David Osler reports from Athens.
Only four months ago, tens of thousands of marched on Syntagma Square to stress their rejection of externally-imposed austerity, and dozens of buildings burned to the ground as rioters battled it out with police on the streets of Athens. But the mood in the Greek capital this week is completely different to what it must have been on that night in February.
The picture is instead characterised by a strange sense of apprehension. It is almost as if politics is somehow on hold until the country goes to the polls in a crucial election this coming Sunday. The choice the electorate makes will be laden with implications for an entire continent.
Greece is likely to emerge with either a rightist government pledged to uphold the Memorandum of Understanding on Specific Economic Policy Conditionality, to give the Brussels and IMF-inspired cuts package its proper title, or a leftist government pledged not to implement it. It is also entirely possible that the current deadlock will not be resolved either way.
Whatever happens next, people are clearly nervous. A taverna waiter who insists that he is both a graduate and a former television actor assures me that Greece will haul through provided that more professional people do what he has done, and take jobs they would not have considered in the past. But he admits that he is only in employment because his dad owns the restaurant.
The friendly shopkeeper that I buy groceries and wine from acknowledges that business is bad. But the economy will pick up again, because it always does.
On a picket line outside a five star hotel, I meet a woman who has been locked out for 16 days after she and her workmates refused to accept a 20% pay cut. She is a floating voter and has in the past backed both the centre left PASOK and centre right Nea Dimokratia. She is thinking about voting for a leftwing party in the general election next Sunday. But only thinking about it, mind.
Many Marxists have described Greece as being in a pre-revolutionary situation, and I have even used that formulation myself. What has surprised me over the last week is that this is not reflected in an immediate transformation of working class consciousness.
Indeed, some local far leftists do not believe that the ‘pre-revolutionary situation’ label is immediately justified. The full implications of what has happened since 2010 have yet to sink in, they argue. Even after 17 general strikes and counting, Greek Trotskyist organisations have no more support at the ballot box than their British counterparts, and any signs of independent working class self-organisation outside official structures are embryonic and isolated.
Anarchists are more upbeat and eloquently describe some recent protests as ‘one night revolutions’. But even they realise that we are currently going through a lull in the class struggle. What nobody can seriously doubt is that there will be highlights again.
PASOK – Greece’s governing party until last year, let us not forget – is effectively dead in the water. In a country awash with political posters, I have yet to see a single one supporting PASOK’s own hybrid of Hellenic nationalism and moderate social democracy.
Any ordinary Greek motivated to look left because of concern for his or her living standards, and not schooled in the niceties of socialist politics, faced a bewildering range of choices.
On my reckoning, there are at least five slates dominated by self-described Marxists, from tiny Trot and Maoist sects to the still Stalinist KKE communist party, the eurocommunist formation Dimokratiki Aristera, and the more radical Syriza. The latter is clearly the best-placed leftist party.
Syriza is something of an unknown quantity. Many revolutionary socialists here, including SEK, the local equivalent of the SWP in Britain, and OKDE Spartakos, Greek section of the Fourth International, highlight its reformist limitations, maintaining that the Greek ruling class could happily live with a Syriza-led government. Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras may talk the talk, but is unlikely to walk the walk, they believe.
The two groups, together with around eight others, are putting forward their own slate this weekend. It is likely to secure the backing of just a fraction of one percentage point of the electorate, leaving the point of the exercise rather open to question.
But for many revolutionary socialists outside of Greece, Syriza is held in rather higher regard. For the first time in decades, a party at least formally pledged to uphold basic working class interests in defiance of the dictates of capital is potentially poised to form a European government.
Not to offer critical support seems foolhardy. I would not presume to second guess the local comrades; ultimately only they know the terrain well enough to make difficult judgement calls. But from my observations this week, I fear that they may be getting this one badly wrong.