Athens Polytechnic, 14 to 17 November 1973: When 350 dreamer-adventurers created the biggest defeat of the postwar labour movement

The below is a very thorough and interesting article on the Polytechnic occupation/uprising that was written by Gatouleas in Greek. It was so good that I decided to translate this to English so that more people may learn this important part of Greek anti-capitalist and freedom fighting history. Enjoy!


November 14, 1973

Black and White people of a large crowd of university students (primarily males) demonstrating in the streets.Rizospastis 13/11/20051

The Polytechnic is surrounded by police and students are gathered in the courtyard throwing Seville oranges. In the global-student assembly of the Law school, the news is spread that there’s fighting at the Polytechnic the assembly decides to descend to the University.

Ergatiki Allillegyi 09/11/20112

A syndicalist of the Revolutionary Left from the Physics-Mathematics [course],  proposes to stop the assembly and make towards the Polytechnic.

Ergatiki Allillegyi 09/11/2011

The leaders of both Communist Parties, during the first day in the Polytechnic were shocked that policy was determined by the line of anti-capitalist Left. They decided to stay “kneading” the perspective of the “coordinated retreat.” Already since Wednesday evening, that has been their proposal. When defeated, they began to struggle against the “leftist slogans” such as “General Strike” and “Revolution people.” But the General Assemblies of schools organized within the Polytechnic isolate this perspective.

On the subject of the Athens Polytechnic uprising against the Junta in the November of ’73 there have been written and spoken thousands of words and stories. It is only to be expected that there’s a lot of “storytelling” for such a historical event.

I will attempt to outline a perspective that has been covered extensively for decades. You see, the “myth” of the Polytechnic has attempted to describe those three days as a pandemic, celebratory and peaceful uprising of the whole Greek people against a handful of ridiculous and isolated dictators who survived only thanks to force of arms and American aid. “Everyone” had taken up arms (peacefully, always!)… Pangalos had been assembling bombs in the Latin Quarter in the May of ’68 and Simitis was placing them in the streets of Athens. On the other hand, the current Minister of Citizen Protection Papoutsis, along with Laliotis and Damanaki had organized the “mass movement” and the “sidewalks”, so that millions of people could flock to demonstrations, sit-ins and strikes.

All countries create such myths. Here even Germany has created the “anti-Nazi” people during the period of 1939-1945 in order to whitewash the fascist history of the “democratic” generals and politicians of their postwar history. Could the Greek politicians do anything less?

A Black and White photo of students occupying the Polytechnic University standing in front of a Tram. A sign for "General Strike" is displayed.

The occupying students of the Athens Polytechnic

But the Left as well has taken actions to make people forget that what happened in November was a genuine uprising, forged within the communist, jacobist tradition…

Today’s Left has relegated “Revolt” to a museum piece. Like a weapon we pull out very rarely. So rarely in fact, that for KKE (Communist Party of Greece) 62 years have passed and there’s still “not ripe conditions”… Needless to say that the last time was “wrong” as well…

Thus, today’s legalistic Left has a few prerequisites it requires before a “Revolt” can happen.

  • The Capitalist system needs to be in a “Crisis.”
  • The political system of governance needs to be in discrepancy with the “people”. A crisis of representation.
  • There need to be favourable international conditions (in grass-root movement terms).
  • The “people”, the “movement” to lie in “orgasm”. Have strikes, demonstrations, occupations. happening and those increasing in quantity but also shape a “communist” consciousness. Of course, the numerical participation in these events must also be “global”… and growing constantly in an arithmetic (if not exponential) progression.
  • To have one (or many) mass parties, with thousands of experienced members, networked throughout Greece, in all work and social places.

Of course, all these must last a sufficient amount of time so that a sequence of political events is created to “tie” the yeast. If ALL these things happen simultaneously, then YES! Our honoured Left will decide to murmur “Revolution.”

Let us travel back in time then, 38 years ago, to see what kind of conditions existed to make the “Uprising” of the Polytechnic. Was the Polytechnic uprising the peak, the maturing of a wholly-populist movement against a staggering regime, or a social “explosion” which found ground to break through via the “madness” of some “irresponsible, adventurist leftists”?

