Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Athens: A View of the General Strike

Much of Greece came to a standstill today as public and private sector workers observed the call for a general strike issued by the two largest labor confederations, the GSEE  which encompasses 83 private-sector worker unions, and the ADEDY which represents public sector workers.  Among those striking are civil servants, teachers, doctors, hospital staff, merchants, lawyers, civil engineers, and bank employees. Journalists working for the daily newspapers went on a one day strike yesterday so that they could participate in the general strike yet still provide coverage of the event today.  Transport workers planned outages after the rallies and demonstrations have ended so that workers could participate without being stranded.  Thus the Athens metro was running from 8AM to 9PM.  There is no service during the day on the rail line going out to the airport.

Although general strikes have been a recurring feature of the Greek political landscape since austerity measures were first imposed three years ago,  today's general strike was notable for being the first such event since the right wing coalition government led by New Democracy took office this past June.  What provoked the action by the labor confederation was the finalization of plans by the government to cut another 11.5 billion Euros from vital public services.  The government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is proposing to slash pensions (again) and raising the retirement age to 67 as well as laying off tens of thousands of civil servants.  This is the price the European Union is demanding in exchange for Greece receiving the next round of bailout funds of 31 billion Euros.  Without the bailout installment, the Greek government will shortly run out of cash and will be forced to default on its debts. 

A mass demonstration in front of the Greek Parliament in Syntagma Square in Athens, capped off the day.  Estimates of the crowd vary but one can be certain that it was significantly larger than the police estimate of 45,000.  The Guardian in UK estimated the number of marchers at 200 thousands. The labor confederations estimate was about 120 thousands plus an additional 40 thousand who marched separately with the Stalinists. The mass media reports of the demonstration concentrated on a few incidents involving a small number of anarchists tossing Molotov cocktails at the riot police. Reports of dozens of arrests were featured in the press.

Molotov cocktail exploding in Syntagma Square. From Reuters

But the larger story, almost completely absent in the press reports, were the presence of rank and file workers from every walk of life alongside the left wing groups. The Stalinist Communist Party held its own demonstration completely separate from the main body of marchers.  (This separation of the demonstators into different groups made it more difficult to estimate the total number of participants.) Their supporters were amassing at Omonia Square and then quickly marched from there to Syntagma Square and left early.  The groups associated with the "far left" and the anarchists were massing alongside the Polytechnic.  Although the march from the Polytechnic to Syntagma Square is less than three kilometers, it took over two hours for the marchers to traverse the streets due to the crowded conditions. Heavily armed riot police with helmets, shields and gas masks were in evidence on all the side streets along the route of the march.   

Banner of one of the participating groups

An anti-fascist banner

One of the far left groups


Some of the crowd along the march

Some participants

View from the rear

Approaching Syntagma Square

Spirited chanting of slogans

Different groups line up behind their banners

The marchers were in high spirits and gave voice to the anger and frustration that has overtaken Greece. A recent survey found that more than 90% of Greeks believed the planned cuts were unfair and a burden on the poor. Among the slogans heard in the march were,

"We won't submit to the troika!" 
"EU, IMF out!", 
"People, fight, they're drinking your blood,"

One of the demands raised was that the trade union confederation turn the one day general strike into a "long term general strike",  transforming it from an impotent protest into a powerful weapon of the working class aimed at bringing about a workers government.   

The video above shows the march past the Parliament building in Syntagma Square.  After a while you can hear the loud pop of gas canisters going off and in the distance you can see smoke rising on the other side of the square.  The crowd is chanting,
"Down with the Troika government, forward with workers power!"

The mass demonstrations and general strike in Greece comes one day after a huge demonstration in Spain in front of the Parliament building in Madrid.  There too the focus of the anger of the crowds were the austerity measures being imposed by their government as the price demanded by the European Union in return for bailout funds.  And the neighboring country of Portugal is set to debate austerity measures later this week. Clearly the working class in Greece is in the forefront of a much wider social and political movement brought on by the crisis of the Euro which in turn is a symptom of the crisis of international capitalism. There is an opening for the first time in decades of a fundamental shift in social relations as more and more workers begin to see that there is an alternative to capitalism.

Yet for all that one should not minimize the practical and theoretical problems that stand in the way of a mass movement for socialism.  For one thing, the same conditions that create the possibility of a turn to the left - the collapse of the traditional bourgeois parties, [1] the destruction of the social contract through which a relative stability of the relations between classes was maintained, the impoverishment of those formerly part of the middle class - have also created fertile ground for the rise of a fascist movement.  That is the significance of the rapid growth of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party.  Not only can the Golden Dawn now boast that they are the third most popular party in Greece,  but they now have established offices in neighborhoods that were formerly solidly behind the Left.  One such neighborhood on the outskirts of Athens where the Communist Party used to get 80% of the vote now hosts a local branch of Golden Dawn.   And just recently Golden Dawn has opened an office in New York where it tries to recruit among the Greek diaspora. The more the parties identified with the Left show their impotence and adapt to the austerity measures of the Troika, the more emboldened the fascists become and the more support they will garner from the more backward elements of society.

The reaction of much of the Left to the rise of this fascist movement has been to oppose the fascists by appeals to morality and justice.  Yet history shows that fascism cannot be defeated through pacifistic protests and appeals to morality.  No one understood this better than Leon Trotsky, whose classic writings on fascism should be required reading. [2] Fascism is an outgrowth of capitalism in crisis and the only viable strategy to defeat fascism is the struggle to overcome capitalism.  That is the task in front of the Greek working class.

Alex Steiner

[1] See "Greece: Collapse of the traditional parties", 

[2] A compilation of Trotsky's writings on fascism are available online through the Marxist Internet Archives:

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