Pandelis Pouliopoulos: How Greek Trotskyism was born

Submitted by Matthew on 29 June, 2012 - 12:26

Pandelis Pouliopoulos (1900-43) was the first general secretary of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and a founder of the Trotskyist movement in Greece.

As a young law student, Pouliopoulos joined the Socialist Labour Party of Greece (SEKE), the forerunner to the KKE, in 1919. The following year he was conscripted to fight in the Greek-Turkish war and was arrested in the final year of the conflict in 1922 for anti-war activity.

In 1924 Pouliopoulos was KKE delegate to the Fifth Congress of the Comintern and later that year became general secretary of the party. He came to prominence when, along with 23 others, he was tried in Athens and exiled for promoting the autonomy of Macedonia and Thrace.

As Stalinism tightened its grip over the Russian Communist Party, the KKE suffered bureaucratic degeneration. In March 1927, Pouliopoulos was removed from the Central Committee. He soon formed an oppositional journal Neo Xekinima (New Beginning).

The journal moved in the direction of Trotskyism in the period 1927-30. According to the Greek Trotskyist Loukas Karliaftis (“Kostas Kastritis”) it “discredited the degenerated leadership of the Stalinist KKE. It raised questions about the great split between Stalin and Trotsky.”

However, Pouliopoulos “also fought against the particular character of Archeiomarxism and its liquidatory work against the KKE.” The “Archeiomarxists” were a tendency who had split with the KKE in the early 1920s. Pouliopoulos and his group, which after December 1928 was publishing a journal called Spartacus, argued for the need to reconstruct the KKE in accordance with ideas influenced by the Trotskyist International Left Opposition (ILO).

However, the ILO believed that the KKE was not the most promising source of adherents to Trotskyism on account of its shallow roots in the working class and particularly degenerated internal regime. The ILO passed over the Spartacus group of Pouliopoulos to grant its franchise to the Archeiomarxists, who were increasingly Trotskyist in orientation and were gaining influence in the trade unions.

Spartacus refused to join with the Archeiomarxists. However, the historic defeat of the German workers’ movement in 1933, partly due to the criminal policies of the Stalinists, led Leon Trotsky to raise the banner of a new Fourth International.

At the same time, the Archeiomarxist leader Dimitris Giotopoulos fell out with Trotsky and his group became affiliated with the centrist “London Bureau.”

The Pouliopoulos group fused with another tendency to form the Organisation of Internationalist Communists of Greece (OKDE) in 1934. For a while Pouliopoulos, with Raymond Molinier in France, opposed the foundation of a new international, but in 1938 he took the initiative to unite the Greek Trotskyists to form the Unified Organisation of Communist Internationalists of Greece (EOKDE), which was present at the founding of the Fourth International in Paris in September 1938.

Karliaftis wrote: “With the unification Poulipoulos now became the unquestioned leader of all the Trotskyists who remained loyal to the Fourth International, and he fought ceaselessly against all the social chauvinists who capitulated during the war.”

In World War Two, the “anti-fascist” Allies were represented in Greece by the fascist Metaxas government, which proclaimed its ideological kinship with Hitler but sided with Britain for economic reasons, and managed to hold off Italian invaders in 1940-1. In April 1941 Germany invaded. The KKE reacted with the social-patriotic slogan of “liberation of the Nation from the foreign yoke”. Poulipoulos called instead for a dual revolutionary struggle against the occupation and for the establishment of a workers’ and peasants’ government in Greece.

In 1938, after going into hiding, Poulipoulos had been arrested by the Metaxas dictatorship and imprisoned in Acronauplia. He refused to kneel before the dictatorship or sign a declaration of repentance allowing him to flee abroad, declaring that “they can only take me abroad in chains, and even then I will find a way to return.”

On 6 June 1943, he was executed by Italian occupation forces. In his final moments he delivered an internationalist speech to his executioners, so that the firing squad rebelled and the officers had to shoot instead.

In December 1944, the Stalinists in Greece massacred several hundred Trotskyists, anarchists and other internationalist communists. In doing so they strangled the revolutionary dynamic of the Greek movement against German occupation, paving the way for the conservative-led White Terror of 1945-6, which was backed by British troops in Greece and led directly to the Greek Civil War from March 1946.