Crisis or Stability in Global Capitalism?

Black & White picture of crying children fleeing in VietnamFor 30 years, there was a continuous development at a global level which, in tandem with the capitalist profits, pushed a lower-middle class into a consumerist orgasm. Cars, refrigerators, televisions in every home…. opening of university education to wider social strata, formation of a “social wage” through an expanded program of public investment. Capitalism “appeared” to be living in its best days.

But in the last two years, the glass was cracking…

The US was being humiliated in Vietnam. For the first time, a great power was “losing” from a “small”. The symbolism was too strong.

On the other hand, A financial crisis breaks out in 1973 that is considered the “worst since 1929″, while the Arab countries declare an embargo on the sale of oil. 1973 is considered now the landmark year for the reappearance of the “capitalist economic crisis” in political terminology. The so-called “oil crisis of ’73” caused chain reactions around the globe.

Surely all these affected the confidence of the fighters of the Left. The Crisis and collapse of the system was not of course like the current one, but the appearance of the first crack often triggers – through sheer enthusiasm – disproportionate explosions.

But lets look at the other parameters.

Greek Capitalism and the Political System.

A parade of the Greek Junta in what appears to be a stadium. The sign says "Calm, Work, National Security".

Greece was a great postwar economic miracle! Growth rates reached 10% per year (second locomotive in the world after Japan)3 and the state budgets were in surplus until the fall of the Junta.

In 19694 Greece has the highest per capita income among OECD member countries, the largest – after Japan – increase of indices of total and per capita gross domestic product in market prices, the lowest price increase of the consumer index.

In April of 19725 the growth of industrial output reaches 10.5%, metallurgy 26.8% and chemical products 20.1%.

This economic growth had enabled the junta to “buy out” her social bloc. They spread the famous “sea-loans” to every middle-class, Housing loans for personal residence, farmer loans up to 100.000 drachmas (something like 200-300 thousand euros today), “investment” tourist loans6… and almost all of these never repaid. It is because of this that you still hear now the classic “How nice we were during the Junta”, which are the memories of middle-class for the “easy money” of the Junta.

The “oil crisis” that erupted in the summer of ’73 pushed the oil price and thus the inflation from 2% to 15%. Surely it was a shock, but I doubt whether it severed the social bloc power of the Junta.

The most important problem was the European orientation of Greek capitalism. The prospect of joining the EU (Then EEC) imposed a parliamentary democratic façade and created a rift in the strategy of the Greek capital. It was not possible to get a new member without parliamentary and european elections and without a rudimentary political system. So by the end of 1972 begins a period of “tolerance” and preparation of the climate for a controlled transition into some kind of democracy… something like the status of Turkey. In the summer of ’73, the monarchy is repealed by “referendum” and Papadopoulos is proclaimed “President of the Republic”, while in September placing Markezinis as a “Prime Minister” who would arrange the “Free Elections.”

Surely this “crack” of democracy, played the role. Some sporadic meetings at universities, the first union strikes, but everything could be counted in the fingers of one hand. Whenever they escaped the propriety of the cop (such as the occupation of the Law school in the February of ’73), repression was swift and merciless.

So, at the national level as well, we notice the first post-war cracks of instability. Too little? Or too critical?

Before answering, let’s look at “our own” forces and hopefully draw a safer conclusion.

International Movement

Black & White picture of President Nixon of the USA shaking hands with Chairman Mao of China.

President Nixon is meeting Chairman Mao. Totalitarian "Communism" and Imperialist Capitalism shake hands.

In 1973 the international communist movement has received successive defeats in its attempt of “May ’68” to challenge the capitalist domination. All its strains had been thrashed.

Mother “communist” Russia had invaded Czechoslovakia (Today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia) in 1968 to suppress the process of democratization and sovereignty of the country, creating a strange “equivalent” to that of the U.S. in Vietnam.

But the other versions of the communist movement had no “beacon of optimism” to offer either.

The center-left eurocommunism of democratic reform of the state was crushed in the summer of ’73 in Chile. The left-wing Allende fell dead from the dictatorship of General Pinochet, thus freezing a global solidarity movement to the Chilean people.

