By Nikos Sotirakopoulos
Saturday night, 6th of December 2008, in the Exarhia area of Athens: a countercultural and libertarian stronghold. A group of young people have a verbal altercation with two members of the police special forces. The policemen leave the scene only to return after several minutes. Suddenly, one of the officers, Epameinondas Korkoneas, removes his gun and fires into the group. The bullet strikes and fatally wounds 15 year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos, who falls to the ground dead. It was the incident that triggered more than 20 days of rioting and unrest that would shock the country. They were “the days and nights of Alexis” as the participants have called them, in memory of the murdered boy.
Within hours of the shooting, the news spread via the Internet and mobile phones, and the first spontaneous protests took place in Athens and in other Greek cities. People who had been enjoying their Saturday night drink in the centre of Athens took to the streets in anger. Schools and universities were occupied by students. Occupations took place as well in public buildings, such as town halls and the trade union confederation’s headquarters. There were interruptions in many theatrical plays, where students intervened and asked for solidarity in their uprising. In a remarkable activist movement, protesters interrupted the news by entering the studio of the Greek public television station. While presenting a statement by the Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, regular programming was interrupted and viewers saw the occupiers inside the studio holding banners declaring: “Stop watching television and get to the streets!” and “Freedom to the prisoners of the revolt”. A giant banner was hung over the Parthenon displaying the word “resistance” in several languages. Even the giant Christmas tree in the central square of Athens was set aflame. As the rebels declared, “Christmas is postponed….we are in revolt!”
The international impact of the events in Greece was also remarkable. Demonstrations of solidarity took place in countless cities around the world. From the mountains of Mexico, Subcommandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatistas, was so impressed by the events in Greece that he made a statement in Greek, expressing his solidarity with the revolt: “Women and men comrades, revolted Greece…we, the smallest, from this corner of the world, salute you. Accept our respect and our admiration for what you think and do. From far away, we learn from you. We thank you” (translated from Greek by the author). Closer to Greece, in France, President Sarkozy postponed his scheduled reform of the educational system, fearing that the Greek phenomenon might extend to France where the memories of the 2005 ghetto riots and the 2006 anti-CPE unrest were still fresh. “Libération”, the historic newspaper of France, took a clear stand in favor of the Greek rebellion, with a significant article entitled “We are all Greeks”.
However, despite good intentions the protests and the uprising in Greece lacked not only in organization, but also in specific demands and political targets as well. Being unorganized, it was doomed to run out of steam and fail. In the meantime, Greek society has polarized to an extent unprecedented in past decades. The riots created a huge backlash. There were occasions in some large cities like Patra, where furious citizens (accompanied by extreme right wingers) clashed with and beat the demonstrators. According to some conservative commentators, a by-product of the December events is the appearance of a new wave of terrorism in Greece. The urban guerilla groups of “Revolutionary Struggle” and “Revolutionaries’ Sect” made a number of attacks in the following months against police officers, banks and television stations. On the 16th of June 2009, Revolutionaries’ Sect executed a police officer with 24 bullets. These brutal and unjustified actions alienated an even larger section of the population from the spirit of December’s uprising, which now seems to have ceased to exist.
Evaluating December’s Uprising
The first thing that needs to be asked, then, is what exactly happened in Greece? Some riots, merely? A revolt? No definitive answer can be given. By calling them riots, we underestimate the events. Riots are more about the reactionary expression of rage by a desperate minority, without any specific target. The events in Brixton in 1981 and in Los Angeles in 1992 are typical examples of riots. But in Greece, something more had occurred. As the American scholar and activist Mike Davis pointed out in an interview in a Greek newspaper, the events were qualitatively more significant even than the Paris ghettos 2005 uprising, because in Greece there was a broad coalition in the streets, including students, wage earners, workers (though few in number, admittedly), anarchists, lefts, leftists and immigrants. In addition, the events were not just about smashing shops and clashing with the police. The rebels took initiatives, tried to come closer to the society with a series of inspired and imaginative actions and tried to express an embryonic anti-systemic objective. Davis, being perhaps too optimistic, compared the situation and the clashes in Greece with the uneasy days in Barcelona in the early 30s, preceding the Spanish revolution of 1936-1939.
