The ‘December Days’ rising of Greek youth

2009 starts with big education sector protests

Andros Payiatsos, Xekinima (CWI in Greece)

The new semester in Greece started with a big mobilisation, of at least 15,000 university students and teachers, on 9 January. This is an indication that movements in the field of education will continue be in fervent over the next period.

The Karamanlis government has been forced to make a cabinet reshuffle, removing amongst others the minister of education and national economy. These are side effects of the ‘December Days’, last year, in Greece. However, the school students, who were the main driving force of the youth revolt that shook Greece from the 6 December until the Xmas holidays, have not taken strike action, so far. The December Days are, in this sense, over. But they have left their mark on Greek society and on Greek youth, in particular.

The “accidental death” of a school student

Alexandros Grigoropoulos (Alexis) was shot on the evening of 6 December 2008, outside a café in the centre of Athens. The policeman responsible for the student’s death claimed it was a “misfire” and that the bullet hit the pavement or a wall before killing Alexis, and that it was not intentional. However, eye witnesses said that they saw the policeman (a ‘special guard’) aiming straight at the 15 year school student.

The killing provoked a massive response from youth and the whole of Greek society. Thousands gathered in every city on the same night of the murder. Tens of thousands protested on the day (Sunday) following the killing, and also on Monday afternoon, Tuesday and so on. The universities were immediately occupied by students. The school students simply refused to enter classes. Rallies and demonstrations became a daily phenomenon, everywhere. Tens of police stations were surrounded daily by school students protesting about the killing. The police reacted to all such demonstrations with tear gas and other ‘crowd control’ chemical weapons. The Ministry of Education was forced to stop lessons in classrooms and to organise excursions, picnics and “educational visits” to divert school students’ attention away from protests and keep them away from the demonstrations.

There were daily clashes between the youth and the police. But what is perhaps even more important than this manifestation of the anger of the youth, was the support in society generally for the struggle of youth. There are numerous examples of working class people and pensioners shouting at the police as they chased youth in the neighbourhood streets, throwing objects at police from balconies, getting between the police and the youth to protect the latter, and, in general, showing support to the youth and sympathizing with their anger towards the police.

It is obvious that a murder, in itself, could not have caused such huge social unrest and a revolt of the youth. There were deeper causes to this development: in the social conditions facing Greek youth and the working class, in general.

Social causes

Unemployment, poverty, inequality, massive intensification of work and exploitation, massive corruption of the ‘tops’ of society, as one after another corruption scandal came to light, and the “lack of future” for youth – these were the factors behind the youth revolt.

Around 22% of the Greek population live below the poverty line. This is the official figure, and it does not fully explain the reality of being poor – the poverty line in Greece is about €850 per month for a four member family. With rents in Athens and Salonica ranging from €400 to €500 per month for a two bed-room flat, one can very easily understand that when the official statistics speak of “poverty” they actually mean “starvation”. It is absoloutely impossible for new working class families and young people to survive without the support of the older generation and wider families.

Poverty does not only hit the unemployed and pensioners but also those with jobs. Around 25% of all those in work receive € 700 per month or less in wages. 67% of these are young people, up to the age of about 34.

There is no heavy industry in Greece, and no ‘well paid’ jobs in the private sector for workers. Young people and their families see a university degree as an absolute must if they are to receive a living wage. The 1990’s and the early 2000’s saw young people study for endless hours to get into a university and to have a chance of obtaining a ‘good degree’. School students were repeatedly referred to as the hardest working people in the country by the press, studying an average 65 hours per week. Xekinima (CWI Greece) repeatedly commented that these intolerable pressures demanded by Greek capitalism was preparing the new generation for revolt and revolution. For after massive sacrifices, and after they obtained a university degree and very often a postgraduate degree, young people would get a job (not only in the private but also in the public sector) of € 700 plus 10% ‘university degree allowance’, i.e. a total of less than € 800 a month, very often without social insurance (health insurance and pension).

Class relations

Such social conditions create fertile ground for social explosions, and, at a later stage, revolutionary movements. This is particularly so as the “visions” created by the Greek ruling class (and the capitalist class internationally), over the past years, have been undermined by the actual development of life under capitalism.

