The Greek Revolution and Civil War: 70 Years Since the Battle of Athens

On December 3, 1944, British snipers, the Athens police, and fascist paramilitaries opened fire on a demonstration of communist sympathizers in Athens’ Syntagma Square, leaving 28 dead. They were protesting against the provocations of the Greek bourgeois parties and the British imperialists, who were trying to derail and crush the mass revolutionary movement that had defeated the Nazis. Thus began the Battle of Athens.

This was one of the most dramatic episodes of the Greek Revolution and Civil War. Today, seventy years later, Greece finds itself in the midst of another major crisis with the workers and the bosses lining up on opposite sides once again. It is time to reflect on the events of the 1940s and draw the lessons for today.

Greece and the Second World War

In April 1940, fascist Italy launched an offensive against Greece from Albania after delivering a sham ultimatum to Athens. At this point, Greece was under the iron fist of General Ioannis Metaxas, a military dictator who had seized power in 1936. Metaxas was a Bonapartist figure who had come to power in the context of decomposition of the bourgeois state.

The interwar period had seen a series of coups and counter-coups by different sectors of the bourgeoisie. The ruling class was divided into the ever-squabbling Liberal and Conservative camps, the former based on the entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, an important sector of which came from Asia Minor (Turkey), and the latter on urban small property owners and small farmers. The national ruling class was weak and closely connected to the state and to imperialism, and had been unable to develop Greece’s productive forces.

The incapacity of any sector of the Greek bourgeoisie to consolidate significant support was compounded by the global economic crisis and the growth of the labor movement under the leadership of the Greek Communist Party (KKE). In the interwar period, the working class had grown numerically and matured politically: between 1917 and 1928 trade union membership had more than trebled. The very militant tobacco workers’ strike in Thessaloniki in 1936 and the modest, although impressive, electoral growth of the KKE convinced the ruling class of the need to move towards military rule.

The KKE’s base of support had remained limited relative to the overall size of the population, reflecting the fairly low level of urbanization and industrialization of the country (the urban working class only represented 14% of the population in 1928). Nevertheless, there was a fear that the small but militant Greek proletariat could win over the broad masses of impoverished peasants that made up the overwhelming majority of the population, as the Russian workers had done during the October Revolution.

If one thing characterized the Metaxas regime, it was its vitriolic anticommunism. Thousands of suspected communists were imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes shot. The gendarmerie swelled by 20%, while the special, anticommunist secret police grew five-fold. This dictatorship was narrowly based on powerful Greek industrialists and bankers—which, after years of instability, had had enough with “politicians” and “parliaments” and was terrified of the labor movement—and, more broadly, on the traditional base of support of the Conservative party among backward farmers and small property owners. However, it remained an unpopular regime that even faced the animosity of certain layers of the bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia, and the petty bourgeoisie, and increasingly had to resort to repression to maintain its hold on power.

That such a fascist regime would stand up to Mussolini might seem surprising. However, the close connection between the Greek ruling class and British imperialism, which went back over a hundred years, and the fact that Mussolini had sidelined the Germans in his adventure as an act of bravado, drove the Metaxas regime to resist, receiving significant British support.

The Greek ruling class also had a tradition of expansionism and militarism, and looked with envy at Italian-controlled Albania. Resistance to Italian fascism for the first time won Metaxas a substantial measure of popular support, and the Greeks were able to stop the Italian offensive and drive it back into Albania. However, the death of the Bonapartist leader in January 1941, and the powerful intervention of Hitler, who wanted his Balkan flank shielded in preparation for Operation Barbarossa, eventually led to the defeat of Greece, which was under full Axis occupation by May 1941.

The resistance movement

Most of Greece was handed over to the Italians and the Bulgarians, although the Germans called the shots, occupying Athens, several islands, and other strategic areas. From the beginning the Axis treated Greece as a provider of cheap goods and raw materials. Greece was forced to pay for the costs of the occupation, and large amounts of food and supplies were taken over by the Axis. This rapidly led to widespread famine where as many as 300,000 died. Draconian economic measures were combined with repression against any form of opposition. Indeed, the brutality of the occupation in Greece was almost unmatched in Europe.

In these conditions, a powerful resistance movement rapidly began to take shape. This was spearheaded from the beginning by the KKE, which gathered around it the trade unions and a few minor peasant organizations to form EAM (Greek Liberation Front) and its armed wing, ELAS (Greek People’s Liberation Army). The movement was initially based among the Athens working class, as well as in Thessaloniki and other major towns and among the demobilized troops that had fought the Italians. The Greek Communist Party had been steeled in the underground struggle during the years of the brutal Metaxas dictatorship and was the bravest and most committed movement in the fight against fascism. Gradually, throughout 1941, KKE cadres left the cities escaping repression or to organize resistance cells in other areas, and in the mountains and villages a powerful partisan army emerged. The KKE was able to connect with the poor peasantry, which furnished most of ELAS’ manpower. Whole villages took to the mountains. The fear that had haunted the Greek bourgeoisie, that the labor movement would awaken the poor peasantry, was becoming reality.

