|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
The December days of the Greek youth
The Karamanlis government has been forced into a reshuffle, removing education and finance ministers, among others, the side effects of the youth revolt that shook Greece in December. ANDROS PAYIATSOS (Xekinima, CWI Greece) assesses the importance of that movement as Greece opens another year with a big mobilisation of university students and teachers.
ALEXANDROS GRIGOROPOULOS (Alexis) was shot dead on the evening of 6 December, outside a cafeteria in the centre of Athens. The policeman claimed a misfire and that the bullet hit the pavement or a wall before killing Alexis and that, therefore, it was unintentional. However, eye-witnesses said they saw the policeman (a special guard) aiming straight at the 15-year-old school student.
This provoked a massive and immediate response. Thousands gathered in every city on the night of the murder, tens of thousands on the following day, Sunday, and then on subsequent days. Universities were immediately occupied. School students refused to enter classes. Rallies and demonstrations became a daily phenomenon. Police stations were surrounded by school students. The police reacted with tear gas and other chemicals. The ministry of education was forced to stop classroom lessons and organise picnics and excursions to try to keep school students away from the demos.
What is perhaps even more important is the support of society to the struggle of the youth. There were numerous examples of working-class people, including pensioners, shouting at the police as they chased youth in the neighbourhood streets, throwing things at them from balconies, and getting between the police and the youth to protect them. A murder in itself could not have caused such social unrest. There are deeper causes, in the social conditions facing the youth and the working class in general. Unemployment, poverty, inequality, the intensification of work, massive corruption at the top as one corruption scandal after another comes to light, a lack of future for the youth. These lay behind the revolt.
Twenty-two percent of the Greek population lives below the poverty line. This is the official figure which, as usual, hides the reality of being poor – the poverty line in Greece is about €850 per month for a four-member family, but rents in Athens and Salonika range from €400-500 per month for a two-bedroom flat. Poverty hits not only the unemployed and pensioners: 25% of those in work receive €700 per month or less; 67% of these are under 35 years old.
There is no heavy industry in Greece, no ‘well-paid’ jobs in the private sector for ordinary workers, so young people and their families see a university degree as an absolute must to get a living wage. In the 1990s and the early 2000s, young people studied seemingly endlessly to get into university and a good degree. School students were repeatedly mentioned in the mainstream media as the hardest working people in the country, with an average of 65 hours of study per week. Xekinima (CWI Greece) warned that, in this way, Greek capitalism was unwittingly preparing the new generation for revolt and revolution. For, after such massive sacrifice, when they got their university degree plus a postgraduate degree, they would get a job on €700 plus 10% university degree allowance – less than €800 a month – very often without health insurance or a pension. This also applies in the public sector.
SUCH CONDITIONS CREATE fertile ground for social explosions and, at a later stage, revolutions. Particularly so as the ‘vision’ promoted by the Greek ruling class (and the bourgeoisie internationally) has been ridiculed by the way capitalism has developed. Merely mentioning globalisation as the means to bring prosperity naturally provokes rage.
In Greece, however, this was not the only vision put forward. The former prime minister, Kostas Simitis, even had the cheek to repeat Martin Luther King’s famous phrase, ‘I have a dream’, to describe the lies the Greek bourgeoisie fed the population. Initially, it was European Union entry that would solve the economic and social problems. Then it was the euro for which workers had to make sacrifices. Then the 2004 Olympic games were supposed to bring back the spirit of ancient Greece – until it was proven that the Greek team was doped. In the meantime, the bankers and ship-owners, who exported their capital to the Balkans and western Europe, had the highest profit returns in the whole of the EU!
The December days did not break out like thunder in a blue sky. They were preceded by major movements of the youth and the working class. Of exceptional importance was the struggle of university students from May 2006 to March 2007. Ten months of continual mobilisation, university occupations, and rallies against the privatisation of public education, shook Greek society. This was followed by the struggle over pensions between December 2007 and March 2008, when three general strikes were called, with huge rallies of over 100,000 in Athens, and tens of thousands in other cities.
The Greek bourgeoisie is in a mess. Its two main parties, New Democracy and PASOK, are falling rapidly in the polls. This is not just a quantitative factor, it is also qualitative, as the faith of their supporters that they can provide solutions has vanished. Their forces have no morale, contrary to the left parties, particularly SYRIZA, which is growing. PASOK, the so-called socialist party of Greece, has also been equally exposed by the events. The central demand of PASOK during the December revolt was that school students should go back to school!
