Athenians Teach a New Lesson in (Workers) Democracy
The Greek working class has won a victory in the past three days not just for themselves but for all the world’s workers. In the latest step forward in the mass strike wave that began last December in Tunisia, 50-100,000 workers—young and old, employed, students, and unemployed—turned back on Wednesday, June 15, a police attempt to end the occupation of Syntagma Square, leading the Greek government to collapse into parliamentary paralysis. This has, for now, defeated the latest austerity plan of mass layoffs and privatizations. While not yet a final victory, this was the first time in the current period (outside of tiny Iceland) that mass protests in a parliamentary democracy have turned back austerity attacks.
Equally important, on Thursday the Popular Assembly that has been meeting every night in the Square adopted a sweeping set of economic demands that form the core of an alternative to austerity: cancellation of the debt, nationalization of all banks, no privatization, taxation of the rich and capital, popular democratic control over the economy and production. Here, now democratically adopted in open mass meeting, is a clear call that not only can rally Greeks, but can mobilize masses in every part of the world.
Cairo to Madrid to Athens
The occupation of Syntagma (Constitution) Square in front of the Hellenic parliament building began May 25, inspired in part by the occupations of squares in Spain begun ten days earlier, which in turn were inspired by the occupation of Tahrir Square and the other occupations of the Egyptian Revolution. Greeks were enraged by the austerity measures imposed last year that had already sent unemployment soaring to 16%, and now the government, pressured by the European Union and the IMF, was proposing a second huge round of austerity, with layoffs of more than 100,000 state workers and the sale of major state-owned companies. As in Spain, the occupiers turned their rage against all the parliamentary parties, who all sought to steal for the banks every penny they wanted.
Initially, the protests were loosely organized. Nationalist and outright fascists tried to exploit them, forming a loud, Greek-flag-waving contingent near Parliament, on the upper end of the square. But rapidly broad masses of leftist youth, some from Marxist groups, but most not, organized the Popular Assembly in the lower part of the square, individually confronted rightists who were harassing immigrants and isolated the nationalists increasingly into one corner. Occupations and popular assemblies rapidly sprang up in nearly all the other Greek cities.
On Sunday, June 5, gigantic demonstrations, called by the popular assemblies, reinforced the occupations, with the crowd in Athens estimated as high as 500,000—a tenth of the population. Attacks by the police with tear gas and truncheons left one demonstrator critically injured.
June 15—the Battle of Syntagma Square
With the occupation continuing and growing and with the government about to introduce the new austerity plan to Parliament, the major trade union confederations, under tremendous pressure from their base, called for a one-day General Strike on June 15 and marches that would converge on the occupations. There had been 10 previous general strikes but now this one was not just a one-day blow off of steam, but instead fed directly into the open-ended occupations. It is the open-ended nature of the occupations, together with their democratic organization that makes them dangerous to the government and to the ruling class.
The Popular Assembly had called for a blockade of the Parliamentary building to prevent the parliamentary representatives from getting in. Predictably, the police thwarted such well-publicized plans by getting the politicians in early and counter-blockading a single passageway.
Nonetheless, the event was a spectacular success for the workers, as the square filled with 50-100,000 protestors and uncounted more lined up on all the avenues and side streets around the square. By 3:00 PM, the square was a festive scene of peacefully milling demonstrators.
But the police had laid their own plans. Suddenly, there were the loud bangs of noise grenades and tear gas started to pour into the center of the occupation at the bottom of the square. What were the police, who numbered not more than five or six hundred, trying to do against a crowd hundreds of times larger? As my Greek comrade George cogently explained later, the police obviously figured that such a huge crowd would consist mainly of those new to demonstrations and that a whiff of tear gas would be all that was needed to send them home. The police were afraid to try again with their truncheons for fear that this time someone would die and the cycle of mass funerals and mass protests would too plainly mirror the revolutionary cycle of the Arab countries. So just tear gas would do—and leave no embarrassing corpses behind.
The police badly misjudged the crowd — they could have seen that from the start. Because although the protestors ranged in age form 17 to eighties, there were no children—no baby strollers, practically no one who was not fully grown. The kids had been left behind because the protestors were prepared for trouble—not to make trouble but prepared for trouble from the police. And they were determined to stay.
So when the tear gas swept over the square, the crowd retreated slowly—walking, not running. When the gas dispersed, the demonstrators surged forward again, until the next round of tear gas brought a new retreat. And the retreats were not far—people moved onto the side streest or into cafes with closed doors and waited for the gas to blow away. We pulled out surgical masks, or napkins or—some of the veteran protestors—full gas masks and poured water or soda pop over each other’s faces.
Gradually, thousands of demonstrators realized that the wind was steadily blowing the gas up the square. They moved through the side streets to the area upwind and below the square, where tear gas would blow away from the demonstrators, not towards them. (By the way, no “petrol bombs” were thrown, contrary to press reports. Garbage fires were set in the middle of streets—a silly but harmless prank.) By 4:30 small groups of police found themselves sandwiched between enormously larger groups of protestors on all the streets and avenues. Drummers beat a furious and (to the cops) threatening tattoo on the streets, while in the square itself a lyre-player led the occupiers in a Cretan dance. Although the protestors were mostly young, men and women clearly up in their ‘80’s stood firmly in the belief that they had every right to demonstrate against the thieves in parliament and the banks.
