The lessons of Greece for the workers of Europe

Spain is moving inexorably towards a Greek-style situation with Podemos potentially being placed in the same situation as SYRIZA. The same process is underway across the whole of Europe. Therefore the lessons of Greece must be taken on board by the European left if we are to avoid the same mistakes made by the SYRIZA leadership. Here we provide the outlines of a speech given by Stamatis Karagiannopoulos of the Greek Communist Tendency (the IMT in Greece) during his recent tour of Spain.

When the Communist Manifesto was written almost 170 years ago, Marx and Engels explained that capitalism, through the global market, unifies the world economy into one interconnected whole. Today, the globalization of the capitalist economy has prepared the material basis for the abolition of the barriers placed on the development of the productive forces by the nation-state. It has prepared the way for the harmonious development of humanity, to the benefit of the whole of humanity, through the framework of international socialism.

However, the same tremendous degree of globalization has laid the basis for the rapid expansion of capitalist crisis and its unified development across the whole world. Now, more than ever, the crisis of capitalism does not have national colours, does not have a national character. Everywhere, all over the world, we can observe the common causes of the crisis.

Marx has once again been proved correct. Everywhere we see the tendency for the growing impoverishment of the working class. A tendency that, whatever the social democrats, Keynesians and reformists say, stems from the DNA of the capitalist system itself.

This rapid impoverishment of the working masses across the world was identified by Marx in Das Kapital as the ultimate cause of all crises of capitalism. Throughout the world the symptoms of the crisis - overproduction, economic deceleration and recession, the accumulation of enormous debts, and the policy of permanent austerity - are obvious.

What has changed is the epicenter of the crisis. In 2008 it was the banking sector of the United States, later it was southern Europe, then the BRICS, and most recently China. Inside the eurozone the “weak link” is without any doubt Greece.

In order to understand the Greek situation better, we should look at the country not as an exception, but as the most extreme expression of the generalized crisis of European capitalism. It is the mirror of the future that awaits many other European capitalist countries.

As the proof of the next stage of the crisis that lies ahead for many states that are now considered to be “quiet and stable”, the Greek bourgeoisie and West European imperialism have, since the beginning, carefully cultivated a myth about the crisis. It holds that “the Greek people lived beyond their means”.

However, the tendency for the accumulation of public debt is not peculiar to Greece. All the advanced capitalist states of Western Europe have leaned on, and continue to lean on, credit to artificially postpone the recession. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that in the entire eurozone, levels of public debt have not ceased to increase since the beginning of the crisis.

The Greek people did not benefit at all from the accumulation of public debt. The welfare state in Greece has always been extremely weak. For instance, only 10% of those already unemployed before the crisis received any form of unemployment benefit, while 70% of pensioners lived on the minimum pension. The percentage of public sector workers before the crisis was below the European average, while the “labour aristocracy”, the so-called “privileged sectors of the working class”, was very small and was concentrated mostly in a few ministries.

Those who did benefit from the massive borrowing by the Greek state in that period were the big Greek and foreign corporations that signed highly profitable contracts with the state: the loan sharks that gave money to the government, that is to say, Greek and foreign finance capital, and a “handful” of corrupt ministers and high-ranking civil servants.

We shouldn’t forget that in 2010 the increase in borrowing costs and interest rates that drove Greece to bankruptcy and into the bailout programmes was the product of financial speculation going on in the world markets, and also the expression of the generalized pessimism about the prospects of European and global capitalism in the aftermath of the recession of 2008.

The so-called bailout programmes that were granted to Greece went mostly straight into the coffers of banks and financial institutions to meet payments on the Greek debt, while large amounts of liquidity were injected into the Greek financial sector for its recapitalization.

latuff-greek-memorandumIllustrative of this is the fact that out of the €219bn that Greece received before the signature of the third memorandum, only €7.9 billion went to the public finances. At the same time the average income of Greek workers collapsed by around 40%.

