A single bullet
Ted North explores the background to unrest against a state regarded as endemically corrupt
Recent explosive events in Greece were not a revolution. Nor were they a half-revolution. But they were in their own way a quarter-revolution. And all sparked by a single bullet.
On December 6 2008 a police ‘special guard’ shot and killed Alexandros Grigoropoulos in the infamous Exarcheia area of Athens. The 15-year-old was the son of a bank manager, attended a private school and lived in the pleasant suburb of Psychiko.
Within minutes protests had erupted in Athens. Pitched battles with riot police, combined with attacks on banks, police stations and other buildings, quickly spread to other Greek cities over the following days. Solidarity demonstrations across Europe and beyond frequently ended in confrontations with the police.
During the week following Grigoropoulos’s death the Greek police used close to 5,000 canisters of tear gas, almost exhausting their supplies. TV screens across Europe projected images of hooded youths lobbing petrol bombs and the remains of burnt out cars and buildings. Hundreds of people were arrested, dozens injured and damage costing billions of euros inflicted.
Yet the riots are not the totality of what has occurred. Greece has also seen hundreds of demonstrations, school walkouts and occupations, which have received, unsurprisingly, less attention in the bourgeois press. It was only in the closing days of December, for example, that the occupation of university buildings in Athens and Thessaloniki came to an end.
On December 16 protestors stormed a state-owned TV channel and were shown on air for around a minute holding a banner which urged, “Stop watching - get out into the streets”. The following day two huge banners were hung on the iconic Acropolis reading: “Thursday 18/12: demonstrations in all Europe” and proclaiming the message of “resistance” in Greek, English, Italian and German. A number of other TV and radio stations were subsequently occupied.
The most recent major demonstration, on January 9, followed the same basic course as those before it. Sixty people were arrested - including 14 lawyers, who claimed to have nothing to do with the protestors. The familiar pattern of police brutality was repeated, with several people seriously injured.
The trade unions adopted an ambiguous position throughout. Nevertheless, because of the sympathy and feelings of solidarity below, at a rank and file level, for the youth and student movements, a one-day general strike was staged on December 10. Originally it was intended as a protest against the government’s fiscal policies, coinciding with strike action by air traffic controllers, teachers and lecturers. But the union leaderships needed a safety valve and had December 10 at hand. This and similar token gestures did little to build unity between the students’ and workers’ movements, and not much either to pressure the government into granting positive concessions.
Understandably there is frustration with the role of the labour bureaucracy. Hence, on December 17 protestors occupied the offices of the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE), which is traditionally close to the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). The confederation’s president, Giannis Panagopoulos, pleaded that “GSEE does not govern this country”.1 But what the protesters wanted was decisive action. Not another 24-hour holiday.
On December 17, Giorgos Paplomatas, a 16-year-old member of the Communist Youth of Greece (KNE) - one of those involved in organising the protests and the son of a prominent KKE and Greek Teachers Federation member - was shot. Fortunately for Paplomatas the bullet hit him in the hand, rather than inflicting life-threatening injuries.
Bullets have been flying in the other direction too. In the early hours of December 22 several shots from something like an AK47 hit a police riot van, having been fired from the grounds of the University of Athens. No police were hit in the attack, for which a new organisation called Popular Action apparently claimed responsibility. This group seems to be a splinter of Revolutionary Struggle, itself an offshoot of the now defunct Revolutionary Organisation 17 November.
On January 5 masked gunmen fired multiple shots with automatic weapons and threw a grenade at police guarding the culture ministry in Athens. A policeman was hit in the leg and chest. Presumably, the aim is to kill a cop in a symbolic show of revenge. But such acts of terrorism allow the state to increase repression and hardly offer a viable strategy for the working class.
The kidnapping of shipping tycoon Pericles Panagopoulos on January 13, and the reported demand for a €40 million ransom, may be the work of people from the same milieu. A mistaken response to the use of Greek-owned ships to deliver US weaponry to Israel, as well as a cash-making exercise.
Clearly, if we start at the most obvious level, the tragic death of Grigoropoulos was the spark which initiated the outburst of anger. Whether special guard Epaminondas Korkoneas deliberately killed the young man, or, as he claims, fired a warning shot which ricocheted into him, misses the point. Greece was ready.
Rodney King provided a similar spark for the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which were only suppressed by the army and the arrest of 10,000 people. The death of two Paris teenagers, who were apparently trying to evade the police in 2005, likewise acted as a catalyst. In Greece itself the deaths of Michalis Kaltezas and Christos Tsoutsouvis led to extensive rioting in 1985.
Over the last few years ordinary Greeks have faced rising economic hardship, even before the start of the current recession. For those with a job the rising cost of living, combined with low salaries, has led to widespread dissatisfaction. The ‘700 euro generation’ - so called for the salary the young can expect to earn each month and because the last two governments have considered this an ample sum - has come of age. Things are even worse for the increasing numbers of young people who are unemployed and for migrant workers.
