Interview: Greece – a very different picture

Issue: 119

*Panos Garganas, editor of the Greek newspaper Workers Solidarity, spoke to International Socialism about the country’s strike wave

The social and political trajectory in Greece seems very different to anywhere else in Europe. There have been two years of near continual struggle—the student struggle and successive strikes. Can you explain why this has been so?

The upsurge of the past two years has not been a sudden development. The ground for what has happened was prepared by a wave of struggles under the Pasok centre-left government of the early 2000s. There was a large strike in 2001 against that government’s plans for pension reform, there was a wave of sympathy for the 2001 demonstration against the G8 summit in Genoa, Italy, and there was an explosion of anger against the war in 2003. For a couple of months from 15 February 2003, when there were the worldwide demonstrations against the war, until 9 April 2003, when American forces entered Baghdad, there were demonstrations against the war nearly every day. So there is this kind of background to take into account.

At the same time there has been pressure on the Greek government to push ahead with counter-reforms because Greek capitalism is falling behind its rivals. Staging the Olympics in 2004 was a massive effort, and it left behind all sorts of problems. So the Tory government that took office in 2004 had to be much more forceful in pushing its counter-reforms. Where the previous Pasok government would compromise with the unions to avoid confrontation, the Tory New Democracy government was much more aggressive. But at the same time it was faced with young people and workers who had already had experiences of mass mobilisation.

The Tory government did not come in offering right wing policies, did it?

It was not a swing to the right in Greek society—even if that is how it seemed on the surface to many activists, who simply saw a Labour-type government defeated and the Tories victorious at the election.

The reality was that the Greek Tories won the election in 2004 by carefully hiding their real agenda. They presented themselves as being to the left of the Pasok government. When I say “to the left”, there were attacks by Tory politicians on Pasok ministers accusing them of being servants of big capital. They used the terminology of the left. There were other token gestures towards the left. Kostas Karamanlis, the Tory leader, went to one of the islands where left wingers were exiled in the post-war decades and declared that this was all in the past, that they would turn it into a museum, and so on. During the election campaign Karamanlis promised to end discrimination against the Muslim minority in Thrace. This was unheard of. The Tories had always been the most racist party. They used all sorts of methods to present themselves as a party that was of the centre and in many ways to the left of Pasok. They knew they had to win votes from people whose opposition to Pasok was from the left.

Then you had the wave of struggle for two years.

There was a lull when the Tories came into office in 2004. For some months the government held back from pressing its agenda, and there was a sense that things would not be so bad. This lasted for about a year. Then in the spring of 2005 the government began to push its measures. There was a reaction from below. New sections of the working class, people who had precarious jobs, started mobilising on the basis of a promise that had been made that they would get permanent jobs.

How did they mobilise?

They had created union sections for themselves. Some unions allowed them to become members, but in many cases they had to start their own sections and, where this happened, they were able to call people out on demonstrations.

Did they just demonstrate, or did they strike as well?

It varied from section to section. They would call demonstrations as a show of anger but then they had the strength to shut down certain areas, like local government, where they won the support of the unions. The strike action was the result of “precarious unions” taking the initiative and then some of the established unions backing them.

Many of those taking a lead were short-term contract workers. The sort of people we are talking about would be employed for, say, eight months, then had to accept a break for three or four months and then got a new contract.

You had these struggles, and then you had the struggles of what might be called more mainstream workers such as those in electricity and telecommunications. The bank workers’ action started in the summer of 2005 in the face of attempts to reform the workers’ special pension fund. They started with a five-week strike, which got a lot of solidarity. It was impossible for the government to isolate the strikers, so in the end it voted through a new law which it has not been able to implement to this day.

This was the first case showing that people were prepared to take all_out strike action. And to a certain extend they were successful.

The next wave was formed by the students. The government decided that it would be easier to push through educational reform. So it proposed a change in the constitution that would have allowed for private universities, and this provoked a wave of student occupations, which was successful in scuppering the change to the constitution. The government could not get enough votes in parliament to change without support from sections of the opposition—and the opposition had a change of heart under pressure from the student occupations.

So that was the second wave of victorious struggle, and it created the impetus for lots more people to move in the same direction.

The government then called a snap election in September 2007 because it thought a new mandate would help it, but it was wrong. There was a discussion on the left about whether the resistance would decline after the election. But when the re-elected government tried to push through the pension reform a strike by journalists started a new wave of struggle, and the unions were pushed into calling a series of days of action, which were massive. We had days of action on 12 December 2007, 13 February 2008 and 19 March 2008. These days of action came together with all-out strikes by energy workers, local government workers and bank workers, including those at the Bank of Greece.

