THE EARLY 1970s were years of mass social and political upheavals round the world. Great movements were on the march everywhere, or almost everywhere.
Greece seemed to be an exception, along with Spain and Portugal. A military dictatorship ruled Greece. Fascist regimes ran Spain and Portugal.
Then suddenly between 1973 and 1975 a crisis engulfed these repressive regimes. In the space of two years an eruption of mass movements swept away the fascists and the colonels.
It all started with the Polytechnic uprising 30 years ago in Athens in November 1973.
In 1967 a military junta overthrew the government in Greece and established a brutal regime of oppression.
Lyndon B Johnson, then US president, fighting an escalating war in Vietnam, found some time to send letters full of praise to Colonel Papadopoulos, the strongman of the regime.
Papadopoulos was the head of the military intelligence service and a longtime friend of the US. Most European governments remained silent.
The bosses welcomed the coup. Police agents took over the unions. Strikes were forbidden. Terror was the order of the day. Using these methods the colonels were able to keep wages low and guarantee rising profits.
For six long years nothing seemed to move. The 1967 coup was a heavy and demoralising defeat for the left and the rising workers’ and youth movement of the early 1960s.
In early 1973 there were signs that this gloomy period was near its end.
The first sparks came from the universities. Greek students were not immune to the wind of revolt that was blowing in every country of the world. It was much easier to discuss and exchange ideas inside the universities.
The Polytechnic uprising started as one more student protest. It was 15 November 1973 when a student demonstration some 500 strong entered the Polytechnic School in the heart of Athens.
The students were protesting against the rigging of student elections by the regime and against police brutality.
For a few crucial hours the regime hesitated to unleash the police and its thugs against the students. That was enough time for the anger to explode. In less than 24 hours what started as a student protest became a general uprising against the regime.
Thousands of university students joined the occupation. Numbers gave them strength. The slogans they were chanting became more and more political and radical—“Down with the dictatorship”, “US out”, “General strike”, “Smash capital” and “People, time for revolution”.
They set up a “free radio station”, a “people’s clinic” for those wounded in the struggle, and a “people’s canteen” to feed the protesters. Groups of students outside of the buildings were distributing leaflets to the crowds going home after work.
The news of the occupation spread like wildfire in the working class districts and at schools. By noon next day thousands of workers and young people were there.
School students came in by the hundreds and then by the thousands. Building workers came in carrying a banner saying “People’s power” and joined the occupation.
Small farmers from nearby came too. They were angry against their land being taken from them for the benefit of a rich shipowner.
Bus drivers slowed down to allow the students to pass leaflets to the passengers and write graffiti. Early in the evening 300,000 people had taken over Athens city centre.
It was an open revolt. A workers’ assembly issued a call for joint students’ and workers’ committees.
These were to go to the factories and building sites to organise a general political strike “for the overthrow of the US-inspired dictatorship and its pillars—local and foreign multinational companies”.
The police were unable to smash the revolt. Instead of encircling the Polytechnic the cops found themselves surrounded by angry crowds.
Thousands of demonstrators tried to storm several public buildings, like the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Public Order.
The colonels panicked. In the early months of the same year they had made plans for a controlled “liberalisation” of the regime, a rotten compromise with most of the old politicians.
Traditional left leaderships had put their hopes in the “liberalisation process”. The angry students and workers thought otherwise.
For decades the dominant force on the left had been the Communist Party.
But in 1968 the party had split into two wings partly as a consequence of the 1967 defeat.
Its crisis created the space for groups of a new radical left to emerge, mainly at the universities.
The militants of these groups played a crucial role in the uprising.
Their argument inside the occupied Polytechnic was simple—maintain the occupation and escalate it to a full revolt against the junta.
The occupation had been a spontaneous action. But without the arguments of the revolutionaries the forces of the old left would have destroyed the spirit of the revolt.
The old left argued in favour of a “coordinated retreat”. When they lost this argument in the students’ assemblies they tried to issue a call for a “government of national unity” with conservative politicians. They lost this argument too.
The colonels decided to answer the challenge of the uprising the only way they knew how—with brute force.
In the late hours of 16 November tanks, armoured vehicles and elite army units started to move towards the city centre. The police and their agents started to fire live ammunition at the demonstrators.
The workers and the students did not abandon the streets and their brothers and sisters inside the Polytechnic. They tried to stop the tanks with barricades and counter-attacks.
But that was impossible. A tank smashed through the central gate of the Polytechnic School at 3am on Saturday 17 November.
The military regime murdered dozens of students and workers inside the Polytechnic. The massacre continued through the night on the surrounding streets. Hundreds more were wounded. The uprising was quelled but the regime itself was mortally wounded.
The junta managed to survive for another eight months. The Polytechnic uprising was the beginning of its end.
Sections of the ruling class saw that to continue to support the colonels might lead to other confrontations like the Polytechnic—confrontations that the military might not win.
The military regime tried to resist these pressures by organising a coup to overthrow the government of Cyprus in July 1974 and win Cyprus for Greece.
The coup attempt provoked the Turkish military invasion of Cyprus.
The colonels thought that a “small victorious war” would build up their prestige and break their isolation.
But when they declared a general mobilisation for war their regime came crashing down.
Thousands of reservists went to the barracks but the officers did not dare to distribute any weapons to them.
They were afraid that the young workers and students in uniform would turn the guns against them. No one wanted to die in a war for the prestige of the butchers of the Polytechnic.
That was the end of the junta. People took to the streets and a group of generals decided to hand over to a government of old politicians.
That was not the end of the movement. In the following months an eruption of mass radicalisation took place.
A wave of strikes swept workplaces as workers demanded trade union freedoms and wage rises. Factory workers went on strike, often clashing with the police outside the factory gates.
Mass anti-imperialist demos shook the country.
Hundreds of thousands joined the trade unions and created socialist parties and organisations.
There was a massive shift to the left in people’s ideas and attitudes.
Regimes and governments that seem powerful can collapse under the blows of mass movements of workers and students. That is one of the main lessons of the Polytechnic uprising.
The power to change society and our lives lies in the collective action on the streets and in the workplaces.
Thirty years later the Polytechnic uprising still inspires a new generation of anti-capitalist and anti-war activists.
Leandros is a journalist on Workers’ Solidarity, Socialist Worker’s sister paper in Greece, and the author of a book on the Greek Resistance, The Lost Revolution.