive against the working class. Up until recently government propaganda was based on populist demagogy. Now they have decided that they need to launch a general attack on the workers and apply what they see as “shock” tactics.

Karamanlis, the New Democracy prime minister, will face serious problems in the new year (2006). He has publicly stated that he is going to open up a fight against the “people who put the country in this position.” By this he means the workers.

A new wave of privatisations

He has already announced a new wave of privatisations. He is preparing for this by changing the working relations in all the publicly owned companies. He wants to prepare them for private ownership. This is already bringing him into conflict with the DEKO companies, i.e. the public sector. In the declaration of principles of DEKO it clearly states that the public sector exists to promote the welfare of the people. He wants to remove this clause.

The previous PASOK government had only managed to sell a part of the state-owned companies. The New Democracy (ND) government now want to go much further, with a large number of redundancies and other such measures.

This process had started with the OTE (the Greek Telecoms company). The government only control 49% of shares, but it still maintains overall managerial control. But the ND government wants to go further and sell off its remaining share in the company. In preparation for this they reached an agreement with the trade unions in OTE on early retirement. This will involve 6000 workers. And while they are getting rid of the older workers they are worsening the working conditions for the younger ones. There will no longer be stable jobs, or “permanent” jobs as they call them. In fact the agreement grants the bosses greater freedom in sacking workers.

This agreement was a crucial turning point in labour relations in Greece. After it was signed the government adopted a more aggressive stance, wishing to use the agreement as a precedent and model to apply to all the DEKO companies, such as DEI (electricity), ELTA (Post Office), ETHEL (Athens bus company), OSE (National Railways), EIDAP (Water company), etc. The basic aim is to change labour relations, end permanent jobs, especially for the younger workers, make sacking easier, and thus prepare all these companies for privatisation.

This onslaught produced a very radical mood among the DEKO workers. For example, in June there was a three-week strike of the public bank workers, a section of workers that were considered “privileged” in the past. The GSEE (Greek TUC) called a big rally in support of the bank workers. Now this formerly more conservative layer has become the vanguard!

The struggle of the bank workers was provoked by a series of measures proposed by the government, including cuts in pensions and increases in the age of retirement. On top of this there was the open provocation concerning how much the bosses should pay in contributions towards the social security system. Already the bosses have accumulated large debts to the social security fund, and now the government has proposed writing off 14 billion euros of this debt.

As if this were not enough, the government has plans to transfer the bank workers’ pension fund to the general public fund. The general state pension fund already has huge debts of its own. So all this measure will achieve is to make the overall pension fund debt even bigger. The future of this fund looks bleak, and many workers are seriously worried about how their pensions will be paid in the future. This explains the three-week strike of the bank workers.

A period of intensified class conflict

This strike came in the middle of a period of intensified class conflict. In the four month period from February to June there has been one three-hour general strike called by the GSEE (in March) and two further general strikes on May 11th and June 24th. There have also been two national strikes of the white collar workers of the public sector (in March and May), an all-Athens shop workers’ strike against the increase in working hours and opening times, a school teachers’ strike (in March), a five-day strike of the University lecturers (in early June), and strikes in several industries where there have been closures and redundancies (for example in the textile industry).

There have also been mobilisations of the university and school students (in February-March), especially in the universities where some faculties have been occupied. These protests were against government plans to transform the universities into “companies” and link them to business and to close so-called “unproductive” faculties (i.e. those that are not directly linked to profit-making).

However, the most striking dispute has been that of the bank workers, of which there are 100,000 throughout Greece. This strike has brought to the surface a very militant mood in this sector. Unfortunately, good coordination of the strike has been lacking. The official trade union leadership has not worked systematically to build links with other sectors. This is because the GSEE leadership has entered into the logic of “dialogue” and “negotiation” with the government and the bosses.

In fact, all the strikes listed above took place against the will of the GSEE leaders. The trade union leaders were forced to call these strikes under pressure from the rank and file, but they did not seriously organise them. In spite of this, average participation in the general strikes was over 65%, the most successful being that of May 11th. June 24th was also a big success, both in the big private industries and in the public sector, although there was not much participation in the rallies.

