On Sunday, January 24, national elections were held in Greece. Many young revolutionaries in the United States, caught up in the struggle here, may not have followed those events so closely.
Income Inequality and a “Police State”
The struggle against police murders and brutality here is directly linked with “income inequality.” As self-styled “zillionaire” Nick Hanauer said: “You show me a highly unequal society and I’ll show you a police state.” In the US, as the economic attacks on all workers increased, so did all the propaganda about “violent criminals” and the idea that the police are the “thin blue line” that stand between the upstanding citizens and mayhem and murder, and all the racist images that go with that propaganda. So for those who recognize that to end police murder and racism we need a complete change in society, the lessons of other struggles are vital. And right now, Greece stands at the epicenter of the battle against international capital in Europe.
Greece has historically been a weak link in the European capitalist chain, and as a result the traditions of working class militancy are powerful. (See this article.) In 2009, a debt crisis arose in Greece. Part of the European Union and the eurozone (the zone where all countries use the same currency – the “euro”), European capital, as dominated by German capital, put Greece on short rations. Extremely short. In exchange for a loan program, they demanded that Greece cut public employment and public services, cut the minimum wage, etc. Today, there is something like 65% unemployment among Greek youth, for instance, and total poverty and outright hunger is rampant. It was these conditions that led to the rise of a new, radical party, Syriza.
Syriza and Electoral Politics
Syriza promised to reverse all these austerity cuts. In some ways, the leadership has moderated its program in recent years, but this simple promise has huge meaning for Greek workers and youth, who voted Syriza in as the largest party by far on January 24. This election outcome has further emboldened masses of Greeks and helped the movement advance.
One important lesson to be learned from this is that participating in electoral politics is an important tool in revolutionaries’ tool box. How can we continue to simply protest what the capitalist politicians are doing, instead of engaging in the struggle to replace them? There are some who say that we can never make any change through elections. But the great majority don’t see it that way, so it’s necessary to participate in order to help people see the shortcomings. As Greece shows, as the working class moves, it will form its own mass party. In most cases – as in Greece – that party may not be a revolutionary one, but that’s beside the point. In any case, that party will participate in elections. It is exactly through this process that a revolutionary tendency will often develop. And anyway, it’s not completely true that elections don’t produce any change.
The election outcome in Greece is inseparable from the massive street demonstrations and strikes that have happened since 2009. And within days of coming into power, the Syriza government restored the public jobs, ended privatization, and restored the minimum wage.
Syriza also decided to grant citizenship rights to the children of immigrants. This is an important step for two reasons: First, parallel with the rise of revolutionary urges has been the rise of outright fascism in the form of the Golden Dawn party. Golden Dawn sports a modified form of the Nazi swastika and has carried out violent attacks against immigrants in Greece (who are mainly from the Arab world and Africa). Syriza has always called for immigrant rights, and this is an important first step.
Syriza’s victory is complicated, though, by the complex government system in Greece. Like many other European countries, the party that wins the majority of parliament’s seats forms the government. If no one party gets a majority, then usually a coalition of parties – led by the largest one – forms the government. In this case, Syriza almost got the majority of seats, but not quite. It would have had the option of trying to form a minority government and try to pressure some other parties to vote for it or at least not vote against it. The most likely candidate would have been the Greek Communist Party (KKP). However, this party held an extremely sectarian position and refused to cooperate with Syriza. In the event, Syriza formed a government by bringing in a small, nationalist party called ANEL. This party has strongly opposed the austerity program of the EU.
Many, including this writer, were dismayed by Syriza bringing in ANEL, especially because of the anti-foreigner position of that party. With Syriza’s granting of citizenship to immigrants’ children, though, it seems that Syriza may not be making concessions to ANEL along those lines.
Confrontation with EU Powers
Meanwhile, the Syriza government is locked in a battle with the rest of the EU. They are demanding more time to pay off their loans and refusing to back down on the issue of austerity. The major players in the EU, especially the head of state in Germany – Angela Merkel – are demanding that Greece tow the line and threatening to kick Greece out of the EU if they don’t. Other countries are in conflict. In Spain, for instance, a new left party called Podemos (“We can”) is growing. Podemos is similar to Syriza and has links with them. The main capitalist parties, fearful of a Podemos victory, are lining up with Merkel.
Greece Out of EU?
Expelling Greece from the EU would mean a crisis all around. The continued stability of the euro (which is already wobbling), never mind the EU as a whole, would be in question. Nor would it be all rosy for Greece. If they were forced to return to their own currency (the drachma), it would mean an immediate and sharp increase in prices in Greece. But what is the alternative? If concessions are made to Greece, then who is next? And if Syriza backs down, this would mean an immediate crisis within the party. It looks like the irresistible force meeting the unmovable obstacle.
One other issue: The new Greek government has threatened to veto any further EU economic sanctions against Russia. This relates to the struggle for influence in Ukraine. If Greece is expelled from the EU, would Russia come to its economic aid? Would it be able to?
This is just a very general summary of what is happening in Greece. Watching the events there helps show how the struggle to overthrow capitalism as a whole relates to both electoral politics as well as putting forward partial demands. The Syriza leadership has moderated its program in recent years. will they continue down this road, to the point of capitulating to Merkel and the EU?
Nationalism vs. International Workers’ Solidarity
One last point: The Syriza leadership has raised elements of nationalism and patriotism. One example of this is their call for Germany to pay Greece reparations for the damage it caused in WW II. But who in Germany would be paying those reparations? Most certainly the German working class. What the Syriza leadership has not done is to explain that what is happening in Greece shows the plans for the working class of all of Europe. If Greek living standards are permanently driven down to starvation levels, then the low wages there will attract capital from the rest of Europe. Workers, including those in Germany, will start to lose their jobs and the demand to cut wages and benefits in Germany will increase. In other words, the infamous “race to the bottom.”
This is what Syriza should be campaigning around throughout Europe. As part of their struggle against austerity in Greece, they should be starting to build direct links with workers throughout not only the EU, but also the entire Mediterranean and beyond. Greece has been the portal of immigration from the Arab world and Africa into the rest of Europe. They stand in an excellent position to create exactly such direct links.
Nowhere is the fate of the working class of any one country more tied with the fate of the world’s working class than it is in Greece. But they are not alone. In the end, the same holds true for workers and youth here in the US. And that includes the struggle against racism.