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

Das Handeln der Mitglieder der kommunistischen Partei und die Politik des Zentralkomitees
The action of the CPG members and the policy of the central committee
[Fortsetzung des zweiten Kapitels Seite 38 – 42 der englischen Ausgabe]

Indisputably the CPG organised in its ranks in that era cadres who were the most combative, the most devoted and the best pick of the working class. Everywhere, in all the fights it experienced, they were in the front line. Members of the party had been arrested at Volos, Athens, Piraeus, Thessaloniki and elsewhere. In the army, its conscripted members – most of its members found themselves under the flags – had developed a very serious and responsible antimilitarist and antiwar movement. There existed a Communist cell in almost all the frontline units. These cells were connected with each other and their activity was coordinated by a central committee whose authority they all recognised. Propaganda material (leaflets, newspapers, pamphlets) circulated everywhere and was sent to the front from bases created in Thessaloniki and Dedeagach(14)). The railway worker strikers who had been mobilised and sent to the front served on the railways there. They were in charge of communications and the transport of material. Pantelis Pouliop- oulos was the brain and the spirit of this Communist organisation in the army. Everything happened without the knowledge of the Central Committee and against its will. The party in no way had a stable line and concrete objectives. Its confused and opportunistic politics undoubtedly presented pro-peace and “pro-worker” aspects but never went beyond that stage. Here and there articles burst out under sensational titles “The Brothel State”, “We answer by the word of Cambronne”, but we always waited for a revolutionary policy which would rise to the level of the critical issues of the war.

