Interview - Greece: the struggle radicalises

Issue: 134
Posted: 27 March 12

Panos Garganas, editor of the Greek newspaper Workers Solidarity, spoke to International Socialism about the latest developments in the country.

The kind of figures that we now have for the economic crisis in Greece are absolutely horrifying – 7 percent fall in economic output last year, a projected similar fall this year. This isn’t just an ordinary recession. This is a crisis on the scale of the 1930s. Could you tell us something about that?

Well, first of all we have to be clear about the suffering that this is causing. This winter was particularly harsh in Athens. There was a panic over people sleeping out in the streets. Suddenly people realised that there was no authority, neither the government nor the local authorities, that knew anything about the number of people who had become homeless over the past couple of years. It was NGOs that came up with figures like 25,000 people sleeping on the streets of Athens. That in itself is an indication of the problems that the crisis is causing. With the number of unemployed rising over 1 million according to official statistics, unofficial figures would probably be over 1.5 million out of a population of about 11 million; you can understand how deeply the crisis is hitting people here in Greece.

This is the result of the recession and the cuts. We are now in the middle of the second bailout and it is imposing worse conditions than in 2010 when the IMF first came to Greece. Wages have been cut by 22 percent, pensions by 15 to 25 percent, and there has been a whole wave of destruction in social services, in terms of access to hospitals, doctors and childcare. For working class families survival is a real, real struggle.

Despite the propaganda that the second bailout will be more effective than the first one, this is not true. The crisis is just getting worse and worse. The official figures claim that the second bailout agreement, thanks to the involvement of the private sector, will wipe out roughly €100 billion of Greek debt, but in place of that Greece will be saddled with another €130 billion of debt thanks to the new bailout. So even by their own logic, things are getting worse rather than better.

Effectively, Greece is caught in a debt trap like that which Third World countries have suffered on many occasions. For instance, since 1985 Greece has spent €628 billion on debt repayments and servicing. That is three times Greek GDP and yet, despite all these payments over the past 20 years or more, the level of debt became unsustainable, and we had this crisis. So the question of the crisis getting worse is something that we have to keep in mind, and not just in the Greek case.

The other aspect that I think we have to be clear about is the efforts of the European Union and the IMF to prevent contagion. They claim a victory in this struggle would mean the problem is contained in Greece. Well, there is no indication of that being the case. On the contrary it has taken €1 trillion of new loans from the European Central Bank (ECB) to the European banking system to create this impression of containment of the crisis but this is completely temporary. At the same time that this has happened there is a new study showing that a Greek default would mean €1 trillion losses for the European banks. So they have plugged the gap only in the short term.

You’re referring to the long-term refinancing operation that the ECB has organised, which has given them some temporary relief. Just to reinforce what you are saying, just before the last eurozone finance ministers’ meeting they had a briefing about the sustainability of Greek debt under the second rescue which said that the plan wasn’t going to work, for the obvious reason that if you implement austerity that causes the economy to shrink then the debt burden increases relative to the size of the economy. So this in a way is the greatest obscenity of what they are doing to Greece: they are forcing all this terrible suffering onto the Greek people in order to implement a programme that won’t work.

The other aspect that perhaps we should emphasise is the extent to which, without getting sentimental about Greek national sovereignty, we are seeing, through the agency of the troika and the measures involved in the second package, that certainly Greek economic sovereignty has effectively been suspended. It’s similar to the way in which the European powers in the 19th century would take over a debtor state’s finances. Perhaps we should move on to talk a bit about that but also about what’s happening with the dominant Greek parties, who are at least nominally in a coalition that are supposed to be implementing the austerity measures but are themselves paying a big price for undertaking this role.

Well, the one is connected with the other. The attempts by the European Union, and particularly Germany and France, to control the situation in Greece have pushed them to take steps that have made the political crisis worse along with the economic crisis. Last summer when it became clear that George Papandreou’s Pasok government was not in a position to impose the tough austerity that was part of the original bailout, they started moves to rally together all the political forces that could support the new round of austerity. That meant that in the autumn they put together a coalition of Pasok, the Greek equivalent of Labour, with the Tories of New Democracy and with the support of the far-right Laos party. When that happened about four months ago, they claimed that that would stabilise the situation.

