Saturday, May 7, 2016

Greece: The working class confronts the Syriza government

Scene from the General Strike in Athens (Reuters, A.Konstantinidis)
Greece is today in the midst of a 48 hour general strike that has paralyzed the country.  The strike was called against the Syriza government’s plans to cut pensions payments to retirees and introduce other onerous austerity measures.  Tsipras called a special meeting of Parliament this Sunday to push through the legislation that would further reduce the meager pensions that retirees now receive.  Pensions have already been cut several times since austerity measures were imposed on Greece following the acknowledgement  that  it was essentially bankrupt in 2010.  This particular pension cut is one of the measures demanded by the European institutions as part of the Third Memorandum agreement that was imposed on Greece following Tsipras’s betrayal of the Referendum of July 2015 in which an overwhelming majority of the population said “NO” to austerity.  [1]

Tsipas went ahead and presented the legislation to Parliament without first obtaining an agreement from the European institutions that have veto power over legislation submitted to Parliament.  This is Tsipras trying to paint himself as being independent of the European institutions when in fact he is responsible for surrendering Greece’s sovereignty to those institutions in the first place.  

The move by Tsipras was triggered by the impasse between Greece and its creditors. Negotiations between Greece and the EU have gone nowhere while Greece is desperate to receive the next round of its bailout.  According to the Guardian, the immediate cause of the impasse were remarks made a few days ago by the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde.  They report,

Hopes of an end to the impasse between Greece and its creditors have appeared to evaporate after a surprise intervention from the International Monetary Fund.
 In a letter - leaked three days before euro zone finance ministers are scheduled to discuss how best to put the crisis-plagued country back on its feet – IMF chief Christine Lagarde issued her most explicit warning yet: either foreign lenders agree to restructure Greece’s runaway debt or the Washington-based organisation will pull out of rescue plans altogether.
“For us to support Greece with a new IMF arrangement, it is essential that the financing and debt relief from Greece’s European partners are based on fiscal targets that are realistic because they are supported by credible measures to reach them,” she wrote, lamenting the lack of structural reforms underlying Athens’ abortive adjustment programme so far. [2]

Tsipras’s move has incensed the country, leading to the two day general strike.  There is speculation that Parliament may not approve the legislation since the Syriza-ANEL coalition government has only a 3 vote majority and every other party has expressed its opposition to the legislation. On top of that, even if the legislation is approved there is no guarantee that Greece’s creditors will be mollified. Many have been expressing the opinion that Tsipras’s proposed cuts do not go far enough!

The impact of the cumulative destruction of living standards was captured in a poignant interview of a Greek pensioner in an online German publication.

Dimitris is bitter. The retired construction worker has to live on a measly 406 euros ($463) per month. And now even that paltry sum, which is just enough to survive on in the mountains near the central city of Lamia, is about to be cut.
"I had to help on the farm when I was 5, later I became a truck driver, then a construction worker, and in my later years I was a subcontractor in the building industry," the 75-year-old Dimitris said. "I slaved away my whole life until I had my heart attack. And it was all for nothing!" [3]

The piece goes on to report that even this bare-bones pension is now threatened,

Greece's international creditors disapprove of anything that exceeds a barebones retirement payment and have ordered such funds partially or, better still,completely cut. Should Athens acquiesce, the 75-year-old Dimitris told DW, he would be forced to ask for money from his children - who themselves are barely getting by.

Stories like those of Dimitris give us some idea of why the Greek working class is saying “Enough is Enough!”    The general strike that began on Friday saw Athens effectively closed down as metro workers, tram, bus and rail workers all walked off the job.  They were joined by teachers, trash collectors,  journalists, and ferry boat workers.  Farmers who have shut down the country’s highways by parking their tractors at key intersections are poised to bring their tractors into Athens on the day the pension cuts will be deliberated in Parliament.

Tsipras move for a Parliamentary session on Sunday comes a day before a critical meeting of EU ministers to consider the Greek situation.  Just like a year ago, Greece is due to make a payment on its debt in July.  And it will not be able to make that payment unless it receives another installment on the loan it negotiated last year as part of the Third Memorandum Agreement. That installment has been held up for months as creditors demand ever more stringent cuts.

If this drama sounds like a replay of the crisis that dominated the news in the summer of 2015 the reason is that Tsipras’s capitulation to the EU resulting in the Third Memorandum Agreement did nothing to resolve the economic crisis of Greece and of European capitalism. It merely postponed the day or reckoning by a few months.  Whatever the immediate outcome of the present crisis will be, it is a dramatic confirmation of the perspective that we published last year coming out of the Third Euro-Mediterranean Conference,

Actually, it is the entire EU project that is facing the dynamics of dissolution. This project, after the epochal event of the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, had as its strategic goal expansion into Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, the re-colonization of the entire former Soviet space, and thus the capitalist integration of Europe around the French-German axis to make the EU able to fight for hegemony in the chaotic post-Cold War world. Monetary unification of countries with very different and unequal social economic national structures was a necessary instrument of this strategy.

          The implosion of finance capital globalization in 2007-2008 has brought to the surface all of the accumulated internal contradictions within this project and historical space, including all the flaws of the architecture of the Euro reflecting, in the last instance, the fundamental contradiction between the internationalization of the economy and the Nation-States, insoluble on capitalist bases.

