British delegate in Athens: We must learn the lessons of our history

What lessons can the Greek revolutionary experience teach those of us struggling against imperialism and for socialism today?

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The following speech was delivered by Comrade George on behalf of our party at the recent World Anti-imperialist Platform conference in Athens on 18 November 2023.


Comrades, since last we met, we cannot but feel the sea change in the conditions in which our struggles against imperialism and for socialism are being waged. We cannot but be aware that the imperialists of the US-led Nato block and their allies and stooges around the world are looking increasingly weak and vulnerable, even as they beat the drums for war and menace the people of the world.

The foundations for this turning in the tide of class struggle have been in the process of being laid for some time.

They were laid by the heroic resistance to imperialist wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

They were laid by the steadfast refusal to submit to economic brigandage by the DPRK, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Iran, Syria, Venezuela and Russia.

They were laid by eight years of antifascist resistance in Donbass and by 75 years of anti-zionist resistance in the middle east.

They were laid by the rapid advance in development levels in the People’s Republic of China, which has set itself the target of becoming technologically independent by 2025.

And they were laid by the deep crisis of the global capitalist economy, which has been inflicting wave after wave of austerity and war on the masses, particularly since the banking collapse of 2008. As we meet, a new downward lurch of this crisis is expected to break out into the open at any moment – and to bring with it consequences that will make the problems of 2008 look like a walk in the park.

At such a time, comrades, it is vital that we are doing everything we can to prepare our movement to overcome the obstacles that lie between us and a successful conclusion to our struggles against imperialism and for socialism.

Lessons of the Greek revolution

Meeting in Athens gives us the opportunity to reflect on the experience of comrades here in Greece during the last great wave of revolutionary struggle – a wave that was unleashed by another crisis of overproduction and another global war drive. And as we examine afresh the great victories and defeats of our Greek comrades in the 1940s, we can see that this history contains many vital lessons for our movement today.

The KKE was founded, as were communist parties around the world, out of the upheaval and crisis of the first world war and following the triumph of the Bolshevik party in the Great October Socialist Revolution.

That earth-shaking event proved decisively the necessity of Bolshevising our movement – of building in every country a party of the Leninist type. Parties founded firmly on the principles of scientific socialism and experienced in the art of popularising this Marxist understanding amongst the masses. Parties capable of attracting the best elements of the working class and training them. Parties able to navigate the complex waters of class struggle and hold firmly to the main objective at any particular moment, pointing out a clear line of march to the wider masses. Parties organised so that their cadres can carry out party decisions with the flexible manoeuvrability and iron discipline of a highly-motivated army.

Comrades, a movement and parties of this type are still what the working class needs if it is to succeed in freeing itself from exploitation once and for all. We must study seriously and in detail the experience of the Bolsheviks in building such a party, as well as the experience of doing the same in our own countries. Where did they succeed? Where did they fail? How can this understanding help our movement to develop today?

Lessons of the Third International

In the early days of the new Communist International, most of the parties that made it up were small. In many parts of the world, no meaningful socialist movement had existed before the October Revolution electrified the nascent national movements against colonialism, catapulting a new awareness of Marxism into their midst.

In Europe, new communist organisations were formed from the revolutionary wings of the old, rotten social-democratic parties that had failed the workers so badly during the interimperialist carnage and revolutionary crisis of World War One.

And here is another important lesson for us today: it is not the size or the age of an organisation that determines its success, but its ability to find and stick to a correct line; its ability to withstand the constant pressures of bourgeois ideology and bourgeois political and social life; its sincerity in striving for a really revolutionary outcome; its success in training cadres who study deeply and who learn to put theory into practice, doing everything possible to raise the level of the collective’s wisdom even as it learns to act in a united and disciplined way.

In every country, these new, small parties took strength from the success of the October Revolution in overthrowing Russian tsarism and imperialism, from the solving of the national question by the young USSR, from the liberation of Soviet women, and from the immense successes of the world’s first planned economy – which unleashed the latent power and creativity of the working masses even as the global capitalist economy was sinking into its worst ever crisis of overproduction.