These facts show that the aim of the so-called bailout packages given to Greece was to avoid a domino effect that could drag the European banking system behind it and the Euro itself. The plan was that the Greek workers should pay for the crisis, which would create a model for the slashing of wages that could be exported to the rest of Europe.

Greece today presents, from an economic point of view, the landscape of a war-torn country.

It represents a living example of what could await the youth and the working class of the developed Western economies. It is also a reminder of the importance the fight for socialism has for the European working class.

Greek GDP stood at €236.6bn in 2008. By the end of 2014 it had fallen to €177.6bn. This is a drop of €60 billion, 25%. Despite these so-called bailouts, Greek public debt has gone from 125% of GDP in 2009 to 198% today. Unemployment has risen from 12% in 2009 to 27% at present. The official rate is not higher simply because from the beginning of the crisis 300,000 unemployed young graduates have emigrated. Meanwhile, 60% of the Greek population, 6.3 million people, live under the poverty line.

Confronted with this nightmare, the Greek working class, at the head of the other impoverished and oppressed layers of society in the cities and the countryside, began to wage tremendous struggles, beginning in 2010.

This upswing in the class struggle saw thirty-five general strikes, a mass movement in the squares lasting two months, and dozens of localized struggles. Greek society entered a pre-revolutionary situation. The masses drew radical conclusions and, as a result, the traditional social democratic party, the PASOK, collapsed. A new party that came from the communist tradition and was moving leftwards, SYRIZA, was elevated from political marginality to power in January 2015.

The accession of SYRIZA to power did not represent a “blank cheque” handed to them by the working masses and the youth. From the first days of SYRIZA in power, mass mobilizations took place pressuring the government to carry out its promises under the slogan “Not one step back!”

This process resulted in the mass movement of July, when, despite the blackmail and with closed banks, the people voted massively “NO” in the referendum. Naturally, after the treacherous capitulation of the Tsipras leadership on July 12th, a wave of disappointment, hopelessness and cynicism swept away the previous combative mood that had existed among the working class and youth. This was reflected in the elections, with three million abstaining in protest.

Among left-wing militants in Greece and abroad certain concrete questions have been posed by these events, and by the painful outcome that the first phase of mass movements against austerity had in Greece.

We have the duty of providing clear answers to these questions. The first critical question is: what is the reason for the treacherous capitulation of Alexis Tsipras? How can we explain the fact that the very same leader who at one point was promising, with a smile on his face, to break forever with the Memoranda, could, a few weeks later, say - still with a smile - that there is no alternative to the Memorandum?

What are the lessons we can draw from the first experience of SYRIZA in power? Despite the fact that Tsipras's attitude represents the apex of dishonesty and disdain for working people, the reason behind the capitulation is not moral, but political.

Before Tsipras and his government became morally bankrupt, they had become politically bankrupt. Their moral bankruptcy is the result of their political bankruptcy. The basic political and programmatic positions of Tsipras and his team were refuted by life itself. This basic position is called reformism.

Reformism is the idea that you can do away with austerity within the framework of capitalism, without carrying out revolutionary changes in the economy, society and power, but with the consent and the collaboration of the ruling class. This idea has been proven to be false and utopian.

The Communist Tendency and the International Marxist Tendency patiently explained before these events took place that austerity and the Memoranda are not ideological choices of the ruling class. Rather they are an essential part of the way the capitalist system functions..

Austerity is the international political programme of capitalism in conditions of crisis and soaring debt. Debt must be paid under capitalism, and those who hold that debt, the finance capitalists demand payment. Fighting austerity therefore means fighting capitalism. This applies a hundred times more so in a “weak link” like Greece, and the whole of the southern Eurozone in general.

Let us think about the matter logically and realistically: within the framework of capitalism, if we wanted to increase wages and pensions, rebuild the welfare state, build schools, universities and hospitals, create new jobs, then the big owners of capital and wealth, the capitalists and bankers, would have to pay higher wages.

However, this implies that we would have to find a way to convince them - “democratically” and with their “consent” - to pay. The example of Greece, and also  of Portugal which is unfolding before our eyes at this very moment, shows that there is no such way of convincing them to pay.