To understand the situation in the GSEE we have to look at the political divisions within it. There are several political fronts within the GSEE, the main one being the PASKE (the PASOK faction) which has 55% of the leadership, followed by DAKE (the ND faction) with 22%, PAME (the Communist Party, or KKE faction) with 21% and the Synaspismos faction with about 2.5%. (There is a discussion taking place among the DAKE leaders on the idea of splitting the GSEE and forming a new union federation. This is clearly an attempt to weaken the unions in a period of growing militancy.)

Last year in June the PASKE and DAKE signed an agreement with the SEV (the Union of Greek Industrialists, the biggest of the bosses’ associations). It was in that agreement that they accepted a 3% annual increase in wages, when official inflation figures have already reached 4%.

The incredible thing is that last year’s agreement, which amounted to a social contract, is still being upheld by the GSEE leaders. They have not repudiated it in spite of a whole series of strikes and general strikes. The agreement established that there was to be “social peace” on wages and other issues. There has been no social peace and yet the trade union leaders stubbornly stick to it.

As we have already explained, growing inflation means no real gain for the workers, but a net fall in real purchasing power. We have to remember that Greek workers earn the second lowest wages after Portugal, among the old EU 15. The average wage in Greece is around €750 (euros) a month. For example a bank worker with 17 years’ service gets €782 a month!

Compare this with the 30% increase in profits for the bank owners and you can understand the explosive situation. In spite of this, the government is attempting to portray the public sector workers as “privileged” and it is trying to play off the public sector against the private sector. They have been publishing so-called opinion polls that show that there is widespread support for the government among the private sector workers. But all this is false. The mood among all workers is one of opposition to the government.

This mood however, is not having any effect on the prime minister, who is pushing ahead with his so-called “shock” tactics. The present Karamanlis government reminds us very much of the Mitsotakis (ND) government of 1990-93, which was the harshest government since the fall of the Colonels’ junta. It too launched a big attack on the Greek working class and it was brought down by the mass movement. It provoked a big strike wave and mobilisations of the youth and within three years it was kicked out of office and this prepared the return to power of the PASOK.

Divisions within ND

However, although Karamanlis is moving ahead regardless, splits have started to emerge within his party, New Democracy. There have always been internal divisions within the ND. There was the extreme right wing, which was led by Karatgiaferis (an owner of a semi-fascist TV channel) that later split away to form a new party, LAOS. This party now gets 3% in the elections and is growing. Then there was the traditionally populist wing of the party, led by the old Karamanlis, the grandfather of the present ND prime minister. This wing is now led by Evert, and the present Karamanlis officially belongs to this faction of the party. But as always, once in power the bourgeois populists have to abide by the policies imposed by the big capitalists. So now a conflict has opened up between Evert and Karamanlis over the handling of the bank workers’ dispute. He has gone as far as accusing Karamanlis of backing the bank owners! This reflects the beginnings of a split at the top among the ruling class.

Evert has presented an amendment to Karamanlis’ bill on the bank workers’ conditions and he has also accused the prime minister of being like Mitsotakis. This behaviour of Evert confirms his position as leader of the populist wing of New Democracy, whereas Karamanlis is now considered a “neo-liberal”, i.e. more in tune with imperialism, and yet in the past the two belonged to the same faction of the party.

All this indicates that the government is very unstable. There are already symptoms of a deep crisis on the eve of a serious attack on the working class. We can imagine how wide the rift within the ND will become once the attack gets seriously under way, and once the working class begin to mobilise in a big way.

The idea of the Greek bourgeois is to attack now because they think they have full control of the situation. They believe the government has room for manoeuvre, as it is a relatively fresh government, having only come to office last year. The fact that the PASOK is dominated by its right wing, with hardly a left wing in sight, adds strength to the argument of the bourgeoisie. They believe the moment is right, with the ND in government and with the PASOK hardly putting up any opposition at all.

Of course, they are going to get a big surprise. They may control the leaders of both the ND and the PASOK, but they cannot control the working class. Opinion polls show that there is growing disillusionment among the working masses towards both major parties.