What needs to be stressed is that this was not simply a “national liberation war,” but a struggle for laokratia (people’s power). It was under the banner of social revolution and with the promise of handing power to the workers and peasants that the KKE was able to give birth to a mass resistance movement. Although nominally following Stalin’s Popular Front strategy, which dictated class collaboration with the so-called “progressive bourgeoisie” and the abandonment of socialist slogans, the KKE was effectively cut off from Moscow throughout the occupation and therefore free to adopt a more revolutionary line. Moreover, the KKE leadership was often overwhelmed by its growth and had little or no control over local affairs, with rank-and-file cadres and the masses themselves taking the initiative.

In the villages and towns controlled by EAM, society underwent a veritable revolutionary transformation. Justice was delivered by People’s Courts which, unlike the old courts of the bourgeois state, were public, free, and run in demotic, modern vernacular Greek, instead of the katharevousa high-Greek spoken by the elite. Land and wealth were redistributed and suspected collaborators, who were often the local potentates, were severely punished. Democratically elected people’s councils managed local affairs. These were working bodies that organized production and the distribution of food and basic goods; set wage rates; managed public services like poverty relief, entertainment and education; and coordinated with other councils and organized the war effort.

On the basis of the people’s councils, EAM organized national elections in the spring of 1944 to elect a National Council. Under harsh conditions of war and occupation, 1.5 million people voted—more than in the previous bourgeois elections of 1936. Although the elections were open to non-EAM and non-KKE members, the EAM-KKE candidates swept the board. Historian Mark Mazower, not particularly sympathetic towards EAM, describes the makeup of the new revolutionary government:

“The traditional stranglehold of lawyers and doctors had been broken: speakers in the extraordinary and undeniably moving Council sessions included women, farmers in their working breeches, workmen, artisans, priests and journalists.” This showed the enthusiasm sparked by the revolutionary democracy that was being born out of the resistance movement. Like the soviets of the Russian Revolution, the Greek people’s councils were the seeds of a new workers’ and peasants’ state—as a Greek peasant told an American agent inquiring about what post-war Greece would look like, “it will be a type of government where the common people run the country.”

Liberation from the occupiers also meant liberation from patriarchal and national oppression. As in all revolutionary movements, the role of women improved dramatically: thousands fought as partisans and for the first time were given real power to decide over their own lives and over their communities. It was EAM that first gave the vote to Greek women. Likewise, the youth, traditionally under the yoke of the family and the elders, were given a real taste of freedom.

As an informer for the Cairo bourgeois politicians worryingly noted: “The youth of our country of both sexes, almost in its entirety and especially in the towns, has aligned itself with the Leftists, and the enemy occupation has accustomed them to express their ideas fearlessly, and to uphold them by any means.”

EAM set up schools and fought illiteracy, rural backwardness, and religious superstition. EAM’s solidarity organization, EA (National Solidarity), offered extensive famine relief. In areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, like the Slavic speakers of Macedonia and Thrace or the Albanians of Epirus, the resistance movement broke with years of chauvinism and national oppression and liberated the oppressed minorities, who fought bravely alongside their Greek class brothers and sisters. Greece’s Sephardic Jews, who had lived in the region for centuries and were being savagely rounded up by the Nazis and deported to the death camps, found support and protection from EAM, with some joining its ranks in the mountains.

It was with a revolutionary platform that a poorly equipped and trained partisan force was able to defeat a powerful modern army. Such revolutionary methods are at the heart of a successful war against fascism. By the summer of 1943, ELAS (the armed wing of EAM), some 30,000 strong, controlled much of rural Greece and had a solid grounding in the working-class districts of Athens and Thessaloniki. ELAS was a revolutionary army, staffed mostly by young peasant or working-class men and women—in the Macedonian region, for example, only 5% of ELAS’s fighters were white-collar workers or professionals. The Axis forces were weakened by the constant attacks of ELAS. EAM received some modest British support in the form of parachuted supplies and a few military advisors—often upper-class, Oxbridge-educated Classicists who served not only as advisors but also as spies. Indeed, the British did not trust EAM for a minute, although provisionally they had to rely on it. In any case, British support was very modest, and EAM waged the struggle single-handedly.

Faced with such a mass movement, the Germans carried out one of the most brutal anti-partisan campaigns in Europe, following a scorched earth strategy. For every German soldier killed, scores of Greek workers and peasants were massacred and entire villages were burned to the ground. However, the Axis gradually began to lose control of the country. The resistance eventually dented the morale of the German and Italian soldiers, themselves often workers or peasants drafted to fight a cruel imperialist war. Italian soldiers defected in large numbers, with many joining EAM. In a telling incident, the Italian soldiers who made up the firing squad tasked with executing Pantelis Pouliopoulos, heroic leader of the Fourth International in Greece, refused to shoot, and a special detachment had to be called in to kill him. Eventually, the better-fed and equipped German soldiers also began to defect to the partisans in substantial numbers. By October 1944, EAM had liberated the whole of Greece, without any significant foreign backing.

