Greece: the fight for workers' control

Theodora Polenta

Theodora Polenta discusses the challenge posed to the left by the possibility of a Syriza victory in Greece’s election on 17 June.

The revolutionary left has a duty to prepare the workers’ movement about the consequences, including a deterioration of living conditions, when Greece is forced out of the EU. We must do that without surrendering to today’s blackmail from the pro-memorandum forces: accept the cuts, or face empty shelves in the shops, no petrol, no money in the banks, etc.

The blackmail is powerful because there is a large element of truth in it. Better to face that squarely than to wriggle round it or pretend that an exit would be smooth.

Antarsya’s and KKE’s support in the “here and now” for exit from the EU and the euro, and their making exit a matter of principle, is a serious mistake. They do not understand (because if they understood they had an obligation to explain) that an “overnight” shift from a strong currency, the euro, to a “new” currency, the drachma, will cause shocks to the economy — abrupt deepening of the recession and economic chaos at least for a few years — even if it is done by a workers’ government.

In such circumstances, an unprepared leftist government risks having its support wiped out with great speed. That could pave the way to the worst enemies of the movement, the far right.

The left should plan for the event of Greece under a left government being expelled from the eurozone or the EU. Yes, an exit would lead to economic chaos. But so (more slowly, but more lastingly) would obeying the troika’s current demands. Memorandum policies will lead to at least a decade of depression in Greece.

And (1) European solidarity can reduce the risk of Greece being forced out of the euro or can slow it down; (2) if Greece is forced out, then strong measures of workers’ control can much reduce the bad consequences for workers’ living conditions; (3) decisive measures of workers’ control and workers’ power in the case of exit can push forward European solidarity and create the conditions to remake economic union with Europe.

The main axes of independent agitation which Marxists should develop should be the following:

* Workers’ control, including taking over workplaces shut down by their owners, and including workers’ control of food distribution with rationing.

In Britain, World War Two brought great difficulties. It also brought an improvement in the nutrition of working-class people, despite the cutting-off of most food imports. That was achieved by measures of control (rationing — i.e. even “reactionary-bureaucratic” control, when exercised in a state with functioning bourgeois democracy and relatively strong trade unions).

The line of argument developed by Lenin in The Impending Catastrophe, written in September 1917 as Russia faced economic chaos, is very relevant here. The detail of the pamphlet is shaped by the circumstances of World War One, but it opens up a discussion of what Marxists propose in a situation of economic catastrophe.

Lenin argues that control and regulation is necessary.

It may be done in a reactionary-bureaucratic way (which doesn’t really offset the catastrophe for the majority) or a revolutionary-democratic way.

We argue for the revolutionary-democratic way (in other words, workers’ control).

This is closely tied up with the issue of the workers getting organised so as to be able to exert democratic control over economic life.

“The war has compelled all the belligerent and many of the neutral countries to resort to the regulation of consumption. Bread cards have been issued and have become customary, and this has led to the appearances of other ration cards. Russia is no exception and has also introduced bread cards...

“At a time when the country is suffering untold calamities, a revolutionary-democratic policy would not confine itself to bread cards to comfort the impeding catastrophe, but would add, firstly the compulsory organisation of the whole population in consumers’ societies, for otherwise control over consumption cannot be fully exercised; secondly, labour service for the rich making them perform without pay secretarial and similar duties for these consumers’ societies; thirdly, the equal distribution among the population of absolutely all consumer goods, so as to really distribute the burdens of the war equitably; fourthly, the organization of control in such a way as to have the poorer classes of the population exercise control over the consumption of the rich”.

“The measures to combat catastrophe and hunger described above boil down to all-round encouragement (even to the extent of compulsion) of ‘unionisation’ of the population, and primarily the democrats, i.e., the majority of the population, or, above all, the oppressed classes, the workers and peasants...”

“What if the unions of employees, clerks and domestic servants were invited by a democratic state to verify the income and expenditure of capitalists, to publish information on the subject and to assist the government in combating concealment of incomes?”