Thessaloniki 1920-1921

I arrived in Thessaloniki one cold morning in October 1920, after a lengthy voyage on board anold tub of a boat. I sat at a table in a cheese shop next to the sea, drank some milk and then asked the owner to direct me to the trade union centre. He helpfully left the shop with me and showed me an imposing building on top of which flew an immense red flag. From the customs office to the White Tower, and from the shore up to the Agiou Dimitriou strip, everything had been burnt. The pile of mines dating from the fire of 1917 threw even more into relief the only two big buildings which were still standing in the area, the governor’s palace(15)) and the trade union centre.
Thessaloniki enjoyed a long socialist tradition. Before 1912, the Federation had been the Turkish section of the Second International (it had been admitted in November 1909). Rakovsky had visited it in 1910 and had spoken at a public meeting held in the Krystall café. When the town became Greek, the Federation immediately took the initiative of unifying all the socialist groups in the country and creating of a single socialist party. At the founding congress of the party its representatives situated themselves politically in the centre.
The majority of its members were workers and Jewish intellectuals, influenced by the reformist ideas of social democracy and the democratic traditions of the old workers’ movement. Starting in 1919, when the Federation became a section of the party, a good number of Greek workers joined it, particularly cigarette makers and tobacco workers. The party organisation worked closely with the trade union centre and had its offices in there. The centre could be found in Agiou-Dimitriou, between the church of Agios Dimitrios and the governor’s palace. It was a building with three floors, but it was one of those old hotels which were almost as tall as buildings with several floors today.
On the ground floor was the restaurant and the music and conservatory rooms. On the first floor was the buffet, a big room for meetings and, around it, the offices of the party, those of the organ- isation of bakery workers, carpenters and cobblers, the library and the reading room. On the upper floor, were those of the executive of the trade union centre, the tobacco workers, the empl- oyees and the youth. On each floor was a big veranda looking out onto Agiou-Dimitriou street. The building was surrounded by quite a high wall setting out a vast courtyard behind it and to its left. Every evening the rooms were full of workers and everywhere, apart from in the reading room, debates were taking place, passionately but in a comradely atmosphere, on all the problems of the movement. The reading room was also full of workers of both sexes who were calmly eng- aged in study. Here we wrote in chalk on a blackboard fixed to the wall, in the form of “war rep- orts”, the victories of the Red Army in Poland, in the Ukraine, in Siberia. The first thing workers looked at when they came was this board. Groups existed in all the Jewish quarters, and every evening crowds of young men and women gathered, following the conferences and participating in the debates.
The secretary of the local party organisation was Sargologos, and that of the union centre was Gr. Papanikolaou.
Avanti, the party daily in the Jewish language(16)), had quite a large distribution, as did Workers’ Voice, put out every week by the union centre and the party. Workers made up the great majority of the members, particularly those in tobacco and cigarette making. Among the Greek speaking members, only the doctor Evropoulos and the journalists Kastrinos and Riginos were intell- ectuals. Among the Jewish members on the other hand, there were a lot of them, and some of a very high level, with a solid Marxist formation: Abraham Cohen (he went to America with Trot- sky), Roza Cohen, Alberto Carasso, Moïssis Carasso, Ventura, Arditti, Nephoussi and others. Many Jewish members worked in the press and some wrote articles. At the assembly of the organisation some comrades and I raised this problem. Was it possible to be a communist and at the same time to write for the bourgeois press? The assembly decided that it was not compatible and called on those concerned to stop. Those who did not obey were expelled.
Every three months the members of the party met at the Ordinary General Assembly. Criticism and debate on the most burning problems of the movement followed the report of the local committee and the control commission. Most of the members participated and the debates took place on a very high level. All the speakers freely set out their opinion whatever it was. There were no taboos, we did not have to conduct ourselves like robots and nobody had their name dragged through the mud because they disagreed. These assemblies lasted several days (in fact just the evenings, after work). At the end we took the decisions and elected the members of the local committee and the control commission.
Pamphlets were sent out quickly, along with The Marxist Review, and their content gave us material to debate for days. At that time the unions organised the majority of the workers in Thessaloniki. The cigarette makers and the tobacco workers were all active trade unionists, and you couldn’t find a single one amongst them who defended the bourgeois parties. They were Communists, Socialists or anarchists (mostly the cigarette makers). But all felt themselves above all to be workers, with a high level of class consciousness and a strong sense of solidarity. The various tendencies within the workers’ movement could express themselves without any hindrance. When Sargologos (secretary of the local party organisation) tried to stop members of the Communism group from selling their journal in the union centre, it was disapproved of by all the workers, Communists or not, and Communism was sold freely.
The party enjoyed the confidence and respect of all the workers organised in unions. The Socialist and anarchist workers who forcefully opposed the Communist leaders of their union considered it their duty to defend the party in their neighbourhoods when it was criticised by the bourgeoisie or the petty bourgeoisie.
The workers had confidence in the leadership of their union and obeyed it, quite simply because they had freely elected it. But for the most serious problems it was definitely the assembly which decided. In all the tobacco processing factories there were committees elected by the workers and each “salon” had its representative. In the neighbourhoods and the workers’ cafés, in the houses, every day there were debates about the movement.
When the International was played by the orchestra or sung by the choir at the Centre, all the workers stopped what they were doing, took their hats off, and stood to attention. At that time (October and November 1920), all the members of the party and hundreds of non- party workers were primarily absorbed by electoral agitation and propaganda. I myself took a very active role in this, distributing leaflets, putting up posters, painting the hammer and sickle on walls, making speeches in the neighbourhoods.