In the meantime, most of the Greek bourgeoisie had fled Greece. They settled in Cairo with King George II under the wing of the British, where they would spend most of the war fighting among each other. Others who remained in the country laid low throughout the occupation, passively acquiescing to the authorities. The repeated attempts made by the KKE leadership to link up with the “progressive bourgeoisie,” as dictated by the Popular Front line, were cantankerously turned down. A very significant section of the upper classes, however, actively sided with the Germans, particularly as the resistance movement picked up.

Mark Mazower describes the mentality of the bourgeoisie: “there emerged a patchwork alliance of Greek anticommunists who were in general motivated less by sympathy for National Socialism than by fear of Bolshevik revolution.” This counterrevolution cut across the republican/monarchist schism that had traditionally divided the ruling class. Faced with the threat of revolution, the bourgeoisie was all too happy to leave aside its differences.

The occupation had a very feeble base of local support, leaning mostly on bourgeois potentates and petty bourgeois elements, but also on the lumpenproletariat, whose “conditions of life prepare it . . . for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue,” as Marx and Engels pointed out. These classes manned the paramilitary Security Battalions, under the supervision of the Germans, which waged a brutal war against the Greek working class and poor peasantry. In reality, already under German occupation, class antagonisms in Greek society had reached the boiling point: the civil war began de facto before its official outbreak after liberation.

There was a small, bourgeois “resistance” movement, EDES, led by Napoleon Zervas. He was a former army officer with republican, Anglophile sympathies. Nevertheless, what characterized Zervas was his lack of principles, other than anticommunism. For understandable reasons, he was favored by the British, who found in him a pliable tool. They were easily able to make him abjure his republicanism and swear loyalty to the king. However, the negligible size of EDES in comparison with EAM made it impossible for London to bank exclusively on Zervas. In the last stages of the war, when the Germans were beating a retreat, EDES, probably with British connivance, had no qualms about striking a Faustian bargain with the Axis against ELAS. In the last months of the occupation, EAM fought a fierce war not only against the Axis and the quislings but also against the “antifascist” EDES. In fact, EDES spent little time fighting the Germans, preferring to pillage villagers; terrorize ethnic minorities like the Cham Albanians, who were expelled from the Epirus region by EDES; or, most importantly, in fighting the communists.

The Greek bourgeois state was ready to resist Mussolini with British support and with the Germans out of the equation. However, with the Nazis marching on the streets of Athens and a powerful popular resistance movement developing, the bourgeoisie either laid low, fled, or, more frequently, collaborated with the occupiers. The Greek ruling class was much more afraid of the workers and peasants who were organizing in the resistance movement than of the Axis. As EAM activist Dimitris Glinos put it: “What is it which makes them rest content with kafeneion gossiping with their busy acolytes who can’t wait to lick the bone of power as soon as it is offered? Because, above all, they fear the people; they fear their awakening, their active participation in the struggle for redemption.”

In October 1944, the last German soldiers left Greece, and on the 12th ELAS, the Greek People’s Liberation Army, moved into Athens. The atmosphere among the masses was electric, especially in the working class neighborhoods. Not only had they expelled the hated Nazi occupation, but they could feel that power was there for the taking.

Liberation and the Battle of Athens

Greek novelist Giorgos Theotokas commented: “today we feel an enormous, uncontrollable wave of popular joy lifting us and carrying us off. What this mass wants exactly, no one knows. . . . The Russian Revolution is in the air, but also the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, a national liberation war and who knows what other confused elements. . . . It only needs a match for Athens to catch fire like a tank of petrol.”

The deep class contradictions developing in Greece were momentarily shrouded under a veil of enthusiasm and a feeling of unity. After years of indescribable sacrifices, the foreign fascist occupiers had been defeated and the country had been liberated. The British were heralded as allies in the struggle against fascism, a portrayal that was promoted by the KKE, conveying Moscow’s position.

However, clouds were quickly gathering over the initial excitement. The British, who had played a minor role in the liberation, were rapidly moving in troops, especially into Athens—despite the fact that the war was still raging on in much of Europe. A host of Cairo bourgeois politicos, under the British umbrella, were returning, eager to reclaim their positions at the helm of Greece and to elbow out EAM, the National Liberation Front promoted by the KKE.

A “National Unity” government under Giorgos Papandreou, a Cairo politician who had played a negligible role in the resistance and who had ignored EAM’s calls to participate in the National Council in the spring, was formed with the consent of the KKE.