* Workers’ militias. In the event of a Greek exit from the euro — whether forced or negotiated, under a left government or under a right-wing government — a military coup becomes a larger threat. The question of workers’ and popular committees or councils forming workers’ defence squads and workers’ militias is urgent to fight capitalist sabotage, the fascist gangs of Golden Dawn, and the threat of a military coup by the state.

* Cross-Europe mobilisation. Syriza talks about this in a way, but mainly by asking Greek workers to be hopeful about shifts in the EU elites (Hollande’s election, etc). The shifts are real but small.

What is needed just to start with is a systematic campaign of conferences, demonstrations, protests, etc. The ultimate aim is to open the fight across Europe. A government of the Left in Greece can be a catalyst across Europe.

Along with the rest of the labour movement in Europe, especially in the South, we must fight a common battle aiming at the overthrow of capitalism in a number of countries. Even if the struggles do not involve the whole of the EU, they could embrace a number of countries which are struggling with the debt crisis in southern Europe and Ireland.

The common struggle of the Greeks, Portuguese, Spanish, Irish, Italian workers can have spectacular results and could lead to the unification of our forces under a voluntary socialist federation.

It is of paramount importance for the Greek working class movement to initiate an internationalist common struggle with the European workers to smash the imperialist EU and establish the United Socialist States of Europe. Ultimately our future is in the hands of the European and international working class: without the victory of the socialist revolution, small Greece can scarcely have better chances than vast Russia...

Some elements of Syriza are beginning to pose the real questions. An article published by the left stream tendency of Synaspismos (the biggest group in Syriza) candidly describes the dire economic situation of Greece — public funds drained, basic facilities and welfare provision underfunded.

The funding of Greece’s anaemic exports has been shut down, and the tourist industry is in crisis. A further abrupt decrease in exports and tourism would lead to further deterioration of the economy.

The article concludes that Syriza should start thinking outside the box. The key is the determination of a Syriza government to immediately cancel the memorandum and all anti-working-class legislation. Syriza should mobilize the working class and the anti-memorandum neighbourhood community movements via the formation of people’s assemblies in every square of Greece and in every workplace: in the public sector and councils, in factories and workplaces, in squares, neighbourhoods, towns and cities.

Syriza should mobilise immediately, in a united front, the working-class youth, neighbourhood community activists, pensioners, and unemployed in order to ensure the implementation of its anti-memorandum promises.

The revolutionary left should warn of the danger from a popular front government of the Allende type managing a bourgeois regime within the context of the most aggressive capitalist crisis.

The revolutionary left should not remain blind to the popular hopes invested to a government of the left, but it should stress that a real government of the left should be a workers’ government based on the organs of workers’ power (workers’ committees, popular assemblies, workers’ defence squads).

The revolutionary left needs to keep in mind that the parliament is only one of the strongholds of the system, and not the most important. The most important strongholds of the system are the ownership of production and the private property, the factories, the banks, the forces of repression, the army, the courts and the media.

Blueprints for challenges to all the capitalist system’s strongholds have been sketched during the last two years anti-memorandum struggles: factory occupations , bank occupations, occupations of the Finance Ministry and of the Office of National Statistics. Power workers refused to implement government orders of cutting off electricity for households that did not pay the regressive property tax. Striking workers at Eleftherotypia have issued a workers’ newspaper.

In the confrontations triggered by the creation of a left government committed to dismantle the memorandum, workers’ control and self-organisation will be of paramount importance.

The labour movement does not choose the time to make a historic move.

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras has declared: “Power is not gained through an election, it is a constant struggle, even if a left government is formed. The power does not only lie within the parliament and the prime minister, but lies as well within the banks, the armed forces, the big business, big capital, the media. It was not enough for example for Allende in Chile to form a left wing government. The multinational corporations and the army overthrew him”.

It is the duty of the revolutionary left to ensure that we understand and adhere to the consequences of this statement, and press Syriza to act accordingly.

And the final words belong to Lenin: “It all boils down to the same thing: the rule of the bourgeoisie is irreconcilable with truly revolutionary democracy. We cannot be revolutionary democrats in the twentieth century and in a capitalist country if we fear to advance towards socialism...

“But socialism is now gazing at us from all the windows of modern capitalism; socialism is outlined directly, practically, by every important measure that constitutes a step forward on the basis of this modern capitalism”.