The Maoist movement had begun to receive huge credibility hits. Their “Great Helmsman” Mao had found a new “partner.” In early 1972, the U.S.A. President Nixon visits “communist” China and launches a new program of friendly relations. Yes! The president of the Vietnam war, the same from the Watergate scandal, is considered an “ally” of the “other” communist movement.

A Black & White photo of a Ulrike Meinhof in her youth, sitting in a couch looking towards the camera.

Ulrike Meinhof, part of the core of the defunct German Red Army Faction. A violent city guerilla with communist ideology.

Of course, the “grass-roots” [political movement] May of the French had been defeated in the same summer. The elections that president de Gaulle called had him re-elected with an overwhelming proportion over 50%. It was the first great lesson that if you don’t draw your own organizational strengths, you will always lose to your opponent…no matter how weak they are.

But even the city guerilla had received a hard blow. The arrest of Baader and Meinhof, i.e. the core of the German RAF (Red Army Faction) in 1972 put an implacable political dilemma in this concept. This followed the battle of the Olympic Games and the suppression of the Palestinian strike at the Israeli mission. Armed rebels seemed incredibly weak in front of the state machine.

All the hope that had been born in the ’60s, in Europe, America and the Third World national liberation movements seemed blocked. Each “proposal”, old or new, Stalinist – Trotskyist – Maoist – Guevarist – Eurocommunist – Autonomist, had suffered a crushing defeat.

The movement was entering a period of recuperation

Greek Movement

Things here are almost clear. The labour movement had been crushed in the coup of ’67. The entire reconstruction effort of the late ’60s, all the heroic battles of the Julians of ’56 had been dissolved by the military regime of Papadopoulos.

Black & White picture of a students on top of a building, holding a composite sign which spells "Freedom" in greek.

Occupying students of the Law University, shout "Freedom" from the rooftop, 9 months before Polytechnic Uprising.

The unions dissolved or became narks. Police had official branches of “labour” and “student” in order to monitor every suspicion of collective action. Even a gathering for a cultural association had its official snitch.

But the “whip” is never enough to sustain a regime. It also needs its “carrot”; it needs the arrangement of a social bloc – other than the capitalists – which will support it, and the rest of the overwhelming majority to “tolerate” it at least.

The economic growth that prevailed in Greece allowed the regime to buy-out the middle classes. This caused a corresponding ideology of happiness and anticipation for an even better tomorrow.

The exceptions of some heroic strikes cannot hide this reality. The “epicness” of the two 48-hour general strikes, the continuous 24-hour ones, the union continuous strikes and the occupations of public buildings that are happening today, did not occur even in the wildest wet dreams of the most drunken dreamer rebel during the seven years of the Junta.

The attempt to occupy the Law school 9 months ago, was crushed at birth, and (logically) a repeat of it would act as a disincentive. Is that not so?

Parties and organizations of the Left.

A Black & White Picture of a Man in handcuffs, surrounded by police and politicians of the Greek Junta

Alekos Panagoulis tried to execute the dictator Papadopoulos in 1968, but failed and was arrested.

Here is the absolute ZERO! Everything was illegal and KKE had split in 1968. The dissolution was absolute! A few members and without any kind of infrastructure. A telling example is given to us by Nikos Karras7, a leading member of KKE and later KKE Interior (The epochal version of the SYRIZA party):

…I was telling my wife that the whole point was to get in contact with Mina, since we had foreseen to erect an illegal infrastructure in case of dictatorship. When, thus, we met with Mpampis8 down at the beach, I asked: ‘Have you found Mina?’ ‘I found her.’ ‘Finally’ I say ‘let us prepare something.’ ‘Nah’ he answers, ‘she has nothing.’ ‘Nothing? Not even a polygraph?’ ‘Not a polygraph nor anything else!’

The reconstruction effort is slow and laborious. They have to overcome all the problem of lawlessness, and their political unreliability. The inability of the Left to resist the coup on one hand, and the economic and political stability of the regime on the other, put very large problems in front of the non-branded fighters… the others were either abroad, in prison, or exiled to barren islands.

