Communists and armed struggle - Greece and Yugoslavia

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Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 91 November/December 1989

During World War II, Yugoslav and Greek communists conducted an armed struggle against the Nazi occupiers. This review by ROBERT CLOUGH contrasts the revolutionary and opportunist tactics pursued by the Yugoslav and Greek Communist Parties respectively. It elucidates fundamental principles about the relation of communists to the armed struggle.

Forty years ago saw the publication of Svetizar Vukmanovic's pamphlet, How and why the people's liberation struggle of Greece met with defeat. Written in 1949 after the final defeat of the Greek revolutionary movement, it is a document that has been unjustly neglected.

In the late 1930s, the author was a youth leader in the underground Yugoslavian Communist Party (CPY); during the war he was a partisan army commander in Macedonia. Afterwards, he became an adviser of President Tito. When he wrote his pamphlet on the Greek revolution, it was from first-hand experience: he spent six months with leaders of the Greek revolutionary army (ELAS) during 1943 in an attempt to unify the two struggles.        

The war of national liberation in Yugoslavia started in June 1941 after the German invasion, whilst armed resistance developed in Greece a year later. Two crucial questions were posed by the formation of partisan detachments in either country: what would be the role of the Communist Parties, and what was to be the relation, if any, between national liberation and social emancipation? These are central to Vukmanovic’s pamphlet, and he provides a powerful polemic against the opportunist standpoint on both these issues.

The positions of the CPY and the Greek Communist Party (KKE) were completely different. The CPY spearheaded the move to armed struggle in 1941, and by emphasising the primacy of armed struggle, it ensured that the question of social emancipation became fused with that of national liberation. However, in Greece the KKE and ELAS retained entirely separate existences, and although KKE members were the core of the ELAS command, they were not KKE leaders themselves. The latter spent the war in Athens, well away from the military struggle. These two different approaches gave two very different results.

Vukmanovic recognises that the issue is not whether Stalin ordered the KKE to limit its struggle in any particular way, as Trotskyists often argue. Stalin did try to restrict the CPY, but under Tito’s leadership, they rightly ignored him. Even less could he impose his view on the KKE; anyway, he did not contact the Greek Party. Hence whatever the KKE did in the period 1942 to 1947 was entirely up to its leadership, and Vukmanovic rightly approaches it thus.

Vukmanovic shows that the KKE leadership believed that despite the changed conditions arising from global war, the focus of the revolutionary struggle must remain in the towns, and that there had to be an under- ground economic and political struggle leading to the creation of armed workers' detachments as the nucleus of a revolutionary army. The problem was that conditions had changed, and an enormous peasant-based explosion had taken place throughout the country: So the question was, how should the KKE react? As Vukmanovic says:

‘This question (that of the forms of revolutionary struggle) inevitably faced all Communist Parties during the Second World War ... It was, plainly, a matter of whether, in the new conditions ... one was to work towards developing the revolutionary struggle of the people through economic and political strikes, through demonstrations and battles at barricades, through armed risings in towns, and so forth, or else work to develop the revolutionary struggle of the body of the people by means of a mass partisan war, not solely against the invaders, but also against one's own traitorous bourgeois reactionaries. Those are quite definitely two different policies, which appeared in this war. The first was an opportunist policy...’ 

Vukmanovic recognises that there was mass partisan war-in Greece, but argues that this was made use of as an ‘incidental, auxiliary form of revolutionary struggle’, and continues:

‘The other revolutionary policy consisted in regarding a partisan war waged by the whole nation as the basic form of revolutionary struggle, while the conduct of mass struggles in the towns was applied solely as an incidental, auxiliary form of struggle. This policy resulted in victory in China and Yugoslavia, ie, in those countries in which it was applied.’

Hence the CPY instructed the working class cadres to leave the towns and join the partisan forces; not only to raise the political level of the revolutionary army, but also so that they could acquire military experience. In this practical way, an alliance was forged between the working class and peasantry under Communist leadership; with the strengthening of the working class contingent, any peasant-based attempt to reduce the war to that of national liberation was frustrated. This effectively excluded the bourgeoisie from any political influence.

The approach of the KKE was quite the opposite. Far from ordering the working class members to join the resistance, it tried all it could to prevent that happening, arguing that they had to remain in the towns. Vukmanovic asks

‘Now, what did such a policy amount to, under the actual historical conditions, with the whole country lapped in the flames of a partisan war, with the vast majority of the peasantry caught up in the armed struggle?’

He answers:

‘In practice it meant dragging the revolutionary movement backwards, and preventing further broad extension of the armed uprising. Lenin taught us that when a revolutionary movement has taken up the watchword of armed uprising, and begun an armed struggle, all other forms of revolutionary struggle must be subordinated to the basic form of struggle, the creation of a revolutionary army and conduct of armed action.’

Independently of the working class, the peasantry had taken up a war of national liberation. Vukmanovic says:

‘... It depended on the strength and organisation of the revolutionary workers’ movement whether the armed struggle of the peasantry would remain a struggle for national liberation alone, or grow into a struggle for the establishment of a people's democratic regime In the whole country, in other words, whether the peasantry would or would not finally pass to the side of the revolution.’