More worryingly, the British and their Greek minions were beginning to release from prison members of the Nazi-collaborationist Security Battalions, who could be seen roaming freely around Athens, while at the same time they pushed for the disarmament of ELAS (Greek People’s Liberation Army, EAM’s armed wing).

The royalist 3rd Mountain Brigade—which had been created by the Greek government in exile and made up of politically reliable right-wing and pro-royalist personnel—was brought back from Italy, where it had been fighting under Canadian command. A new “apolitical” National Guard that had been created by the Papandreou government and the British was commanded by right-wingers and ardent anticommunists, drawing in many quislings as officers and soldiers. Leftists were frequently barred from joining the new army.

As a consequence, the mood of the masses rapidly shifted. Enthusiasm gave way to suspicion. Confused and under pressure from the rank and file, the KKE withdrew from the Papandreou government on December 2. While the Politburo continued to press for a policy of conciliation, the rest of the organization was rapidly moving to the left.

In the morning of the 3rd, a demonstration was held in Syntagma Square, where the unarmed protesters were shot at by snipers from police positions on the parliament building and from the British headquarters at the Grande Bretagne Hotel. Fascist provocateurs also appeared on the scene. At least 28 men and women were killed. In the evening, a militant rally of 60,000 was defiantly held on the square. The masses responded to these savage killings with a general uprising against the British imperialists and the bourgeois. The rebellion soon spread to other regions.

Thus began the Battle of Athens, also known as Dekemvriana (the December events), where as many as 25,000 people were killed. 12,000 leftists were deported to the Middle East or to concentration camps on desert islands. The British fought the uprising of the people of Athens using monstrous tactics, which included the RAF strafing and bombing working-class neighborhoods and machine gun nests shooting down from the Acropolis, something that not even the Germans had dared to do.

The reliance on Nazi collaborators was total: in December 12,000 quislings were released from the prisons to join the fight against the capital’s working class. Nonetheless, the defeat in Athens was not strictly military. Indeed, the British had been cornered in Athens and had lost ground across Greece. At the same time, there was growing indignation in Britain against the government’s policies. The communist fighters largely disbanded the rightist National Guard.

Responsibility for the defeat lies in the policy imposed on the KKE by Stalin, who had agreed that Greece was to remain within the “sphere of influence” of British imperialism. This implied applying the concept of the “popular front” with the “democratic” or “progressive” bourgeoisie, which meant restabilizing capitalism in Greece. But faced with the instinctive move of the working masses to go beyond this, the leadership of the KKE was in a state of bewilderment.

Always trailing behind events, and afraid of what the Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR would do and of losing foreign aid, it had been trying to find a “consensus” and to rein in the masses. On January 11, 1945, a ceasefire was agreed which involved the withdrawal of the communist forces from key areas. The ceasefire set the foundations for the shameful Treaty of Varkiza of February 1945. The pact enshrined the previous tendencies: power to the bourgeois parties, disarmament and demobilization of the communist forces.

The following months saw a savage wave of White Terror sweep across Greece, as disorganized and unarmed communists and former resistance fighters were intimidated, imprisoned, deported, or murdered while the KKE leadership officially kept talking about “national unity” and “democracy” and passively complaining about the excesses of the bourgeois and the British imperialists.

Demoralization thus set in: a quarter of the total KKE membership deserted after Varkiza. It was not until the spring of 1946 that the party changed line and renewed the armed struggle—starting thus the last open round of the Civil War. By then, however, the communists had been decimated by the repression and the masses demoralized by the defeats and the wavering of the leadership. The way was paved for the debacle of August 1949, when the last communist detachments withdrew into Albania and Yugoslavia.

The role of the British imperialists and the “progressive bourgeoisie”

In a recent article in The Guardian, Manolis Glezos, a veteran from the resistance and now a SYRIZA MEP, lamented the excesses of the British, claiming that “there was no plot to take over Athens as Churchill always maintained. If we had wanted to do that, we could have done so before the British arrived.” Such is the view of most left intellectuals in Greece and abroad. Historian Mark Mazower blames the aggressiveness of the British on their “lack of understanding” of Greek politics. All of this is aimed at hiding the real reasons why the British were so ruthless and brutal. Was Churchill’s violent offensive against the communists a mistake, an excess, or a result of ignorance?

Greek resistance veteran and SYRIZA MEP Manolis Glezos

The truth is that in attacking the working class of Athens, Churchill was being consistent to his class interests. He understood the insurmountable class cleavage that was emerging, and the subsequent unsustainability of bourgeois democracy. The expectations of the masses were too high after the revolutionary experience of the resistance, where they had had a taste of real power. The KKE leadership, riding the tiger of a mass revolutionary movement, was considered too unreliable to serve as trusted collaborators in establishing the foundations for bourgeois democracy, particularly when in neighboring Albania and Yugoslavia similar movements were taking power. The base of support of the bourgeois parties was too narrow. Normal bourgeois democracy had become impossible.

