On 21 April 1967 a group of colonels launched a coup in Greece. They formed a military junta, with the backing of the monarchy and capitalists, which would last seven years.
This power grab was a last resort against a rising workers’ movement.
It meant victory for the ruling class. Ship owners, bankers, industrialists, and construction magnates all celebrated. It opened a period in which resistance was crushed and the ruling class were able to go on the offensive.
The day the junta began I was in Paris. Straight away there was an evening rally with a lot of people, not just students. The same thing happened in Italy, where there were many Greek students.
In London, in collaboration with the British revolutionary left, just a week into the dictatorship we occupied the Greek embassy.
By 1967 the ruling class was desperate for an alternative to workers taking power.
The Greek working class was on the march again, after its crushing defeat in the civil war of 1944-1949—when the British intervened, brutally putting down the left.
Throughout the 1950s the Greek ruling class had sought to modernise the government and develop Greek capitalism.
To this end the right wing National Radical Union (ERE) party was formed in 1955, aiming to defeat the resurgent left politically on behalf of the bosses.
They started out confident, but it quickly became clear it would not be so easy.
They encountered two problems.
The first was conflict within the ruling class, over strategies to deal with Cyprus as well as with the old mechanisms and institutions of the previous period, such as the army.
The second was the resistance which was becoming emboldened and increasingly confrontational.
From 1953, and particularly from 1956, there was an explosion of struggle. For a lot of people the hope that had seemed to be killed off by the end of the civil war was reborn.
These two factors led to an unexpected electoral success for the left. The United Democratic Left (EDA), largely an electoral front for the banned Communist Party, became the leading opposition party in the 1958 election, winning 24 percent of the vote.
The political crisis reached the point where MPs were resigning from parliament.
After 1958, the electoral success of the left brought a new enthusiasm that fuelled the workers’ struggles and their struggles for democracy.
It also brought the student movement back into the frontline.
The GSEE trade union federation grew to include 115 unions. And within schools the left began to take over the student unions.
The ruling class tried to stop these developments by preventing free elections in unions and launching a crackdown on democracy in schools and colleges.
But as the 1961 election loomed these attacks couldn’t match a resurgent movement.
The murder of left wing MP Georgios Lambrakis in 1963 sparked a second explosion of the movement. Prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis called and lost an election and was then forced to flee the country.
The right wingers of ERE were effectively destroyed electorally.
The small social democratic party Centre Union, led by Georgios Papandreou, went on to win the1964 election. Before then it had just 20 MPs.
The Centre Union hoped to fill the void left by the collapse of ERE at the same time as controlling the labour movement.
It leaned on the left in order to govern. And large sections of the left gave Papandreou the chance, hoping that supporting the centre would win some concessions and influence.
But ironically it was the efforts of the ruling class to regain control of the situation which pushed the left into the foreground. Right wingers attempted to force their way into Papandreou’s government.
The king vetoed Papandreou’s cabinet in July 1965. There was an explosion of anger and people rose up, transforming Greek politics for a decade.
For 70 days a mass movement, known as the “July Days”, raged in the streets. This forced the ruling class to realise the only way to halt the momentum of the movement was through Papandreou and his social democratic project.
Within the space of 70 days Papandreou moved a great distance—from defiance to arguing that protesters should avoid creating problems. The Centre Union put down strikes and demonstrations, and put a huge effort into getting people off the streets.
But two critical years passed with both ERE and Centre Union facing a problem that was not going away.
This opened the way for the army, the palace and their allies to gain confidence.
In early April 1967, the King asked ERE leader Panagiotis Kanellopoulos to form a government—even though ERE was not the largest party.
But after both main parties failed to find a way out of the political crisis, the dictatorship was formed a few weeks later.
The leadership of the EDA was caught napping. It had told people not to worry, promising there would be no coup.
1965 had been a crucial moment in the process. The right was in power but the working class was almost in open revolt. By pulling their own forces back the Left gave an opportunity to the other side to go on the counterattack.
After the coup, the junta moved quickly to crack down on the working class, increase the profitability of Greek capitalism and confirm the Greek state’s control of Cyprus.
The Greek ruling class reckoned that by controlling Cyprus it could be the primary force in the plans of US imperialism and its allies in the region towards Turkey.
Popular composer Mikis Theodorakis and others created the National Anti-dictatorship Front. New organizations also came out against the Junta. Some were inspired by Che Guevara, others by Mao Zedong or Leon Trotsky.
The revolutionary left, although small, would go on to spark the Polytechnic uprising in 1973.
This saw universities occupied across Athens in a roar of defiance to the junta, which would fall a year later. Tanks were sent onto campuses to crush opposition, killing student protesters.
In the same year the crew of a Greek navy ship mutinied against the junta.
This resistance forced factions within the junta to confront each other about how to deal with it, contributing to the regime’s downfall.
The final straw was the junta-backed coup in Cyprus on 15 July 1974, which resulted in Turkey invading the island and its eventual partition.
The lessons of the junta’s rise about the role of the state and revolutionary strategy still have enormous significance for the left today.
The coup showed that the left should not enter into political cooperation or agree concessions with bourgeois parties.
This debate has reopened today with Syriza in government. That party thought it could gain effective power simply by getting elected. It cannot.
The alternative is the strategy of workers’ revolution, the overthrow of the bourgeois state and its replacement by a democracy of workers’ councils.
The revolutionary strategy developed by the Bolsheviks in Russia is as relevant as it ever was.
Maria Styllou is editor of Socialism From Below magazine. This is an edited translation of an interview carried out by Socialist Worker’s Greek sister publication Workers Solidarity