The leader of the PASOK, Papandreu, is completely isolated from the rank and file, working class base of the party. In the last ten months the ND has lost 4% in the opinion polls, but the PASOK is not benefiting from this. The number of abstentions is growing.

The same polls show that 60% of the population are disillusioned with the two main parties, ND and PASOK. What we are seeing is a slight strengthening on the left and the right. The KKE (Communist Party) is at 7% (2% up since the elections last year) and the Synaspismos is at 3.9% (0.4% up) and on the far right the LAOS is at around 3% (0.5% up since the elections). These figures show a tendency towards polarisation of Greek society, with the added phenomenon that the bulk of the people are disillusioned with all the parties.

The PASOK

This is an amazing situation if we consider all the social problems that have accumulated within Greek society. The workers are prepared to struggle as all the strikes listed above clearly demonstrate. The main point of reference for the Greek workers remains the PASOK. It is deeply rooted in the traditions of the Greek working class, and yet people generally feel that the PASOK has no clear ideological points of reference.

However, the PASOK leadership do have an agenda, and it is a Blairite one. The leaders say they are looking for a new “model”, and they refer specifically to the “Swedish model”. Unfortunately for them, the old Swedish model they are referring to is well and truly dead. That model was based on the post-war boom. Without the boom that model becomes its opposite, i.e. a programme of counter-reforms.

In line with this, in early June, speaking at a general assembly of the SEV (the Greek union of industrialists) Papandreu announced that the “main enemy” is the state. By this he meant state control over the economy. This shows that he has completely married the so-called “neo-liberal” policies so dear to the Greek capitalists, and to capitalists the world over.

He told the bosses that “we” can carry out “your” policies (the so-called “reforms”) better than the ND government, and he clearly stated that he was “against statism”. This confirms that Papandreu has no independent policy from that of the bosses. It means that in many ways he is indistinguishable from the government. This explains the opinion polls!

For example, during last month’s three-week bank workers’ strike the PASOK leadership has nothing of their own to say. It was Evert of the ND that put forward an amendment to the government bill, and all that Papandreu did was to support Evert!

On the important question of the EU Constitution, again the PASOK has no independent policy. It is totally in favour, completely ignoring the reactionary content of this document. Simitis, the former PASOK leader and prime minister, even went to France to support the YES campaign in the referendum.

In line with what we have seen in many social democratic parties in Europe, the left wing of the PASOK has collapsed. Formally there is a small left current, the “Left Initiative”, but it is now actively supporting Papandreu, although it continues to make left sounding speeches.

In the immediate future this will not change. However, in the long run the PASOK cannot escape the processes taking place within Greek society. The PASOK is rooted in the Greek working class. It still dominates the trade unions, with its trade union fraction PASKE. In the next period we will undoubtedly see a turn to the left within the trade union base of the PASOK.

We have already seen this where there have been mobilisations. The PASKE bank workers’ leaders were forced to move to the left – at least in words – during the recent strike. This expressed the militant mood at rank and file level.

Another example of this was the turn within PASKE in ELPE (the oil company). When the government announced the privatisation of this state run company, the PASKE leaders called an all-out strike and the government was forced to retreat.

We will see wave after wave of mobilisations, and these will undoubtedly affect the PASKE. Therefore a future left opposition within the PASOK will be built on the basis of the PASKE being forced leftwards by the rank and file workers, and this will feed into the party at some stage.

Unfortunately, years of a right wing PASOK government in power have weakened the PASOK at rank and file level. The branches have lost many members. This has also had a big impact on the youth of the party, which has dwindled and has become completely bureaucratised.

So at this stage the elements of a future left within the PASOK can be seen in the PASKE, although we are still at a very embryonic stage. It is still early days.

We have to remember that since 1980 the PASOK has been in government for 21 years (with the exception of the 1990-93 Mitsotakis government and this last year of Karamanlis). This has transformed the PASOK leaders into state administrators. It has reduced the left wing to a very small force, and has pushed many members into abandoning the party. At rank and file level the party is in crisis. Its branches are not functioning.

But Papandreu has gone even further in watering down the base of the party. He has opened it up to the so-called “friends of the party” who are consulted on party policy without actually being members. This is a mechanism used to strengthen the party bureaucracy.