German forces invaded Greece on 6 April 1941. Athens fell by 27 April and, by the end of the month, the German campaign claimed victory with the capture of Kalamata in the Peloponnese.

The Communist Party of Greece (KKE), like other Communist Parties, had been in a state of confusion about its attitude to the Nazis, in the period following the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. All that changed after the Nazis opened hostilities against the USSR with Operation Barbarossa on 22 June 1941. The KKE was ready to swing four-square behind the Allied side.

On 27 September, the Seventh Plenum of the KKE formed a popular front for the liberation of the country, the National Liberation Front (EAM), along with a number of other minor parties. Lefteris Apostolou represented the KKE, with Christos Chomenidis from the Socialist Party (SKE), Ilias Tsirimokos from the Union for People’s Democracy (ELD) and Apostolos Voyiatzis from the Agricultural Party of Greece (AKE).

On 10 October EAM published a social-patriotic manifesto calling for the “liberation of the Nation from foreign yoke” and the “guaranteeing of the Greek people’s sovereign right to determine its form of government”.

However, as Pierre Broué has written: “This desire to maintain a ‘united nation’ against the invader — when it was not united — and to ignore in silence the class sources of the popular opposition to the occupiers and to the members of the Greek bourgeoisie who collaborated with them, did not, however, succeed in preventing the workers and the poorest strata of the people from laying hold of the framework of the organisation which the KKE offered. They instinctively used it to fight for their demands. The influx of fighters gave a working class character to the EAM, which was doing so much to reject it.”

By 1942, EAM had its own popular militia, the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS). ELAS fought the German, Italian and Bulgarian occupiers and in November 1942 carried out one of the largest acts of sabotage in occupied Europe during the Second World War when, along with the National Republican Greek League (EDES) and British agents, it attacked the Italian garrison and destroyed the Gorgopotamos bridge.

Such spectaculars strengthened ELAS and it spread through the Greek countryside, including to territories such as Thessaly and Macedonia. During the winter of 1942-3, large mountainous regions of central Greece passed from Axis control to ELAS and the EAM became the largest mass political organisation in Greek history, with 1.5 million members and 150,000 partisans.

By 10 March, EAM-ELAS controlled most of the country and established the Political Committee of National Liberation (PEEA), often referred to as “the Mountain Government”, which rivalled both the Greek government-in-exile in Cairo and the collaborationist administration in Athens.

What gave EAM its base, which far exceeded that of the small KKE, was the spontaneous mass movement of Greek workers and peasants which spread across the country during the occupation.

Workers demonstrated in their thousands on 18 October 1941, the first anniversary of the initial Italian invasion, and throughout the winter and the following spring were joined by students and by wounded war veterans.

On 15 March 1942 there were strikes in several cities, including Athens, which were followed by a strike of 40,000 civil servants led by Trotskyist militants.

On 25 June 1943 there was a general strike in Athens against the execution of hostages by the occupation forces which saved 50 tramway workers who were sentenced to death for participation in the tram drivers’ strike two weeks earlier.

According to Broué: “By 1944 not only were wide rural areas liberated, but the German troops lived under siege in the cities, which they could only leave in guarded convoys. The ‘Red Belt’, the workers’ quarters around Athens, were nothing less than fortresses of the armed people.”

Despite this explosion of workers’ struggle, the KKE leadership of EAM denied the class character of the movement and insisted on its purely national basis. It announced that the “KKE supports by all possible means the struggle for national liberation, and will do all in its power to help gather all the patriotic forces into one unbreakable national front, which will unite the whole people to shake off the foreign yoke and to win national liberation at the side of our great Allies.”

The ruling-class had no such illusions in national unity.

Elements of the officer corps of the Greek government-in-exile in Cairo, under the protection of Winston Churchill, grouped together their own forces, linked to the military hierarchy and the secret services, and organised a counter-attack. They tried to organise non-Communist nationalist guerillas to fight the Axis forces and also hoped to undermine ELAS. One British Special Operations Executive, agent, Eddie Myers, recorded being told by his superiors in April 1943 that “the Cairo authorities consider that after the liberation of Greece, civil war is almost inevitable.”