Trotsky aptly described the breakdown of democracy in revolutionary situations: “democracy may be defined as a system of safety switches and fuses to guard against too strong currents of national or social hostility. . . . Under the too high tension of class and international oppositions the safety switches of democracy fuse or burst. This is the essence of the short-circuit of dictatorship.”

In the autumn of 1944, a dual power situation had developed in Greece. On the one side stood the people’s councils and the mass partisan armies, which controlled most of the country; on the other, the bourgeois government supported by the British and leaning on an army of former collaborationists. Churchill perceived that this was an unsustainable stalemate that could only be resolved violently. To quote Trotsky again:

Society needs a concentration of power, and in the person of the ruling class—or, in the situation we are discussing, the two half-ruling classes —irresistibly strives to get it. The splitting of sovereignty foretells nothing less than civil war. But before the competing classes and parties will go to that extreme—especially in case they dread the interference of a third force—they may feel compelled for quite long time to endure, and even to sanction, a two-power system. This system will nevertheless inevitably explode. (Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution,Volume One: The Overthrow of Tzarism, Chapter 11, Dual Power)

As soon as the opportunity presented itself, Churchill logically sought an early violent showdown and a civil war to impose a monarchical dictatorship in alliance with the quislings, the only secure form of bourgeois regime possible in such a revolutionary situation. The same can be said of the Greek “bourgeois democrats,” whose acceptance of a dictatorship against the working class and the poor peasantry flowed from their previous tacit (or not so tacit) endorsement of the Germans’ war against EAM.

Churchill’s line in the Battle of Athens was risky, but it was the only way to stave off communism. The opportunity of holding onto the country was worth the gamble: Greece was a traditional stomping ground for British imperialism, of strategic interest as a window to the East Mediterranean, whose importance was now even greater in the context of the heightened confrontation with Moscow and with the creation of “People’s Republics” in the Balkans.

The readiness of Churchill to actively side with Nazi collaborators to impose a dictatorship in Greece says a lot about the “democratic” and “anti-fascist” credentials of Britain’s wartime leader. For Churchill, and for the British ruling class, the war against the Nazis was ultimately an imperialist struggle to defend the British Empire against German militarism. Although they used an antifascist and democratic rhetoric to win support from the British working class (which did have an interest in fighting fascism), the war was fought in the interests of British capitalism and imperialism for which, it goes without saying, proletarian revolution was a greater threat than fascism. Churchill’s real nature as an imperialist tyrant was never better revealed than in Greece in the 1940s.

It is worth noting also the hypocrisy of the liberal historians and intellectuals that raise a hue and cry about Moscow’s forceful imposition of Stalinist regimes across Eastern Europe. Churchill himself, father of the Greek postwar right-wing dictatorship, coined the term “Iron Curtain.” If any European country saw violence, repression, and foreign interference aimed at the imposition of a particular regime, that was Greece, where the foreign intrusion came not from Stalin but from Churchill and Truman in defense of Greek capitalism. Stalin’s tactics were indeed perfidious, but no Eastern European country saw anything remotely close to the violence inflicted on the Greek people by British and American imperialism in association with the local bourgeoisie and the quislings, and which included the massacring of entire villages, the bombing of urban areas, the extensive use of napalm, the deportation of thousands of men and women to concentration camps on desert islands, torture and intimidation, the public decapitation of political prisoners. . . . In the last round of the Civil War alone, more than 150,000 people were killed, with a comparable number going into exile, all to keep Greece on the “right” side of the Iron Curtain.

The role of the KKE leadership and Stalin

The mistakes in analysis, perspective, tactics, and methods of the KKE leadership—due to its following every dot and comma of the policy demanded by Stalin, an open betrayal of the Greek revolution—in this period were immense. In October 1944 the Greek masses, organized in EAM, had power in their hands. Most of the country was under the control of their militias and people’s councils. In spite of this position of strength, it was the conscious decision of the KKE leadership not to take power, and to join a bourgeois government under the auspices of the British. They thus granted the British and their Greek henchmen breathing space to strengthen their positions in October and November 1944. When the Germans pulled out of Thessaloniki, the KKE prohibited ELAS from entering the city, leaving it open to the British (although several partisan detachments disobeyed party orders and marched in). In Athens, the KKE maintained a relatively small armed presence, while it had over 50,000 fighters stationed outside of the capital. The KKE’s wavering at that moment paved the way for fascist dictatorship.

Through their understanding of the need for vigorous and bold action during revolutionary situations, genuine revolutionary Marxists are often accused of being violent and ruthless. However, historically in revolutions it is precisely the moderate reformists and the compromisers that are the most responsible for bloodshed. A revolution is a period when class contradictions in society mature and reach a breaking point, which can only be resolved decisively in favor of one or the other class. The ruling class in such circumstances is prepared to use any means possible to hold on to power, including the violent suppression of the revolution, as the rise of Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco before the war had demonstrated.

