Greece and the United Front

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism 228 August/September 2012

The deepening crisis of European imperialism present major political challenges for communists as the working class fights to defend its living standards against ruling class austerity programmes. This is most evident where the struggle is most intense: above all at present in Greece, where the working class has experienced unprecedented levels of unemployment over the last 3-4 years, where state welfare has been slashed, where poverty levels have risen from 15% to 40%, and where food handouts have become the norm as many face starvation.

Resistance has taken numerous forms: strikes, occupations and riots. How should communists respond to these developments? What should be the central points of a political programme to defend the working class? How should communists relate to the existing political organisations that claim to represent the Greek working class and oppressed? ROBERT CLOUGH examines the issues.

These questions were posed by the general elections in May and June this year when communists faced a choice: should they support the Syriza coalition, or the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), or stand independently? At stake was the need to unite the Greek working class against an alliance of the Greek ruling class and European imperialism. With the pro-imperialist New Democracy forming a government following the June election, the need to develop a politically conscious and united resistance remains. In fact, the framework for a working class strategy exists from when communism was a real force within the European working class: the period after the First Imperialist War when the Communist International debated how communists should lead the defence of the working class as it faced ruling classes determined to crush opposition to their rule.

The Communist International

The Communist International (Comintern) had been set up in 1919 following the 1917 Russian revolution and during the revolutionary upheavals that swept Europe in 1918-20. Its first step had been to consolidate the split in the working class that had been created by the opportunist social democratic parties such as the German Social Democratic Party and the British Labour Party when they supported their respective imperialist ruling classes in a war for the re-division of the world, a war that cost millions of working class lives. Communists needed to establish independent parties: they could not remain as an unorganised force within social democratic parties whose first allegiance was to their ruling class. This was a process by and large complete by the Third Comintern Congress in 1921.

By this time, however, the post-war revolutionary upsurge across Europe had been defeated. The bourgeoisie in Hungary, Germany, Italy and France had been able to ride out the storm, assisted by the forces of social democracy. The ruling class internationally was now on the offensive, determined to make the working class pay once more. Communists faced a new problem: how could they organise resistance to the imperialist offensive when the mass of the working class still followed the opportunists? How could they hope to win influence over much broader sections of the working class? How could they turn what had to start as defensive struggles of the working class into offensive struggles which could challenge imperialist rule? In an effort to answer these questions the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI) put forward a set of theses on what it called ‘the united front’ in December 1921.

The United Front

The ECCI explained that:

‘In practically every country international capital has gone over to a systematic offensive against the workers, as shown primarily in the fairly open efforts of the capitalists to reduce wages and to lower the workers’ entire standard of life.’

The social democratic opportunists in the past had been able to use:

‘the principle of unity and proletarian discipline to stifle the revolutionary proletarian protest and to eliminate any resistance to their placing the entire power of the workers’ organisations at the service of national imperialism’

and that:

‘In these circumstances the revolutionary wing was forced to win at any cost freedom of agitation and propaganda, ie freedom to explain to the working masses the unexampled historical treachery committed and still being committed by the parties created by the working masses themselves.’

The theses continued:

‘Having secured organisational freedom to influence the working masses by their propaganda, the communist parties of all countries are now trying to achieve the broadest and most complete unity possible on practical action.’


This required:

‘the communist parties and the Comintern as a whole to support the slogan of the united front of the workers and to take the initiative in this matter. The tactics of each communist party must of course be worked out concretely in relation to the conditions in each country.’

The pressing need was to organise a defensive struggle of the working class which could develop into an offensive struggle, a struggle for power. In the view of the Comintern, the first step was to work towards the broadest possible unity of the working class. This required agreement both at local and national levels with the opportunist social democratic organisations, in circumstances where there would be the strongest resistance for such co-operation from the social democratic leadership. Hence unity had to be found in fighting for the most basic interests of the working class – against wage cuts, against benefit reductions, against job losses. The first aim would be to initiate working class action. The second would be to fight those leaders who sought to limit or stifle such action. The theses were forthright about this, insisting on the absolute independence of the communist party, and instructing that:

‘While accepting a basis for action, communists must retain the unconditional right and the possibility of expressing their opinion of the policy of all working-class organisations without exception, not only before and after action has been taken but also, if necessary, during its course. In no circumstances can these rights be surrendered.’