Tragic finale and brilliant start

Typically, the Polytechnic was a “defeat” for the labour movement. And how could it be otherwise? With all these negative conditions around it, the uprising not only failed to achieve its stated objectives (the fall of the Junta, removal of NATO bases, etc.) but was repressed violently with dozens of dead. Even the rudimentary democratic rights and concessions that were being negotiated by the government, went on hold.

A Black & White photo of tanks rolling in the streets of Greece

Suppression of the Uprising. Tanks marching outside Polytechnic.

Neither did it usher in the Parliamentary Republic, as wrongly written by Greek mythology. That had already been initiated “from above” for capital needed a European profile on its way to the EU.

So, if these unfavourable circumstances were leading with mathematical precision towards a crash, was perhaps the uprising a “mistake”?

Not so in fact! The Polytechnic ushered in the Metapolitefsi (Regime Change)!  In other words, the entrance of the mass movement as a political factor. The workers, the students, the communist movement, was articulating against the aspirations of the bosses. The building of the trade unions, the leftist parties, civil rights are not won by Parliamentarism, but rather by the Communist labour movement. If in doubt, see the Patriot Act in the U.S.A., the civil rights in Turkey, and whether “Parliamentarism” has prevented the operations against house squatting in northern European countries.

The dead of the Polytechnic cancelled any chance of social consensus with the government. They brought to the fore, the social and political polarization. They redefined the boundaries of right-left… in our own terms.

Never again has a “defeat” in the greek labour movement been so promising, like that of the Polytechnic.

The legacy of left legalism – reformism

A newspaper clip of the time

A newspaper clip from the condemnation coming from a communist party speaker. The highlighted part reads "In parallel with the larger democratic unifying movement which promotes the entrance into democratic normality, dark forces are working to block the road to that direction and organize challenges so that the imposition of military measures are justified"

Rereading thus, the context of historical events 38 years later, one might say that there was not a single prerequisite for insurrection. Both against the Junta, let alone capitalism.

In an international and Greek level, capitalism did recover as the winner, the crisis had not begun to unfold, while the subjective forces of the labour and communist movement are fragmented and defeated, with the middle classes hostile to anti-capitalist points of view.

This explains the shouts of disapproval against the Polytechnic uprising, by the Communist Party (KKE) and KKE Internal (the SYRIZA of the times). Having read “correctly” the criteria that are ruminated, even today, by the majority of the left, the uprising was an “adventurist” move, without vision, without organization, without preparation, without social alliances, which put at risk the entire labour movement.

Even a year after the uprising, the two Communist Parties of the time were strongly condemning the Occupation of ’73 as a leftist setback of the movement. After the fall of the  junta they changed their tune and attempted to expunge from the Polytechnic of ’73, the element of the uprising as coming from an organized intervention of Revolutionaries – Communists.

A newspaper clip from the Panspoudastiki newspaper

An "announcement-answer" clip from the Panspoudastiki newspaper. February '74

The Communist Party of Greece wrote9 that the invasion of 350 provocateurs in the Polytechnic during November, was a minority act by Anarchists in order to set up a caricature revolt and provide an excuse to restore martial law.

The Communist Party, Internal of Drakopoulos  and Kyrkos, believed that “The Athens Polytechnic took us 10 years backwards”10 and condemned the “challenges that provide an alibi for the imposition of military measures.”11

Today’s Left is a true child of the despondent legalists of the KKE and the eurocommunist KKE Internal. Those rehashing the terms and conditions, those who “condemn” the extremists of provocateur elements which endanger the labour movement, do not belong to the generation of the uprising, but to that of compromise and reformism.

 The inheritance of the “350 Provocateurs”

After we’ve described the adverse objective and subjective conditions, it would be good to try to reach the “paste” of the instigators of the uprising. What the hell were they thinking?

Because the occupation of the Polytechnic was an organizationally set move coming from the, then, Revolutionary Left. The fighters of the Revolutionary Left chose it after the “defeat” of the Law school. The NPR was at a main road and could not be cut off by police such as the building of the Law school in Solonos. The PaSoK-KKE-SYRIZA were caught napping, the occupation happened, and the Junta attempted to act a “Democracy”. The occupation started becoming a mass phenomenon and the military suppression came 3 days later to dissolve an under-construction centre of revolutionary overthrow.