         In the Southern part of the EU and on its Eastern border, the Greek and Ukrainian tragedies are signaling the shipwreck of the grandiose project of European imperialism. [4]
This assessment of the fantasy project of the EU and its single currency has been vindicated completely.  A recent book ‘Europe isn’t working’, by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, (Yale University Press) makes the same point.  In an article in the Guardian, one of the authors of this book writes,

Greece was the point where progressive illusions were shattered. Until last summer it was just about possible to believe in a cuddly European polity dedicated to higher living standards, full employment and more generous welfare states.

Then a gun was held to Greece’s head. Tsipras was faced with a choice. Ignore what the people want or see your banks go bust. [5]

The authors are correct when they write that the European single currency isn’t working.  But they fall into the same trap of numerous others when they pose the alternatives in Greece – as elsewhere – to be either capitulation to brutal austerity measures or allowing the country to be destroyed.  There is another alternative, as I argued in my essay, Plan C: The Socialist Alternative for Greece. [6]  The reason the authors of this book do not consider this alternative is the same reason Tsipras betrayed his supporters in July of 2015 – they are wedded to a “pragmatic” outlook and think that solutions to the crisis outside the framework of capitalism are “unrealistic”.  But as I have argued these old wisdoms have been turned on their head by the crisis of capitalism. What was previously considered ‘far-out’ and ‘utopian’ nostrums are now the only realistic alternatives to a new age of barbarism.  And what was considered “realistic” by all the bourgeois pundits and many on the Left as well, that in order to climb out of austerity Greece needs to swallow some bitter medicine for a short period, now turns out to be the most fantastic illusion of all. 

The powerful reaction of the Greek working class demonstrates in the most dramatic way that those on the Left who proclaimed that the Greek working class suffered a “significant defeat” following Tsipras betrayal of the referendum were inhabitants of another planet. [7]

On the other hand, the events we are now witnessing in Greece completely vindicates our perspective when we insisted that although the Greek working class had suffered a terrible betrayal at the hands of the Tsipras government, they have not been defeated.  We wrote back in December, in the Foreword to our book, OXI:Greece at the Crossroads,

While the heroic struggles of the Greek working class in the summer of 2015 failed to break Greece from the grip of EU-imposed austerity the Greek working class capacity for struggle has not been broken.  [8]

This is however no reason for complacency.  The same problems that faced Greek revolutionaries in July 2015 still remain.  Although the masses are at the point of confronting the Syriza government there is at this point no political movement that they look to as a credible alternative. The task in front of Greek revolutionaries is to convince the masses not simply that the Syriza government must be tossed out on its ears, but that the only viable alternative lies in socialist policies that will break from the EU and unite the international working class.  And that will not happen simply by proclaiming the need for it over and over. How to bring about that change in consciousness is the key question.

[1]  For our account of the betrayal of the July 2015 referendum,  see Greece at the Crossroads, Part I and Part II and
[7]  For an example of one of the groups proclaiming the defeat of the Greek working class, see ‘Response to David North’s attack on ‘Greece at the Crossroads’,


Thomas Cain said...


I noticed that the EEK and Savas is conspicuously absent from your piece. And from your title, I would have expected them to have a role in facilitating and aiding the general strike, if not a mention. Has their position among Greek workers been shrinking, and if so, why?

Alex Steiner said...

The EEK continues to play an active role in the struggle to forge a revolutionary socialist alternative to the rotten Syriza-ANEL government. My piece was a general overview of one of the most recent episodes of the class struggle in Greece. I hope it shed a little light on the current state of affairs in Greece, particularly for American readers. The Greek working class was betrayed and kicked in the teeth by Tsipras, but emerged from all that far from defeated.

Thomas Cain said...

It's good to know that the EEK has been playing an "active role". But have they been making any significant headway with Greek workers? Have their party ranks increased? What have their tactics been thus far? And what is the size of their vanguard, if any? Is there anything they could be doing differently? I don't expect a revolution in the next five minutes but I would be interested in your thoughts on why the coalition government continues to be tolerated, despite its frequent and naked class betrayals.

Alex Steiner said...


These are all good questions. Unfortunately I am not in a position to answer them as I am not currently in Greece and do not have day to day experiences with the EEK. I hope to find out more when I return to Greece this summer. Feel free to write to me offline (see our contact form).

As for why the coalition government is tolerated, well that is not so hard to answer. Current polls give Syriza a 19% approval rating! The Tsipras government is now widely hated. But they hang on because no alternative has yet emerged that commands sufficient allegiance from the masses. It is a highly unstable transitional regime. None of the "traditional" parties in Greece have any credibility. New Democracy is completely discredited and the once formidable PASOK is now just a ghost of what it once was. On the Left you have the sectarian Communist Party (KKE) who has not been able to make any gains despite the crisis. Then there are the former members of Syriza's Left Platform who have formed the Popular Unity group. They ran independently in the September elections and failed to cross the 3% margin to get into Parliament. They were widely perceived, and justifiably so, as presenting no real alternative to Syriza. After that are the forces of the "Far Left", including ANTARSYA and the EEK. Savas provided an assessment of these forces following the September election in his article, A Pyrrhic victory for Syriza

"The bloc EEK-ANTARSYA has increased its vote and percentage in relation to the previous elections in 2015 and 2012, without breaking the limit of a marginal 0.8 per cent. The broad masses see us as combat organizations necessary for the everyday struggles but not yet as an alternative to power."