Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going


1,159