There is massive questioning of the system. This is reflected in the huge rise of the left parties. The combined votes of SYRIZA, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and the far-left, reached historical records of up to 25%. Particularly SYRIZA, in which Xekinima participates, rose from 4% in the September 2007 elections to 12% in recent months, reaching even 18% in some polls last year. It is also reflected in the recent struggles.
More and more youth and workers are coming to the conclusion that there are no solutions on the basis of this system. This is, as yet, a negative feeling in the sense that they hate the system but do not know how to get rid of it and with what to replace it. But they are grappling with this problem. On the opposite side, the bourgeoisie is faced with low morale and lack of confidence: the New Democracy government hangs by the thread of one MP. And the economy is heading towards recession. Repression is their only means of hanging onto power. But repression fuels revolt.
A fragile economy
IS THERE ANY chance that the Greek ruling class might somehow regain control of the situation and stabilise itself? Not in its wildest dreams, is the answer. The December revolt came at the end of a period of prolonged economic growth. For over ten years, Greece has been one of the fastest growing countries in the EU, with growth rates between 4-5% per annum, as significant amounts of money was pumped in by the EU. Despite this, attacks against working-class and youth rights, living standards and conditions have been non-stop.
The global economic turmoil has not yet thrown Greece into recession, because of EU money. But it will not be long before it does. Greece has one of the most heavily indebted economies in Europe, with the public external debt about equal to GDP, one of the highest budget deficits (about 4% this year), and a rising deficit in external trade. Tourism, the most important industry, will fall by 30-50% next year. The government cannot find lenders on the international markets to borrow the €50 billion it needs. It has officially rejected asking for IMF intervention – proving that this has been discussed at the highest levels. If Greece was not an EU member it would have no choice but to ask for IMF intervention. But who will save the Greek economy from bankruptcy, when even the richer EU states are desperately trying to save themselves?
Greece could prove to be the weakest link of the euro, the future of which could become very uncertain as the EU dives into recession. Whatever happens, for Greek workers and youth, capitalism promises even darker days – above all unemployment, which is estimated to rise from about 7% today to 10% by the end of 2009.
The December days represent an escalation of the previous movements and struggles, a manifestation of developing processes that are, in the end, revolutionary. This is a vindication of Marxism, which is based on the understanding of the blind alleys in which the capitalist system pushes society. It predicts the huge social upheavals, revolts and, finally, revolutions that come about as a result of these blind alleys. The revolt of the Greek youth is one such social convulsion. It is not the end of the road. It is one element in the long-term revolutionary process, and it will be followed by more social explosions.
Such social upheavals produce major changes in consciousness, as youth and workers search for answers through their experiences. These answers can only be provided by Marxism, a tool for predicting major advances in the class struggle and, above all, about how these struggles can be victorious. This is directly linked to the questions of which forces are at the head of the movement, what their political programme is, and what they propose as a plan of action.
Down with the government!
XEKINIMA INTERVENED FROM the first moment in the youth revolt, raising the need to develop a plan for the victory of this movement. The slogan, generally accepted and chanted on every demo, was ‘Down with the government of murderers’. Xekinima, throwing its full weight behind this movement, attempted to show that a concrete plan of action and political proposals were required to achieve this goal.
In short, these demands were:
* Expand the occupations to every school and university in the country, and organise mass rallies and demonstrations.
* Decisions for the mobilisations should be taken by general meetings of school and university students, which should elect action committees, with the right of recall of the elected representatives.
* Democratic procedures (unfortunately, not the tradition of the majority of the Greek left) are of fundamental importance to ensure that the general meetings win the support of the majority and do not provide ammunition to the enemies of the movement, particularly the mass media.
* The left parties have a responsibility towards the mass movement to overcome their longstanding traditions of mutual hatred and join forces around the general meetings and committees of action.
* Occupations and rallies should be well guarded against provocateurs and against the mass destruction of shops, cars, etc, which isolate the youth movement from the mass of the workers.
* Occupied schools and universities should open themselves up to society, asking for support from the neighbourhoods and working-class movement.
* Action committees uniting the whole of the education sector – school and university students, teachers in primary, secondary and university levels – should be created on a local and national basis.
* Local action committees should appeal to the local population for support, in an organised manner, and should press the trade union leaders to move towards calling a 24-hour general strike in support of the demands of the youth.
* A 24-hour general strike called in these circumstances would have tremendous success, would massively boost the morale of the youth movement, and receive the enthusiastic support of the older generation. The collapse of the New Democracy government would be an easy task if the mass movement went ahead with general strikes around this demand.
* The fall of the New Democracy government raises the question: what will replace it? Many workers would fear that PASOK would just step in and one enemy would be replaced by another. Therefore, it was necessary to demand a government of the left parties, based on a socialist programme, alongside the demand, ‘Down with New Democracy’.