Is it therefore possible to speak about a Greek revolt? In the strict sense of the word, this is likely to be an exaggeration, as the uprising lacked organization and, most importantly, did not clearly forward any political question or any alternative social vision that was to be sought. However, a number of characteristics of the events add credence to the argument that what happened in Greece came close to being a social revolt. It is interesting to note that in an opinion poll carried out during the events, 60% of the people, irrespective of whether they agreed with the rebellious youth or not, considered what was happening as a “social revolt”. Indeed, people were on the streets not only to express their anger over the killing of an innocent 15 year-old boy. This was the obvious trigger, but the reasons lie deeper.
Young people, the “generation of 700 Euros” as it is called (a reference to their unacceptably low wages), were expressing their despair at the decidedly bleak prospects for the future that lay before them. With the percentage of youth unemployment in Greece at 25%, the highest in the European Union, young people are painfully aware that they can expect little from the existing political and economic system. In addition, the fact that one in four families in Greece live below the poverty threshold shows that the conditions were fruitful for a social uprising. People expressed their disgust for the corrupt political system and the arbitrariness of the police, which has a considerable record of violating essential human rights of citizens. In addition, a large percentage of the protesters showed through their actions that they rejected the existing society with all its footholds: the police (numerous attacks on police stations), the capital (many banks were set ablaze) and the modern opium of the people, that is, the society of the spectacle and the commodities (attacks and attempted occupations of shopping malls and television and radio stations).
What went wrong?
Alain Touraine has commented with regard to the May 1968 revolt in Paris: “The May movement was creative only in what prevented it from succeeding, its spontaneity”. The same could be argued concerning the Greek movement: it has shown the limits and the dead ends of spontaneous and unorganized action. An uprising is like a bicycle—at the point where it stops revolving and expanding, it tips over. When the protesters or the would-be rebels do not concentrate and coordinate their actions towards some specific ends, the propulsive force of the movement is lost. In the first three days, the escalation of the action was indeed satisfactory. Rage motivated the first protesters to get out into the streets, and they were soon accompanied by wider parts of the population who also declared that they had enough with an unpromising and miserable life. The principal rage expressed with barricades, vandalism and destruction gave way to more oriented actions such as university occupations and some attempts at coordination. But these attempts did not succeed in embracing a large part of the society, nor did they manage to influence the economic life of the country (as had occurred in France in 1968, for example).
The organizational deficit could be explained by the major role that various anarchist teams had in the uprising and their faith in the power of spontaneity and dislike to any form of vanguard. But as has happened many times in the past, this form of struggle seems to lead only to de-escalation and unavoidably to defeat. However, this is not an attempt to blame the anarchists, for that is how they always thought and acted. It is the movement itself that should have excluded this blind route. As Lenin stated, “Anarchism was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working-class movement.” This leads us to the main reason for the failure of the movement to become something more threatening to the established power: the absence of a satisfactory intervention of the working class and its vanguard.
There is nothing wrong with young people playing a leading role in an uprising. As professor Rousis stated in an article soon after the events, the average age of the French revolutionaries in 1789 was below 30. The same applied in the Bolshevik and the Cuban revolution, as well as in the May 1968 movement. However, any movement that aspires to become something more than just an uprising or expression of complaint and despair needs a key player that can lead the society to a major change; it needs a revolutionary subject. Young people, because of the characteristics of their age, are in an advanced position to back a struggle. But they are not a class per se and therefore they cannot be the driving force in a radical transformation of the society. This key player can only be the working class. By working class I do not only mean the traditional “blue collars”, but the vast majority of the population that is exploited by the existing system and sees even the few concessions that the capitalist state has let it in the past (welfare state, etc.) recalled. Unfortunately, the working class and its vanguard, the Greek Communist Party (KKE) – one of the strongest communist parties in Europe, both in size and in theoretical revolutionary orientation – failed to intervene significantly and make the difference in the December’s uprising.
