Greece: The Curse of Three Generations of Papandreous

In each of the three decisive moments of recent history, Greece has been pulled backwards from a chance for social transformation, political independence, and freedom from external tutelage by one or another of the Papandreou family. The three periods promising new vistas for Greek popular movements include:

  • The period (1944-1945) following the defeat of the Nazi occupation army and its collaborator puppet regime by the Greek partisan resistance, backed by the liberation army (ELAS-EAM) and civilian allies.
  • The decisive electoral defeat of the right-wing New Democratic Party in 1981. The majoritarian vote resulted in the Panhellenic Socialist Party (PASOK), together with the Communist Party, controlling nearly two-thirds of Parliament. Inheriting a "broken and bankrupt and non-viable" capitalist economy from a discredited and crushed right wing, PASOK received a popular mandate to socialize the economy.
  • The world capitalist crises of 2007-2010 and, in particular, the bankrupt and highly indebted Greek capitalist state, which led to the election of George Papandreou (the grandson) in 2009 on a platform of "social change" and increased social welfare. He attracted working class and trade union support on the basis of creating a modern and more just society.

George Papandreou: Between Revolution & Reaction


In the wake of one of Europe’s greatest anti-fascist partisan-led victories, the Greek resistance movement, backed by over two million partisans, advanced toward the liberation of the capital city of Athens in October 1944. With scant support inside the country, George Papandreou was propped up by imperial British warplanes and tanks and the right-wing monarchy in exile. Acting as prime minister, he ordered the disarmament of the Resistance and backed the British military assault on tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators in Constitution Square in Athens, killing and wounding hundreds of Greek freedom fighters. Papandreou presided over the military recruitment of numerous ex-Nazi collaborators and monarchists, financed, armed, and commanded by British—later U.S.—generals. He served as a cabinet minister in subsequent regimes, which launched a vicious assault on mass leftist popular movements. They turned what was a joyful moment of liberation into the beginning of a squalid period of savage repression and the restoration of the upper class from pre-war Greece, along with their pro-Nazi collaborator colleagues. Greece was turned into a client state of the U.S., ruled by a series of externally subsidized police states, which retained their rule by inflating a patronage-based bureaucracy, divorced from modern industry.

Andreas Papandreou and the Demise of the Right


After the demise of the military junta (1967-1974), the Greek right wing came to power, retaining much of the old state apparatus and propping up a wealthy but dysfunctional ruling class living off monetary transfers from the European Economic Community (EEC). The pillage of state resources, the bankruptcy of most of the private sector firms, the backwardness of the agricultural sector, the closed and authoritarian nature of public and private institutions led the vast majority of the working class, students, farmers, and unemployed to provide a massive electoral victory for Andreas Papandreou in 1981. The combined vote of the Socialist and Communist Parties was over 60 percent and provided a clear majority to legally transform the society and economy. Moreover, Andreas Papandreou’s program promised to "socialize the economy," modernize the countryside, and break from imperial domination. In particular, he promised to terminate membership in NATO and the U.S. military base agreement.

Given the fragmentation and decadence of the right wing, political opposition to a socialist advance was at a minimum. Because of the private sectors’ high indebtedness to state banks, the Papandreou government did not even need legislation to expropriate the firms: it could ask for loan repayments or the keys to the firm. However, the "socialist" Papandreou rejected the option of transforming the moribund capitalist system and instead offered new loans, forgave debts, and intervened to restore private ownership by auctioning the firms off to new, private (foreign) owners. At the time, I was an economic adviser to Papandreou. When I asked him why he didn’t socialize the indebted firms, he answered, "because of the crises, it is not the time to transform the economy; it would have to wait till the economy got on its feet." When I reminded him that he was elected to change the system precisely because of the crises and, if capitalism was restored, the political and economic opposition would be more formidable, he replied "that the ‘economy’ is too weak to sustain a socialist regime." He added that "the working class is only interested in consumption, not investing to modernize the economy." In practical terms, Papandreou restored capitalism, increasing the public debt in the process.

During his first term in office, over 80 percent of Greek public opinion was in favor of closing the U.S. military bases and their intelligence operations in Greece. Through false promises to act "in the future," Papandreou maintained the bases. Similarly, Papandreou repudiated the vast majority of voters who elected him to withdraw from NATO. Worse still, Papandreou stayed in the EEC, accepting transfers and loans in exchange for lowering trade barriers. Papandreou used EEC transfers to buy votes via subsidies to farmers, short-term wage gains to workers, and huge tax write offs and loans to business elites. Deficits and debts grew, while the productive apparatus to sustain consumption withered. Patronage was Papandreou’s "alternative" to social transformation. The EEC, in turn, was willing to finance Papandreou and put up with his dysfunctional economic policies because he was undermining the potentially revolutionary social movements for change that originally brought him to power.