In these circumstances, class conciliation is an act of wishful thinking that has no basis in the real balance of forces on the ground. By vacillating, the reformist leaders of the labor movement allow the regrouping and strengthening of the reactionary forces, giving them a lease on life and emboldening them, and thus preparing violent counterrevolution.

Through their wavering, they also confuse and dishearten the less resolute revolutionary layers. This stance characterized the KKE leadership in 1944. It also calls to mind the attitude of the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries during the Russian Revolution, who groomed Kornilov and the Whites; the Italian socialists’ derailing of the 1919–20 revolution, that gave decisive impetus to Mussolini’s fascists; the Chinese communists’ Moscow-sponsored “democratic alliance” with the Kuomintang in 1925–27, which was then drowned in blood by Chiang Kai-shek when he felt strong enough; or the position of the Popular Front during the Spanish Revolution, that in the spring of 1936 gave the counterrevolutionary generals ample space to plot and, after the fascist rising of July, systematically demoralized and divided the masses and gave a breathing space for saboteurs and defeatists.

The truth is that however “violent” it may seem in its boldness, the revolutionary line that, through a correct understanding of the balance of forces, is able to strike decisively at reaction when the tide of mass mobilization is rising, can actually prevent much of the killing of civil war and achieve a relatively peaceful transformation of society. The Bolshevik Party under Lenin was the prime historical exponent of this approach.

The disgraceful line of the KKE leadership did not end in the autumn of 1944. In February 1945 they signed the criminal Treaty of Varkiza, kneeling down and surrendering before those who hitherto had been murdering them. While the White Terror continued untrammelled, and the fascist paramilitaries reorganized, the KKE handed over several caches of weapons to the bourgeois government. The partial disarming of the militias was a criminal act that gave a free hand to reaction, leaving the masses vulnerable to its attacks. Over a year was spent being passively butchered, until the decision to take to the mountains was taken again in March 1946. Key cadres and fighters were lost to repression in the meantime.

The disarming of the partisans after the Treaty of Varkiza:

What was the reason for this folly on the part of the KKE leadership? During the Civil War, the party was headed by Nikos Zachariadis, a skillful organzer but who was also completely under the sway of Stalin, and followed his line at every turn. He had been interned in Dachau by the Nazis during the occupation, but made his way back to Greece in May 1945, taking over the leadership from Giorgos Siantos, also a Stalinist, but perhaps of a more sincere cast.

The KKE leadership had received its political education from the Stalinized Third International, where fanatical loyalty to Moscow was instilled. It had imbibed the disastrous two-stage theory of class collaboration. Generally, the KKE leadership had made little effort to adequately educate its cadres in the ideas of genuine Marxism. As late as 1927 there was no Greek translation of Capital or of any of Lenin’s works (unsurprisingly, many classics were only translated by the Greek Trotskyists). The internal party regime of blind deference to the leadership stifled discussion and criticism.

In passing, it is worth noting that the hermetic nature of the modern KKE is not unrelated to their momentous historical blunders in the 1940s, which can only be glossed over by promoting an uncritical approach and imposing severe internal discipline. Interestingly, however, under the hammer blows of the current revolutionary developments in Greece, the KKE leadership has been reassessing some of its views on the past and allowing some self-criticism. For instance, it recently publicly rejected the Stalinist two-stage theory, i.e., they have officially abandoned the idea that first the party must work for the “democratic revolution” and only later, in a second stage, for the socialist revolution. This is an important development for the KKE today.

However, whatever the blame the KKE leadership may have had, it was Stalin and his clique in Moscow that were the puppet masters and who were really responsible for the debacle. To begin with, the dogmatism and inadequate theoretical level of the Greek communists was related to Moscow’s constant U-turns, dictated by the changing needs of the Soviet bureaucracy. This unprincipled zig-zagging generated confusion and led to a selection within the ranks, with the most critical elements being weeded out, and instilling unquestioning subservience. The volte-faces were followed by “reeducation” and purges. In 1931, 33 leading KKE cadres that had been summoned to Russia were executed in Moscow. This was the tragedy of the communist movement in the 1930s: it was made up of extraordinarily brave and committed men and women, but it was at the service of a bureaucracy in the Soviet Union that had usurped political power from the Soviet working class.

However, the crimes of Stalin in Greece go well beyond his well-known manipulation of the communist movement. In the spring and summer of 1944, growing voices within the KKE had been pressing for a tough line towards the British and the Cairo politicians and had championed the seizure of power. Nevertheless, in the summer a Soviet military mission was able to liaise with the party through Bulgaria, forcing the leadership to moderate its stance vis-à-vis the British and to sign the Caserta agreement with the bourgeois politicians. In the pact, the communists agreed to endorse Papandreou and to subordinate ELAS to British General Scobie. This about-turn was hard to stomach, and Soviet General Popov had to personally defend it before the ELAS leadership. From then on Moscow would continue advocating conciliation at every turn. In the summer of 1945 a Soviet mission travelled around Greece defending compromise. This line only changed in 1946, when the situation of the KKE had become absolutely intolerable. Only at that point did Moscow allow (and then only tacitly) a return to the armed struggle. But by then defeat had been assured.

