May 2001 Greek General Strike: a lesson for the workers of all Europe

Under a blazing sun, at midday on Thursday, May 17, tens of thousands of Greek workers poured onto the streets of central Athens to protest the anti-working class policies of the right wing socialist government of Konstantinos Simitis. This was the second general strike in the space of one month. Although the final figures have not yet been published, it was clearly a very successful strike.

As had been widely expected, the size of this demonstration was less than the massive demonstration of 26 April. Nevertheless it was very big: anything up to one hundred thousand. Moreover, it is clear that new layers of the class are moving into struggle all the time. Among the impressive array of banners from practically every industry could be seen those of the traditional heavy battalions of Labour: the metal workers, printers, building workers. But there were many sections not normally noted for their militancy.

There were contingents from the artists, writers and musicians, complete with bands and drummers; secretaries, news vendors, undertakers, waiters, hairdressers, make-up artists and even a contingent of police in uniform. In addition to the workers, there were a number of contingents from small businesses: garages, shops etc., as well as a large number of students.

There was even a sprinkling of Orthodox priests in black robes. They are also affected by the government's pension plans, and clearly are not content to wait for their reward in Heaven! Even these seem surprisingly open to Marxist ideas. One enterprising seller of the Greek Marxist paper Sotsialistiki Ekfrasi approached one of them thus: "Father, give me your blessings and 300 Drachmas" (the price of the paper) to which he replied with a sigh: "My son, your blessing is very expensive!" He bought the paper anyway and displayed it prominently on his bicycle. Some of the police also bought the paper.

A fundamental change

The general strikes in Greece on 26 April and 17 May have important repercussions for the whole of Europe. The social earthquake that has erupted under the feet of the ruling class indicates a fundamental change in the situation. It is also rooted in the weakness of Greek capitalism.

Greece is the weak link of European capitalism, and, as Lenin pointed out, capitalism always breaks at its weakest link. In the last few years Greece has achieved relatively high rates of economic growth, propelled by the world economic boom. Yet productive investment has been stagnant or has increased only slightly and unemployment has remained high at around 12 per cent. Most of the investment has been in the service sector: banks, insurance, the stock exchange, supermarkets, etc. Meanwhile, large sectors of Greek industry have been destroyed.

Greece has also benefited from money from the EU, which has been used to finance ambitious public works projects, like the new Athens airport, roads and bridges. However, in the new economic climate, the money from Europe will certainly dry up. The Greek government is currently spending huge sums on the Olympic games, scheduled for 2004, but the costs of this project are already twice what was estimated, and the venture will almost certainly end in huge losses.

Despite impressive growth figures of 3-3.5 percent, the economy is not built on healthy foundations. The trade deficit with Europe is consistently negative and tends to increase. This shows that Greek capitalism is not in a position to compete with its main rivals in Europe. Despite this, the government of Simitis has pushed for Greek entry into the Euro zone, and carried out a series of austerity budgets and cuts to prepare for this. This is the background to the general strikes that have hit Greece in the past few months.

The ancient Greeks used to say: "Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad". The present situation is a good illustration of this. Greece will enter the Euro zone precisely at a time when it can benefit least. Unable to compete with strong economies like Germany and France, Greek capitalism will find itself rapidly beleaguered. In conditions of a world economic slowdown, there will be a ferocious struggle for even the smallest market. In this struggle, Greece will be hopelessly outgunned. Under the terms of the Maastricht agreement, it will be unable to devalue - the traditional way in which a weak economy like Greece could defend itself. Nor can other European countries come to its assistance. Therefore, all the burden of the crisis will be placed squarely on the shoulders of the working class.

The only areas of the economy that have flourished in recent years are those connected with parasitism and speculation. Huge amounts of money have been stolen from the stock exchange that collapsed last year after a period of feverish growth. In a single year, the staggering sum of Dr. 15 trillion (2.7 billion pounds) were wiped out from the stock exchange, when the Athens index fell from around 6,000 to about 3,000. The principal losers were hundreds of thousands of middle class investors, who overnight saw their life's savings go up in smoke.

The perspectives for the Greek economy are worse still. All the main indices of the economy point to chronic weakness. The public debt stands at more than 100 percent of the gross domestic product. Although the government has massaged the figures to make it appear that it has come down. This means that the Greek capitalist class will be compelled to launch cut after cut in public spending. The present standards of living of the working class cannot be maintained within the context of capitalism. They are intolerable to the ruling class, but the cuts and attacks on living standards are intolerable to the working class. This is a finished recipe for class struggle in the next period.