The KKE

This situation explains why the Greek Communist Party, the KKE, has picked up some support in the polls. However, it has proved to be incapable of picking up all the potential support that the rightward shift of the PASOK has created. This can be explained by several factors.

One of these are its divisory tactics adopted within the Greek labour movement. In the recent period it has in fact escalated its tendency to adopt sectarian tactics. During all the big strikes it organises separate rallies. But in the recent period these rallies have been attracting smaller numbers than in the past. For example, this year PAME (the KKE’s trade union fraction) organised a separate rally on May Day, but they only attracted about half the numbers of two year ago. This has provoked disappointment within the ranks of the party, as it seems to contradict the growing electoral support in the polls.

The KKE has always been traditionally a very tight party, with no internal dissent permitted. But now we are seeing the first elements of open division right at the top of the party. There is one wing around Gontikas and Mailis, which is speaking more openly about the need for “socialism”. They say the Greek bourgeoisie has now become imperialist, as opposed to the past, when they justified their two-stages approach on the basis of their definition of the Greek ruling class as being a “compradore bourgeoisie”.

This is an important development within the KKE and a change from the past. Some of the leaders have clearly moved to the left, and this is bringing them into conflict with those who are still stubbornly clinging on the old Stalinist theory of stages. However, we should not be led into believing that now this wing of the party is going to launch a struggle for socialism in Greece. For at the same time as they talk of “socialism” they still support the idea of the so-called “Greek road to socialism...” and “socialism in one country”.

An important element in their thinking is that they do not see a leading role for the working class. Rather they see the workers as having an equal role as the petit bourgeoisie. So, as we can see, they are full of contradictions. In reality this represents a confused groping leftwards after years of maintaining a classical Stalinist position, and again, as in the unions, it reflects a process of radicalisation taking place within the ranks of the party, who are more in touch with the general mood within the working class as a whole.

It is important to note that this wing has a majority within the youth of the party, the KNE, the intellectuals and even the party secretariat. Even the party’s general secretary, Aleka Papariga (who has held the position for 12 years) leans towards this wing. The other wing of the party maintains a more classical two-stage Stalinist position. It had many members in the previous Central Committee, but at the last congress in February it saw its forces reduced.

All this represents a clear shift to the left of the party. Having said all this, the official party programme still embodies the old Stalinist perspective of two stages. The first stage envisages the survival of capitalism but with an “anti-imperialist” character, with a “people’s economy” and “people’s power”. Stage two would see “socialism” within the borders of Greece, i.e. the national road to socialism. And of course, the right wing of the party, although it has lost important positions, supports all this. This explains why the final document that emerged from the February congress of the KKE was in the end an unstable compromise. How long this can hold will depend on the intensity of the class struggle in Greece over the next period.

The Synaspismos

The Synaspismos, a small left party (with origins in the KKE) continues to shift leftwards. Its main weakness is its lack of strong links to the working class. Its main links are to the highly skilled layers and to the radicalised intelligentsia and petit bourgeois. It doesn’t have deep roots in the industrial working class, as the KKE clearly has. It also has no real roots among the radicalised youth. In spite of this it is part of the Communist tradition of Greece, and small but significant layers of youth and workers do look to it.

At its last congress in December the party elected a new leader, Alavanos. The previous leader, ousted at the congress, represented the “centre”, whereas the new leader reflects a turn to the left. The left reformists of the Synaspismos leadership now have 65% support within the party, with the remainder being in the hands of the party’s right wing.

There are no real principled differences between the two wings. But there is one big difference. The right wing talk of building a coalition with the PASOK, similar to the centre-left coalition in Italy, while the left wing talks of the need for a “Left Front” with the KKE and smaller left groups and their model is the “antiglobalisation” movement.

Although its trade union base is very small, as we have already seen, in the last few months we have noticed some growth of the party among the workers. For example, during recent strikes we have seen bigger contingents of the Synaspismos at the rallies. Again, therefore, we see how the class struggle affects even this small left party. On this basis we can expect conflicts to open within the Synaspismos in the coming period. The party is being pulled left and right by the contradictory pressures within Greek society.