Why did Moscow follow this course? The conservative bureaucracy that ruled the Soviet Union was not interested in international proletarian revolution, but in maintaining its own privileges. In October 1944 Stalin signed the secret “percentages agreement” with Churchill, where Europe was divided into spheres of influence—with Greece falling on the British side. Stalin was prepared to see the Greek Revolution drowned in blood if this was what was necessary to respect his pact with the imperialists in exchange for which he was left undisturbed in Eastern Europe, where he was establishing regimes modelled on the Stalinized USSR. The Popular Front theory of class collaboration was thus thrust onto a KKE that was being butchered by the so-called “progressive bourgeoisie.” A similar thing had happened in the 1930s, when the Spanish Revolution was held back in order for Stalin to seduce French and British imperialism (and that to no avail). The overt and cynical betrayal of the Greek proletariat should be remembered as one of the most heinous of the countless crimes of Stalin and the Soviet bureaucrats.

There is another concrete reason behind the betrayals of the Stalinists. The Soviet Union had played an important role in the liberation of most of Eastern Europe, which was now occupied by the Red Army. That gave Moscow a powerful instrument to impose subservient bureaucrats at the helm of the new governments. Greece, Albania, and Yugoslavia, however, were liberated not by Soviet tanks but by mass revolutionary partisan armies that were beyond Moscow’s control, as evidenced by Tito’s break with Stalin. It is possible to assume that fear of these unruly and unpredictable mass movements played a part in the Soviet bureaucracy’s opposition to revolution in Greece.

Aris Velouchiotis

Many in the party were well aware of the folly of the line advocated by Moscow and by the leadership. Although many complied with party discipline, trying to adapt to the new situation, others realized that either a break with the official line was carried through, or the Greek proletariat would be facing a catastrophe. Left-wing tendencies began to emerge. As mentioned above, already before the Battle of Athens the party’s rank and file was in a state of effervescence. On November 22, 1944, a gathering of provincial party activists had decided that a military showdown was inevitable. Such was also the position of the Athens section of the party, led by Vasilis Bartziotas.

After the December debacle, the main exponent of opposition to the party line was Aris Velouchiotis. He was a young militant from the town of Lamia who had joined the Communist Youth in the mid-1920s and during the war had led a partisan unit, becoming one of the most charismatic leaders of the resistance. From an early stage, he had championed the seizure of power and had been hostile to the Caserta agreement. On November 17, 1944, breaking party orders, Velouchiotis had called a meeting of partisan commanders and had told them to prepare for a violent confrontation. After the signing of the Treaty of Varkiza, he decided to take to the mountains with a group of followers and resume the armed struggle. He had warned: “The English are even worse than the Germans; if they succeed, they will impose a fascist regime with another name.” He called on the Central Committee to muster their armed forces and to openly confront the British, disbanding EDES if it were to side with the government.

The KKE leadership decided to expel him from the party, branding him as a “suspicious adventurist and a renegade.” This formed part of a general drive against internal opposition that saw the purging of 20–25,000 party members. In the spring of 1945 Velouchiotis travelled around rural Greece gathering a new partisan army, until he committed suicide after being surrounded by fascist battalions in an ambush in June 1945. He and his second in command, Leon Tzavelas, were decapitated and their heads hung up by the authorities in the central square of the town of Trikala.

Velouchiotis’ struggle was a heroic but unsuccessful attempt to redress the mistakes of the Stalinists. With the KKE divided, the leadership desperately trying to quiet any opposition, in the midst of brutal repression, with famine again on the horizon, and in the wake of the surrender in Athens, which had sowed bitterness and pessimism, the task of reviving a mass movement was colossal. His efforts to reignite the movement through sparse bands of guerrillas in the mountains were inadequate. What was needed was vigorous and organized agitation among the KKE rank and file throughout the country, and focusing on the towns. For this, a reliable and experienced cadre base was needed, which Velouchiotis lacked.