There is not a single example in history that shows that in conditions of crisis the ruling class can be persuaded to accept such concessions. It is from an understanding of this reality, and not from any form of “dogmatism” or “maximalism”, that flows the defence of an anti-capitalist, socialist programme on the part of the Marxists.

The programme of revolutionary Marxism connects with reality, while the programme of reformism is based on a mistaken and false understanding of reality. This is the reason why it contains the seeds of defeat and betrayal.

Naturally, nothing stops a reformist leadership from behaving honestly and admitting that they are mistaken. At this point we have to separate the healthy, naive reformism of the masses, who understandably look for the most painless and peaceful road to resolve their problems, from the self-serving reformism of the careerist leaders of the left.

If an ordinary workers with reformist ideas had been in the position of Alexis Tsipras they would have drawn radical conclusions from the suffocating pressure of the Troika and the Greek oligarchy. They would not have accepted to willingly collaborate in cutting wages and pensions against their own people and to drive their class deeper into poverty.

However, careerist reformist leaders have historically shown, that they can easily pass from being fighters against austerity to its most ardent champions, with the ease with which a traveller jumps from one train to another.

Therefore, we will have to correct our comrade Pablo Iglesias. Alexis Tsipras is not a “lion” in any way, shape or form, as he described him in the central electoral rally of SYRIZA in Athens in September. Alexis Tsipras has proved to be a classical reformist careerist.

The most conscious socialist militants in Spain should therefore draw the correct conclusions from recent events, and feel duty-bound to oppose such “lions” from leading the left in Spain to a painful defeat and betrayal, such as we have witnessed in Greece.

The second critical question regarding Greece is: was there an alternative? What should Tsipras and SYRIZA have done when they first took power? The answer is, YES, there was an alternative!

When SYRIZA took power last January [2015], the conditions to do away with austerity and the Memoranda were extremely favourable. However, the party leadership started to look for the wrong allies as a consequence of their reformist position. They chose to base themselves on capitalism, on a sector of the ruling class, the so-called “anti-Memorandum” party ANEL, and on bourgeois social-democratic leaders like Obama, Hollande and Renzi; that is, on American, French and Italian imperialism.

As a consequence of leaning on these dubious allies, the implementation of the Thessaloniki programme was indefinitely postponed and the foundations were laid for the final, open betrayal.

To do away with austerity and the Memoranda, SYRIZA should have leaned on the power of the working class and the youth of Greece and internationally.

From the first days of SYRIZA in power until July, SYRIZA enjoyed unprecedented popular support in Greece and abroad. This generated the best possible conditions for putting an end to the Memoranda and cancelling the debt, a debt that was deemed by the Greek parliament itself in July as illegal and illegitimate.

Certainly, if this had been done there would have been political and economic retaliations against Greece, including the expulsion of the country from the eurozone and the EU. How could the government have effectively responded to these retaliations?

On the international front it could have effectively broken with the attempts by capitalism to isolate Greece. SYRIZA should have called for days of protest and mobilizations, including strike action, in solidarity with Greece across the whole of Europe. It should have gathered all radical left-wing forces in Europe in an international conference in Athens to coordinate the struggle against austerity.

Hundreds of thousands of European workers would have responded to these calls with enthusiasm and a genuine pan-European mass political movement could have been born.

The great potential for this was shown in the dozens of spontaneous demonstrations that took place in Europe in solidarity with Greece across the whole of Europe, especially in Spain, where they connected with the rise of PODEMOS.

What would have been the practical result of such a pan-European movement? It would have put the Troika and capitalist Germany on the defensive. It would have made any measures in retaliation against Greece extremely unpopular for any European government.

More generally, it would have changed the balance of forces in favour of the working class against austerity across the whole of Europe and given a massive impulse to other left-wing and communist parties towards power.

The election of another radical left-wing government in Europe, starting in Spain, would only have been a question of time, breaking the isolation of Greece and laying the foundations for the creation of a genuinely united socialist Europe.

