Greece: A Tradition of Revolt

Source: Green Left Weekly

In every corner of Greece, popular anger over the government’s latest neoliberal assault on job security, pensions and social services has lead to a series of general strikes involving hundreds of thousands of militant workers.

The Greek government’s attacks are being implemented at the behest of the European Union, which is seeking to make Greek workers carry the burden of debt generated by Greek governments in collusion with major banks such as Goldman Sachs.

This is part of a broader international struggle by working people against capital’s drive to make ordinary people pay for the global financial crisis it caused.

But Greek strikers have drawn on an indigenous political culture with deep roots – a culture that validates the people’s right to rise collectively as agents of change.

It is a culture that can be traced back over 2500 years. One of the first recorded mass uprisings in human history occurred in Athens in 508-07 BCE.

Throughout the sixth century BCE, a remarkable shift took place in Athens and its surrounding territory, Attica. The ordinary mass of the people – the demos – came to view themselves not as passive subjects but as informed citizens making a vital contribution to the economic development and military defence of the state.

A spirit of equality began to prevail among native-born males, undermining the archaic pattern of elite-mass relations. Political strife ensued, with the traditional aristocracy giving way to a populist tyranny.

Bearable at first, the reign of the Peisistratid dynasty soon degenerated into a cruel and arbitrary repression. In 510 BC, pressure from below ended to dynasty.

Two players emerged as rivals for power in the political vacuum of Athens; Isagoras and Cleisthenes.

Both were well-connected members of the aristocracy, but each had different power bases: Isagoras represented the wealthy landowning and commercial elites whereas Cleisthenes drew on the support of the largely disenfranchised though increasingly class-conscious demos.

In 508 BCE, Isagoras seized power in a military coup with Spartan assistance. Cleisthenes and his most prominent supporters were exiled, and a partially representative assembly (the Council of Four Hundred) was dissolved.

The citizenry of Athens took to the streets in outrage. Rising spontaneously and “of one mind” (according to the near-contemporary historian Herodotus), the people surrounded and besieged the Acropolis, where Isagoras and the Spartans had established their stronghold.
It was a genuinely revolutionary moment and a radical departure from anything that had gone before.

On the third day, Isagoras and his backers were forced from the city. Having “taken control of affairs” (as Aristotle later wrote), the demos “sent for Cleisthenes and the other exiles to come back”.

In the months that followed, Cleisthenes enacted a new and, Aristotle said, “much more democratic” constitution. It was (for eligible citizens), a genuinely participatory democracy, offering an immediate engagement with the day-to-day administration of government.

Traditionally, historians have tended to ascribe the establishment of Athenian democracy to elite goodwill, but the ancient sources make it clear democratic reform was the outcome of popular struggle.

Of course, Athenian democracy was full of glaring contradictions – such as the exclusion of women, foreign-born residents and slaves (the most unfortunate of whom were worked to death by the thousand in the publicly-owned silver mines).

However, the popular uprising remains a watershed moment in human affairs, establishing a key principle of history: real change can only occur when the people mobilise.

It is lesson borne out in more modern Greek history.

In the aftermath of World War II, during which popular resistance to foreign fascist occupation cost Greece over 300,000 lives, the US-backed right-wing embarked on a sustained campaign of repression against left-wing forces.

This culminated in the seizure of power in 1967 by a military junta responsible for the torture and murder of thousands of socialists, trade unionists and youth activists.

Washington looked on approvingly, despite growing international condemnation.

In November 1973, a student collective at the National Technical University of Athens (known as the Polytechneion) spontaneously rose up against the military regime. Standing united on the barricades against tanks and water cannons, the students proved themselves worthy successors of the ancient Athenians who risked everything back in 508/7 BCE.

“People of Greece”, the students’ underground radio broadcast proclaimed, “the Polytechneion is the flag bearer of our struggle and your struggle, our common struggle against the dictatorship and for democracy!”

Although the demonstration was brutally put down, the courageous example of the students proved electrifying. The popular resistance found renewed strength and the faltering junta fell in 1974.

The return of civilian government was a welcome development, but it has not ended exploitation and repression – nor popular resistance.

The lesson that popular mobilisation is the driving force for pro-people change remains more relevant than ever. The strikes and protests shaking Greece show the longstanding Hellenic tradition of standing up to unjust rule is alive and well.