And, of course, Soviet socialism wasn’t merely a distant example. It was a base for the world revolution in a very practical sense. From all over the oppressed world, young revolutionaries came to train – in Marxist philosophy, history and economics, in party-building and in the techniques and logistics of underground organisation and liberation warfare.

The great Greek communist leader Nikos Zachariadis is a case in point. As a young man he travelled to the Soviet Union and studied at both the International Lenin School and the Communist University of the Toilers of the East. He returned to Greece with the knowledge and experience necessary to help his party overcome its theoretical confusion and internal divisions, leading the KKE in a phase of rapid growth and development.

Looking at this period, we see how our movement was able to grow rapidly in a situation where the communist forces were united and working together across international boundaries. Small communist parties were able to grow with the Soviet example and support at their back, and with a meaningful analysis and programme to offer to the workers at a time when the economic crisis was exposing the inescapable and obscene contradictions of the capitalist system.

Fighting fascism and repression

This combination of the rise of an effective communist movement and the deepening crisis of the capitalist system forced the imperialists to resort to fascism, for fascism is the ideology of the imperialist bourgeoisie facing a deep economic crisis and the threat of its revolutionary overthrow. The imposition of fascist regimes in so many countries created an extremely difficult situation for the workers, who had to learn to wage the struggle in illegal ways.

Here again, the Bolshevik example was of great help, for they had been the first to really successfully combine legal and illegal forms of work, and had a great store of experience and knowledge to share.

In Greece, the KKE was banned and its leaders imprisoned by a pro-fascist regime that had the backing of British imperialism. The party was disorganised and had to adjust to illegal methods of work. But even from a prison cell, Comrade Zachariadis was one of the first leaders in Europe to call for a national front against fascism, galvanising the workers to action by writing his legendary letters from jail, in which he set out a communist approach to waging the antifascist and anti-imperialist struggle.

Communist leadership of the Greek national-liberation war, waged first against Italian and then against German fascist occupation, has many parallels with the anti-Japanese war waged by Mao Zedong and his comrades in China – a war in which the communists had to overcome their own internal divisions and also to force the unreliable and anticommunist nationalist forces into cooperation.

Much can be learned about communist strategy and tactics in an oppressed country from studying these two examples.

In Greece, the communists made their first important advance in the battle against hunger, which had struck with a vengeance in the wake of the Nazi invasion of May 1941. The German occupiers, commandeering food and other resources for themselves, left the masses so bereft that a full one-third of the Greek people starved to death. The communist-organised National Liberation Front (EAM), recognising that this was its first duty, organised public dining rooms to ensure the physical survival of the people.

The communists also founded the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) – the only anti-Nazi resistance movement not supported by the British, which actually helped it to gain the loyalty of the masses. The revolutionaries soon established liberated areas in the countryside and grew strong enough not only to mount guerrilla attacks but to wage full-scale warfare against the German and Italian occupiers.

In the liberated areas, a new form of government was established. Not only was the population saved from hunger, but for the first time ordinary Greek people, including women, were involved in determining their everyday lives, and for the first time they could be involved in political life under the leadership of the Communist party. This was the first time that women had been given the right to vote in Greece.

As in China, such acivities immensely enhanced the reputation of the communists and won for them a huge and loyal following. The National Liberation Front grew to include two million members, one-third of the population – the biggest organisation ever to have existed in Greece.

Many lessons are encapsulated for communists in this history. We can see how, by mobilising the broadest possible section of the masses behind the immediate slogans of antifascism, anti-imperialism, liberation and self-determination, but without subordinating their communist programme and outlook, the best possible conditions were created for connecting Marxism with the masses.

Within such a movement, it was possible for all those involved to learn quickly and from experience that the most steadfast, the most dependable friends of the people were the communists, since they worked with selfless discipline and were seeking nothing for themselves, only wishing to share the lot of the workers and to help them come to the understanding that the only permanent solution to their problems lay in replacing capitalist anarchy with planned socialist production.