The truth is that within four months the coalition government is in exactly the same position as Papandreou was. The scale of popular reaction in February, when the agreement for the new package was voted on in parliament, was larger than anything seen in Greece before. In the week before the vote there were three days of general strikes. On the Sunday of that week we had the biggest ever demonstration outside parliament. Nobody has been able to put a figure on the number of people who were in the centre of Athens on that day. There were massive attacks by the police to disperse the crowd but they were unable to do so until late at night. That was a situation exactly the same as in October when the Papandreou government collapsed.

No wonder that in the aftermath all three parties of the coalition government are split. In New Democracy there is a breakaway that claims to continue the policy of opposition to the bailout. Pasok has virtually collapsed. Having got 42 percent in the 2009 election it is now trailing in opinion polls in fourth or fifth position with anything from 8 to 15 percent. A number of people are setting up a breakaway from Pasok opposed to the second agreement. And the far right is also split. Two prominent members joined the Tories and the remainder of the party is plunging in the opinion polls. So there is a huge political crisis and I think there is no sign that the election that is coming up will resolve this.

Even the fact that we are going to have an election is an indication of the extent of the crisis. We started from a situation where the German finance minister openly said that the Greeks should postpone their election and try and make the coalition government—the government of Lucas
Papademos—hold out, like Mario Monti in Italy. That was said just a couple of weeks ago. But despite the pressures, the scale of the political crisis is such that it is impossible for this government to hang on. It is heading for an election hoping that the combined vote of the conservatives and Pasok will be enough to keep it in power as a coalition. At this moment the opinion polls show the combined vote to the left of Pasok approaching 40 percent. You have to go back decades in Greece, back to 1958, to see the left get even 25 percent—that was the high point and created a huge crisis that culminated in the junta of 1967. So 40 percent support for the left is something that the Greek political system has not seen before.

Just before we move on to talk about the struggle and the left, can I just ask about the fascists, because as I understand it Laos, the party that was in the government, is being outflanked to its right by a harder formation, Golden Dawn. Is that right?

Yes. There is a group of neo-Nazis who have been attempting to set up a party for a long time now. Their previous attempt was back in the early 1990s when there was a wave of nationalist hysteria in Greece over the use of the name Macedonia by one of the ex-Yugoslav republics. That attempt by the fascists was beaten back but the same group is now profiting from the crisis in Laos. It’s not very clear what will happen to Laos or the Golden Dawn in the election, because the breakaway from the Tories is taking a position of opposition to the agreement, and the latest opinion polls show that it is undercutting both the fascist groups.

This is certainly bringing up the question of building an anti-Nazi movement in Greece. This is already starting to happen. The Golden Dawn group uses attacks on the streets. There was an attack in Piraeus last week and this has caused the whole of the left to rally and call an anti-fascist demonstration in the city this Saturday and the following Saturday in central Athens. So one aspect of the political scene will be the fight by the left to keep the Nazis off the streets and out of parliament.

From what you’re saying about the performance of the left in the opinion polls, it seems as if, at least at present, the effect of the crisis is to radicalise the situation to the left. This is surely very important given that we know from, for example, the 1930s and also the kind of economic catastrophe that hit countries like Russia in the 1990s that there is nothing automatic about immense economic suffering stimulating people to resist and to look leftwards. So it would be useful, I think, if you talked a bit about how the struggle against austerity through the general strikes and other forms of collective action has developed.

You are right to point out there is nothing automatic about the crisis radicalising people to the left. If we go back a bit, in 2009 we had elections for the European Parliament; that was just two years after the onset of the crisis in the summer of 2007, and the results of that election were interpreted as a swing to a more conservative public opinion. There were many commentators who said that the crisis is scaring people and they are turning to the right. So this trend has now been reversed, certainly in the case of Greece, and probably in other countries in Europe as well.

This has come about through the wave of struggle that we have seen over the last two years in Greece. We have had 17 general strikes since the parliamentary election of 2009 in Greece. That works out at one every six or seven weeks, which is impressive in itself. The second aspect is that not every day of action, not every general strike, was the same as the previous one. There was progress in terms of how people were involved in the general strike.

At first you could say that people would obey the strike call, they wouldn’t go to work, but they wouldn’t be involved in organising or being part of the demonstrations and so on. That changed. It became clear that with every general strike people were remembering more and more ways of organising that had not been seen in Greece since the 1970s. There were mass meetings in workplaces, there were strike committees elected, there were pickets in places where the strike was not 100 percent, and the demonstrations became more and more radical in what they were demanding, what they were chanting and in the way they were confronting police violence.