Strength of proletariat

For years, the working class had been on the retreat before the onslaught of Capital. The number of strikes had declined every year, as in Britain and every other country in Europe. Thus, in 1990, there were 265 strikes, involving 2,133,389 strikers. The corresponding figures for 1998 were 38 strikes, with a total participation of 214,564 strikers. Similar figures can be given for trade union membership: 1981: 782,507, and 2001: 440,000.

This kind of statistics has repeatedly been utilised by the cynics and sceptics to justify the most pessimistic conclusions concerning the working class and the perspectives for class struggle. However, it is not difficult to explain them.

How can one explain the lack of strikes in the last period? This is not a simple question. It is due in part to the destruction of industries in the private sector where the unions were traditionally strong. Through privatisation, sackings and factory closures, the unions were decimated in a whole series of industries. This created a climate of insecurity and a reluctance to strike in these sectors. The fall of the USSR and the consequent counter-offensive of Capital deepened the sense that Labour was on the defensive. Last, but not least, the rightward shift of the leaders of Pasok and the trade unions left the movement leaderless. Those strikes that took place (and there were many strikes against privatisation) were all defeated by the disastrous tactics of a leadership that never believed in the struggle from the beginning.

Finally, as a combination of all these factors, a sense of fatalism developed in the class - the idea became prevalent: "We cannot win, so it is pointless to struggle". This in turn led to a falling off of trade union membership and activity and the demoralisation of the vanguard, which in turn intensified the rightward movement of the leadership, which increasingly became divorced from the class and under the pressure of bourgeois ideology and influence. Cases of actual corruption at the tops of the Labour movement became more frequent, while at the bottom, the workers, left to their own devices, resorted to the search for individual solutions to their problems.

The spread of part-time working and short-term contracts without rights affected the youth in particular. The merciless pressure on the shop floor, the extension of the working day and the general imposition of compulsory overtime, weekend working, etc., left the workers exhausted and with little time for trade union or political concerns. In short, we faced a picture of reaction and retreat on all fronts, with apparently no end in sight.

Many people drew pessimistic conclusions from this situation. Some so-called theoreticians wrote about the disappearance of the working class. Everyone - except the Marxists - assumed that the class struggle was off the agenda. But this superficial defeatism entirely missed the point. We pointed out repeatedly that beneath the surface of apparent calm, there was a seething sea of anger, bitterness, frustration and rage which sooner or later must burst to the surface when least expected. This prediction has now been brilliantly vindicated by events.

The truth is that the Greek working class has never been stronger than at the present time. If we include all sectors, including a large number of terribly oppressed foreign workers (from Albania, the former Yugoslavia, Turkish Kurds, etc.), the total figure is not less than 2.7 million out of a total population of about 11 million. By contrast, the peasantry, in this formerly agricultural nation, is now a small minority. The traditional social reserves of reaction have thus been diminished, and the middle class, as the recent general strikes have shown, tend to gravitate to the working class, whenever the latter gives an active lead.

'Enough is enough'

Trotsky once spoke of what he called the molecular process of revolution. Under the surface, and invisible to superficial observers, the discontent of the class was growing, maturing and reaching the critical point where quality becomes transformed into quality. The psychology of the class had been prepared by a long experience of attacks, a thousand pin-pricks which gradually stoked up the collective anger to the point where the masses said: "Enough is enough!" Once this critical point is reached, any incident can spark off a social explosion.

Encouraged by the failure of the unions to organise effective resistance, Simitis pushed through anti-Labour laws, including the flexibilisation of labour and giving the bosses the right to sack at will. This caused a wave of anger, which forced the union leaders to call two general strikes, in October and December of 2000. These strikes were quite successful, in terms of the numbers who came out, but did not yet amount to a really effective national movement which could force the government to back down.

The response to the December strike was weaker than in October because the workers sensed that the leadership had no serious plan of action and no intention of fighting to the end. The union leaders did not immediately follow through the October strike with new actions, but waited for almost two months before calling a new strike, by which time the mood had partly cooled off. In general, the profound mistrust in the leadership has played an important role throughout all the previous period. "Why should we lose a day's pay for an ineffective action which will achieve nothing?" This was the argument of many of the more inert workers. Basically, they were not yet convinced of the possibility of succeeding through their own actions.

The union leaders are always ready to blame the workers for their alleged lack of response. The truth is very different. The working class is always ready to respond where determined leadership is given. This was shown very clearly on the April 26.

The spark that lit the fuse was the attempt by Simitis to introduce a law on pensions that would have severely reduced the pension rights of millions of people. His over confidence was the product of a complete misreading of the mood of society, which in turn was a result of a failure to understand the process of the previous period.

