Out September 15th: “Syriza – Inside the Labyrinth”

syriza_ovendenBy Pluto Press (200 pages | 5 x 7 3/4 | © 2015).

With a Foreword by Paul Mason.

In January 2015, Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, became the largest party in the Hellenic Parliament, winning 149 out of 300 seats and badly defeating the then-ruling conservative New Democracy party. In Syriza, Kevin Ovenden presents an in-depth analysis of the political events leading up to this seemingly sudden reversal of political power in Greece, exploring the origins of the turbulent Greek political climate, from the beginnings of the Communist Party of Greece and the Greek workers’ movement following the First World War, to the brutal civil war that shook the country in the aftermath of the Second World War; the rise and fall of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement and the growth of radical politics in the 1970s; and finally the crushing austerity demands following the debt crisis of the 2010s.

Ovenden also examines the far-right movements in Greece as well, focusing in particular on the negative impact that the xenophobic and nationalistic Golden Dawn party has had and continues to have to this day.

Syriza’s victory in Greece is a central event of the twenty-first century, whose ramifications are sure to be felt for decades.

Go to Pluto Press to order your copy.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Saudi faction fight – break Britain’s links

104342105-GettyImages-653358446.530x298 (1)

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and another crook

The Speaker of the British House of Commons granted an “urgent question” from Labour on the Saudi blockade of Yemen this afternoon, Tuesday 7 November.

We could already foreshadow the line that the British government, and perhaps some opposition MPs, were likely to take over the dramatic developments in the last 72 hours in Saudi Arabia.

Those have seen the arrest of scores of billionaires, prominent figures and members of the bloated royal family, and the summoning to Riyadh of the Saudi-sponsored prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri. There he resigned his position via pre-recorded statement, broadcast on the Kingdom’s Al Arabiya channel.

His statement denounced “Iranian interference” in Lebanon and the Levant. Donald Trump yesterday warmly embraced the consolidation of power in the hands of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the purge he is undertaking. Today the Saudi regime has claimed that a missile fired from Yemen, where it has been losing a war of intervention, was “an act of war” by Iran.

The Saudi war and blockade of Yemen have contributed to at least 10,000 dead. It has produced the world’s worst cholera epidemic. The World Health Organisation estimates over 815,000 cases – and the outbreak continues to rage.

The British government is up to its neck in the atrocities, both via continuing massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia and in direct assistance through specialist British military personnel.

But already we are seeing the outline in various news media of how the US, British and other western governments are likely to spin the power struggle in Riyadh as a reason to renew and extend relations with Saudi Arabia, and to rebuff what has been growing concern over the Yemen war from international NGOs, peace and human rights campaigners.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is being variously described as “a young man in a hurry”, a “reformer”, and even as a “revolutionary“.

His arrest of rivals is proclaimed in several leading western papers as “an anti-corruption drive”. And over the last few months there have been some gushing portraits describing him as a “social reformer”, particularly in the field of women’s rights – which have been all but non-existent in Saudi Arabia for decades.

The reality is that the changes from above that the Crown Prince (MBS) is trying to push through are in no sense driven by a commitment to social progress or liberal-democratic reform. He is the third richest Royal in Saudi Arabia with a personal wealth of over $3 billion.

His political gambit is an extremely risky attempt to reorganise Saudi capitalism, the state and their relations with the big imperialist powers – aimed at intensifying a struggle for regional domination.

There has been a developing crisis of the Saudi system for many years. Unlike almost all the other Gulf States it is actually a “real country”, with a population of 32 million people.
It has large numbers of foreign workers – westerners in high end occupations; many more Arab, Pakistani and Asians at the lower end.

But unlike other Gulf States it has an actual and large working class of citizens (or rather subjects), and a big but disenfranchised middle class.

The immense concentration of wealth in the hands of the royal family and a gilded elite of billionaires has meant that despite the fabulous oil revenues there has been growing unemployment, underemployment and a squeeze on the majority of the population for two decades.

Additionally, the corruption and inertia of the elite and state have meant a continued reliance on oil even though sections of the Saudi capitalist class have looked to diversify the economy and produce a modern-industrial revolution in the country and through investments in the region.

The Saudi state itself for many decades has been a clientelist arrangement with competing centres of power – headed by rival Royals – colonising different parts of the state machine and forming concentrations of power with networks of billionaires and functionaries.

That’s why any serious Arab political commentator or figure would answer your question of “what is the Saudi policy” by saying, “That’s the wrong question. You mean what is the policy of each faction, and who has dominance at this moment.”

It is this and the malaise of the Kingdom that MBS has set out to transform.

That means centralising and rationalising the state. It also means the “modernisation” of the economy, with the offer to US and European capital that economic liberalisation will provide opportunities for inward investment.

Thus, central to the “reforms” is what could be called privatisation, though it has a particular meaning.

Vast areas of the economy were not “nationalised” but more precisely “statitified”, with competing centres of power monopolising those economic milch cows.

So breaking those up is simultaneously about market-driven reform and, because economic power is so closely enmeshed with clientelist political clout, a political reorganisation of the state and its relationship to the elites.

There has been rising discontent at flagrant corruption, so “an anti-corruption drive” is the perfect banner under which to carry through this reorganisation from above.

It also means breaking the system which Saudi Arabia shares with the other oil states of the Gulf of compensating for a lack of social and labour rights, and of a redistributive welfare state, with a social compact in which a small portion of the oil super-profits was used to buy off discontent.

The modernising capitalist reforms also bring the breakup of that compact, in the belief that the spread of more modern market relations will unleash a new generation of young entrepreneurs and a more dynamic economy.

