Interview: Greece after the explosion

Issue: 122
Posted: 31 March 09

Panos Garganas, editor of the Greek newspaper Workers Solidarity, spoke to International Socialism about the latest developments in a country that has witnessed the emergence of powerful movements from below. 1


In December 2008 Greece was at the centre of media attention with the protests that followed the killing of a school student by the police. How has the situation developed since then?

The movement that exploded in December has died down. Exams have caused a lull in the student and school student mobilisations. Politically, the government survived the explosion in December but is in real trouble and has had to go soft in order to avoid new explosions.

What was the background to the December explosion?

The background was the government attempt to privatise education. This has been going on for the past two years and has met with fierce resistance with occupations in the colleges and schools.

The media were predicting in December that the government would fall or that there would be an election. Why did that not happen?

The Conservative government only won the election in 2007 with a majority of one. It has been a weak government from the start. When the explosion happened, with a dramatic night with riots in the centre of Athens, there were widespread reports that a cabinet meeting was discussing a state of emergency—which would have meant suspension of the constitution, arrests and so on. It backed off from this and instead decided on a different approach. This involved a reshuffle and putting forward the line that all the political forces in parliament must get together to deal with the economic crisis and the tensions from the riots. This change of tune is the real reason the government is still there.

The parliamentary opposition, Pasok (the equivalent of Labour in Britain), is calling for an election but at the same time is very open to working with the government to deal with the crisis.

So were Pasok able to act to cool down the movement?

Their influence among young people is limited. They could not do much about students occupying their faculties and even less about school children occupying the schools. What they could do was use the trade union bureaucracy to prevent workers coming out on the streets, and that has been a factor.

The worst example of this came in the middle of the explosion after the unions called a day of action for 10 December 2008 with a demonstration in the middle of Athens. The government made an appeal for the unions to call this off because of the riots and the bureaucrats responded. The demonstration did take place because the rank and file revolted, aided by the far left. But it was a key moment, with Pasok showing they have a lot of strength in the trade unions and they could use it to defuse the situation. There would normally be all sorts of struggles at this time of year but the union leaderships have been holding them back. However, they are under pressure from below all the time and already they have had to call a 24-hour strike for 2 April.

How can the union leaders do this? Does Pasok still have support in the working class?

It is the main force in the leadership of the unions, and when it comes to holding the movement back it gets support from a right wing inside the trade unions—together they control the TUC and the main union federations. To start a fightback you need a rank and file revolt.

Pasok are leading in opinion polls and so their leadership is arguing there is no need for to escalate the action because sooner or later elections will get rid of this government.

They have support, even though a succession of Pasok governments have carried through neoliberal attacks.

That is true, and the experience of so many years of Pasok governments means that there is not much enthusiasm for them. They lead by 4 or 5 percent, which is very little considering the anger and the hatred that exist for this government.

You have two main parliamentary oppositions to the left of Pasok—the Communist Party and the left alliance Synaspismos—and then you have the far left. How have these different forces related to the movement?

The response of the parliamentary left has been disappointing. The Communist Party has had the attitude that it is adventurist to organise occupations and all-out strikes. They have a very conservative attitude and explain it by saying the balance of forces is not favourable to the workers’ movement since the collapse of the Communist bloc, and so we should rebuild slowly and steadily without going for advanced forms of struggle. In reality they have been very much against the explosion. They were against students occupying their colleges. They even tried to physically block student assemblies taking place in some cases. And they split demonstrations and marched in the opposite direction to avoid clashes with the police.

In a climate where there is a lot of radicalisation to the left, the Communist Party is holding on to its position in opinion polls but it is not making any advances.

Synaspismos, which emerged from the Eurocommunist section of the Communist Party, had a vacillating attitude. They supported the explosion after the killing but they soon came under pressure from the government to denounce violence, and they were equivocal on this. And there is a lot of pressure on Synaspismos to come out in favour of a coalition government with Pasok. They have knocked that back, saying there is not enough ground for a common programme involving Pasok and Synaspismos, but even this position is not very clear. There is a social democratic right wing in Synaspismos which is saying the left must take a “responsible” attitude towards joining a progressive government.

Throughout 2008 Synaspismos was the rising force on the left and had reached something like 18 percent in opinion polls. Nowadays it is somewhere between 7 and 8 percent. That is the result of taking such a timid position during the explosion.

Last summer people said the Synaspismos leader, Alexis Tsipras, was seen very much as a sort of folk hero leading the protests. You say that has changed.

At that time there was a lot of talk saying that Synaspismos were going to overtake Pasok in opinion polls. They were riding a wave. But they were too cautious in exploiting this shift by coming out with clear left wing policies and supporting the struggles. Instead they became more moderate because the leadership believed that was the way to get more votes. So, for example, the government tried to implement a new law that is privatising colleges by holding elections in the universities for new college authorities. The students opposed this, organising occupations, spoiling the elections and so on. There was an attack on this in the press and by right wing forces, claiming the students were irresponsible and against democracy. The leadership of Synaspismos vacillated. They could have come out in support of the students the way they had done earlier on. But this time round they were much more moderate, and that cost them support among young people.