I suspect that the instigators of the occupation had any of the three characteristics

  • They made a wrong analysis of the times. They had not read the retreat of the movement and thus estimated a pre-revolutionary period.
  • They were inexperienced uber-revolutionaries. They had not imagined the dynamics that would arise from the occupation of the Polytechnic, nor the rabid response of the state. They might have considered it even as a “preparatory stage.”
  • They were subjectivists. They put their own volition over the objective circumstances.

Their most important characteristic however, was that they saw themselves as a Subject of developments.

A Black & White picture of a german revolutionary paphletThey were followers of a great tradition of the labour movement, which recognizes the need for a separate political centre of Revolutionaries. That sees Communism, not as education, enlightenment of the “ignorant by the enlightened leadership”, but rather as a Movement within the Movement.

Obviously I’m not advocating that wrong estimates and uber-revolutionarism are “recipes for success.” On the contrary! These weaknesses are what lost the wager for the Revolutionary Left and thus failed to “inherit” the uprising, to continue into winning a second attempt.

But they left a legacy that is almost lost in oblivion… That of revolutionary determination and Subjectivism. That which tries to find the weakest spots in its opponent and bit as hard as it can… with whatever strength it has. That which opposes Objectivism12, the Long Encirclement of Capitalism, and the Ripe Fruit.  That which does not consider revolution to be an exact mathematical praxis, but rather a chaotic system of equations where a Revolutionary Subject can change the course of history.

The legacy which makes people consider themselves as organizers and battering rams at the same time! And not a self-loathing analyst and “expressor” of social strata.

This is the required tradition for a Labour Movement which seeks a new proposal against the capitalist hell.

And a sci-fi “historic” test…

There is a simple way for each of us to recognise in which tradition we belong… and that may help us today.

Let us imagine that we possess a communist time-machine. A cocoon which teleports us to the past.

Suppose you are transferred as a student in the Law school’s meeting in the morning of the 14th of November 1973, and you can now vote.

You know what is about to happen, and the only thing you have, is your own skin. I am sure you will try to make the Junta fall, you will give everything for the Left and the movement.

However…

Would you have voted AGAINST the occupation, so that the uprising can be prepared better? To take better advantage of any democratic openings? To grow your organization? Would you attempt to convince on the 15th to leave peacefully and in form, “before dissolving”? Perhaps on the 16th you would beg your comrades not to give the state a justification to send in the tanks?

Or would you vote FOR and give a utopian struggle  to overthrow the Junta within 3 days, regardless of all the “objectively” difficult conditions you’re having and the repression you KNOW is going to come? Would you push furiously to take advantage of every minute of class struggle, determined for everything? Ready to continue with an ever greater momentum on the 18th for the next round?

In the first case, you do well to lie within the chains of PAME-KKE or bargain for ministries with CenterLeft-Kouvelis

In the latter, welcome to the most magical and utopian history written in the 21st century…

In the colours and music of the Revolution.

 

A Black & White picture oh a hand graspind a small black flag, rising from an erupting steet.

  1. Greek Communist Party newspaper, literally translating to “Radical” []
  2. “Εργατική Αλληλεγγύη” literally translates to “Worker’s Solidarity”. It’s a weekly anti-capitalist newspaper. []
  3. Sixth issue of the tri-monthly Economic Inspection of OECD, December 1969 []
  4. Yearly edition of OECD, 1969 []
  5. Monthy Edition of Main Economic Indicators []
  6. Financial Scandals of the Greek Military Junta []
  7. Interview in the Magazine “The Commenter” 60-61 []
  8. Mpampis Drakopoulos, another leading member and future president of the KKE, Interior []
  9. Panspoudastiki No 8, February 1974 []
  10. Nikos Karras – Interview in the Magazine “The Commenter” 60-61 []
  11. Newspaper Macedonia, 17-11-1973 []
  12. [Translator Note: Not the Randian Kind] []