Although the theses had the authority of the ECCI behind them, and although they were agreed six months later by the fourth congress of the International, there was a continuous struggle to get the major parties of the International to understand and implement them; in France and Germany there were ultra-left tendencies within the respective communist parties which rejected the possibility or need for any united action with social democratic organisations. Such a political standpoint would doom the parties at best to organising partial actions with those minority sections of the working class which accepted communist leadership, or to denouncing the treacherous leadership of the opportunists from the sidelines. It would not help resolve the principal problem: how was the working class to unite in defence of its conditions and on what political basis? Communists had to be part of that basic struggle. If it developed into a serious challenge to the bourgeois order, the opportunist leaders would try to stop it – and that would provide the opportunity for communists to isolate and defeat them. But communists had to remain just one step ahead of the working class: more than that and they would not get a hearing.

The slogan for a workers’ government

The Comintern also considered the attitude that communists should take if the coalition of working class forces faced the possibility of forming a government. Should communists within this coalition or United Front abandon the front and form an opposition lest they be compromised by the actions of such a government? Or were there conditions under which they had to participate, and if they did, what would they be? The Comintern was clear that communists could not participate in or support ‘a bourgeois Social-Democratic coalition, whether open or disguised’, but also argued that there could be circumstances in which the United Front of the workers could form a workers’ government. Such a government would be ‘born from the struggles of the masses themselves’ and ‘supported by militant workers’ organisations created by the most oppressed layers of the working masses’. Its tasks:

‘must consist of arming the proletariat, disarming the bourgeois counter-revolutionary organisations, introducing [workers’] control of production, shifting the main burden of taxation to the shoulders of the rich, and breaking the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie’ (see also Clara Zetkin: The workers’ government pnqfj).

Communists and Syriza

The Comintern’s positions provide the guide for communists in Greece. In 2012, the 6 May general election showed that a large section of the working class supported the Syriza coalition which had campaigned on a clear anti-austerity programme. It gained 17% of the vote compared to the KKE’s 8.5%. With no party able to form a government, fresh elections were scheduled for 17 June. Communists had to relate to this development. It was not just a matter of the elections, however, but how the working class could extend its resistance to austerity. There was an obligation on all organisations claiming to represent the working class to come together on a minimum platform of complete opposition to austerity and racism, forcing the rich to pay for the crisis (see resistance). Whilst Syriza made such an appeal, the KKE rejected it, as did the alliance of the mainly Trotskyist left, Antarsya.

The stance of both the KKE and Antarsya was, and remains, reactionary sectarianism. Both organisations used left phrases to avoid the confrontation with the ruling class and imperialism that would be the inevitable outcome of a Syriza victory in the June election. Their argument, that Syriza is led by reformists, was beside the point: Syriza was committed to a fight against austerity and racism, the basic points of working class unity. Only through a real struggle on this basis could the words of the Syriza leadership be tested, and only through such a struggle could an alternative leadership be developed which could take the working class forward.

Both the KKE and Antarsya condemn Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras for committing to the eurozone. However, their alternative – to make a successful fight against austerity dependent on withdrawal from either the EU or the eurozone or both – is to pose the question in bourgeois terms. Greece is an imperialist power with a parasitic economy dominated by the banks, shipowners and construction magnates. It is a member of the imperialist NATO alliance and spends 15% of its budget on the military supporting NATO goals. Greek nationalism has a reactionary character, and communists cannot make any concessions to it.

The fascist Golden Dawn has already staked the ground on this: its demagogic opposition to austerity is openly linked to EU withdrawal and kicking out immigrant workers. The KKE has no record of organising the large number of immigrant workers in Greece (estimated at one million out of an 11 million population), and their existence barely features in its programme. The alternative that communists should pose is not in or out of the EU or the eurozone, but that of international solidarity and socialism.

The June general election gave expression to Greek working class determination to fight austerity: Syriza took 27% of the vote. Both the KKE and Antarsya suffered for their sectarianism: the KKE lost nearly half its support, its share reduced to 4%, while Antarsya lost two-thirds of its support, obtaining a pitiful 0.3%. The main thrust of the KKE campaign was anti-Syriza: under no circumstances would it join a Syriza-led coalition. This from an organisation which had willingly joined a New Democracy-led coalition in 1989-90! The fact however remains that the KKE share of the vote could have secured victory for Syriza.

The June general election has resolved nothing. The New Democracy coalition is committed to the austerity programme demanded by European imperialism. The Greek working class remains determined to resist. The need for political unity to oppose austerity and to force the ruling class to pay for its crisis also remains. The stand that communists should take is also clear: to fight for a united front against austerity and racism. The mass of the most class conscious workers supported Syriza in June. To reject a united front with Syriza is therefore sectarian; it undermines Greek working class resistance. Communists do not give up their right to criticise the Syriza leadership when it compromises or undermines the struggles of the working class. But they will only get a hearing if they are part of that struggle, and not standing on the sidelines prophesying inevitable betrayal. That is left-wing childishness.