Solidarity with Greek workers!

Submitted by martin on 26 May, 2010 - 10:46 Author: Martin Thomas

Greek workers staged another general strike on 20 May, following general strikes or days of action on 5 May, 22 April, 15 April, 11 March, 10 February, or 17 December. The tempo of struggle is increasing, and now Spanish unions plan a public service workers' strike on 2 June.

The 10 May bail-out package organised by the European Union and the IMF has not halted the struggle. Why should it? The Greek government's plans for huge cuts continue, and have become even harsher. And the Greek government may well end up with no choice but to default on its international debt even despite all the cuts designed to stop that default.

Why has the crisis erupted? How is the Greek left and labour movement responding? What answers should socialists propose?

In 2007-8 a vast boom in the international financial markets tipped over into crisis. Governments responded by bailing out banks. That shifted the focus of the crisis, as regards points of breakdown in the circuits of capital, to the governments.

Since Greece joined the European Union in 1981 and the eurozone in 2001, Greek capitalism has grown fairly fast, thopugh not as spectacularly as Irish.

Generally, the faltering and bureaucratic processes of EU integration have led to some "levelling up" in Europe. In 2008, Greece's national income per head was 66% of Germany's and 68% of France's; Spain's was 75% of Germany's and 76% of France's. In 1980 those two south European countries had national incomes per head of only 32% of Germany's or 37% of France's (Greece) and 40% of Germany's or 46% of France's (Spain).

But the holding-down of German wages has led to a rise of German exports to southern Europe, and an increase in the trade deficits of the south European countries. The outflow of euros from those countries through trade was offset by an inflow of loans, easier to get at cheap rates now that they had a "hard" currency, the euro.

With the credit crisis, loans became harder to get, and banks became more nervous about lending. Greece faced being unable to get new loans except at prohibitive rates, and thus being unable to repay old loans.

The fast-moving international financial markets, which are the lifeblood of today's capitalism in expansion, become a death-fluid in crisis.

Fearful for the health of the German and other banks who hold the Greek government's debt, the European Union governments finally decided on 10 May to throw out many of their own rules. The European Central Bank was supposed never to take instructions from governments, and never to buy up the bonds (IOUs) of eurozone governments. Now the EU governments have instructed it to buy those bonds in large amounts. They put together a package of 750 billion euros, including money from the IMF, to enable Greece to continue to make payments in the coming months, in "return" for a commitment by the Greek government to wring the cost out of Greek workers' wages and services over the coming years.

The package is by no means certain to "work" even in its own terms, because the huge cuts in Greece will trash industry there and reduce Greek capital's ability to earn euros.

The Greek left and labour movement is shaped by a history different from most European countries. Greece had 54% of its workforce in agriculture as late as 1961.

It was ruled by the Ottoman (Turkish) empire until 1829, when it gained independence, but only under a monarchy staffed by German and Danish princes nominated by the big powers. Large parts of its territory did not come under independent Greek rule until 1912-3.

From 1936 Greece was under a military dictatorship. During World War Two it was invaded twice, first by Italy, which failed to conquer Greece, and then by Germany, which imposed a brutal occupation.

From 1967 to 1974 Greece was again under military dictatorship, after a coup in which the CIA had a part.

One million Greeks were forced out of Turkey in the early 1920s, and over a quarter of a million out of Egypt in the 1950s and 60s.

In short, history teaches Greeks to think of their country as more akin to those of Latin America than to most European states - a victim rather than a profiteer of world capitalism. Yet Greek nationalism is by no means all a democratic resistance to outside domination: the rancid Greek hostility to the independence of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia proves otherwise.

Greece has by far the highest rate of military spending, relative to national income, in Europe, and has long had a wealthy class with international ambitions. Along with the growth of Greek capitalism within the EU has come a rapid increase in inequality between rich and poor Greeks.

Where all the other old Stalinist "Communist" parties in Europe have declined drastically or disappeared, the Greek Communist Party, KKE - legal only since 1974 - remains a strong force (8% of the vote in October 2009's election, for example, as high a level as in the 1970s). It is still strongly Stalinist. Some of its tactics are like those of the Stalinist "Third Period" of 1928-34. It denounces Greece's trade union confederations as "yellow unions", and insists on calling its own actions and demonstrations. These tactics are tied to a revolutionary-sounding but very "patriotic" and unsocialist political programme.