I want to emphasise some events which illustrate the high level of class consciousness of the workers of Thessaloniki.
We knew about the “Balfour declaration”, the official promise made to the Jews by the British government during the First World War that it would set them up on the soil “of their fathers”. The Jewish community and the Thessaloniki synagogue had called the Jews together to celebrate the news. The gathering took place in the morning, and behind closed doors. The afternoon of the same day masses of Jewish workers and intellectuals took to the streets, waving red flags, with these slogans: “It is not in the state of Israel but in the world socialist society, united fraternally with all the peoples of the world, that we, the Jews, will guarantee our lives, our security and our well-being”, “Long live the world socialist revolution”, “Down with Zionism”. There is something we should note here. It was not only the Jews of Thessaloniki but millions of Jews across the world who put all their hope in socialism and struggled for it. The socialist and revolutionary parties could count within their ranks a large number of Jews, out of all proportion to their numbers in the population. The greatest theoreticians of Marxism, Marx, Luxemburg, Trotsky, were Jews.
How can these same Jews, the most authentic internationalist revolutionaries, have been metamorphosed into nationalists? How could Zionism, originally an insignificant sect of religious fanatics, transform itself into a mass movement? How could millions of Jews who lived with the grand vision of a world society of free producers decide to make the creation of a little national state their aim in life? Were those who employed a language against Israel little different from that of Goebbels ever able to ask these questions?
The movement for the foundation of the state of Israel, which at the start only gathered an insignificant number of fanatical bigots in quest of a utopia, became a matter for large masses of Jews in the years before the Second World War and the Hitlerian genocide. When already the hope of a social emancipation within a global community had begun to evaporate. When it had become clearer that the realisation of the age-old dream of the oppressed of the whole world looked more like a hideous nightmare. Then came the war, and the camps, the crematoria, geno- cide, the holocaust of Warsaw with the benevolent neutrality of the Russians, the disgraceful attitude of France and Britain towards the refugees. The whole world participated in the pogrom. In an era when the socialist ideal had drowned in a sea of nationalist hatred, how can we not understand that all of the Jews should fix on the aim of finding a corner of the planet where they could settle, or at least die defending themselves with guns in their hands. But people already lived in the place where they settled, poor people like them, workers and peasants. Thus, with the blessing of the two superpowers, the conditions were created for a permanent war between Jews and Arabs. Can’t those on the left who call for the destruction of Israel, that is to say the achieve- ment of the work of Hitler, not imagine another politics? Haven’t they ever thought about the fraternisation of peoples, their common struggle against their respective governments and for the republic of workers’ councils in the Middle East?
At this time the lot of the cigarette makers posed a problem for the working class. By way of a response to their last strike, the industrialists had replaced them with machines. It was the first time that cigarette making machines had been used in the country. As well as protests, motions etc., the trade union centre decided to call a mass demonstration which all the workers of Thessa- loniki took part in with their wives and children. The workers swamped the streets of the town, demonstrating massively in solidarity with their brothers. At the head of the human wave was a big sign: “Give bread to the cigarette makers”. Finally, they were compensated on several occas- ions, but each time “once and for all”.
One morning in February 1921, we were told at the union centre that a pogrom was being prep- ared against the Jews. Word had gone round that they had kidnapped a little Christian girl with the aim of killing her and using her blood in their religious rites. The criminals, adventurers and bigots had begun to gather, to shout, to insult the Jews, and were openly pushing for a pogrom. The union centre buglers sounded the alarm and called the workers to stop work and to get together. It was an alarm known to the workers, and when it rang out they had to immediately stop whatever they were doing, arm themselves with whatever came to hand and rush to the union centre. Some young people headed for the factories and the workers’ neighbourhoods. In less than half an hour, thousands of workers had assembled in front of the union centre and an enormous human mass set off in the direction of the pogromists, with a sign at its head: “Hands off the Jews”. The whole bunch of vagabonds, thugs and cretins, along with the traders and priests who had stirred them up, scattered at the sight of the popular torrent. Following this we formed a committee and demanded that the Governor General arrest the instigators. They were arrested and imprisoned. Two months later, we met them again in the new prison, when it was our turn to be granted its hospitality.
A gathering of bakery workers, called outside the union centre because of some decision by the government, suffered a savage attack from a powerful group of thugs from the Macedonian Royalist Youth. Many were injured in the clashes, and I myself suffered a serious blow to the head. After breaking up the gathering, the thugs, shouting and pushing barrel organs in front of them playing the monarchist anthem The Son of the Eagle, headed towards the union centre. But in the meantime, informed in an instant, all of workers’ Thessaloniki rushed from the factories and the neighbourhoods with improvised weapons, iron bars, axes, clubs, to defend the centre and their comrades.
The centre was the target of daily attacks from royalist thugs. They went around in cars, shouting crude insults, firing shots, but fleeing chaotically when the workers marched out of the building. At this time the police left us alone, but they left the henchmen of the Royalist Youth alone as well. The liberals had disappeared from the scene and no one mentioned them.

(14)
Today Alexandroupolis.

(15)
Thessaloniki, Macedonia and Thrace, only integrated into Greece since 1913, had a special status and were placed
under the authority of a governor.

(16)
That is to say, in Ladino, a language derived from Spanish spoken by the Jews of Thessaloniki, descended from
the Jews driven out of Spain in the fifteenth century by the Catholic Isabelle.