Let me give you an indication of the political change. During the February general strikes the government made it very clear that unless the agreement, the bailout, was voted through parliament that would be the end of Greece’s participation in the eurozone. In the past that would have had an effect on people. If they had the dilemma posed as, “OK, you press ahead with your demands or the alternative is that you break with the euro,” that would push people back. Not this time. It was absolutely clear that thousands of people who were outside parliament on 12 February had shifted to a position where they said, “It’s better to get rid of the euro than suffer all of the cuts that this means.”

One way that the radicalisation has expressed itself is in the way that the strike movement has developed in between the general strikes. We now have steel workers who have been out for four months in a solid strike that is getting tremendous solidarity. We have media workers at the newspaper Eleftherotypia on strike since before Christmas, and not just on strike but on an all-out strike organised by mass meetings of the people involved and by a committee elected by that mass meeting. They have produced two issues of the paper under their own control and it has been a tremendous hit. The kiosks ran out of the Workers of Eleftherotypia as they call it. These are steps that show that a whole layer of people inside the working class have shifted to positions that were unthinkable a short while ago.

This is presumably putting pressure on the trade union leadership, which traditionally has been aligned mainly with Pasok, as well as on the big parties of the radical left, the Communist Party and Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left). Could you say something about both how the bureaucracy is responding but also what the big radical left parties are doing in response to the development of the crisis and the struggle?

Because the unions have been traditionally controlled by Pasok, in the beginning when we had a Pasok government elected, back in 2009, the position of the trade union leadership was that we cannot call strikes against this newly elected government. It has the approval of 40 percent of the people so we have to be careful not to go into opposition. Now, from a position of no strikes, they ended up with a position of calling a general strike every six weeks. That in itself is an indication of the amount of pressure they were under from the rank and file.

Throughout 2010 the Pasok leadership in the trade unions had also to face opposition from the right. There is a faction in the trade union bureaucracy associated with New Democracy, and because New Democracy were at that stage opposed to the bailout they were in favour of the strikes. When the coalition government was formed it meant two things—firstly, there was a crisis, there was a split among top trade unionists because they were not prepared to follow the change of their party’s position and, secondly, it meant there was a reinforcement of the top bureaucracy in opposition to the strikes. Now it was both parties that were opposed to the strikes and that meant at the highest level the trade union leadership was trying to hold back.

That had the effect of pushing the rank and file into organising from below. I think that the creation of action committees, strike committees at a rank and file level, has accelerated in the last few months, and it has also become visible in the trade union elections in which in a number of places the right wing bureaucrats are wiped out and the left is gaining control. Perhaps the most striking example is the Agios Savvas cancer hospital in Athens, which had a Pasok majority in the last trade union election. They now have an Anti-Capitalist Left majority, which is the most extreme swing that we have seen in the trade union elections.

Of course this is affecting the parliamentary left. The leaderships of the Communist Party and of Syriza, the two parties that traditionally have participated in parliament from the left, have had to shift to the left, both in terms of their programmatic positions and in terms of their involvement in the struggle. To give you an example, when the question of cancelling the debt started as a debate on the left about two years ago the position of the Communist Party leadership was that this is a demand that cannot be supported, it’s not a solution and so on. They were negative. Now they have shifted to the position where they support the demand for cancelling the debt.

A similar process has taken place in Syriza. In the main component of Syriza, Synaspismos (an organisation that emerged originally from the Eurocommunist wing of the Communist Party), there was a split between the left and the right. The right wing withdrew to create a separate organisation called the Democratic Left. The breakaway from Syriza has become the main beneficiary of people moving away from Pasok as its support has collapsed.

Syriza had about 5 to 6 percent support, but now gets above 10 percent in polls, and the Democratic Left that broke away to its right is now getting more than 15 percent. So the extraordinary result of the radicalisation has been the emergence of huge support for the left, and the traditional leaderships have had to respond to this by moving further to the left as well.

Just on the Communist Party, because it’s the most important organised force inside the workers’ movement, and has a very sectarian tradition: how have they been moving?