April 26

On April 26, everything blew up in his face. Angry meetings were held all over Greece. The right wing trade union leaders, feeling the fire under their backside, began to distance themselves from the government and pass into open opposition. When the government finally woke up to the fact that they were facing a massive rebellion, they panicked and began to issue statements, offering to withdraw the law on pensions and negotiate. They imagined that this trick would be enough to get the strike called off. They were mistaken. Unable to stem the tide of revolt, the union leaders began to express the popular indignation, demanding the total withdrawal of the law as a non-negotiable issue, and even threatening the government with "social war".

The general strike was massive, far greater then anything seen for decades. In the unanimous view of union activists, this was the biggest general strike since 1974 - which was a revolutionary situation. Many believe that it was the biggest strike since the end of the Second World War. The demonstration in Athens was huge: up to 200,000 people, and very militant. Every section was represented: both the public and private sectors. Even some firms with company unions joined the strike.

Like an immense stone dropped in a pond, the general strike has made waves that continued to resonate long after the strike had ended. The whole consciousness of the class has begun to change. In place of the old pessimism and defeatism, a new idea is beginning to grow: "We can win!" This has led to the spread of disputes in particular sections, some of which have never struck before: between the two general strikes April 26 and May 17, there were strikes of health workers, students of technological institutes, supply teachers, even actors.

There has been a general increase in trade union membership, as faith in the union movement has increased. Workers will always join unions whenever they see that the unions are prepared to fight for their interests. But the effects of the strike are much wider than this. People who never used to take any interest in politics are now avidly discussing politics. This is perhaps the most important result of the strike of April 26. Trotsky points out in The History of the Russian Revolution that the most fundamental characteristic of a revolution is that the masses who in "normal" periods tend to abstain from politics, leaving the key decisions that shape their lives in the hands of others, begin to participate actively in politics. Of course, in Greece this process is yet at its early beginnings. But it has begun.

Even the most downtrodden and oppressed sections have begun to find a voice. The prostitutes of Athens have started to organise and demonstrate for their rights. This had begun even before the general strike, but now these women can see that their fight against slavery is part of a broader fight of the working class as a whole. They were present on the demonstration, although it was impossible for them to appear openly under their banners for fear of reprisals. The fact that such an oppressed layer has begun to move shows that something serious has begun to change in Greek society.

Implications for Pasok

On the 17 May, the Communist Party (KKE) was much in evidence, and dominated much of the demonstration. Unfortunately, it seems that the leadership of this party has taken a step back from the previous decision in favour of united action. On 1 May they again held separate demonstrations - a step that can have very negative consequences for the future of the movement.

But the main repercussions will be felt in the socialist party, Pasok. The right wing leaders were clearly shaken by the strike. A number of former Simitis supporters have already started to distance themselves from him. The first hairline cracks have started to appear in the leadership. Under pressure from below, ex-Lefts like Tsochatzopoulos, who, as Minister of Defence, has distinguished himself by his enthusiasm for NATO and the bombing of Yugoslavia, is now beginning to quote Marx!

This shows the shape of things to come. Until now, the Greek bourgeoisie was happy to back Simitis, as long as he was doing the dirty work for them. But when Simitis cannot control the working class, he ceases to be of any use to them. Their attitude to the Pasok has always been that of: "Use and discredit!" In the next year or so they will be preparing a campaign to discredit the Pasok, using the press to foment scandals.

Since its right wing are bourgeois in all but name, it will not be difficult to split the Pasok, and drive it from office. But the problems will only start then for the capitalists. The New Democracy will be faced with an aroused and confident working class, in conditions of extreme economic and social crisis. Under such conditions, the Pasok, in opposition, can recover rapidly and swing far to the left. The possibilities for the Greek Marxists will grow by leaps and bounds, as society moves into a period of sharp class struggle and polarisation to the left and right. Naturally, there will be ebbs and flows, but sooner or later, there will be a decisive showdown between the classes, placing on the order of the day the question of revolution - or counter-revolution - in Greece, the sick man of European capitalism.

The recent dramatic events in Greece are a decisive answer to all those cowards, deserters and sceptics who called into question the revolutionary potential of the working class. Today's demonstration was characterised by its tremendous fighting spirit and by the happy, almost euphoric mood of those present. The most interesting thing to note is that the government had already withdrawn the proposed law on pensions before today's strike. Yet the militant mood continues and will find its expression in new strikes of many sectors. From a defensive struggle, the workers will pass onto the offensive. As one trade union activist told me: "There has been a change in the psychology of the people. Many workers did not believe that Simitis could be forced to back down. After many years the people realise: 'We can do it!' " Now that the class has begun to move, the genie is out of the bottle. It will not be easy to put back.

Athens, May 17, 2001.