Greek left struggles to unite against austerity

Paul Murphy is in Greece this week, meeting with workers, trade unionists and members of parliament. He will be reporting daily on his experiences there for Politico. You can read his first installment here; part two is below.

Day two of my visit to Greece started with a presentation from workers from the organisations for social housing and social protection to all of the GUE/NGL MEPs. What they told us really brought home the almost total dismantling of basic social infrastructure going on in Greece. The areas of social housing and protection in Greece have traditionally been run not by the state, but by two non-profit organisations. They are paid for by an extra tax, on both workers and employers, amounting to 1.75% of income for workers. These organisations currently employ about 1,500 people and provide almost 200,000 families with rent allowance and assistance with their mortgages. They also build social housing. The organisation for social protection also provides the most disadvantaged with access to cheaper holidays and cultural events.

The second memorandum agreement between the Troika and the Greek government does not just call for a severe cutback for these organisations. It calls for their total elimination. This means a complete disaster not just for the workers involved but also for those who are reliant on the services they provide. It is also not the case that these organisations were drains on the state – in fact they had reserves in the bank of hundreds of millions of euro and were collectively owed over €3 billion by the state in taxes that were specifically collected for this purpose but not handed over. Now presumably the €3 billion that is owed to the workers' social organisations, and which they have paid for themselves, will instead go straight to the vampire bondholders!

The workers have not accepted this brutal attack without protest. They have organised strike action and occupied their workplaces in the Ministry of Labour.

Next, we trooped onto a bus and headed out of the centre of Athens to an industrialised area where a major steelworks owned by Greek Steelworks, is based. Here, the employer tried to take advantage of the crisis to force the workers to work longer hours for reduced salaries. In this plant outside Athens, the 400 workers resisted, engaging in strike action. The boss responded with a lock-out, seeking to shut down the factory. The result is an heroic strike that has been running for 116 days. It has become a certain focal point for workers across Greece as a symbol of the injustice perpetrated by the capitalist system and the courage and militance of the resisting workers.

After speaking to the steelworkers to express our support, we headed back to Syntagma square, to visit the Greek parliament. We had meetings scheduled with the KKE (Communist Party) and Syriza (Radical Left Alliance). However, before we entered the building, we came across the workers from the mental health sector who had joined in a joint protest with the workers from the social housing organisation. It was an illustration of a generalising of the struggles against austerity, the government and the Troika.

Inside the parliament, as in the European Parliament, the rarefied atmosphere contrasted with the harsh conditions outside. A number of us commented independently how the “members lounge” we entered seemed like an old gentleman's club. Apparently this was populated by the many members of PASOK (the so-called social democracy party) and New Democracy (the traditional conservative party) who had been expelled as a result of voting against the second memorandum and lost their offices as a result.

We had discussions with MPs for the KKE and Syriza about the crisis in Greece, the perspectives on the struggle and the programme, strategy and tactics of the different parties. These forces between them have almost 30% support in the opinion polls and with the correct approach could provide leadership for the struggles in Greece that would open up the prospect of defeating austerity. Such a victory would have reverberations across the continent, in particular in the so-called peripheral countries like Ireland.

Therefore the position that these forces adopt are extremely important for working people across Europe and it is imperative that we discuss with, learn from and also offer opinions on the approaches of these parties. One could write a lot about the positions of the Greek left, and indeed the Socialist Party's sister party in Greece, Xekinima, already has (some of which is available in English here).

At the moment, the KKE puts forward a very left programme. They stress the need to refuse to pay the debt and they call for Greece to leave the euro and the EU. But they do not pretend that those measures alone make for an easy solution, and they make clear that it has to be linked to the development of “people's power” - by which they mean socialism – with the nationalisation of key sectors of the economy  and the democratic planning of the economy to redevelop it. One weakness, in my opinion, is that this is posed as something of an ultimatum – people's power or nothing – which is true in the final analysis – but I think the need for socialist change needs to be explained more concretely, with transitional demands that link the current struggles that exist against austerity to the need to transform society. It also, in line with the stalinist tradition they come from, does not sufficiently stress the need to spread that socialist change to other countries across Europe.

However, the most significant problem is not with the KKE's programme but with their extremely sectarian method. It is a reality that on most occasions the KKE and its militant union organisation, PAME, organise seperate demonstrations to the main union federation. In this way, they split the opposition movement, using the excuse of the rotten policies of the leadership of the main union. Their criticisms of the right-wing leadership of the union are correct, but it would make more sense to protest alongside the base of those unions and make those criticisms to them. The other defence of the separate demonstrations is the need to protect their demonstrations - with active stewarding from provocateurs and insurrectionist anarchists who set buildings like banks on fire and bring the police's force down on the heads of all they are close to. While the criticism of other union’s very weak stewarding is valid, I don't think it justifies not combining the demonstrations as a well organised and stewarded block.

With a united list in the next elections of the KKE and Syriza, there is a real possibility that this coalition could get a majority of the seats in the Parliament. However, the KKE refuses to countenance forming any united list or doing joint activities with Syriza, giving the reason of Syriza's extremely weak programme and its commitment to the euro and the EU, within the straitjacket of which it is obviously not possible to implement socialist policies in the interests of the majority. But in that case, why not propose a united list to Syriza on the basis of a socialist programme which is spelt out and use that to put pressure on Syriza's leadership from its base?

When we met Syriza, it re-enforced the view I already had that it has in many aspects the opposite problems to the KKE. While it is a broad and open organisation, with different tendencies free to operate and express their, its programme in general is extremely weak, a problem that is particularly acute given the severity of the crisis.

For example, instead of calling for a refusal to pay the debt, it calls for a selective moratorium. It also sows illusions as to the nature of the EU, calling for it to be made better as opposed to realising that the EU we have is doing what it is set up for. It is necessary to replace the Europe of the bosses with a Europe of the workers constructed in a very different and democratic fashion. Most importantly, Syriza does not agitate for and popularise the need for a rupture with the system of capitalism and the development of a socialist society. Instead, it limits itself to asking for reforms such as a renegotiation of the memorandum, which in the context of the rule of the Troika represents a rather pious hope.

These discussions took place over the course of the trip and will continue both in Greece and in the Left group in the Parliament. After the discussions, we held a press conference in the Parliament. The difficult relations on the left in Greece were highlighted by the fact that the KKE refused to participate because of Syriza's presence on the platform! Nevertheless, it was a good opportunity for the delegation to detail its opposition to the savage austerity that we have witnessed so far, and to express our solidarity with the Greek people struggling against it.

Paul Murphy is Socialist Party and ULA MEP for Dublin.

Image top: (c) Paul Murphy.