Well, there have been changes at that level as well, although it’s contradictory. Traditionally, the Communist Party has refused to cooperate with anybody else on the left. On the days of general strikes, when there are mass demonstrations, the Communist Party always organises a separate rally and makes sure when it marches it doesn’t join anybody else. That has been the picture for the last couple of years. In the last couple of months there are indications that this is changing. For example, the steel workers’ strike in Elefsina provoked a local general strike in Elefsina and the demonstration on that day was a united demonstration. On the night of 12 February, when everybody was trying to reach Syntagma Square where parliament is through police blockades, the Communist Party was part of this. So there are signs that the traditional sectarian attitude may be breaking down, although this is not by any means final; there are other examples where traditional lines still hold.

How has the Coalition of the Anti-Capitalist Left (Antarsya) been positioning itself in this very rapidly moving situation?

Antarsya has advanced quite rapidly. It was created just two years ago and in electoral terms it had a success in the autumn of 2010 when we had regional elections, receiving roughly 2 percent of the vote. That was a leap forward because in the past the combined vote of far-left groups would be below 1 percent. Since then Antarsya was able to hold its first national conference where there were 900 delegates representing roughly 3,000 members across Greece, which was an important step forward. A number of militants have decided that they want to fight with the anti-capitalist left. That was the result of two things. One is that Antarsya has been active in supporting rank and file organisation. So the upsurge in radicalisation means that more people are coming closer to Antarsya.

The second aspect was the question of the way out of the crisis, the anti-capitalist programme. Antarsya was the group on the left that raised the debate over cancelling the debt, nationalising the banks, and breaking with the discipline of the European Central Bank by leaving the euro and the European Union. Now these positions were very controversial on the left, because traditionally Syriza is pro European Union, and the Communist Party, which is opposed to the European Union, had taken the position that this issue would be dealt with at a later stage. So the intervention of Antarsya has been instrumental in shifting the whole of the left to better positions.

One more thing about this question of raising an anti-capitalist programme and the effect it is having on radicalisation of people is that part of the programme is that any nationalisations of the banks or of large enterprises that are failing should be under workers’ control. Now this again is an advance, and Antarsya is happy to see that this is not just a position taken by the anti-capitalist left but by more and more people in the real struggle. The media workers of Eleftherotypia are effectively exercising workers’ control over the paper. The same is happening with TV workers at the Alter channel, where they have been occupying for three months now.

There are hospital workers who are moving in that direction, and not just in Athens. In Kilkis, that’s a small place outside Salonica in the north of Greece, the doctors, nurses and hospital staff have taken a position that if the government presses on with the cuts and the closures, they will run the hospital themselves. Now these are fantastic steps that show that the demand for workers’ control is no daydream of revolutionaries; they are steps that the workers in Greece are taking, and the existence of Antarsya is a way of focusing these demands and bringing them to the fore. So we are hoping that Antarsya will be able to raise all these demands in the coming election campaign, and, if that is successful, it may be able to reach the number of votes required to enter parliament. It will take about 200,000 votes. The Greek electoral system means that either you get that limit, and it translates into a group of eight or nine MPs, or you get nothing.

So in conclusion, we see an economic and humanitarian catastrophe; we see the partial disintegration of the dominant bourgeois parties; we see a radicalisation of the struggle and a strengthening of the forces to the left of Pasok, including the revolutionary, anti-capitalist left. In the rest of Europe there is an increasing sense of the scale of what is happening in Greece and moves towards at least expressing solidarity with the struggle there. So what would you say are the main forms of solidarity that would be most helpful?

The fact that there have been demonstrations raising the slogan “We are all Greek” is important—not in the sense of Greek pride but because I think people who raise this slogan meant, “We are all opposed to austerity and cuts in the same way that workers in Greece are fighting back.” This is an indication of radicalisation across Europe and it ties in with the movements we have seen, such as the occupation of the squares, in Spain and elsewhere. So organising solidarity is important, first of all for the struggle in Greece, and secondly as a way of pushing the struggle forward across Europe.

I think there are two steps that need to be taken to move forward. One is transforming these sentiments into strike action in other countries—an escalation from statements of solidarity and solidarity demonstrations towards organising to oppose austerity measures in the various European countries.

The second aspect is the debate on an anti-capitalist programme. Activists involved in this movement will have to face the question: if we want to support Greece against the austerity imposed by the European Union, what sort of position should we take towards banks, the European Union and so on? Aspects of this anti-capitalist programme will have to be raised and debated throughout this milieu. I think the revolutionary left can play a useful role in organising both these activities in this new movement.