These were the most advanced strikes we had seen since the 1970s because they were all-out actions. There was mass participation and there were pickets to stop any strike-breaking. They were also in defiance of the law, something which had not happened in a very long time. Not since the 1970s had people ignored court orders and refused to provide staff for “essential” services—the bank workers shut down the stock exchange for a few days, energy workers shut down power stations, and so on.

What was the political feeling during the strikes? What sorts of slogans were people taking up on the demonstrations?

The main slogans were directed against the government. But because of the earlier years of the Pasok government the feeling was different than that during the strikes and demonstrations in the 1990s, when people who were angry at the Tory government looked to Pasok as the alternative. The change in ideas was reflected in the mood of the demonstrations, but it came out most clearly in the opinion polls which showed the left going up for the first time in a long time.

In Greece you have a social democratic party, Pasok, which is now in reality a centre-left party. You have the Communist Party, which used to be the bulwark of the left, but became overshadowed by Pasok in the 1970s, and you have this other formation, Synaspismos, which I suppose you would call left reformist.

The Communist Party in Greece was outlawed for decades—from 1936 and the pre-war dictatorship, through the occupation and the civil war that followed the Second World War, and then the military junta of 1967-74. In 1968 the party split into two wings. One was Stalinist and pro-Moscow and the other was influenced by Eurocommunist ideas.

In the 1970s both were overshadowed by Pasok, which was a new development. There was no tradition of a social democratic party in Greece. Like the socialist parties in Spain or Portugal, Pasok went up like a rocket after the collapse of the junta. So for a long time the two wings of the old Communist Party remained in the shadow of Pasok. They went through a period of cooperation at the end of the 1980s, but by 1989, on top of the broader crisis of the Communist Parties that came with the collapse of the Communist regimes, they had the additional problem of forming a coalition government, first with New Democracy, and then with both the Tories and Pasok (a government of national unity). This period saw new defeats and a new split, and since 1991-2 we have had two wings of the traditional left—the Communist Party, which still defends the Soviet Union, and Synaspismos, which is moving towards a social democratic position. Although it comes from a Eurocommunist background, Synaspismos is a party with a social democratic perspective.

You say they have a social democratic perspective, but don’t they also use leftist language?

Yes, they do. The past 15 years have seen ups and downs. There have been three changes of leadership for Synaspismos. The leadership of 1993 now belongs to Pasok—they broke from Synaspismos to become openly social democratic. Then for years there was a leadership that was middle of the road between Pasok and the far left. Now they advocate that Synaspismos should join with Pasok to form a centre-left coalition. But the current leadership of Synaspismos say that there is not enough agreement between Pasok and Synaspismos to form a centre-left government. They say they want a government of the left that would be a break with neoliberal policies. So there has been a shift to the left and an adaptation to the wave of radicalisation we have seen since 2001.

I don’t think we can talk about the left in Europe today without talking about the disaster that has taken place in Italy, and the disaster was very much the result of a party that appeared to be far left joining a centre-left government. Are you saying that Synaspismos would like to do this, but under pressure it has not been able to?

Well, Synaspismos is part of the European Party of the Left, which was dominated by the Italian party, Rifondazione. They share the same perspectives, and so forming a centre-left alliance in Greece is on the cards. Pasok cannot get a majority on its own. It needs a partner, and Synaspismos is the obvious partner. That puts a lot of pressure on Synaspismos.

Synaspismos’s problem is that this scenario is undermined from two sides. On one side, the Pasok leadership has refused to budge from its neoliberal programme. On the other there is a left—which exists to the left of Synaspismos—that puts a lot of pressure on Pasok. The leadership realise that if they go for an agreement with Pasok at this stage there is the Communist Party, which is to the left of them, and there is the whole radical left milieu, which operates independently both of the Communist Party and of Synaspismos. So they are under pressure from the left.

This seems to me incredibly important. Synaspismos is forced at the moment to act as a focus to the left for fear of the real left.

To get some idea of the radicalisation we have to look at the students. The occupations were run by coordinating committees that were elected in general assemblies in the faculties. In most of the faculties the leadership of these coordinating committees was to the left of the Communist Party and of Synaspismos. That gives an indication of the extent of the radical left milieu that exists in Greece.