Mention of “globalisation”, as the means to bring about economic growth and prosperity, causes rage in Greece. The former Prime Minister, Kostas Simitis, a few years ago, even had the gall to repeat Martin Luther King’s famous phrase, “I have a dream”, to further the lies he and the Greek ruling class peddled to the population. Initially, it was the entry of Greece into the European Union that would supposedly “solve” all the problems of the Greek economy and society. Then it was the advent of the Euro currency, in whose name Greek workers were asked to make “sacrifices”. Then it was the Olympic games, held in Greece in 2004, which were supposed to bring back the “spirit” of ancient Greece. All of these false dawns led to accumulating mass anger in Greek society, as more and more workers and youth realised it was all lies and yet, in the meantime, the Greek bankers and ship owners, who exported their capital to the Balkans and Western Europe, were enjoying the highest profit returns in the whole of the EU!

The ‘December Days’ of the Greek youth did not, therefore, break out like thunder in a clear blue sky. They were preceded by major movements of the youth and the working class.

Particularly important was the struggle of university students from May 2006 to March 2007. Ten months of continual protests and university occupations 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 massive success, and huge rallies of over 100,000 in Athens and tens of thousands in other cities.

The Greek capitalists are in a mess. The two main capitalist parties, ND (New Democracy) and PASOK (former social democrats), are falling rapidly in the polls. PASOK is first in the polls with around 35%-38%, with New Democracy on around 32%. However, while 80% are dissatisfied with the government, an even higher proportion (85%) said they were dissatisfied with the opposition! The faith of their supporters and voters (that they can provide solutions to their mounting everyday problems) has vanished. Their forces have no morale, contrary to the left parties, particularly SYRIZA (coalition of the radical left), which is growing. Not only has the ruling ND party been exposed by the recent events, but equally so PASOK, the so-called ‘socialist party’ of Greece. The central demand of PASOK, during the December revolt of the youth, was that school students should go back to their schools!

There is massive questioning of the system. This is reflected in the huge rise in support for the left parties, in the past period. The combined votes of the left parties, Syriza, the CP (Communist Party) and the far left, reached an historical record, of up to 25%, in the last period. In particular SYRIZA, in which Xekinima participates, rose from 4% in the elections of September 2007, to 12% in the last few months, reaching even 18% in the polls, at one stage in the course of last year. But these poll changes are also reflected in the struggles of the last period, as mentioned above.

One thing is becoming clearer. More youth and workers are coming to the conclusion that there are no solutions, on the basis of the current system. This is still, at this stage, a “negative” feeling, in the sense that they hate the system, but do not know how to get rid of it, or what to replace it with. They are trying to address this question. There is a rising militancy and radicalism. On the opposite side of the fence, the capitalists are faced with low morale and a lack of confidence. The ND government hangs by a thread of one MP (it was two, but they were forced to expel one). Two education ministers and three (un)employment ministers have lost their positions, in the last couple of years, and also the minister for finance was kicked out, in the latest reshuffle. On top of all this, the Greek economy is heading towards recession…Repression is their only means of hanging to power. But repression fuels revolts.

The recession has not yet fully hit the economy

Is there any chance that the Greek ruling class might somehow regain control over the situation, and stabilise itself, in the next period? Not in their wildest dreams, is the answer!

It is important to remember that the December revolt came at a time when the Greek economy had been growing at a significant rate. For the past 10 to 15 years, the Greek economy has been one of the fastest growing economies in the EU, with rates of between 4 to 5% per annum, based on significant amounts of money, which was pumped in by the EU. Despite this growth, attacks against working class and young people’s rights, living standanrds and conditions continued apace.

The recession in the global economy has not yet thrown the Greek economy into recession, again, primarily, because of EU money. But it will not be long before it does. And not just that. The Greek economy is one of the most heavily indebted economies in Europe, with the public debt about equal to GDP. Its budget deficit is one of Europe’s highest, about 4% this year, and there is a rising deficit in external trade, which will only get worse. Tourism, the most important industry in the Greece, is expected to fall, by between 30% and 50%, next year. The Greek governmnent needs to borrow about €50 billion to spend its way out of recession but it cannot find lenders on the international markets given the credit crunch that has developed internationally! The Greek government has officially ruled out any possibility of asking for IMF intervention. The truth is, that if Greece was not a member of the EU, it would have no choice but to ask for IMF intervention. The EU could not allow one of its member states to appeal to the IMF for help! But who will be willing to pay the price of saving the Greek economy from bankruptcy, particularly as the richer states, Germany and France in particular, are busy trying to save themselves?

Greece could very well prove to be the sickest, of the many sick countries that have emerged in the EU. It could prove to be the weakest link of the Eurozone, the future of which has become very uncertain as the EU dives into recession.