The Greek version of Keynesian stimulus has consisted of a government gift of €28 billion to the banking sector. In that sense the Greek state is one of the ‘lucky’ ones. It is one of those that is both sanctioned by a hegemonic US capital to provide ailing financial institutions with fiscal medicine and is actually in a position to do so. Keynesian solutions take a national form; if applied globally they would quickly lead to spiralling inflation. For an example of an ‘unlucky’ country look at Pakistan, which must stick with the IMF’s neoliberal plans.
To produce profound political change, economic factors must be, as they always are, filtered through political and social reality. Police brutality against demonstrations and other protest events leads to a recognition of the state as an ‘armed body of men’. A frequently heard chant on the December demonstrations was: “Cops - pigs, murderers”. Yet to get anywhere this anger must be channelled into conscious opposition to the bourgeois state as a whole and given organisational coherence.
For many young Greeks the state is rightly regarded as endemically corrupt and official society has been shaken by a whole series of scandals. One example was in 2005, when the Greek Orthodox Church was rocked by reports of several significant clerical figures, including a senior bishop, bribing judges (Greek Orthodoxy is described by the constitution as the “prevailing” religion, the church is heavily funded by the state and its creed is taught to children in schools). Other scandals have involved tapped telephones (eg, the 2006 Vodafone episode) and the deliberately started huge forest fires of 2007.
Yet parliamentary opposition to Kostas Karamanlis’s rightwing New Democracy party has been weak and ineffective. All the major players are loyal to the existing state and accept the rules of the game. The main opposition party, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), has been in power for most of the time since 1981. It is a typical social democratic organisation and its leader, George Papandreou, is also president of the Socialist International, whose other members include our own Labour Party.
The next most important opposition party is the KKE. Always fervently pro-Moscow, it won 8.15% of the vote in the 2007 elections. To the left of the KKE lies the usual competing shoal of Trotskyist, Maoist and anarchist sects.
Because there is no effective left alternative, KKE was able to take a lead in organising some of December’s biggest demonstrations in order to keep them safe and attempt to bring anti-state sentiments back under control. Naturally it condemned the anarchist rioters. Three days after Grigoropoulos’s death KKE released a statement claiming that things were increasingly taking the “form of open provocations against the growing wave of protest”. The rioters were “trying to prevent the emergence of an organised and mighty mass movement”.2
In a speech at a demonstration in Athens KKE general secretary Aleka Papariga attacked the “blind rage of the hooded people”. On the same day its central committee issued a statement calling for a “broad popular alliance, the sole hope and guarantee for a genuine popular power”.3 In that spirit Papariga visited the presidential mansion for talks with president Papoulias this week.
Clearly KKE has played a role in some senses analogous to the French Communist Party (PCF) in 1968, albeit at a lower level. KKE, and its historically connected trade union confederation, have attempted to stop the fusing of the students’ and workers’ movements. As a result, the anger of the youth has failed to find an effective outlet.
The role of KKE is recognised by the thinking sections of the Greek bourgeoisie and the state. For instance, the rightwing Avriani newspaper ran an article headlined, “Either citizens or the KKE should take it upon themselves to restore public order and protection of the democratic system.” It described KKE as the “only organised political power which dared to denounce publicly the ‘hoodies’ and to reveal their dirty role”.4
Why have these events occurred? It is not simply the killing of Grigoropoulos and the recurrent scandals. As we have shown, there are deep-rooted socio-economic factors at work.
Whilst ‘the weakest link in the EU chain’ might be something of a cliché, there is a certain truth about such a description at the level not only of economics, but politics and history too. Greece experienced a two-phase civil war from 1942 to 44 and from 1946 to 49, which pitted the pro-monarchist right against the KKE and its allies. The right won with the help of British and US aid and because of Stalin’s betrayal. This left permanent scars and Greek society remained deeply divided.
There was a colonel’s coup in April 1967 which claimed to be saving the country from the threat of communism. The military regime was initially supported by Constantine II and ruled the country with an iron fist until 1974 when it collapsed amid student protests, foreign policy blunders and corruption charges. Other factors which contribute to instability are the regional tensions. Greece and Turkey are bitterly divided over Cyprus and exploitation of the Aegean Sea. Then there is the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia which is seen as having ambitions over Greek Macedonia.
It is reasonable to assume that a spark in Italy or Spain could perhaps ignite a similar flame in the very near future. However, for real progress to be made the workers must establish parties which really represent their historic interest in superseding capitalism and abolishing private property and social classes. Halfway house projects such as Die Linke in Germany, Refoundation in Italy, the Scottish Socialist Party, Solidarity and Respect in Britain and the Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece are doomed to disapoint and fail.
Objective circumstances cry out for genuine communist parties and the formation of a Communist Party of the European Union. Militant class fighters, not least those in the KKE, have every reason to fight for such a perspective. We have already seen indications that the frightened bourgeoisie sees the Stalinist misleaders of the KKE as a potential ally against their common foe, the ‘hooded people’.
But anarchism, riot after riot and ‘propaganda by deed’ do not offer a realistic line of advance. Whilst Marxists will struggle alongside anarchists whenever our interests coincide, we have no illusions where anarchism leads - to futile gestures and eventually defeat. Nonetheless we ought to engage them in serious debate. They too hate capitalism and yearn for human liberation.
1. Kathimerini December 18 2008.
4. Avriani December 12 2008.