The KKE had decided that workers' action at the point of production was the only way to undermine the fascist occupation. Vukmanovic does not deny that there is a role for traditional forms of struggle. But limiting the working class to these, and so preventing it from direct participation in the armed struggle was

‘... more than opportunism; it was a betrayal of the cause of the people's liberation struggle.’

True, there were a number of armed workers' detachments in the Greek towns, but they were lightly armed, and in the nature of things, unable to mount more than the occasional sporadic attacks. The responsibility of the KKE was to ensure that the working class obtained as much military experience as possible, by drawing workers from the towns and forming proletarian detachments in the countryside.

‘Such units would in a military sense have matured sufficiently, not merely to smash the resistance of the domestic bourgeois reactionaries’ armed forces, but to smash as well the resistance of the British regular forces, on whose intervention [in December 1944 - RC] the leadership should have counted.’

The overwhelming peasant nature of ELAS was a major political obstacle despite its enormous achievements, which we must not forget: its re-organisation of social life in the liberated zones, where, for the first time ever, women had the vote and were drawn into social life. But the peasant units tended to confine themselves to their neighbourhood, so that there was no nationally united revolutionary army. This was in marked contrast to Yugoslavia, where large mobile formations were created, which traversed the country engaging the fascists, and thereby acting as a focus of unity for all the Yugoslav nationalities.

Vukmanovic then shows that the KKE, by dividing the working class from the armed struggle of the peasantry, weakened and ultimately destroyed both. The wider aims of social liberation, the standpoint of the working class, were deliberately kept away from ELAS. An episode related by Dominic Eudis in his book The Kapetanios: Partisans and the Civil War in Greece 1943-49, illustrates this perfectly, since it involves Vukmanovic himself, on a visit to promote co-operation between ELAS and the CPY in 1943.

ELAS leader Andreas Tzimas, also a KKE leader though opposed to the KKE position, invites Vukmanovic (Tempo) to speak at a conference of partisans, attended also by some British liaison officers. Eudis relates:

‘Before the meeting began Tzimas took Tempo aside and asked him what theme he was going to bring into his address.

“I'm going to speak about our liberation struggle”.

‘Tzimas hesitated :"Er ... it would be better not to mention Russia or the Communist Party. We're not supposed to use KKE propaganda material here."

“In that case I won't speak at all. Where I come from it's the Party that supports armed struggle. The other democratic parties haven't stood up to the occupying forces at all.” 

'Tempo mounted the rostrum and went straight to the heart of his subject without any preliminaries:

“We have a lot of enemies in Yugoslavia: the Germans, the Italians, the Bulgarians, the Rumanians, the Hungarians, the Quislings, the Cetniks and the British who are arming the collaborators. Nobody gives us any help. Tito told us: If you need arms, take them from the enemy. Now we have artillery, machine guns, tanks. All we ask of Great Britain is that she refrains from helping Germany indirectly. We don't need anything else from her”.

An ovation drowned his last words.’

British interference in Greek affairs was already well established, with persistent attempts to impose a post-war government made up of Royalists. The partisans were in no mood to see their democratic gains usurped by those who had been their oppressors before the war, and who were inactive at best in opposition to the German occupation. But the position of the KKE was different. A proclamation issued by its leadership in June 1943 said: 

‘While awaiting the final aim, socialism, the party of the proletariat, the Communist Party of Greece fights today for national liberation, but after the war will fight for a democracy, when it must be transformed into the party of the broad working masses, a party of millions of members, a party of a people's regime in Greece.’ 

As a consequence:

‘The Communist Party of Greece, aiding the national liberation struggle with all the means at its disposal, will do all it can to secure the unification of the last patriotic force in one unbreakable national league ...’

The KKE tried to restrict the struggle to one of national liberation, in other words, to one that could be accepted by sections of the ‘democratic’ bourgeoisie. In separating the national liberation struggle from that for social liberation, it provided an avenue for the discredited bourgeoisie to regain its former positions.

In consequence, the KKE had to keep the working class and the peasantry separate and make the development of armed struggle a subordinate issue. How would the bourgeoisie join the national liberation struggle if the working class were armed to the teeth alongside the peasantry? The only chance for the re-establishment of some kind of bourgeois dictatorship was if the working class was rendered politically and militarily defenceless.

This is just what happened. Although ELAS liberated the majority of Greece, the British invaded as soon as they could, in December 1944. The immediate instruction to the invading army was to disarm ELAS, to behave in Churchill’s words as an occupying force. The working class resistance, with honourable exceptions, was very limited. In February 1945, ELAS, under the pressure from the KKE, capitulated. Although repression provoked further armed struggle from mid-1945 to 1947, the working class played no further active role.

Through its polemical form, Vukmanovic's pamphlet clearly contrasts the two fundamental positions, and shows how opportunism can take on the most radical guises. At first sight, the KKE had the more revolutionary position of pure working class struggle. In truth, however, it was opportunist through and through. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and as Vukmanovic says, in those countries where partisan warfare was adopted wholeheartedly by the Communist Party, a revolution was achieved. In those countries where it was viewed as an auxiliary form of struggle, there was only defeat.

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