Of course, the Greek revolutionaries were helped enormously in these efforts by the example of Soviet socialism, whose light shone like a beacon across a world that seemed otherwise consumed by the darkness of imperialist fascism and war.

Betrayal and defeat of the Greek revolution

The question of how the Greek revolution came ultimately to fail even when victory seemed firmly within its grasp is one that is still debated today. Undoubtedly the absence of the party’s most experienced practical and theoretical leader in Dachau concentration camp for four years played its part. So, too, did the complex geopolitical situation, in which the Greek partisans had essentially won their war against Nazi Germany before the war as a whole was over.

The compromises reached with British imperialism, which was officially on the same side of the global antifascist alliance as the Greek partisans, but in practice had been a long-term sponsor of fascist and monarchic forces in the country, also proved catastrophic. The perfidious British took full advantage of the terms of the peace deal to instal a government of their own choosing while breaking every one of the promises they had made to the revolutionary forces during negotiations.

Forty thousand English soldiers entered Athens, and they had no hesitation in using fascist security organisations that had been set up by the Nazis to establish the authority of the new regime. Britain’s role in attempting to crush the Greek revolution was ruthless and bloody: it armed and directed the old monarcho-fascist organisations that were loyal to its interests, while bombing and starving working-class populations without hesitation – in particular during the 37-day Battle of Athens in December 1944.

The release of Zachariadis from Dachau in 1945 returned him to Greece and restored him as general secretary of the party. The armed struggle was organised once again and elections organised by the British occupiers were boycotted, since it was clear they could be neither free nor fair under such circumstances.

The British Labour government that had come to power in 1945 was fully committed to the same path that Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill had taken in Greece. Despite all the brutalities inflicted on the Greek people, however, British imperialism was unable to sustain the military and economic effort required to suppress the revolution, and this role had to be handed over to the increasingly dominant power of US imperialism.

Under the ‘Truman doctrine’, the USA had committed itself to intervene anywhere in the world to protect any regime that was faced with imminent socialist revolution. In 1947-8, US forces launched a series of major offences in the mountains of Greece against the partisans. It was here that the US army used napalm bombs for the first time. This weapon has become synonymous with imperialist brutality since the Vietnam war, but the truth is that such weapons have been used by the imperialists in almost every war they have waged from 1948 until today, when the latest iteration of napalm – white phosphorous – is being dropped on civilians in Gaza.

During this vicious anti-insurgency campaign, partisans were beheaded, young men were driven out of the countryside en masse in order to deprive the democratic forces of recruits, and a network of prisons and concentration camps was established housing nearly 30,000 leftists, militants and their families. Every form of torture and degradation was inflicted on those unfortunate enough to be sent to such notorious dungeons as Makronissos and Yaros.

Meanwhile, the American soldiers acted as an army of occupation. As in Korea and elsewhere, they lived as a privileged caste, able to commit crimes against the local population with total impunity. From that day forward, the US embassy acted as a behind-the-scenes shadow government in Greece.

The last straw for the Greek partisans was the betrayal of Yugoslavia’s leader Josip Broz Tito. Navigating a difficult international situation, in which the Soviets were working night and day to effect the recovery of their war-torn homeland, and in which the USA had an atom bomb but the Soviet Union did not, Josef Stalin’s USSR officially gave no military assistance to Greek forces. Clearly an unofficial agreement existed in the socialist camp, however. The USSR in reality sent much support through back channels. It even sent tanks through Yugoslavia, but these were confiscated by Tito.

When Tito made the first rupture in the world socialist ranks, breaking with the Soviet Union and insisting on a ‘third way’ towards socialism, to the great delight of the imperialists, one of his many hostile acts was to close the Yugoslav border to Greek partisans in July 1949, the KKE leadership having taken the principled position of supporting the CPSU’s correct position regarding the socialist line of advance.

Trapped between the closed border and the US bombardment, the Democratic Army of Greece was finally defeated. As the vicious campaign of suppression and retribution unfolded, 60,000 Greek partisans, communists and family members were forced into exile in the socialist countries.

