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Greece: Are you ready to grow young again?

Kevin Ovenden writes from Athens on the eve of Greece's historic election

January 25, 2015
7 min read

‘Live your myth in Greece!’ Until a few years ago, that was the advertising slogan festooned on billboards on the road from Athens’ new airport to the city centre.

The hoardings are empty now. Advertising budgets, including the tourism ministry’s, were first to bite the dust in the nightmare of 1930s-style depression which Greeks have been living through these last five years. It’s been a depression etched into the faces of all but the well-heeled and indexed in the shocking mental health statistics. Women have borne the brunt.

They’ve also been on the front line of the resistance. Women cleaners of the ministry of finance matching the British miners with a year of militant struggle, not yet over.

The economic reality will not change in a single day with the election tomorrow of the anti-austerity Left wing Syriza party, inching towards an outright majority in the closing polls today. It won’t change at all in its fundamental injustice if the fundamentalist austerians of the European and Greek political and banking elites have their way.

It took the champions of what would become the neoliberal orthodoxy about 18 months to find a way to corral the mildly reforming governments of Andreas Papandreou and Francois Mitterrand in 1981. They’ve started much earlier now and with the considerable levers of the European Union and euro-institutions firmly in their grip and shorn of the social democratic pretences of the 1980s.

But there is already a sense of a change of mood, mindset and mental state – not only here in Greece but among that section of European opinion which either belongs to the left or finds itself strangely looking in the direction of people who were meant to have gone the way of Greece’s tourism adverts a quarter of a century ago.

‘The left is back. It feels like the 1970s,’ says an old friend of mine, Panos Garganas who edits the socialist weekly Workers Solidarity. Like so many other prominent figures on the large and very varied Greek left, Panos came into the socialist movement in opposition to the dictatorship which came to power in 1967 as the Cold War right sought to prevent the sixties coming to Athens.

They succeeded for just six years. Then the dam broke with the student uprising at the Polytechnic in November 1973, which presaged the fall of the junta the following year.

Reference points

The struggle against the dictatorship profoundly shaped the emergence of two generations of Greek political leftists. Their trajectories, however, were far from common. One time leader of Pasok, Costas Simitis, was part of the armed resistance to the junta. He went on to become a ‘modernising figure’ – the Greek Tony Blair. They do things differently down in Southern Europe. Though there is a general lesson in not inferring a radical future from someone’s fighting past.

As with the fall of dictatorship in the Iberian peninsula, the deluge that followed 1974 brought a transformation of Greek politics, society and culture as the youthful radicalisation which in the US spanned the Beatniks to the evacuation from Vietnam was compressed into half a decade.

It’s tempting to lapse into nostalgia. After all, debates and theorists of the left in the 1970s are once again becoming reference points for a new generation. Activists young and old are referring to the theories of Nicos Poulantzas, the structuralist Marxist who was a central reference point for the eurocommunist current (its left variants elsewhere in Europe, its centre in Greece) which grew in reaction to the crisis of the old Communist orthodoxy and the new movements of the 1960s.

Others, in keeping with the thinking informing the leading figures of the Podemos counter-politics surge in the Spanish State, are revisiting the late Ernesto Laclau. It should be emphasised, to the chagrin of the likes of Bernard Henry Levi and other poseurs, that Marx, Gramsci and even Lenin (in all cases several mutually contesting versions of them) are everywhere.

There’s great merit in that historical referencing by the movement in Athens, whose skyline remains dominated by Pericles’s Parthenon. It stands guard against the light-minded flummery of the Blair/Schroder/Simitis/Clinton/Jospin years in which deploying the adjective ‘new’ was enough in most liberal-left opinion to grant a free pass for ideas which in fact were as ancient as Gladstonian liberal imperialism and pre-Keynesian economic dogmatism.

A defeat foretold?

Inevitably, there is a danger too: we might call it ‘the enormous condescension of historical analogy’. The lived reality of a movement which has created a fresh combination of forces on the left and is opening up vernal possibilities for a radical alternative to neoliberal capitalism in its dotage becomes greyed out by a ‘theory’ which clips Goethe’s eternal and green tree of life into a hackish monochrome.

In that grim narrative, the incoming Syriza government and what will viscerally erupt as a moment of hope for the European left tomorrow night are but a chronicle of a death foretold. Treachery and defeat. Hope usurped by bitterness. It is a lopsided chronicle of the years of possibility and widening horizons of four decades ago. Like any chronicle, it does not do justice to the history. And it doesn’t serve the present.

‘Be realistic – demand the impossible’ was the leitmotif of the global eruption that inaugurated that period. For much of the time since and for too many of us on the left, that injunction has served either as a reminder of a fun but politically misspent youth, or as a naïve outlier from a ‘more mature’ strategic approach.

The strategic questions have certainly not gone away, as various forgotten theorists of the Third Way assured us with the same conviction that Gordon Brown swept away capitalist boom and bust with the wave of his hand.

And so, without flattening reality into a two-dimensional boilerplate, we should look forward to revisiting the historic debates and the circumstances of the political defeat of the Left in the early 1980s, which paved the way for the three decades of neoliberal ascendency that followed. I know of no one who is serious in Syriza or on the Greek left who is so arrogant as to imagine that we have little to gain from doing so.

The tests, theoretical and political, will be as a young Karl Marx once put it ‘practical’: to what extent we can advance the movement, with a ‘this-sidedness’ to our thinking, rooted in the independent movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority.

Rather than an attempt to assess a priori the contributions which different left traditions will make and how we will fare, this is merely a plea for a mode of engagement which does justice both to the immense weight of the accumulated struggles and thinkers of the past and the uniqueness which is characteristic of any historical moment.

If it evades judgments on some decisive issues, it is not because I think they can be evaded. It’s because they may only be apprehended in the course of a combative engagement with this moment for the left, the working class and its allies as a whole.

It was right in the middle of the 1970s that Joan Baez, perhaps sensing that that moment was passing, sang, ‘We’ve been marching in the streets, through little victories and big defeats.’

The left has had more than our fair share of big defeats since. With feet on the ground, we should shift our thinking and culture to cope with a victory on Sunday evening. How big is an open question. A part of the answer is in our hands.

Kevin’s reporting is funded by the sale of ‘Syriza: Greek For Hope’ T­-shirts from Philosophy Football.

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