The Greek Civil War and the theory of the Permanent Revolution

The history of Greece in the 1940s once again shows the correctness of Trotsky’s theory of the Permanent Revolution. In the modern era the classical schema of bourgeois-democratic revolutions is obsolete. The working class is too strong, too independent and mature, and the national bourgeoisies too strongly connected to imperialism, monopoly capitalism, and landlordism, making the class antagonism between bourgeois and proletarians unbridgeable. There is no such thing as a “progressive bourgeoisie” that can meaningfully serve as the proletariat’s ally for democratic reforms. Moreover, modern revolutions cannot be held back within bourgeois-democratic bounds. Either they will quickly move in a socialist direction and address the historical tasks of the epoch of capitalist crisis or they will dishearten the masses and be defeated. This is particularly true in the struggle against fascist reaction, which by its very essence as a last violent resort of capitalism proves the insurmountable class antagonisms existing in modern society. As Trotsky put it, “Fascism is not feudal but bourgeois reaction. A successful fight against bourgeois reaction can be waged only with the forces and methods of the proletariat revolution.” (Leon Trotsky, The Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning, 1937)

In Greece we saw a successful struggle against German fascism waged by the proletariat and the poor peasantry on a revolutionary platform, while the national bourgeoisie capitulated to the occupiers or fled. Later, we saw the “democratic” bourgeoisie in alliance with “democratic” British imperialism, the quislings and the reactionary monarchists, turn against the masses and install a dictatorial regime, while the attempts by the KKE to hold back the revolution within its bourgeois stage of national liberation and democracy unravelled, being systematically betrayed by the bourgeoisie and sowing demoralization. The only way of carrying out the basic democratic tasks set before the Greek proletariat was to overthrow the bourgeoisie and to take power in its own hands in alliance with the poor peasantry, which would inevitably have meant the continuation of the revolution towards socialist, anticapitalist objectives.

Lessons for the new Greek Revolution

A new revolutionary situation has been developing in Greece. The profound crisis of capitalism has led to a leap in the consciousness of the Greek masses, who are becoming increasingly aware of the need for a drastic transformation of society. The process of radicalization of the Greek people culminated in the recent electoral victory of SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left), which has come to embody the aspirations of the country’s workers and youth for a radical break with the old system.

The new government has promised to carry out some very significant reforms; among other things it has announced it will almost double the minimum wage and increase pensions, that it will provide subsidized gas and electricity to families that cannot afford it, revert the privatization of the ports and the airlines, readmit the public workers that were dismissed by the previous government, reopen the public television broadcasting company, and (perhaps the most contentious issue) renegotiate the onerous debt payments.

These are not revolutionary demands in and of themselves, although if they were successfully carried through they would considerably improve the living conditions of the Greek population, and Marxists fully support these demands. However, the SYRIZA leadership has not adequately explained how it will fulfill these promises, except by talking of taxing the rich, combatting corruption, and negotiating a better deal with the EU and the big European banks and corporations it represents.

What the experience of the 1940s can teach us is precisely that any meaningful change will meet the opposition of the ruling class, which will do whatever it can to sabotage the reforms. Like the KKE in the 1940s, SYRIZA is sliding into the pitfall of believing that the bourgeoisie can come to reason and that it is possible to build a better Greece without coming into direct conflict with the ruling class. National and foreign capitalists have made it abundantly clear that they will not accept any significant reforms on the part of SYRIZA, and the recent provocations by the ECB bear witness to the arsenal of sabotage and blackmail that the capitalists are ready to use against the left-wing government.

A significant change since the 1940s, however, is that at present a dictatorial, fascist way out for the ruling class is highly unlikely. The social base for fascism (the petty bourgeoisie, small proprietors, middle and wealthy peasants) is much smaller now than in the 1940s. Conversely, the working class is more numerous and powerful, and is strongly attached to the democratic and social reforms it won in past struggles. Moreover, imperialism is much weaker, and revolutionary ferment exists across Europe, especially in Spain. In short, the objective conditions for peaceful socialist revolution are more favorable now than they were 70 years ago.

The biggest challenge now lies in the subjective factor. If the leadership of the working class backtracks, it will demoralize its base of support and pave the way for a right-wing turn in society, which will see the growth of reactionary parties like Golden Dawn. We have seen how the wavering of the KKE in the 1940s disheartened its followers and strengthened and emboldened the right wing. Nowadays, the more intelligent sectors of the bourgeoisie are aware that the best way to derail the Greek revolution is by forcing the present Greek government to betray its program and thus prepare its own electoral defeat.

The capitalists’ fear of SYRIZA is not simply a fear of the left-wing reforms it has been championing (which in the current context of deep global crisis are indeed unbearable for the system). It is also a fear of the powerful revolutionary awakening of the masses that brought it to power and whose evolution is unpredictable.

At the moment, the announcement of bold reforms and its conflict with the EU commissioners has won SYRIZA widespread support. According to a recent poll, 80% of Greeks support the government program, including sectors of the middle classes, which have been won over by the generalized enthusiasm. To carry through its program and not to let down the Greek workers, SYRIZA cannot stop at half-measures. No conciliation with the bourgeoisie is possible; the ruling class will do anything it can to ensure the eventual downfall of the government and will set obstacles at every turn. The mistakes of the 1940s should be avoided. SYRIZA must hoist the flag of socialist revolution and expropriate the ruling classes. For this, the masses must be actively involved in making sure the leadership does not backtrack on its demands, and the party must be strengthened by adopting the program of the Communist Tendency of SYRIZA to actively defend a revolutionary line.

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