The Origins of AKEL
In 1941, the Moscow-educated former general secretary of the illegal KKK, Ploutis Servas—whom Governor Battershill (1939-1941) called ‘a thorn in the flesh [...] a clever, half-educated man’—co-founded AKEL with assistance from labour leaders and former members of the KKK. Battershill reported that ‘little was achieved’.1 The governor, however, was mistaken.
From as early as November 1939, British authorities suspected that local Cypriot communists might be under an ‘external influence’. This suspicion was prompted by the appearance of manuscripts which attacked Trotskyism, placing at least the manuscripts squarely in Stalin’s corner in this ideological dispute over the nature of communism.2 In October 1941, after Germany had invaded Russia, AKEL founded its popular front (an anti-fascist coalition), which the British considered to be proof of AKEL’s communist disposition.3
As with the CCP in Hong Kong, Cypriot communists fought their nationalist rivals as well as their capitalist-imperialist overlords on sociocultural battlefields. Despite a traditional communist organization and ideology, AKEL presented a social-democratic political platform , and its first manifesto of ‘pioneer political demands’ proved very popular. These included:
full recognition of the Turkish Cypriot national identity, compulsory education until the 14th year, enactment of labour law and social welfare, extensive measures for the protection of [.] farmers, a new fairer taxation policy, and the emancipation of women.4
Unlike its predecessor the KKK, AKEL was also pro-enosis (union with Greece), which had several consequences. Ideologically, the party was forced to soften some of its communist traditions, especially regarding atheism, given that the Greek-Cypriot Orthodox Church, led by the archbishop and his Ethnarchy Council, was the seemingly incontestable leader of the enosis movement.5 Culturally, AKEL’s pro-enosis stance undermined its perhaps more genuine desire to win over and enlist Cypriot minorities, including the inherently anti- enosis Turkish-Cypriots (who constituted about 18 per cent of the population) and, thereby, to create some sort of Pancyprian nationalism on AKEL’s terms.6 In fact, the KKK was the main proponent for independence as well as for a form of Cypriot identity defined not by ‘motherland nationalism’ but class conflict.7 The KKK was thus very popular among the island’s Turkish-Cypriot population.8 However, AKEL’s shifting motivations behind its support for the
enosis cause notwithstanding, its pro-enosis stance allowed for wider popular appeal among the majority Greek-Cypriot population via its social- democratic political platform.
AKEL’s sociopolitical platform, in turn, highlighted the inadequacies of wider British efforts at colonial development and trusteeship. As in Hong Kong, one of the most important aspects of these efforts was the organization of ‘responsible’ (i.e. non-political or at least non-communist) colonial trade unionism. Cyprus had enacted its first trade union law in 1932, but the trade union movement was sluggish. By 1935, Cyprus had just two registered trade unions. Between 1932 and 1939, only 46 unions, which represented 2,544 members, were created and registered. However, what they lacked in numbers, these unions made up in solidarity and cooperation. Here again, while individual Turkish-Cypriots participated in the labour movement in the 1930s, it was dominated by Greek-Cypriots and largely led by the Greek-Cypriot communists.9
The Cypriot labour movement expanded as a result of the Second World War. By 1941, the number of trade unions had increased to 143, and their membership included some 15,000 Cypriots.10 To manipulate the expanding labour movement to benefit the British, the Cyprus government created its own Labour Department and passed sweeping legislation, specifically: the Minimum Wage Act; the Trades Dispute (Conciliation, Arbitration and Enquiry) Act; and the Trade Unions and Trade Disputes Act.11 The last outlined the rights and privileges of trade unions as well as a basic procedure for resolving disputes.12
In 1941, AKEL helped form and then maintained control of the Pancyprian Trades Union Committee (PSE).13 This was part of AKEL’s wider social programme, which also included a peasant union (in the form of the Union of Cypriot Farmers) and cultural and athletic clubs. In 1943, political animosity and the church’s long-established anti-communism split the trade unions between the Greek-Cypriot nationalists and communists. Michael Pissas, an ardent Greek-Cypriot nationalist, created in 1944 the Confederation of Cyprus’s Workers, also known as the ‘new’ trade unions. The ‘old’ trade unions then overtly threw their support behind AKEL in the 1943 municipal elections, and AKEL’s Third Pancyprian Congress in 1944 declared the PSE ‘an inseparable part of AKEL’.14 Indeed, as in Hong Kong and the rest of the world, labour was a quintessential Cold War and colonial battlefield.
John Shaw, the outgoing (to Palestine) colonial secretary of Cyprus, believed PSE leaders had ‘signs of statesmanship’. Woolley, the new governor in 1941, on the other hand, considered AKEL to be ‘second fiddle to the nationalist politicians’. He wrote that AKEL’s popular appeal and attempts to ‘out-enosis the enosists’ stemmed from their pro-Soviet sentiments.15 Woolley would soon change his tune. Moreover, the British failed to foster any collaboration in Cyprus’s labour movements, instead providing plenty of ammunition to communist propagandists.
With such a popular platform, particularly regarding labour, and without any organized political or labour rivals, AKEL prospered and began to wield its newfound political and social power.16 On 21 March 1943, in the first municipal elections since the 1920s, which were reinstated by the government to induce Cypriot support for the war, AKEL won two of the six urban municipalities: Famagusta and Limassol.17
In June, bolstered by recent political victories and inspired by the Comintern’s final appeal (before it was dissolved in May) to communist parties to strengthen their efforts against fascism, AKEL’s central committee called on its supporters to join the Cyprus Regiment. The Cyprus Regiment had been struggling to recruit adequate numbers since the beginning of the war, given the dire situation in Greece as well as the regiment’s high casualty rate. Between January and March 1942, only 11 Cypriots were recruited. AKEL’s call in June 1943 prompted 11 of its 17 Central Committee members as well as some 700 supporters to enlist to help liberate Greece and destroy fascism.18 This action provoked a wide range of responses in Cyprus. Such a demonstration of patriotism certainly endeared AKEL to the public and the left-wing press. The Greek-Cypriot Orthodox Church and the Greek- Cypriot nationalists responded by questioning AKEL’s sincerity, especially regarding enosis. AKEL’s sudden rise in organization and popularity also prodded the nationalists to redress their own deficiencies in unity and influence. Finally, AKEL’s successful manipulation of the enosis issue for political gain deeply concerned the British, from the governor in Nicosia to the Cabinet in London. For these policy-makers, some of the 297 men who were eventually accepted into the regiment were blamed ‘for the subsequent increase in Communism among the Cypriot troops, both in the island and overseas’.19