The new leader, Alavanos, although an expression of the shift to the left, is trying to curb this process by rising above both wings of the party. In fact, he wants to abolish tendencies within the Synaspismos, but the left wing have thwarted his attempts to move in that direction.

The conflict emerges over what tactics to adopt in the local elections. As we explained, the right wing want an electoral alliance with the PASOK. In September 2006 we will have the local elections, and the left wing is pushing for an alliance with small left groups. The new party leader is leaning in the direction of an alliance with the PASOK, with the excuse that he has an independent position from the rest of the party leadership. But the idea of a coalition of the Synaspismos with many smaller left groups already exists. It is called Siriza, and the left of the party want to develop this as a permanent tactic. On this question conflicts are inevitable within the party. As usual, this small force is feeling the pressure of much bigger parties, the PASOK and the KKE.

General perspective

All these developments, the conflicts within the Synaspismos, the left-right divide opening up within the KKE and the pressures that PASKE is feeling, reflect a growing militancy on the part of the Greek working class. This mood will intensify over the coming period.

This month the government is discussing a new law to abolish the 8-hour working day! If passed it will allow the working day to be extended up to 12 hours. This alone could provoke a new general strike. Such a scenario could open up deeper splits within the ND government. Already we have seen the divisions between Evert and Karamanlis over the bank workers’ dispute. A generalised movement of the class would have an even bigger impact on the New Democracy.

It could lead to a repetition of what happened back in 1993, when Samaras organised a split from the New Democracy, which took 5% of the support of the party. The ND could see itself being kicked out of office at some stage by the intervention of the working class on the streets. This is one concrete possibility in the coming period. Bitter class struggles will clearly be on the agenda.

Unfortunately at this moment there is a political vacuum in Greece, which is creating an anomalous situation. Objectively speaking, the balance of forces is enormously weighted in favour of the working class. The bourgeoisie is weak in society.

In the recent past the Greek ruling class was able to benefit from large amounts of EU funds flowing into the country. Now that has been drastically reduced. And as the major EU powers are coming more and more into conflict among themselves over the allocation of funds, Greece will pay heavily, as it is one of the weaker powers within the European Union. Therefore Greek capitalism is heading towards a major crisis.

So although it is objectively in a weak position, politically the Greek bourgeoisie feels strong. They have the ND government in power and there is no real opposition to it. The Greek bosses feel they have full control over the PASOK leadership, with Papandreu dominating and a very weak internal left wing.

This feeling of strength, however, will very quickly dissipate. This ND government is provoking the working class. It has already provoked the bank workers and other sectors. It has no intention of changing track. It is on a head-on collision course with the working class.

Once the working class moves in a big way, the real weakness of this government will be apparent to all. Karamanlis will find himself in a similar position to Berlusconi, with one wave of strikes after another. The ruling class is not investing; it is not providing any improvement for the workers. On the contrary it has gone on the offensive and is trying to destroy all the past gains of the working class. Its key point of support is within the leadership of the trade unions, which is doing its best to hold back the workers. But this cannot last for long. The bank workers’ dispute is a clear example of how the leaders will be forced to mobilise the ranks.

There is a tremendous feeling of class solidarity developing within the Greek working class. For example during the bank workers’ dispute, the leaders of the bus workers made speeches about the need to support the bank workers. Of course, they did not act on this. They were mere words, but they were words that reflected the thinking of the bus workers.

There is a growing feeling among Greek workers that in the face of this attack on the part of the bosses and their ND government there is no leadership. That is reflected in the internal conflicts within the left parties. The ranks are seeking a way out.

The more intelligent and farsighted wing of the ruling class can see this, and therefore are keeping the PASOK in reserve. One idea they are playing with is a possible split in the PASOK to shift it even further to the right and possibly open the scenario of a coalition with the ND.

As we can see, a very unstable period in Greek politics is opening up. This will shake up all the organisations of the labour movement, both its trade union and its political wings.

It is in this environment that the genuine ideas of Marxism will start to get an echo, first among the more advanced layers and later among the masses. Once the ideas of revolutionary socialism connect in a serious way with the Greek working class and youth no force on earth will be able to stop them.