There are similar developments within the strikes, although not to the same extent. We have not yet had any strikes that were run from below, with coordinating committees like the students. But the presence of a left milieu among striking workers is fairly visible when it comes to the demonstrations, the picket lines and so on. So, for instance, on the demonstrations, the Communist Party marches separately from the unions. The main bulk of demonstrators may be influenced by the Pasok leadership of the unions, but there are whole sections of the strike rallies where the far left dominates, with its own banners, its own slogans and so on. There are real pressures to the left of Synaspismos.

You mentioned that Synaspismos has gained in the opinion polls during the recent mobilisations.

In the most recent election, in 2007, the Tories lost votes but kept their overall majority. Pasok also lost votes. Those gaining votes were on the left. The Communist Party climbed from 6 percent to 8 percent. Synaspismos climbed from 3 percent to 5 percent. So the combined vote of the left went into double digits for the first time since the 1980s.

After the election people realised that there was a swing to the left, and opinion polls have shown this gathering pace. The main beneficiary has been Synaspismos, which now stands at 15 percent in the polls. The Communist Party has also made further gains. The reason why Synaspismos has been the main beneficiary is that it is not sectarian like the Communist Party—it is much more open. The Communist Party will never work together with Pasok, for instance, and has created barriers for people to move from Pasok to the Communist Party. Synaspismos has also been open to an alliance with groups of the far left. It has created a coalition with the far left, and this is an important factor.

Are people in general aware that there is a political alternative to the left of Synaspismos that is not represented in parliament?

In terms of the parliamentary balance of forces, the far left is barely visible. But this is not the real balance of forces when it comes to influence on various movements, and so on. The existence of a radical left to the left of the parliamentary left is something that can be measured through what happens when the students move, what happens when there are strikes—and this makes an impact on people’s consciousness. There are not just two lefts in Greece; there are three lefts. There are the two components of the divided parliamentary left and there is an extra-parliamentary left. People associate this with the 1973 Polytechnic Uprising, which spelt the end of the military dictatorship. The existence of an extra-parliamentary left has been a fact of Greek political life since 1974.

The important thing was that the initiative for the Polytechnic Uprising was taken by the extra-parliamentary left outside the Communist Party. In 1974, 1975 and 1976, when there were massive waves of strikes, people felt that those involved in the Polytechnic Uprising were crucial to all these struggles. So when you talk about an “extra-parliamentary left” in Greece, it is not a derogatory term. It has the aura of the struggle of the 1970s.

What lessons does what is happening in Greece have for the left elsewhere in Europe?

We have to start from Italy to talk about the importance of the Greek experience. What happened in Italy is crucial. The development of radicalisation since the 1999 Seattle protest has gone through different phases. First, people discovered their strength. Then there was the next phase when people discovered the importance of a political expression for the movements, and on the basis of this there was a whole resurgence of the left. The experience of Italy has brought this radicalisation to a new level where the debate over whether we can have a left that is non-sectarian but at the same time does not collapse into centre-left politics is coming to the forefront for the first time in many, many years.

Obviously this debate is raging in Italy, but it is also relevant to France. It may become relevant to Germany as the left advances there—the SPD may try to trap the left into joining a centre-left coalition. This kind of debate is now happening in Greece. And because of the radicalisation and because of the growth of a left very strongly opposed to a centre-left project, what happens now will affect developments in other countries as well. If we have a repeat of the Italian experience in Greece, that will demoralise people throughout Europe. If, however, we are successful in building a radical left that avoids the centre-left trap, it will create a whole new opening for the left everywhere in Europe.

One last question. I have to go back to when the Tories, the New Democracy, won in Greece in 2004. Did that create demoralisation on the Greek left? Because in Britain much of the left is saying since the Tory victory in the local elections and in London, “Everything is moving to the right.” Was that the feeling in Greece?

That was the first political debate after the election. People who had been out fighting the previous Pasok government were bewildered by the Tory win. There were two strands of opinion. One was that people were shifting to the right, that the struggles had been transient, without producing any political effect, and that in reality workers were moving to the right. This was used mainly by Pasok as way of explaining their defeat.

Then, on the left, there was another element in the debate. There were illusions that the Tories had changed. There were people on the left who genuinely believed that the Tories had moved to the left of Pasok. We argued against both these currents, saying that there may be a temporary lull in the struggle, but the experience was there, and we would see the radicalisation coming to the fore quite soon. At the same time we said there should be no illusion about the Tories changing their spots.

The first issue of our paper after the election had the headline, “Confrontation With The Tories From Day One!” It looked far-fetched for a few months, but then it became common wisdom and now everyone accepts that was the perspective that should have been in place.