Whatever the actual course of events, for the Greek workers and youth, capitalism promises even darker days; above all, rising unemployment, which is expected to rise from about 360,000 today, to 500,000 by the end of 2009 (from 7%, to about 10%).

A Vindication of Marxism

The December Days of the Greek youth represent an escalation of major movements and struggles. They represent a clear indication of the gathering storm, a manifestation of developing processes that are, ultimately, destined to be revolutionary.

All this represents a great vindication of Marxism. Because Marxism bases itself on an understanding of the capitalist system and goes on to provide perspectives for huge social upheavals, revolts and, finally, revolutions, that come about, as a result.

The revolt of the Greek youth is one such social convulsion. It will be followed by new convulsions. It is not the end of the road. It is but one step, in a long term revolutionary process, and will be followed by more social explosions.

Such social upheavals produce major changes in consciousness. Tens of thousands of youth and workers, through such experiences, will search for answers. These answers can only be provided by Marxism. Above all, Marxism is about how struggles can be victorious. This is directly linked to the question of which forces are at the head of the mass movement, what their political programme is, and what they propose practically, as a plan of action.

“Down with the government of murderers!”

Xekinima, the Greek section of the CWI, intervened from the first moment of the revolt of the youth, raising the need to develop a plan for the victory of the movement. The slogan accepted generally by this movement, chanted on every demo was, “Down with the government of murderers!”. Xekinima, throwing its full weight behind this movement, attempted at the same time to show that in order to achieve this goal (i.e. to get rid of the hated government) a concrete plan of action and political proposals were required.

The demands put forward by Xekinima were, in short:

  • The need to expand the occupations, to every school and every university in the country, and to organize mass rallies and demonstrations.
  • The decisions about these mobilizations 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, (which, unfortunately, are not in the tradition of the majority of the Greek left), are of fundamental importance, for the general meetings to have the support of the majority, and not to provide ammunition to the enemies of the movement, particularly the right-wing media.
  • The parties of the left 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 to society, to the neighborhoods and the working class movement, asking for support.
  • Action committees, uniting the whole of the education sector (i.e. school and university students and teachers in primary, secondary and university level), should be created on local and national basis.
  • These local action committees should appeal to the local population for support, in an organized manner, and should press the tops of the trade union movement to move in the direction of 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. It would massively boost the morale of the youth movement and receive the enthusiastic support of the older generation. The collapse of the ND (New Democracy) government would be an easy task, if the mass movement went ahead with general strikes, around this demand.

The fall of the ND government naturally raises the question of who will replace it. Many workers would fear that if ND fell, PASOK would replace it, and thus one ‘enemy’ would be replaced by another. Therefore it was necessary to raise the demand of a government of the parties of the left, based on a socialist programme, side by side with the demand of “Down with the ND!”.

The question of leadership

However, the leaders of the trade union movement refused even to contemplate the possibility of calling a general strike. Despite a resolution, by one of the “coordinating committees” of the university students, and SYRIZA’s call on the trade unions to organise a 24 hour general strike (with the opening of the schools and universities, at the beginning of January 2009), the trade union bureaucracy, controlled by PASOK, ignored the calls.

Unexpectedly, the capitalist establishment found another ally, apart from the PASOK leadership, in its confrontation with the new generation: the Communist Party.

On the one hand, the CP (Communist Party) 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 very bad role in making attacks on SYRIZA its main priority. The CP used the fact that there was widespread destruction, riots and looting, particularly during the first days of the mobilizations, to blame SYRIZA, as ‘responsible’ for these riots, which, of course, was far from the truth.

The reality is, that the only mass force on the left which gave unconditional support to the movement and actually called for extension of occupations and rallies, was SYRIZA. This provoked the outrage of the establishment, which launched a major offensive against SYRIZA. They even went to the extent of hiding some polls, carried out in the course of the youth revolt, that showed (very importantly!) that SYRIZA’s support was growing.

But even SYRIZA, of course, which is led by reformists, would not go as far as accepting a full Marxist programme, like the one proposed by Xekinima.

The application of such a programme would actually require the existence of a mass party of the working class, based on a revolutionary socialist programme. This does not yet exist in Greece. This is the fundamental reason why the magnificent revolt of the Greek youth failed to achieve its central aim – to get rid of the “government of murderers”.