However, the trade union leaders refused even to contemplate the possibility of calling a general strike. Despite a resolution by one of the university student coordinating committees and SYRIZA’s call on the trade union organisations to organise a 24-hour general strike to coincide with the opening of the schools and universities in the new year, the trade union bureaucracy, controlled by PASOK, ignored the calls.
Unexpectedly, the bourgeois establishment found another ally in its confrontation with the new generation: the KKE. On the one hand, the KKE followed its usual splitting tactics, calling its own separate rallies and demos, at different times and places from the majority of the movement. On the other hand, it played a dirty role by making attacks on SYRIZA its predominant pursuit, blaming SYRIZA for the widespread destruction, riots and looting that occurred, particularly during the first days of the mobilisations.
In reality, the only mass left force which gave unconditional support to the movement, and called for an extension of occupations and rallies, was SYRIZA. This outraged the bourgeois establishment which launched a major offensive against it, even hiding some polls, conducted during the youth revolt, which showed that SYRIZA’s support was growing. But even SYRIZA, which is a reformist formation, would not go as far as accepting a full Marxist programme like the one proposed by Xekinima. The application of such a programme would require the existence of a mass party of the working class based on a revolutionary programme. This does not yet exist in Greece. This is the fundamental reason why the magnificent revolt of the youth failed to achieve its central aim: to get rid of the ‘government of murderers’.
Sectarian & anarchist excess
BECAUSE OF THIS vacuum there were many excesses by sectarian groups which do not really have a conception of the mass movement, and by the anarchist groups which encouraged mass destruction and rioting, particularly during the first three days of the revolt.
Some the sectarian groups, which have a certain base in the universities, set up a coordinating committee in the law department in Athens, and began to describe the developments as ‘revolution’, and themselves as the centre of it. They occupied various government buildings but also some trade union offices – the central offices of the Greek TUC in Athens, the offices of the Labour Centre (federation of all city unions) in Salonika, and the National Union of Journalists’ offices in Athens. Never did they bother to ask the opinion of the workers: they claimed the decisions were taken by general meetings, although no workers were involved in any way in these meetings. This kind of initiative can only discredit the movement and make workers turn and walk away.
The widespread destruction and looting of shops, encouraged by many anarchist groups, also have negative effects, as they can turn the mass of the population against the rebellious youth. The burning of close to 500 shops in the centre of Athens in one evening (Monday, 8 December), with workers in cafeterias running for their lives as Molotov cocktails were thrown in; setting fire to cars a few metres from the main body of the demo, endangering the lives of demonstrators; the destruction of even small motorbikes belonging to working-class youth, some of whom were probably protesting; attacks on demonstrators who dared to protest to the rioters – all these acts offer not the slightest service to the movement. On the contrary, they serve the establishment and the bourgeoisie because they give ground to the arguments about the necessity of ‘law and order’ and, thus, allow the police and the fascists to be drawn in, with the tacit acceptance of the population. Not at all accidentally, in the massive destruction and looting that took place on 8 December (two days after Alexis’ death), many police agents were photographed and videoed leaving police busses, dressed in black and wearing hoods, to join the rioters.
Of course, it is necessary to understand the anger of the youth and to be sensitive to it. It is necessary to make a distinction and defend the school students who expressed their anger by surrounding police stations, throwing sour oranges (plentiful in the streets of most Greek cities at this time of the year) at the police. But the groups that use demos as a cover to cause as much destruction as possible, under the slogan ‘beautiful cities, beautifully burned’ (extensively used by Greek anarchist groups), are a different matter.
So, it is very important to raise the issue of mass participation and democracy in the mass movement as the only way to achieve its demands. The methods used by anarchist groups with the (proven beyond doubt) participation of provocateurs, undermine both the democracy and mass participation of the movement.
After the end of the movement the lessons will have to be drawn. It will be one of the central tasks that Xekinima sets itself: to produce material and open discussion to draw out the lessons. Every major movement can help to prepare the next one.
More people will come to the conclusion that struggle is the only way forward. Many will contemplate the reasons for the inability of the movement to defeat a hated, weak and unstable government. There will be lessons drawn about the role of the trade union bureaucracy and about the left parties – the betrayals of the KKE, and the support that SYRIZA gave to this movement. There will be discussions about the role of some anarchist groups and what the movement can do to protect its rallies and demos from their attacks and those of provocateurs. There will be contemplation about what the way forward is, as society is faced with an impasse. More and more people, particularly youth, will understand that this system is rotten, that it has to be overthrown, and that Marxism is the only way forward.