Thus we see that the ravages of revisionism within our own movement can be said to have claimed their first victims even before the death of Stalin.

The ravages of revisionism

The next great challenge for our movement was the change of political and economic line in the USSR that accompanied the change of leadership after Stalin’s death in 1953. This was an ideological onslaught that very few parties proved able to withstand.

The theoretical gutting of many communist parties was a process already beginning to get underway in the imperialist countries, where welfare provision to the masses under the threat of socialist revolution had persuaded the communists of Britain, France and the USA to believe that there was now a peaceful road open to socialism. And this process was given a decisive and worldwide impetus by the ascent of Nikita Khrushchev to the position of CPSU and Soviet leader.

Very few parties had the kind of leadership that was able to see the danger in the new lines adopted by Khrushchev during this period. One of the great tragedies for both Greece and the world is that one of the first and most principled of those who did see and did speak out against the problems he saw developing was KKE leader Nikos Zachariadis.

In many ways, Zachariadis was uniquely positioned to understand what was happening, both because of his former experience and training in the USSR and the Comintern, and also because of his first-hand experience of the changes that began to take place inside the Soviet Union after 1953. But given a situation in which he and his comrades were entirely dependent upon Soviet hospitality, Zachariadis needed both principle and bravery to speak up.

The reward for his courageous stand was to find himself effectively excommunicated from the movement. The Khrushchev clique had him removed as leader and then expelled entirely from his party. He was exiled to Siberia and his ability to influence the debate and strengthen the forces of anti-revisionism was cut off.

In this way, Nikos Zachariadis’s legacy was also buried. So effectively was information about his life and work hidden away that very few communists outside of Greece today remember his name. This must be reversed and the true nature of his revolutionary legacy brought to light, for his example in standing up against opportunism and revisionism, no matter what the cost to himself, is one that must be followed by all those who sincerely work towards the defeat of capitalist-imperialism.

Let us take good note of this, the most important lesson of all. The strongest blows that have brought the most devastation to our movement have not come from outside, but from within our midst.

The troubles brought upon us by Khrushchevite revisionism and the steady descent into bourgeois parliamentarism and ‘Eurocommunism’, the fratricidal warfare resulting from the Sino-Soviet split, the gutting and degeneration of parties that gave up a serious and independent study of Marxism … these have done more damage than have the combined military assaults of German, Japanese, British and US imperialism.

Let us learn from the example of Comrade Kim Il Sung in Korea, who almost alone amongst communist leaders was able to navigate the turbulent ideological waters of this most difficult period. Not only facing the unremitting hostility of US imperialism but managing to maintain respectful and fraternal relationships with the USSR and China.

The key? Comrade Kim Il Sung and the leaders of the Workers Party of Korea did not give up their independent study of Marxism; did not give up their right to question the decisions or proposals of the leaders even of the biggest communist parties in the world.

Mastering Marxism

This is a lesson to communists everywhere. Not one of us should hand over the entire burden of thinking to our leaders, no matter how well they have proved themselves in the past. Our movement is one that relies on deep knowledge and collective decision-making, and our discipline must be based on this knowledge.

Without this basic requisite of Bolshevik organising, we are left with only blind obedience and unquestioning loyalty, which is a perverse mockery of the communist unity we are striving to build. Indeed, blind obedience and unquestioning loyalty are the hallmarks not of communist but of fascist organisations.

The better educated each one of our members becomes, the more they strive as individuals to master the science of Marxism, the more effective and capable will be the collective of which they are a part – the better able their parties will be to reach correct decisions, the more confident will the members be in carrying out the party’s programme, and the more quickly will our parties discover and rectify their mistakes.

As this new period of revolutionary upsurge develops, this is the task that is urgently put before communists everywhere, whose firm presence is desperately needed to give theoretical clarity and organisational discipline to the workers’ movements against imperialist war and exploitation. The stakes could not be higher.

Let us rise to this challenge, comrades, and take this message back to our comrades all over the world:

Now is the time to master Marxism!