Sectarian and anarchist “excesses”

Due to this political vacuum there were many excesses by sectarian left groups, which do not really have a conception of the mass movement, and by the anarchist groups, which fully encouraged mass destruction and rioting, particularly during the first three days of the youth revolt.

Some of 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”, putting themselves at the centre of it. They went on to occupy various government buildings, but also some trade union offices, like the Greek TUC central offices in Athens, the offices of the Labour Centre (federation of all city unions) in Salonica. On all of these occasions, they never bothered to ask the opinion of the workers. They claimed decisions had been taken by “general meetings”, only no workers were involved, in any way, in these “general meetings”.

These kind of “initiatives”, leaving aside the fact that they have nothing to do with revolution, can only discredit the movement and make workers turn their backs on it and walk away.

The mass 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 youth. The burning of many hundreds of shops (close to 500) ,in the center of Athens, in one evening (Monday 8 December), with workers in cafeterias running for their lives as Molotov cocktails were thrown; the setting on fire of cars a few meters away from the main body of a demonstration, endangering the life of the demonstrators; the destruction even of small scooters, belonging to working class youth, some of whom were probably protesting; the attacks on demonstrators who dared to object to their actions; none of these are acts offer the slightest service to the movement. On the contrary, they serve the establishment and the capitalists, as they give ground to the arguments about the necessity of “law and order”, thus allowing the police forces and the fascists to be drawn in. Not at all accidentally, in the phenomenal mass destruction and looting that took place on Monday, 8 December (two days after Alexis’ death), many police agents were photographed and videoed leaving the police busses, dressed in black and wearing hoods, to join rioters.

Of course, it is necessary to understand the anger of the youth, and to be sensitive towards it. It is necessary to make a distinction and to defend the school students who express their anger by surrounding police stations, throwing rotten fruit at the police. But the groups that go to a demo, not to take part in it but to use it as a cover to cause as much violent trouble as possible, under the slogan “beautiful cities, beautifully burned”, a phrase used by Greek anarchist groups, are a very different matter.

It is very important to raise the issue of participation and democracy in the mass movement, as the only way to achieve its demands. Methods used by anarchist groups, with the (proven, beyond doubt) participation of agent provocateurs, undermine both the democracy and mass participation of the movement.

Drawing the lessons – building the forces of revolutionary Marxism

The lessons of the December movement will have to be drawn. It will be one of the central tasks that Xekinima sets itself: to produce material and have open discussions about the lessons of this movement. Evey major movement can help prepare for the next one.

There will be more people coming to the conclusion that struggle is the only way forward. There will be many participants in these events who will contemplate the reasons for the inability of the movement to deafeat a hated, weak and usnstable government. There will be lessons drawn about the role of the trade union bureaucracy and about the parties of the left – the betrayals of the CP and the support of SYRIZA for this movement. And, of course, 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 actions and those of agent provocateurs. There will be contemplation about the way forward, as society is faced with an impasse. More people, particularly youth, will understand, especially with the onslaught of the global economic crisis on Greece, that this capitalist system is rotten, that it has to be overthrown and that Marxism is the only way forward.

At the time of writing (Thursday January 15) there are three rallies taking place in the center of Athens. One of them has been called by the National Union of Policemen. Their rally is summoned under the general slogan “Social problems cannot be solved by repression”. Talk about learning lessons!

Unfortunately, not everybody can understand the significance of such a development. When these same policemen, hundreds of them, attempted to march together with a workers demo in Salonica a few months ago, they were attacked by anarchist groups. However, workers can very well understand the importance of the policemen marching together with them, in support of their demands! These are very important cracks in the state apparatus. They show that when the state decides to use its full repressive force against the mass movement, the “security forces” will not be able to fulfil the task set for them by the capitalist state, and can split along class lines. This factor is very important in the face of future revolutionary events.

Thus, lessons, are being drawn and more will be drawn in the next weeks, months and years. And, inevitably, the central lesson will gradually be drawn, that unless we build a mass force, with clear policies, a clear plan and the determination to bring down the capitalist system and replace it with a socialist society, to serve the needs of the working class, the youth and the poor, our struggles, however heroic and determined, will never mature into full victory.

Building the forces of Marxism on a mass scale in Greece and internationally, in the period that we are passing through, is the “mother” of all tasks. It is the only way to take society out of the blind alley that capitalism condemns it to. It is the only way to take revenge for all the suffering and all the victims of the capitalist system, including one of its youngest ones, 15 year old Alexis Grigoropoulos.

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