Der Aufbruch der Massen – The Awakening of the Popular Masses III

Die Massen antworten mit Streiks und kämpferischen Demonstrationen

[Fortsetzung des zweiten Kapitels Seite 35 – 38 der englischen Ausgabe]
The masses reply with strikes and combative demonstrations

The illusions began to crumble, and with them the fanaticism born from the opposition between royalists and Venizelists, which had confused everything and so held back the class struggle, faded. The masses began to recognise their flag and to gather around it. The surprise, the bitter- ness born from the deceit and betrayal of the United Opposition turned to anger, to a resolve to struggle.

The year 1921 is rich in struggles which clearly display their class character. On 10 February the sailors went on strike. The ships moored in the ports only left when the demands of the strikers had been satisfied. At that time the sailors formed one of the most combative and best organised battalions of the working class. The headquarters of their federation could be found in Piraeus, in a building visible from a long distance by the crews of the ships entering the port. It was agreed that a flag should be raised there in the event of a call to strike. Many sailors abandoned their ships and threw themselves into the sea before even dropping the anchor, just on seeing it. And for the whole duration of the strike, they remained in the area ready to intervene if the ship owners tried to use scabs.

At this time Angelis was the secretary of the sailors’ federation almost permanently; he didn’t understand a lot about politics but he was faithful and devoted to the party. On 15 February there was a general strike in Volos, combative demonstrations and violent confrontations with the police lasting two days. The exasperated demonstrators wrecked numer- ous factories and shops. Finally “order” was re-established and some people were arrested. Thus A. Benaroya, K Theos, Th. Apostolidis, Y. Papanikolaou and many others from amongst the thousands of fighting workers were arrested, imprisoned and brought before the courts for rebellion.

The same month the railway workers went on strike across the whole country. The government replied by a massive number of arrest warrants, conscripting the strikers and sending them to the front. Their ardour and determination was only reinforced by this. Despite the pleas of the government, which asked for a train to be put in service to transport the Patriarch of Antioch from Kalamata to Athens to bless the marriage of the crown prince, the strikers refused. The strike ended with a certain degree of success.

On 18 April (the First of May according to the new calendar, but Easter according to the old one which was still in force then(12)) in Thessaloniki, the workers celebrated their international day with gatherings and demonstrations in various neighbourhoods, despite the police ban. The same day, a convoy of soldiers heading for the front mutinied, refusing to board and joining the work- ers. Martial law was declared and A. Papadopoulos, Ch. Tzallas, A. Dimitratos and S. Priftis were arrested and put in front of the exceptional military tribunal of Adrianoupoleos.

In May, there was a strike of the Athens-Piraeus electric railway workers. The trains were immobilised on the tracks, and one blocked the underground station of Omonia in Athens. The government arrested many strikers and sent them to the military tribunal. Eleven of them were sentenced to eight years in prison and sent to the Akronafplia fortress.
In Corfu in December a rally of olive producers, demanding only the free extraction of oil, trans- formed itself in the afternoon into a combative demonstration against the war. The roar of blunderbusses and dynamite accompanied the cries of “down with the war!”. A section of sold- iers joined the angry peasants. The authorities were terrified. The prefect was trembling so much when he appeared at his window to speak that his false teeth fell out. Later that evening the gathering got out of hand and the police re-established “order”.

The following episode is very indicative of the state of the peasants’ spirit: at that time I had deserted from the army and at that very moment I was hiding in the town. When the rally turned into a demonstration against the government and the war, I naturally slipped into the mass of demonstrators. Besides, there I was safer from discovery by the police or the military authorities. On Telegraph Square, now Theotokis Square, surrounded by peasants, I tried to make a speech.

But I was wearing a tie, and I didn’t really have the manner of a peasant, certainly not that of a peasant of the era. Worse, I was used to workers’ meetings and began with: “Comrades!”. It was impossible to say another word. Cries of protest came from all around: “Down with the stiff collars!”, “We are not comrades!”, “Down with the politicos!” Following me, one of our peasants spoke and took up the speech that I had started to make. His dress, his face, his hands, his langu- age were those of an authentic peasant. This time the peasants enthusiastically greeted, acclaim- ed, applauded the orator and his speech. Such are the most notable events of this first year of anti-Venizelist and monarchist power, or at least those which still live in my memory after so many years.
The most conscious, the most combative, the best organised workers of that time, in Athens and Piraeus, were the sailors, the mechanics, the cigarette makers, the tram drivers, the postal work- ers, the typographers, the food industry employees, and finally the electricity workers (in prod- uction, power station service and lines). These, after a series of victorious strikes, secured serious gains (according to the standards of the time). Apart from high wages (relatively) and tolerable conditions of work, their solidarity fund (intended first of all for the sick) was financed by the company, without being taken from their wages, and without any right of control by the company or the state. The president of the union was on leave of absence with a full salary for the whole of his term of office. This meant that the company paid him without him working.

Generally, all the electricians were active members of the union, and most of the technicians and power station workers passed through the party at one time or another. Two of them, M. Sideris and G. Papanikolaou, are counted among its founders and were members of its Central Comm- ittee. Their strikes, always launched without warning, count amongst the most grandiose and impressive events of the era. Athens and Piraeus would be plunged into darkness, the trams and the electric railway stopped in their tracks. In the power station they made sure that the cables were tangled up in such a way that only they knew how to untangle them, and they put signs everywhere saying: “Deadly danger”. No one dared to venture in there, even the most qualified. The strikers gathered in front of the power station or in the union offices, ready to intervene. This incident with Venizelos, which I believe is not very well known, illustrates very well the strength of the workers. The head of the union committee insistently demanded to be received by Venizelos at an ungodly hour: it was night time and the “revived” Chamber of 1915(13) was in session. Visibly irritated, Venizelos received the committee in one of the rooms in parliament, but the committee had just begun to express its opinion when he interrupted with a “rejected without discussion” and headed straight out. He had hardly uttered these words when the lights of parliament went out, along with all those of Athens and Piraeus. Calmly and imperturbably, Papanikolaou, the president of the union, a boy who was fast on his feet, took a candle out of his pocket, lit it and said to Venizelos, very solemnly: “Sit down, Mr. President, so we can continue this discussion”. Venizelos stayed, the demands were accepted, and only then did the lights come back on.

Nevertheless, these workers, most of whom passed through the party, ended up a few years later in the most conservative wing of the movement. When the enterprise passed from Poloyorgis to the Power company the gains of the workers were legally guaranteed in all the official documents of transfer and in the contract between the public authorities and Power. But this only applied to the workers who worked in the enterprise before the advent of the new contract, and not to those hired afterwards by Power. Power immediately took on hundreds of scab workers on starvation wages and without any of the privileges enjoyed by the old workers. Not only did the union not try to make them beneficiaries of the advantages of the old workers, but it refused to have them in its ranks. All the attempts by the party to change the position of the union failed. I myself, as the secretary of the Piraeus region in 1927-1928, brought up the question many times in front of the numerous enough fraction of electricians, but they resisted inflexibly. These people had assured themselves of a privileged position in relation to other workers and they had no intention of risking it for reasons of solidarity. The duty of a revolutionary party was to exclude them, to denounce them and to stigmatise them in front of the working class. This did not happen.

(12)
The Julian calendar, which is thirteen days behind the Gregorian calendar, was only replaced by the latter in 1923.

(13)
A chamber favourable to Venizelos, elected in 1915, and reconvened after the reinstallation of Venizelos in Athens
by the French army in June 1917. Also called the “Lazarus” chamber.