That year Ioannis Rallis, who was in close contact with the British secret service, became the Prime Minister of occupied Greece, and with British help took steps to curb the popular movement. It was with these forces, backed by British imperialism, that the KKE sought “unity”.

In October 1944 Stalin held talks with Churchill at the Fourth Moscow Conference, where they reached the cynical “percentages agreement” to divide spheres of influence in the region. The Comintern had been dissolved in May 1943 and replaced by self-consciously more “diplomatic” Cominform. Stalin agreed to give Churchill a free hand in Greece in exchange for greater Russian influence in other countries.

In April 1944, the Cairo government was entrusted to Georgios Papandreou, who pressured the EAM leaders to sign the Lebanon Charter on 30 May, which denounced ELAS “terrorism” and agreed to unite the Greek armed forces under government control “alongside the Allied troops.”

The KKE was unhappy but a Soviet mission led by Colonel Popov pushed them into unconditional agreement. With Churchill’s backing, Papandreou attempted to disarm ELAM on 2 December, provoking the resignation of the EAM ministers and a mass demonstration the following day in Athens. The protesters in Syntagma Square were fired upon by the police. More than 28 people were murdered and at least 148 wounded.

During the consequent wave of struggle, known as the December Events (Dekemvrianá), fighters from EAM-ELAS fought the Greek government and its British backers. Churchill, announcing that he was intervening against “triumphant Trotskyism”, finally unleashed his plan to crush the Greek revolution.

Abiding by the Stalin-Churchill agreement, the Russians told the KKE leaders to abide by the counter-revolutionary doctrine of “national unity” and to hold off on attacking the British. By February 1945, the Varkiza agreement provided for the disarmament of all resistance forces.

One ELAS leader, a member of the KKE Central Committee, Aris Velouchiotis, denounced the agreement as a betrayal. He was isolated by the party who refused him permission to leave Greece, and he was assassinated on 16 June by pro-government paramilitaries, possibly with KKE collusion.

If revolutionaries had not suffered enough repression from the Axis occupation, the Greek government and British imperialism, they had the KKE to reckon with.

In a tragic mirroring of Stalinist conduct during the Spanish Civil War (1936-9), the Stalinists backed the forces of “order” despite having an influential position at the head of a popular movement which revolutionary potential. Just as in Spain, they also extended the methods of the Russian secret police to the conflict within the liberation movement, forming the Organization for the Protection of the People’s Struggle (OPLA), which was accountable directly to the Politburo of the KKE. Its ostensible role was to protect EAM and track down collaborators but it served a more sinister purpose.

Before and during the “December Events” the OPLA murdered revolutionary opponents of the KKE, particularly Trotskyists, but also Archeiomarxists [a longstanding Greek revolutionary group, briefly associated with the Trotskyist opposition] and anarchists. “We killed more than 800 Trotskyists”, boasted KKE Politbureau member Barzotas. In the period before December, Loukas Karliaftis (“Kostas Kastritis”), the secretary of the united Trotskyist organisations, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. Many more were not so lucky.

Amongst those murdered by the Stalinists included the whole Archeoiomarxist group in Agrinio, and cadres from the Opposition faction of the KKE. According to the memoirs of the one-time Trotskyist Agis Stinas, they murdered the leading Trotskyists Dimosthenis Voursoukis, a member of the Organisation of International Communists (OKDE) and later of the International Communist Union (KDEE), “one of the most devoted, active and competent militants, and one of the best trained, an escaper from [the prisoner of war camp] Acronauplia.”

Broué writes that “throughout the country OPLA agents abducted, tortured and murdered such militants as Stavros Veroukhis, the Secretary of the Association of the War Wounded, and Thanassis Ikonomou, former Secretary of the Communist Youth at Ghazi. Workers, dockers, metal workers and teachers all suffered alike.”

The murder of genuine revolutionaries by the Stalinist forces during the Greek struggle for liberation was the horrific extension of the KKE’s counter-revolutionary policies, which saw it betray the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

Long transformed into an instrument of Kremlin diplomatic intrigue, the Stalinists in Greece confirmed their role as border guards for the new Russian empire and the ‘“syphilis of the working class movement.”

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