Greece's analogue of the Labour Party, Pasok, was founded only in 1974. The first words of its founding motto were "National Independence". In recent decades it has, however, adopted the standard neo-liberal, world-market-oriented politics of other European social-democratic parties. It is the governing party pushing through the current cuts.

There are two union confederations, ADEDY for government employees, and GSEE for other workers. Both are linked politically to Pasok: it took rank-and-file pressure to get them to start calling general strikes against the cuts.

The union confederation leaderships, financed mainly by allocations from government welfare spending rather than by union dues (which are scarcely collected), stand above a very large number (about 4000) of individual unions, mostly quite small, often limited to single workplaces or cities.

Synapsismos, a "Eurocommunist" split from the Communist Party, dating back to 1968, is also relatively strong. Syriza, the coalition led by it in the 2009 election, got 5% of the vote. Greece has several revolutionary left groups, some of them in Syriza, many outside.

The strike calls by GSEE and ADEDY limit themselves to opposing cuts, without stating any alternative. Often they hint that "more balanced" cuts would be acceptable.

Synapsismos calls for cuts in military spending, and for "renegotiation of the debt, and borrowing directly from the European Central Bank [not the IMF]... a redistribution of wealth in favor of the forces working against the forces of capital... taxing big business instead of cutting wages and pensions".

Revolutionary left groups add calls for the nationalisation of the banks, nationalisation of enterprises under workers' control, migrant workers' rights, and the creation of rank-and-file committees of struggle.

The call from Synapsismos is implicitly one for pressure on the existing Pasok government, or perhaps for a new coalition government of sections of Pasok plus Synapsismos. The revolutionary left's demands implicitly require a call for a workers' government, based on a transformed labour movement, to be the agency of such measures.

How such a call for a workers' government could be expressed in practical terms, I don't know from this distance. Three Pasok MPs have been expelled for opposing the cuts, but whether and how sectors of the Pasok base can be broken from the leadership I don't know.

Most of the revolutionary groups (the main exception, unexpectedly, seems to be SEK, Greek sister group of the SWP-UK) also echo the KKE's call for Greece to quit the EU. (No other big political force in Greece, not even the right-wing Greek party roughly equivalent to UKIP, makes that call).

Any socialist government in Greece, or even any government heavily responsive to and moving under working-class pressure, would have no choice but to insist on a cancellation or renegotiation of Greece's debt. Quite likely it would have to refuse payments on the debt, and see itself excluded from the eurozone and probably the EU. To shy away from declaring the debt unpayable for fear of EU retaliation would be false.

But it does not follow that socialists should cheer Greece's exclusion from the eurozone or the EU as a victory. It does not follow that Greece leaving the EU would push Greek politics to the left. On the contrary. If Greek workers are encouraged to see "out of the EU" as the answer, then they are likely to find themselves victims of a nationalist government which will enforce even bigger cuts in the name of a supposed "national independence".

Greece is not an isolated case. Portugal, Spain, and even Italy are on the same road, only a short distance behind. It is not impossible that more "central" EU countries could run into similar problems a bit later. The socialist answer cannot be that each country, as and when it finds itself in trouble, should cut loose and seek the best deal it can get "from outside".

A cross-European programme of cancelling unpayable debts and installing cross-Europe social guarantees (minimum wages, pensions, and social services) would provide the basis for a united workers' response.

The idea that each country should save itself by quitting the EU, and then trying to do the best deal it can from outside, can only divide the European working class into competing national segments, each lined up behind its "own" government as it seeks competitive advantage in the deal-making.

The rules of the eurozone are heavily neo-liberal, even after being so dramatically "bent" in recent weeks, and their making and "bending" is heavily dominated by the bigger and richer states. But does it follow that workers would do better in a Europe of walled-off, fiercely-competing nation states? Would workers in smaller and poorer countries, in particular, do better under a regime of more unrestrained competition between capitalist states? No.

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