Greece: Truth, responsibility & honesty with ourselves
KEVIN OVENDEN writes from Athens on continuing moves to re-legitimise the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn on the eve of their trial as a criminal organisation, and responds to voices that have tacitly defended some of the perturbing concessions to chauvinism coming from within the new Greek government. Following his essay is some background on the legal basis of the prosecution of Golden Dawn. All photos in this post are from the 21 March anti-fascist protest in Athens, courtesy of Workers Solidarity newspaper.
Truth, responsibility and being honest with ourselves
Morale is to matériel as three is to one.
Napoleon Bonaparte knew a thing or two about winning battles. The self-confidence of a movement is its most valuable asset. There are two ways – at least – to amortise it.
There is the path of the cynic. To delight at any difficulty or setback so as to proclaim, “I told you so. Nothing changes. They’re all the same.” Sometimes the cynic does not even wait for the setback or crisis moment.
Anyone who knows about classical Athens will tell you that Diogenes the Cynic was not a very popular man (as well as the fact that he lived in a large ceramic jar). He went out of his way to live up to his detractors’ stereotype of him – a kind of projective identification – so that even his sensible warnings against corruption and state misdemeanour were ignored. He was also arrogantly rude.
The British socialist journalist and agitator Paul Foot used to cite Karl Marx’s dictum “doubt everything” and add his own, “For a socialist: skepticism always; cynicism never.”
But another path to demoralisation is, seemingly paradoxically, by way of the eternal optimism of Dr Peter Pangloss, a character in Voltaire’s novella Candide. No matter what the obvious difficulty or worse, Pangloss would declare that all was for the best in this best of all possible worlds.
When people mired in a harsh reality hear such facile “don’t worry, be happy” evasion of truth, it doesn’t stiffen their sinews as Henry V did on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt. It turns them into cynics. Demoralised, like a US soldier in Afghanistan following a visit from false hope monger Barack Obama.
We all have a responsibility to speak the truth as we see it, but to do so responsibly – to energise the movement so as to charge the breach.
A week ago Greek MPs passed the humanitarian crisis bill, the first primary legislation since taking up their seats. Its measures are a step forward. But they amount to a highly truncated version of the Syriza mini-programme outlined at the annual Thessaloniki trade fair, with attendant large demonstrations by the Left and social movements, in Greece’s second city six months ago.
The passing of the bill as a commendable yet modest step was marred, however. This isn’t an atrocity story, told in order to dispense with reasoned discussion and to “denounce” all and sundry like a Red Guard in the Cultural Revolution, or the eccentric who lived in a pot.
Unfortunately, nor is it an isolated mistake or the close of a chapter upon a series of minor errors. It ought not be relativised or evaded with the claim that it is too difficult from afar to tell exactly what is taking place when trustworthy observers in Greece are telling us plainly what is happening. Even the benefit of the doubt has limits.
Uproar in the parliament
Under the Greek constitution and parliamentary procedures 15 MPs (out of 300) may request a roll-call vote. That means that instead of a show of hands, every MP gets to their feet and says “yes” or “no” or “abstain”. So – as in a Westminster Commons division in Britain – there is a record of which MP voted which way.
The fascists of Golden Dawn have 17 MPs. Criminal thugs they may be. Stupid, this leadership of GD is not.
All 17 signed a motion to the speaker of the parliament, Zoe Constantopoulou, for a roll-call vote in advance of the debate on Wednesday of last week.
Three of the 17, however, remain in prison. The others are out. They could be held no longer in advance of the trial of the party as a criminal enterprise.
The case is already big news and will on 20 April gain daily, major coverage in Greece, in the reports of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Council of Europe, the UN High Commission on Human Rights and other major NGOs and international bodies. The international anti-fascist movement will also carry the news, including via this blog.
When it came to the vote, Constantopoulou referred to the petition for a roll call and asked – as is the procedure – for those requesting it to make their presence known. The Constitution is explicit, unambiguous and tested in many previous instances. The 15 or more MPs requesting a roll-call division “must be present in the chamber” at the time of the vote. Full stop and no annex.
The judicial authorities had not seen fit to release the three fascist MPs. It is a judicial decision – something those who sacralise the rule of law, separation of powers, independence of the judiciary and all the other supposed norms and guarantees of liberal democracy should note especially.
So 14 fascists took to their feet for their obviously pre-arranged stunt. End of story, you might think. Anyone who has been in meetings or conferences where a quorum is required knows that there is no flexibility whereby you can argue, “We are just missing one person and she’s on her way, can’t we go ahead anyway?”
Predictability of rule and preventing arbitrary decision is a part of the concept of the rule of law. In addition, why allow the fascists a look in on a parliamentary occasion which should have belonged only to the Left and its government?
But no. Instead of saying that the procedural move fell due to lack of 15 presenting MPs and then swiftly moving on to passing a progressive bill, speaker Constantopoulou said, “It is true that you are one short, but under the circumstances I am going to use my power of initiative as the speaker to call a roll-call vote myself.”
To be clear – the rule means the fascists’ procedural motion fell. No one questions that. No one.
What the speaker – who had previously tried to stop proceedings because fascist MPs had not been bailed from prison to attend and vote – said was that she would carry through the motion anyway, of her own volition and with the authority of her liberal-democratic office. There was uproar. Thank god.
This didn’t fall from heaven or happen in a dream
First on their feet were Communist (KKE) MPs who angrily said that this was not about dry procedure but a political intervention, which would have the result of re-legitimising GD. They said they would boycott the vote if it were done as a roll call because that would constitute a moral victory and morale boost for the fascists.
The Communists’ arguments were entirely correct and made as any of us on the anti-racist Left would, in my view. (When people do the right thing, we should praise it – not dredge up other occasions where we thing they were wrong.)
Pasok, To Potami, even Tory New Democracy, and Syriza MPs protested (largely in that order and with that impact).
Then Nikos Philis, Syriza’s chief whip and editor of the party paper Avgi, intervened and put considerable distance between himself – and by extension Syriza’s parliamentary fraction – and the speaker.
He did not directly challenge the speaker in the way the KKE MPs had done. But it was enough to bring an adjournment in which Constantopoulou met government ministers and was – parliamentary rumour has it – told by prime minister Alexis Tsipras to back down.
She did – but not gracefully and with no indication since that she will reverse an atrocious course which on each occasion in the run up to the most important legal process in Greece for decades has been a morale boost for the fascists and a provocation for the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement. Her abortive move last week came three days before anti-racists took to the streets across Europe. Napoleon also taught that timing in battle is critical.
To be crystal clear: Constantopoulou’s position is (evidently) not the same as Syriza’s as a party nor necessarily of the government or of its ministers.
Junior minister for immigration Tasia Christodoulopoulou, for example, last week refused to answer a written question from a GD MP, saying, “I will not be answering questions from representatives of a party facing trial as a criminal conspiracy.”
Tasia is a highly respected immigration and human rights lawyer. She needs no patronising about “the rule of law” or any other constitutional precept. That welcome stance lifted the movement on the streets on Saturday. Morale.
She is now bringing forward the promised legislation to legalise second-generation immigrants, a demand of the movement. Energising.
Despite that, it is unfortunately not the case that the Syriza speaker of parliament is – to borrow a phrase from English law – “off on a frolic of her own”.
Last week was the crescendo of earlier, repeated, awful interventions in which she has questioned whether laws which had been passed in the previous parliament were valid in cases where the fascist MPs behind bars and awaiting trial had not been present to vote. If the purpose were simply to undo those bad laws, the government has a majority to repeal them at any time. And the speaker has the power of initiative to bring forward debates.
Proved right have been those who have been strongly cautioning about where Constantopoulou’s arguments would lead – i.e. to the embarrassing spectacle of last week, in which the former Tory public order minister Nikos Dendias, responsible for the rounding up of migrants without papers, outrageously had room to present himself as a better anti-fascist than a left-wing speaker of the parliament.
Constantopoulou has taken to an extreme a position more widely held inside the Greek political caste, including inside Syriza, which dangerously normalises the neo-Nazis. In some cases it is even opposed to prosecuting the organisation for the crimes it has engineered and its members carried out on account of being members [see the note below about the political reasoning and legal ratio of the prosecution].
So not only have both the mayor of Athens, George Kaminis of the centre-left (Pasok and Dimar), and the governor of the larger prefecture, Rena Dourou (of the Right, social democratic wing of Syriza), each given GD councillors offices and all the other facilities and privileges. Both have also sought to justify doing so with very dangerous arguments.
They might have said they have no legal alternative. That’s disputable. But even if true, following the eruption of the movement after the murder of Pavlos Fyssas a two-fold, debatable, charge would be one of failure to assess properly the balance of forces and of an even bigger failure of nerve.
But they have both generalised their argument to say that it is the correct thing to treat the fascists thus, because the Left should be seen to uphold the “rule of law”, that the fascists will be beaten through debate in the “market place of ideas” and that taking specific action against them will turn them into “martyrs” for free speech and so on.
Those are matters for angst-ridden debate for liberals. For radical socialists there is no dilemma. The matter has been settled through the movement’s experience. Kaminis, Dourou and Constantopoulou are wrong.
Chief whip Philis may have had better political antennae than the speaker of the parliament when it came to sensing the potential fallout of last week’s parliamentary stunt by the fascists.
But he and several other senior Syriza parliamentary figures are also opposed to the trial of GD, citing a combination of liberal “free speech”, pseudo “rule of law” grounds and arguments which are more usually associated with the anarchist, hard Maoist and ultra-radical Left: we should never ask anything of the state or go to court; this will set a precedent for clamping down on the Left; and so on. Social democratic liberalism finds a strange bedfellow in ultra-radical anti-statism.
Underlying all that is the strategic line from the old Right and centre of the main force which makes up Syriza – Synaspismos.
It is that the key task is the modernisation of the Greek state, society and institutions and that the Left must prove itself to be better and more impartial managers of institutions than the Right.
In that way both necessary modernity and the democratic path to socialism are to be advanced. The actual movement of the mass of people in whose name this is done disappears from the play, even if it featured as one principal character among several in the original, theoretical script.
There are other, base political calculi. Some on the Left argued before the election that it was better not to divert energy into opposing GD as a divided Right at the polls would help the Left.
That’s a foolish stratagem worthy of cynical French social democrat Francois Mitterrand (it has left us today with Marine Le Pen as a potential president of France).
It does not belong on the radical and anti-racist Left.
A further conjecture is that by showing the European Union that Greece’s government will “play by the rules” then some credit – metaphorical and maybe literal – might be accrued.
Such was the thinking last summer when, in opposition, Tsipras championed the centre-right’s Jean-Claude Juncker for EU Commission President against another centre-right contender favoured by Berlin.
Last week’s uproar in parliament has reached way beyond the anti-capitalist and radical Left, the anti-racist and the social movements. It is news. That is partly because the speaker went so far as to pick up the fallen fascists’ motion herself despite the rule and precedent, not because of them.
More fundamentally, as the Troika, the oligarchs and the Greek Right look to exert raw political power against the government, the Left and the working class it is becoming a pitiable illusion that some appeal to “fair play” will stop them. Nowhere more so than on the front of struggle against fascism and racism.
Anti-authoritarianism – popular and anti-racist
This week’s national Independence Day parade brought vivid further evidence of how the questions of racism and fascism are not a side issue, a hobby horse for a minority of the Left.
They are not something to be addressed by sending some people with a party banner and propaganda to “cover” the issue when it brings big mobilisations, as the British Labour leadership sends a representative to certain events in a grubby scramble for votes. They are strategic questions at this moment when the whole of the Left examines our strategy to escape austerity.
About a minute into the clip there is a procession by elite and Special Forces (think of the British paratroop regiments and the SAS killers they spawn).
They are chanting – “We dream of invading Istanbul and raising the Greek flag” [jolly good luck, I’d say having seen the city’s Istiklal thoroughfare when there’s a Beşiktaş v Galatasaray football derby].
A few years ago some professional soldiers (as opposed to lads on national service) were prosecuted for raising viciously racist slogans against Albanians on a similar parade.
If today’s government does not act, the high price will not be that some people on the Left will be annoyed or that the odd cynic will rub their hands.
To appreciate the danger, ask yourself this: what do you think the atmosphere will be in the barracks and among the officer corps of these far from average squaddies and among the militarist Right if this chauvinist provocation meets no response? This is an officer corps which spawned the coup of 21 April 1967. It took seven years to restore democracy.
They are of generational military families. From analysis in 2012 of polling places in areas where they are concentrated – such as around Ethniki Amyna, the huge army HQ and ministry of defence in northern Athens – we know they vote heavily for the authoritarian Right and for the fascists.
Now, what to do and how over all these provocations is a matter of assessment and judgement, not of hectoring. That means democratic debate and decision in the mass movement.
One of those who is immersed in that debate and that movement is the backbench left-wing Syriza MP and consistent anti-racist Vasiliki Katrivanou.
To Vima reports that she immediately called the ultra-nationalist sloganeering “ ‘a direct challenge against democracy’ and urged the cleansing of the Armed Forces from ‘fascist and far-right enclaves that remain strong’.” Bravo, Vasso.
For a mixture of reasons – mostly opportunist – Pasok also reacted strongly. The minister responsible for the armed forces is Panos Kammenos, who also happens to be leader of the national chauvinist ANEL party.
Almost immediately upon taking office he took a helicopter flight and cast a wreath over Imia (Kardak to the Turks), a disputed island in the Aegean which brought the two countries to the brink of war in 1996.
There was significant debate on the radical and anti-capitalist Left about the wisdom or necessity of Syriza including ANEL as a junior coalition partner in forming the government two months ago. I was among the minority who argued it was unwise and unnecessary.
Where there was a majority consensus, however, was over keeping a hawk-like eye on its ministers and standing vigilant to swoop on any sign of any pandering to the authoritarian core of the Greek state institutions.
Now is the time to act on the consensus: to follow comrade Vasso; to bare claws and descend at speed on this dangerous development at least as decisively as the Left did under previous governments of the centre-right and centre-left.
For debate and pluralism are no excuses for kidding oneself, nor for abandoning previous redlines. I’m rather fond of British liberal economist John Maynard Keynes’ quip: “When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do?”
But here, the facts are neither changing nor neatly cancelling each another out on either side of the ledger. They are piling up heavily in the deficit column – with compounding interest.
So pretending, as some on the Left in Greece are, that the “real reason” why Constantopoulou is being criticised is because she set up (the day before the roll-call debacle) a parliamentary committee to audit Greece’s odious debt and that all criticism of her is “objectively right-wing” is kidding others and most of all oneself.
Whether out of genuine agreement with a decision or with a difficult judgement or out of loyalty (misplaced or not) all sorts of us may bridle at criticisms made of those with whom we all stand against the troika and austerity.
That’s particularly so if we have invested in them trust and hope – both precious political commodities.
That is fair enough and more than well intentioned. What is utterly self defeating, however, and destructive of the hope of 25 January and of mutual trust of within a mass movement is to make a virtue out of necessity.
That leads not to pragmatic adaptation to changed circumstance, a virtue, but to mangling and erasing all common sense acquired by the Left through the painful experiences of our movements through manufacturing spurious, “principled” justifications for what should not be so justified, if necessarily justified at all.
We might on occasion choose to justify things despite principles. Doing so in that rare instance is not automatically and forever ruled out. But we should never distort principles to make a specious justification.
We must always be clear if we are granting an exception to what would otherwise be the rule. Otherwise we have only exceptions and no rule – of law, yeah, but more importantly, of political principle.
That’s a slightly abstract meditation – though, I hope, a justified one! Also an abstraction, but at the same time universally concrete is this:
We must be honest about what we do and the reasons for so doing. To others. But above all to ourselves. The alternative is a corrupting dishonesty and lack of responsibility – to others and also for ourselves and our acts.
The struggle in crisis-hit Greece is not an abstract test-bed for our politics and principles. It is vitally concrete. And as someone once said, Truth is a concrete matter.
A note on the politics and legal base of the case against the Greek fascists
The best place for updates and analysis of the trial of GD is www.jailgoldendawn.com
It is, naturally, largely in Greek. As the trial date approaches it is hoped that more translated material will be available and the social and other media campaign is developing. If you want to help out on that or in anyway, please email: email@example.com
There is also an excellent recent article in the main liberal organ The Nation in the US.
There is one small correction, significant only in that it touches on a wider issue of the legal and political rational for the anti-fascist movement taking part in this prosecution.
The article says that one of the laws GD is being prosecuted under is Article 187(a) of the criminal code. That relates to terrorism and is, as the article says, highly problematic.
As with other “anti-terror” laws in Europe and the US Article 187(a) shades over dangerously into criminalising thought. It says you can be guilty of terrorism even if you do not do anything but are a member of an organisation which intends to use violence for political ends. No actual criminal act need be committed.
The left-wing lawyers representing victims of GD in the forthcoming trial have always opposed this anti-democratic, “war on terror” era legislation.
The prosecution is actually under Article 187, which originates as an anti-mafia and organised crime provision, and not under the 187(a) “anti-terror” limb of the statute. That shows the obvious double standard of the state using anti-terror legislation against a part of the Left but not against the fascist Right.
Article 187 is also far from perfect for the Left in the balance it strikes. The original legal problem was how to prosecute mafia bosses who generally don’t do their own hits and violent acts but are what in English law would be called the “controlling mind” of hierarchical organisations, more junior members of which do carry out those crimes.
While wanting organised criminals prosecuted, we at the same time would not want the state to be able to prosecute any member of an association or political organisation just because another one committed a crime.
This is pretty much the nub of the Golden Dawn defence. We leaders are not responsible for the murders and other crimes which some of our members have committed.
Of course there will be all sorts of evidence presented to show the responsibility of leading figures for the crimes and their direct participation in them. But the key politico-legal points are these:
1) The anti-fascist prosecution is not directed at the beliefs of GD (vile as they are). It is based upon the actual crimes GD members have committed in the course of being members, and of which they have already been convicted in most of the cases.
2) The case against GD as an organisation is not a political prosecution on account of the anti-democratic nature of the fascists.