On the internal front, the most effective response to the retaliations would have been aimed at disarming the ruling class and the Troika. We take for granted that the expulsion of Greece from the eurozone and the EU would have led to a scarcity of basic goods and a hike in inflation.

To counteract these problems, the economy should have been subjected to a central plan aimed at protecting the people from hunger and poverty. However, you cannot plan what you do not control. Therefore, the banks, the big corporations, and the landed estates should have been put in the hands of the state. And that same state along with the commanding heights of the economy, should have been put under the democratic control of the organized working class.

Only these anti-capitalist, socialist measures could have ensured that the resources are found to tackle poverty and to start investing in the economy to create jobs for the unemployed.

The supervision of the organized working class over the state and production within the framework of a Greek committee for workers' control, based on a network of local committees, could have become the necessary point of support for the government to fight corruption and scandals and to stop squandering resources. It would have ensured that, on the basis of a planned economy, wages, pensions and social benefits were fixed at an adequate level to ensure a dignified life for everyone.

While new economic relations were being established with other countries and trading partners found, liquidity necessary for imports in commodities, raw materials and fuels, at least in the first difficult months, could have been found by turning the euros in bank accounts into a national currency and using the wealth and the fortunes that Greek corporations and banks are hoarding abroad.

The army and the police should have been put under the democratic control of the mass organizations. The freedom to organize soldiers' assemblies and for soldiers to elect their delegates would have undermined any potential coup d'état.

In the current conditions of globalization, with the existing means of communication and social networks, this example of revolutionary Greece would not have remained isolated for a minute.

Beginning from southern Europe, the revolutionary example of socialist Greece would have become a beacon of hope and inspiration for the left and the working class in Europe and internationally. Sooner or later, the working classes of Europe, faced with common problems and the same attacks by capital, would have taken the road of revolution.

Unfortunately, only the Communist Tendency defended this type of alternative programme inside SYRIZA. But the Communist Tendency is a small and recently created group only founded in 2013. In the SYRIZA founding congress it only obtained 0.75% of the votes.

There was, nevertheless, a tendency in SYRIZA that could have put up a successful battle for a radical alternative programme: the Left Platform, which controlled 30% of the SYRIZA leadership.

However, the Left Platform made all the mistakes possible, leaving the party in the hands of the treacherous team of Tsipras. The Platform joined the government with the right-wing ANEL and consented to the postponement of the electoral programme for the sake of “difficult negotiations” that were taking place with the Troika.

They became, in the eyes of the working class and youth, collaborators in the defeat. The leadership of the Left Platform refused to put up an internal battle to stop the signing of the new Memorandum. When finally the third Memorandum was signed, what the Platform essentially did was to seek a “friendly divorce” with Tsipras and his team.

The mistakes of the Left Platform, however, continue in their new party, Popular Unity. Instead of rectifying the social-democratic drawbacks of SYRIZA and endorsing a clearly anti-capitalist programme, the leadership of Popular Unity stood in the elections under the banner of the “panacea” of the national currency, a return to the Drachma.

However, every ordinary worker understands that without proposing a radical transformation of society, a programme based simply on returning to the national currency within the framework of capitalism, only means greater austerity and greater poverty.

There is no solution to this crisis within the confines of capitalism, whether on a national basis - return to the Drachma but staying within a market economy - or internationally staying within the euro and the capitalist EU. Any Left party that tries either of these roads will end up being crushed by the inexorable logic of capitalism, which is ultimately based on guaranteeing the profits of industrial and finance capital, which cannot be done while at the same time guaranteeing decent wages and conditions for the workers, decent housing, decent education, decent healthcare.

The experience of Greece should be studied by all worker and youth activists on the left. All of Europe is going to face the same situation we have faced in recent years. Debt has piled up across Europe and austerity is the only answer the capitalists have. But workers across Europe will also struggle, as the Greek workers have struggled. What is required is the building of a leadership of the working class across Europe that will not buckle under the pressure of the capitalist class. That is what the Marxists are patiently working for.