While Andreas Papandreou was denouncing NATO in front of mass meetings, he was holding weekly consultations with the U.S. ambassador confirming his loyalty to the military alliance. During the first years of his government (1982-1984), when I directed the Center for Mediterranean Studies and was an unofficial advisor to Papandreou, I would be leaving by the back door of his house in Kastri while the U.S. ambassador was entering through the front door. Eventually, I realized that he borrowed left-wing critiques to justify right-wing policies—a practice in which he became a virtuoso. More recently, a State Department official commented to me that he preferred George Papandreou the younger over his father (Andreas) because he had "the same conformist policies without the demagogy." Over the years, Andreas’s empty rhetoric and pro-NATO practice converted an entire generation of militant socialists into cynical opportunists and social climbers, who sacrificed class solidarity for patronage. The post-junta generation, the student idealists from the Polytechnic struggle, became the corpulent functionaries of the NATO state.

George Papandreou, Jr. and History as Farce (Three Times Over)


Like his family predecessors, George Papandreou was elected in October 2009 in the midst of crisis—this time, the most profound world capitalist crisis since the 1930s. The economy was in a free fall, the public treasury was empty, capitalism was literally bankrupt, and the right wing parties were disgraced and discredited.

During his electoral campaign, Papandreou promised a modern social welfare state with a priority for social investments in public health, education, and ameliorating poverty. Once in office, true to the Papandreou tradition, he did an about face. Striking an indignant posture, he claimed to "discover" that the Greek treasury was empty, the country was over-indebted, and the only solution was to slash living standards by reducing salaries and savaging wages, social programs, and pensions in order to pay the foreign bankers. As with his predecessors, no effort was made to collect back taxes from the rich or embargo the secret foreign accounts of the bankers, corporate executives, ship owners, stock speculators, consultants, and investment brokers who swindled Greek taxpayers and pensioners of billions of euros. No effort was made to recover the debts owed by the private sector to the state financial institutions. On the contrary, Papandreou turned to Wall Street swindlers, such as Goldman Sachs (who, in 2001, facilitated the pillage of public loans for private gain), for advice and support.

Like his grandfather, when faced with mass unrest, he turned to the imperial powers for guidance and direction. In effect, Papandreou surrendered Greek sovereignty and economic policymaking to Merkle, Sarkozy, Obama, and the IMF. They formulated the most draconian, class-based austerity program in recent European history. EU and U.S. policymakers, finding a most docile and submissive client in Papandreou, insisted on many rounds of cuts in living standards over a four month period (December 2009-March 2010), reducing Greek living standards below the levels of the early 1980s. The socialist trade union leaders’ initial, weak protests encouraged Papandreou and his economic and finance ministers to push for greater concessions, hoping to satisfy "the market"—a euphemism for financiers and speculators.

After 30 years of right-wing and PASOK patronage politics, tax-free rides for their business clients, and lending to dysfunctional investors, Papandreou escalated the repression of social movements and trade unions. At the same time, he flew to Paris, Berlin, and Washington, promising more cuts in social budgets and begging for financing to bail out the corrupt state and Greece’s decadent ruling class.

George Junior’s election in October 2009 has turned into a political nightmare. The Papandreou regime went far beyond even the previous right-wing regimes as it handed over the design, direction, and enforcement of the retrograde socio-economic policy to the EU and Washington. Papandreou’s policy is to "save the economy" by destroying it. In the midst of a deepening recession, his regime is reducing spending and incomes and increasing regressive consumption taxes, a sure formula to turn a recession into a chronic depression.

The historic mission of the Papandreou regimes have been to embrace the empire to save the rich, no matter how many dead anti-fascists, disenchanted workers, or immiserated pensioners have to pay the price. The political history of the Papandreou family is a Greek tragic-farce which manifests as the tragedy of a people who fought the good fight against the Nazis and their collaborators only to be savaged by the rising new Anglo-American rulers. The heroic Polytechnic University student struggle (1973) against the U.S.-backed military dictatorship ended with the rise of a pseudo-populist demagogue (Andreas Papandreou) who promised democratic socialism, but ended up socializing the private debts of capitalist thieves. And now, the last (hopefully) in the line of imperial sycophants, who promised progressive changes, but instead imposed regressive policies, is handing over the keys to power to imperial overseers. Beyond the political idiosyncrasies of Greece, the history of social democratic regimes illustrate their role as the saviors of capitalism in crisis. They are allowed by the foreign and domestic elites to come to power because they have the popular backing to implement harsh reactionary policies. In embracing and enforcing their unpopular and retrograde polices, the social democrats—profoundly alienating their working class and lower middle class supporters—commit political suicide. But the Papandreous of Europe serve their purpose: they turn back the tide of radical or revolutionary change. They sacrifice their regimes, but save the capitalist State.

The most hopeful and promising change today is that the Papandreou/PASOK mystique has evaporated. Even the most loyal socialist trade union officials dare not raise their hand to stay the movement. So the levels of popular anger will keep rising and the resistance will continue.

Hundreds of thousands of Greeks demonstrate in early March against proposed "structural adjustment" cuts—photo from


James Petras is a Bartle Professor (Emeritus) of sociology at Binghamton University, SUNY. He is the author of more than 62 books in 29 languages and over 600 articles in professional journals. Currently, he writes a column for the Mexican newspaper, La Jornada.