Around 5:00 the police began to give up, blocking off streets but leaving sidewalks leading to the square open, and they stopped firing tear gas. The square was in the hands of the occupiers and the police were outside. The Battle of Syntagma Square had ended in complete victory of the workers. By nightfall, tremendous crowds poured into the square, making it almost impossible to move about. Three thousand participated patiently in the Popular Assembly while the rest celebrated.
The Rulers Panic
As the protestors reorganized and started collectively cleaning the tear gas off the pavement of the square with bucket brigades, the government of Prime Minister Papandreou dissolved in panic. Faced with the loss of control of the central square to a determined, growing and open-ended movement, the ruling class politicians acted the way trade union officers all too often do—indecisively switching from one thing to another, unable to mobilize their resources or to take decisive action.
First Papandreou offered to resign to pave the way for a “grand coalition” of his own “Socialist” Party and the opposition parties. But the opposition parties actually wanted no part of governing just now, thank you anyway, with the impossible task of imposing austerity on the mass strike movement being the first thing on the agenda. So the task of governing became a hot potato thrown back and forth among the politicians until Papandreou withdrew his offer to resign and, in a clearly decisive move, slightly reshuffled his cabinet.
With no one wanting to govern Greece, the EU, IMF and the banks that stood behind them suddenly started to view Greek default on the debt as inevitable, something that was baldly stated by no less a capitalist icon than former US Fed chairman Alan Greenspan. But Greek default would trigger chain reaction bankruptcies among the banks, so all of a sudden the EU decided that it could give Greece the next bailout with only ”promises” of austerity in return rather than the actual austerity the EU had previously been demanding. Faced with working class determination, the banks took a big step back from the new austerity plan, without formally abandoning it yet.
The Workers Decide
Just as defeat disoriented the rulers, victory made the workers decisive. At the Popular Assembly on Thursday, the Assembly’s Economic Commission put forward their answer to the key question—what, other than the defeat of the new austerity plan, did the protestors want, what was their alternative? The answer, adopted overwhelmingly by the Assembly as a whole, was clear. “We do not owe, we do not sell, and we do not pay! Cancellation of the Debt, this debt is not ours!” Not negotiation but cancellation of the whole debt is the alternative of the protestors. The rest of the program is equally clear and unequivocal—No Privatizations—none! Nationalization of all banks. “A radical redistribution of income, and changes in taxation in the benefit of the workers. Let those that have, pay. The big owners, the bankers, Capital and the Church.” Finally, popular control over the economy and production.
This program is a significant advance over the program widely circulated in Spain by the Democratic Real –Ya! group (which was itself a big step forward). First, it is the democratically-adopted program of the central occupation in Greece, not the product of an anonymous group of protestors, as in Spain. That is of key importance. Second, it is much more determined and consistent—the Spanish program demanded nationalization only of failed banks, not a state monopoly as in the Athens demands, and was silent on the debt and on privatizations. The steps demanded by the Athens Popular Assembly are the first steps that, not only in Greece, but practically everywhere, can stop the downwards spiral of working class economic life.
The program, to be sure, is not yet complete. It needs to include the positive steps the government must take with the money liberated from the banks and other capitalists. The demands raised in Spain for a massive expansion of health, education and public transport, should be added to the program. In addition, such expansion of services is only possible with a giant program of public works as well, with direct government jobs to rebuild housing, schools, hospitals and mass transit. With these additions, the Popular Assembly can make clear to all the unemployed that the program will mean Jobs for All, immigrant and native-born, cutting at the root of anti-immigrant hostility.
The Popular Assembly at Syntagma has been able to go beyond democratic discussion to democratic decisions. Again, the construction of real workers democracy is still under way. While thousands take part in the assembly, there are five million living in Athens and millions more in the rest of Greece. To democratically include all these millions requires a system of delegation, in which delegates from neighborhoods and workplaces attend city-wide assemblies and delegates from these attend a nationwide assembly. As workers’ experience since the Paris Commune has shown, there is a huge difference between a workers’ delegate, elected for a specific meeting, often bearing a mandate on a specific topic, responsible back to an organized assembly on the one hand and on the other hand a representative entrusted with power for years, as in a parliamentary democracy. Already, neighborhood assemblies are beginning in Athens and in time no doubt workplace assemblies and a National Assembly of Popular Assemblies will follow.
Right now, the Popular Assembly of Athens, with its direct democracy, is an echo of the Assembly of Ancient Athens—without the latter’s limits of excluding slaves, immigrants and women! Set up in opposition to the false capitalist democracy of Parliament across the square the Popular Assembly marks a new step on the route to Workers Democracy. As workers learn of the Greek example others will follow them in Portugal, Spain, France, the United States and the world.