The reasons vary. The first and most obvious one is that a huge portion of the working class, overwhelmed and alienated by the system, abstains from any struggle, and even more from a struggle with the advanced anti-systemic characteristics of December. The more pressing problem, however, concerns why the fighting vanguard of the working class had only a complementary role in the events.
The strong Greek Communist Party played a minor role in December, being extremely critical towards the spontaneity of the movement and the forms of action it took: especially the vandalisms and the burning of cars and shops. It argued that what was happening was not a revolt, because the key player, i.e. the students and young people, cannot be the main revolutionary subject. Therefore, the uprising had no chance in becoming more than just rioting, and was doomed to fail from the start. Following its critical view, the KKE kept its distance. Although its analysis was correct in its essence, by abstaining from the core of the events, it deprived the movement of any prospect of becoming something more promising. It is true, the uprising was spontaneous and the working class was missing. It seemed like what Lenin called “a petty bourgeois driven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism”. But as the leader of the Bolsheviks pointed out in “What is to be done”, spontaneity could represent consciousness in an embryonic form. In addition, “The greater the spontaneous upsurge of the masses and the more widespread the movement, the more rapid, incomparably so, the demand for greater consciousness in the theoretical, political and organisational work of Social-Democracy (as the communists were then called)”.
It is true that the forms of action that the movement followed were not all correct and that they disoriented people and produced a social backlash. This was predictable and understandable, as a large majority of the protesters were quite young with no experience of political or social struggle. But, again according to Lenin, “Mistakes are inevitable when the masses are fighting, but the communists remain with the masses, see these mistakes, explain them to the masses, try to get them rectified, and strive perseveringly for the victory of class consciousness over spontaneity.” The failure of the intervention by the working class and its vanguard and the failure of the movement to subordinate spontaneity to conscious action lead the uprising to disorientation, lack of strategic direction and, inevitably, deflation.
Elite reaction to the uprising
It is interesting to observe how the system reacts in a social crisis like the December uprising, because it unmasks the democratic guise of the bourgeois state. As it is known, the state has two tools for keeping people subordinate: persuasion/trickery and bald violence. When the first fails, there is no hesitation in proceeding to the second. A combination of trickery and violence was what the ruling system of Greece followed in the December events.
In the beginning, the government and the media put on a show of sympathy for the death of the boy and expressed an understanding of the rage felt by the people in the streets. The events can be seen to follow a classic blueprint: during the first two days the police did not intervene and let a minority of the protesters proceed in vandalisms, thus spreading an atmosphere of chaos and anarchy. This created fear in a large part of the population and thereafter, the police had a carte blanche to proceed in a wild repression, without any discrimination, against anyone on the streets. Arrests, beatings and humiliations in the police stations were the daily provision. In the city of Larissa, 18 people, including 14 year-old students, were arrested under anti-terrorism laws. There were documents in the media showing policemen dressed as protesters, with their faces covered and holding clubs. Many protesters argued that camouflaged policemen damaged some small shops, so as to turn public opinion against the uprising.
Similarly underhanded was the coverage of the events by the mainstream media, which gave disproportionate attention to the vandalisms, while at the same time underestimating or hiding the brutality of police repression. The masked hooligan was presented as the typical sample of a protester, while the uncertainties and concerns of young people concerning their future, the force that drove them into the streets, was absent from the 8 o’clock news. The propaganda of the right wing government of Nea Dimokratia and the far right party of LAOS reached unprecedented levels, implying even that the protests were organized by secret agents of a dark force bent on harming Greece! During the events, the importance of independent information (blogs, Indymedia and others) emerged, as they brought to attention news and events that the mainstream media suppressed.
As capitalism’s contradictions evolve and become clearer, phenomena like the December uprising will occur with increasing frequency and fervor. Whether they will have a significant impact towards a radical change will depend on the maturity and the consciousness of the masses, enriched by the experience of events like those of December.
This piece was originally published in the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies