In his second dispatch from Greece, Kevin Ovenden looks at the extremism of the mainstream Right
In an imaginative venture of practical solidarity Philosophy Football are funding well-known progressive journalist Kevin Ovenden to go to Greece and report exclusively for Counterfire on Syriza's campaign alongside other radical media outlets from the USA and Australia.
There are a lot of significant elections in Europe this year – including Britain’s general election in May.
Tomorrow’s “Republican march” of national unity in Paris has morphed into a display of “European solidarity” – or, spelling it out more accurately, of solidarity between European political leaders facing angry electorates.
Where better, then, for Greece’s national-chauvinist prime minister Antonis Samaras to roll up as part of his desperate election campaign to stave off victory by the anti-austerity, Left wing Syriza party?
His presence underlines the political charade and chicanery with which the European elites have responded to the Charlie Hebdo atrocity.
Sunday’s march of “national unity” began to run into the political rapids two days ago when Nicolas Sarkozy and the centre-right UMP called on Socialist Party president Francois Hollande to include Marine Le Pen and the far right, relaunched fascists of the Front National in the parade.
“I represent a quarter of the French population,” said Le Pen, “how can there be national unity without me?” The question cuts right through the piles of Left wing verbiage claiming that rallying for the republic is the way to unite France against the Right.
Whether by accident or design, Hollande – the most unpopular French president on record – happened upon an elegant solution. The French Republic was to be Europeanised, unity of the nation replaced by another group selfie of EU leaders of the kind that attends every failed summit.
Le Pen could be excluded by ensuring the presence of Cameron, Merkel… and, at his own insistence, it seems, Samaras.
So in order to construct a cordon sanitaire around Le Pen, Hollande will march with Samaras – whose interventions following the Paris killings have been more extreme than those of the Front National leader – and give him a fillip two weeks before polling day.
Syriza and the Left are ahead in the polls. For 70 years anti-Communism – through state policy and force of arms – has kept the Left in Greece in opposition (sometimes in exiled opposition).
That it could hold office following 25 January is immense. I aim in these despatches to unpick the implications and meaning of that in some detail.
But we should not lose sight of the Right. New Democracy is only just behind Syriza in the opinion polls. And on the eve of the great display of European hypocrisy in Paris I want today to shed some light on the recesses of the Greek Right.
Lineages of the absolutist Right
Across Western Europe as a whole the decades of post-war stability allowed for a transformation of politics from the mass, violent clashes of the 1930s into the more pacific confines of parliamentary democracy.
Christian Democracy emerged – or, rather, was crafted with great resource and effort – as a broad church for a range of forces which had in the interwar years fought for political power under their own banners: national conservatives, industrialists, religious conservatives, liberals, fascists… right wing chancers of all kinds.
In Greece the process was delayed and took a peculiar course. The anti-Communist civil war of 1945-49 led to three decades of illegality for the Left, which had to operate under front organisations. The Cold War entrenched in power – backed by the US and Britain – a monarchist, authoritarian Right for whom political violence was customary.
Whether you’ve seen it before or not, this month really would be a good time to put on a DVD of Costa Gavras’s superb film Z. It tells the story of the assassination of Left wing politician (and outstanding athlete) Grigoris Lambrakis in Salonika in 1963.
The conspiracy went right to the top of the military-monarchist Right. Its techniques prefigured the strategy of tension of the haute couture Italian business class in the 1970s.
The Greek Right manufactured a supposedly autonomous protest movement of “indignant” citizens, a “silent majority” of anti-Communist thugs. Two of them bludgeoned Lambrakis to death. But culpability for the murder went further and higher.
In counter revolutionary tactics the late developing Greek state was thoroughly modern and ahead of its time.
With the Left beaten out of the political sphere, official opposition was in the hands of liberals and centrists. A military coup in 1967 was a last ditched effort by the ugly triptych of the oligarchs, the Palace and the US Embassy to hold together the anachronism.
Despite great brutality, all it achieved was to dam up for a few more years the generational social changes which were shaking the rest of the world from the Bogside to Bangladesh and Biafra.
When the junta fell in 1974, it was as if the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, Woodstock, May ’68, the Tet Offensive and the Italian Hot Autumn all hit Athens in the same month.
There could be no return for the Greek capitalist class to monarcho-military methods. Instead, they cohered around the patrician figure of Constantine Karamanlis, who had remained outside Greece during the coup years and returned to found the New Democracy party.
Italian Christian Democracy had had the luxury of 20 years to meld together competing Right wing forces (bound together by golden threads of corruption of Croesus proportions, the mafia and the immense social resources of the Catholic Church). New Democracy had to do it all in the course of the tempestuous mid-1970s.
One consequence was that New Democracy was dominated by old style, paternalistic politicians of the Right. The familial and institutional connections with the traditionally anti-democratic establishment remained strong.
At the same time, like the rest of the centre-right in the 1980s and 1990s it tried to be the party of economic liberalism – in the Thatcher-Reagan model. In popular appeal, however, national conservative themes of patriotism, religious Orthodoxy, anti-Communism and outright racism played heavily.
So, five years ago for example, New Democracy refused to support in parliament the austerity memorandum which then prime minister George Papandreou had had signed up to with the troika of European and international lenders.
It did so for the narrowest of party motives. That prompted ideologically committed neo-liberals, led by Dora Bakoyannis, to split, temporarily.
Bakoyannis is the standard bearer of the neo-liberal, modernising Right – and also scion of New Democracy’s Mitsotakis clan. Today she is back with New Democracy, but her tendency is not in command of the party.
Leadership is in the hands of Samaras. The chasm between the two is more than ideological. Samaras led a national-chauvinist split from New Democracy in the 1990s.
He returned just in time to be given the leadership six years ago over the head Bakoyannis and the Mitsotakis clan, who had remained loyal to the party all those years.
The dilemmas posed by the crisis would strain even the most cordial relations among Tory politicians. On the Greek Right we must factor in also personal antipathy, ideological clashes and clannish vendetta.
The feral Right
The reconfiguring of the Right in Greece is, in hothouse microcosm, part of a Europe-wide phenomenon.
The singular pole of Christian Democracy is fragmenting, allowing a variety of Right wing forces – from anti-European chauvinist to outright fascist – to remerge in their own party formations.
The Front National in France, dismissed as a short-lived Poujadist protest movement in 1983, is the largest iceberg to calve from the retreating glacier.
The most successful ruling class party in history – the British Tory Party – now faces serious defection to Ukip. Even Germany, beneficiary of the euro arrangement, has the Right wing populist Alternative fur Deutschland above the 5 percent threshold for election to parliament.
The process is further advanced in Greece, which has had every variety of Right wing split.
The Independent Greeks broke on a nationalist, but anti-memorandum basis. They are struggling to survive. The LAOS racist-nationalist party was first to take a chunk of New Democracy support. Its collapse led not to the restoration of the Right along quietist parliamentary corridors, but to its two-fold radicalisation.
First, the open neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn filled the space. Secondly, LAOS defectors to New Democracy were given pride of place, despite their often fascist credentials.
There is an affinity between Makis Voridis – former LAOS now New Democracy MP – and Samaras. Voridis was a notorious fascist storm-trooper while a student. Here he is wielding an axe hunting Left wing students at the Law School.
Samaras may not have personally wielded an axe. But his entire political line over the last five years has been to reach deep into the collective memory of the Right, dredging up every filthy anti-Communist smear and innuendo of the Civil War years.
The confection is spiced with the most virulent anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim racism.
So a few days ago Samaras began the election campaign in earnest by visiting the far flung border between Greece and Turkey marked by the river Evros.
It is here that border control has been handed willingly to European corporation Frontex, paid handsomely to keep migrants out. There is, in effect, a premium for every Black or brown skin which washes up on the banks for the river – lifeless.
Samaras is making the crudest of anti-immigrant pitches, and we didn’t have to wait to see the consequence.
Yesterday – almost wholly ignored in the wake of the grim news from Paris – a gunman entered a hostel housing primarily migrant workers in Salonika, brandished a pistol and threatened to open fire because he “was sick of paying taxes for you people”.
A social outcast, perhaps? A thug belonging associated with the fascists of Golden Dawn? No. Stelios Ioannides is a local functionary of Samaras’s New Democracy.
The Golden Dawn fascists do have “security battalions”. The police and army do have longstanding and familial links to the anti-democratic Right.
But you don’t have to look that far into the “deep state” to see the ugly face of Right wing paramilitary violence. It is in the offices of the outgoing governing party.
Popular or national unity?
The tragic fate of the great reforming experiment of Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity government in Chile overthrown by military coup in 1973 still haunts the Left.
Concern for the future of democracy in the land which gave us the term is not idle or misplaced given the history and current constellation of the Greek Right.
It is an open question how they will react should they be defeated in two weeks time. The bigger the vote for the Nazis of Golden Dawn, whose leaders are in prison, the greater the leverage for their argument for more “activist” methods in dealing with the Left – less parliamentary speechifying from Samaras, more old-style axe wielding from the likes of Voridis.
But there are very many other weapons in the locker of the shipowners, media magnates, Right wing dynasties and their European business friends before reaching for the crude tools of street fighting.
And most of those are provided by the very civilised, very liberal democratic bureaucracies of the European Union, Central Bank and assorted foreign ministries. These are the methods of blackmail and browbeating which are already being deployed against Syriza and particularly its Left.
One key-holder to that arsenal is the Socialist Party president of France. I suppose we are all inured to the fact that Hollande and Co will use every bureaucratic device to frustrate radical reform in Athens.
But as he marches arm in arm with Samaras tomorrow remember this – he is embracing not only the metaphorically murderous policies of European capital, but a man who sits happily astride a party of the gunmen and axe wielders upon whom the Right ultimately turn when the Left withstands more civilised pressures.
Please support this venture. Kevin's reporting is funded by the sale of 'Syriza: Greek For Hope' T-shirts, get yours from Philosophy Football
Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
More articles from this author
- Witchfinder Starmer must be stopped: this is a fight for all the left
- The struggles are fusing: Greece protests rage against authoritarianism
- Starmer's flag fetish: win the middle ground, don’t chase it
- Vaccine nationalism: a plague on all our houses
- Impeachment will not defeat Trumpism
- We need to learn from the mistakes of Brexit past
- Keir Starmer's Brexit opportunism