The explosions mean that things have become polarised, so the parliamentary left have had to make a choice. Either they go along with the polarisation and step up the fight or they vacillate because the stakes are higher. That is where they have gone wrong in the last few months.

When we interviewed you last year you made some analogies between Synaspismos and Rifondazione Comunista in Italy.

Synaspismos do not talk much about Rifondazione these days. They used to be very close allies in the European Left Party, but today Synaspismos prefer to talk about Die Linke in Germany. They are ducking the debate over why the Italian experience went wrong. Their social democratic wing argues they should have a coalition with Pasok, similar to the coalition Rifondazione had with Romano Prodi in Italy. These people are quite outspoken. The left in Synaspismos does not want to follow the Italian example but is confused as to what to offer as an alternative.

Do Synaspismos have a mass membership base?

The Communist Party is stronger in terms of a mass base—it has more members and greater strength in the trade unions. It has a daily paper that sells something like 25,000 copies on Sundays, while the Synaspismos paper sells something like 5,000 copies.

Tell us something about the far left.

I should say a few things about the anarchists first. They have been quite active during the riots. They have had an attitude that is openly substitutionist. For example, they occupied colleges despite the students. There was one example where the anarchists were occupying the building and would not let the students have a general meeting to decide whether they would have an occupation.

Anarchist and autonomist ideas are quite widespread. This is understandable in view of how vacillating and negative the official left has been. They have also been built up by commentators from the mainstream press who explain the explosion in terms of what they call the “precariat” instead of the proletariat—young people with precarious jobs. That is the mainstream explanation for the riots. The idea that precariousness has to do with capitalism, with the working class fighting back, with the class struggle, these are issues that are very much contested. This is a debate that has to be had.

The far left acted as a force that tried to turn the explosion into an organised movement. It came out as the most successful section of the left. It supported the students and the school students occupying the colleges, and it supported the rank and file revolt on 10 December when the trade union leadership cancelled the march in the centre of Athens. It has also been prominent in the campaign to defend immigrant workers who are under attack. For instance, there is the case of a woman called Konstantina Kuneva, a cleaner trade unionist from Bulgaria who was attacked by thugs and has become a symbol of the fightback, not just by immigrant workers but by organised workers. Something like 100 trade union bodies are supporting this campaign, despite the Greek TUC doing nothing about it. There is now a new campaign from below demanding a legal ban on redundancies and nationalisation of the firms that violate it.

In the middle of the Greek explosion Israel invaded Gaza and there was massive anger. The far left was very active in the protests over Gaza, which shifted the whole attitude in the country to Israel. For the first time slogans such as “Embargo on Israel, not Gaza” had a mass resonance.

At the same time there has been a step forward in the unity of the far left. We were able to organise an initiative for the unity of the anti_capitalist left. The meeting to launch that initiative was the biggest meeting we have had since the 1970s—something like 3,000 people took part in Athens and big meetings are taking place all over Greece.

The eruption of the economic crisis has been a big factor in Britain in pulling the Labour Party back behind Gordon Brown and encouraging union leaders to call off strikes. How great is the impact of the economic crisis in Greece? And how important a factor is that in explaining the political shift that has taken place?

The Greek government was arguing up until Christmas that the crisis was an external shock, that the Greek economy was doing all right and that the Greek banks were not involved in toxic products. So, they argued, the Greek economy would continue to grow—3 percent was the official forecast when they presented the budget last autumn. Since then they have been forced to admit that this was a completely false picture.

The latest forecast is that the Greek economy will grow by just 0.2 percent this year. That means 100,000 job losses. The Greek banks are heavily exposed to losses in Eastern Europe because they expanded there and into the Balkans. So the latest stage of the crisis is hitting Greek capitalism really hard. That is a factor affecting the attitude of the government. They are scared of the riots. They are scared of the anger that exists among youth and working people, and they are scared of the crisis. They have had to shift from pretending it was business as usual, and that it was necessary to go ahead with the counter-reforms, to the policy of appealing for consensus politics with the opposition to survive the crisis. In substance this means they want the unions to accept redundancies and cuts but they present this very differently from previously.

It is difficult to forecast what is going to happen in the coming few months. There are the European elections in June and there is a lot of speculation that the government will call a general election at the same time with the aim of reorganising Greek politics—probably through a grand coalition of the Tories and Pasok along the German model.

The financial papers now refer to the “PIGS” (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), the European Union countries that are going to be really devastated by the crisis. Is there a sense of that yet?

The Greek economy relies very much on tourism and everybody is saying this is collapsing, even though the tourist season has not started. Construction, which is another mainstay of the economy, has slumped. The third element is shipping—the Greek ship owners are a force on the world market—and that has slumped.

So the prospect is that the crisis will be hitting Greece much harder in the coming months. On top of that, the public debt is 100 percent of GDP and any new borrowing by the Greek government costs 3 percent more than borrowing by the German state. These are elements that are destabilising the situation along with the anger that exists. How far these things will go it is hard to say. But I don’t think the December riots are the end of the story.

Notes

1: Previous interviews and articles on this subject are available in International Socialism 119 (www.isj.org.uk/?id=453) and International Socialism 112 (www.isj.org.uk/?id=244).