While the threat to democratic freedoms, which is at the heart of fascism, is a sound political reason to deny them a platform, throw a cordon sanitaire around them and treat them other than even a right-wing nationalist party such as Ukip, it is not a reason in law to prosecute the party.
Under today’s capitalist society and its states it is not a good idea to bend the law around making such a prosecution under on that legal basis possible. That would only shift the balance further towards undemocratic states, which in the war on terror are trampling on personal and political freedoms across the globe.
3) Nor does the prosecution rest on the difficult concept of intent within a corporate body as opposed to an individual actor (itself not always easy to show).
Nor even does it hang on the similarly difficult law on incitement. That ranges from the relatively straightforward: a speaker at a meeting calls for death to immigrants, some audience members immediately head off and kill the first migrant worker they find on the street outside; through to a more tenuous causal chain of events, actions and individual states of mind between the inciting words and the criminal act(s).
4) What the anti-fascist side in the prosecution will seek to show is that the actual organisation of GD, its core around which all the trappings of a political party are merely a carapace, is a hierarchical, violent gang with a command structure organised on the national-socialist Führerprinzip; i.e. strongman rule from top to bottom.
The media have already publicised pieces of evidence showing that taking an oath containing this and other Nazi doctrine is a required part of becoming a GD member and that the primary function in any branch or higher organisation of GD – all the way up to the Führer Michalokiakos – is the organisation of “security battalions”. That comes first and has precedence over the treasurer, secretary, press officer and all the other roles which normal parties or trade unions regard as the central officer functions.
5) So in addition to direct evidence connecting MPs and the leadership to participation in and organisation of crimes of violence and extortion, the closing piece of the jigsaw is that members of GD who commit the crimes which form the basis of the prosecution do so on account of being members, as members, and in furtherance of the organisation under a plan from above and not as individuals who happen to be also a member of something, as if the secretary of a chess club were responsible for one of its members’ driving dangerously on the motorway.
6) A good example is a fascist who was prosecuted successfully for beating up his girlfriend. That says a lot about the kind of men GD attracts. But that crime is not part of the case against the organisation which starts in three weeks. What is, on the other hand, is his attack with others from GD on immigrants and the Left as part of a GD plan to take control of a particular neighbourhood in Athens.
These are somewhat detailed points, but it is worth bearing them in mind in the coming weeks and months.
That’s because there will be – already are – a number of confused and ill-informed arguments that this prosecution is either illiberal and will dangerously criminalise thought, or is founded hypocritically on legal approaches which the Left otherwise rejects (such as an expansive notion of intent, intention or incitement), or is about strengthening the state against the freedoms of individuals and our rights to associate, which are under assault in many countries.
Whether from liberals or a few confused friends on the Left, these arguments are misplaced and in error.
No anti-racist or anti-fascist should hesitate to support the civil prosecution by Jail Golden Dawn and the main anti-fascist organisation, KEERFA.
It is carefully focused politically, as part of the broader anti-fascist struggle, and is legally pinpointed to strike a blow both at the fascists and at the collaboration they receive from within the mainstream Right, oligarchs and repressive institutions of the state.
This is exactly a radical and anti-capitalist Left strategy of pressing the state from without – there will be protests called by KEERFA outside the specially-built court to further the anti-fascist climate which brought the prosecution in the first place – and also from toe-holds within, in the courtroom and in a fashion which daily strengthens all the progressive forces outside, upon which defeating the fascists depends: now, not just in the “final instance”.
Several legal principles were established at the Nuremberg trials after the full horror of fascism had become apparent.
One is well known. The “I was only following orders” defence was struck down. The most senior Nazis on trial could not credibly run that defence (though some tried, saying the Führerprinzip meant Hitler alone was responsible for the actions of all beneath him).
Their alternative defence was that the overall political plan they were party to was implemented by people below them, who got carried away and improvised their own methods.
So the commitment to make the Third Reich “Judenfrei”, free of Jews, did not amount to responsibility by big wigs in Berlin for Waffen SS troops murdering Jews at Babi Yar, in the death camps and across occupied Europe.
The lead British prosecutor, Sir Hartley Shawcross, was one of those who despatched that argument, in part on account of the Führerprinzip of Nazi organisation.
GD are Nazis. It is the organisation’s Nazi character and structure which makes it a hierarchical criminal enterprise.
And it is as such that it is being prosecuted.
Kevin Ovenden’s reportage from Greece for radical online media is funded as an act of practical solidarity by the self-styled “sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction” aka Philosophy Football
SYRIZA made an alliance and formed a common ballot with the head of the Golden Dawn at the Port of Piraeus. See