There can be many losers in this process. Those vested interests above who have failed to produce capital return in the areas of the economy they have run as fiefdoms are one. The events of the last 72 hours resemble Al Pacino in The Godfather II “taking care of family business”. But also in this transition the working and middle classes face upheaval.

That is the rationale for the modest civic reforms that have been proposed, the reining in of the religious police and the slenderest of loosening of the barbarically social conservative public mores.

The hope is to consolidate a popular base for the core capitalist reforms which necessitate bitter clashes at the top – hence the scores of arrests – and turmoil for the whole society in moving towards a more neoliberal model.

The drive to wider war

It is a highly risky operation to try to pull off. It means re-balancing the state’s authoritarianism, not moving to any genuine democracy.

That’s why the “liberalisation” has been accompanied by a clampdown on Saudi dissidents and on the Shia Muslim minority in the Qatif province.

And it is all taking place in the context of the overarching MBS policy: more coherent and bellicose projection of Saudi power in the region. He is not a novelty in that. The Saudi regime, under the excuse of countering Iranian influence, has sought for a decade to place itself at the centre of the shifting regional balance of power.

Indeed before then Saudi Arabia made a turn to, and then exported, a more extreme version of its state Wahhabist ideology in an effort to counter the attractive power of the Iranian revolution in 1979.

Running through political Islamism as a whole is a tension. It is between mining the religious tradition for ideological resources to support actual social and economic change, even revolution, or falling back on the idea that the imposition of personal relations held to be those of an earlier golden age, be it of the time of the prophet and his companions or after, provides a path to renewal.

One has radical political implications, of diverse kinds. The other is what the Saudi-sponsored publishing houses pumped out in opposition to revolutionary developments in Iran.

It was an effort to steer Islamist opinion of many strands back along a course which was compatible with western imperial hegemony – displacing economic and social discontent onto some purification of relations between men and women, or different classes in society who might live harmoniously, if only they followed the deen as properly understood. The petri dish for this experiment was the Saudi component of the western intervention into the war in Afghanistan.

The only successful revolution that brought Islamist political forces to power took place in Iran, toppling a critical US ally. The Saudi state and ideologues promoted as a counterweight an Islamist gloss on US anti-communism in Afghanistan. That produced Osama bin Laden.

Similarly, Saudi plutocrats seized upon the uprising in Syria six years ago to try to bend the outcome to their advantage, and to the US’s, through sponsoring sectarian Sunni Islamist groups. That failed. And one conclusion that MBS and those around him drew was that it failed because of the diffuse and amateurish nature of the intervention.

It rested, as did the Afghan adventure, upon sponsorship by differing elements of the Saudi state and billionaire class. Each of them promised that their favoured sons in Syria would be the ones to deliver the desired result – not the fulfillment of the hopes of those who protested in 2011, but a reorientation of the Syrian state to be more compatible with Saudi interests.

It was no match for the intervention of more robust and rational states – be they Russia, Iran or Turkey. So coherent state intervention was what MBS championed in Yemen. A direct military intervention, not through billions of dollars gifted to flakey forces hundreds of miles away in territories with which you do not share a border.

The failure of the Yemen intervention is leading the now dominant faction in Riyadh to double down. The moment is the fall of nearly all the ISIS strongholds in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, and also the collapse of the move by the Barazani regime in the Kurdish Regional Government area of Iraq to declare independence on an expanded territory.

Three years ago Saudi Arabia was a gauche player in the Syrian conflict, hosting meetings of oppositionists or holding a significant seat at the table of endless conferences sponsored by the great powers. Not now. For the last 18 months both the Kingdom and the US have been wholly eclipsed by developments. Neither likes it. Nor does Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel.

He used his visit to Britain last week to proclaim that israel was working with the Arab “good guys” (the axis headed by Saudi Arabia) to confront Iran. If ever there were a fitting coda to what Britain’s Balfour declaration has led to it is that a century on the prime minister of Israel came to London to threaten yet more military action in the Middle East.

Trump has continued in office with the anti-Iranian rhetoric of his campaign trail. In part it is that he sees himself as the “anti-Obama”. It was the previous US president’s policy to manage the decline of US power in the Middle East through concerting some balance between the four or five big regional powers, including Iran.

Trump has abandoned that with a dependence on just two limbs – Israel and Saudi Arabia. Perforce, given how the course of events has escaped US draftsmanship.

It’s not only a Trump fixation. This has deeper resonance among US Republicans, and some Democrats. It is not only to do with the over-vaunted Israel lobby, and the closely associated pro-Saudi faction with its roots in US foreign policy going back to 1926.

The neo-con/liberal-imperialist axis around the George Bush White House believed that the Iraq War of 2003 would provide a “demonstration effect”. They did not mean merely that it was to show the “shock and awe” of American military might. It was further to provide a political demonstration, a nudge to history, so that that singular deployment of power would not be required again… and again and again.

The theory was that the “liberation” of Iraq would lead to pro-western transitions in Syria and Iran – parts of the axis of evil. And, to speed the process, there was a moment when Bush’s White House tried to exert pressure on Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt and the House of Saud – all pro-Western despots – to carry through something like the modernisation which MBS is attempting today.

The fanatical ideologues among the neo-cons and liberal imperialists believed in some grand historical design in launching war for that end. The more pragmatic merely pointed out that the sink of reaction that is Saudi Arabia was hardly helpful in trying to claim that the US-led military push was going to bring democracy to somewhere like Iran. Whatever its many faults, it is on every index a better place than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Trump’s son in law Jared Kushner may well have been putting in the air miles between Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh. But these are not developments that can be boxed off as an extension of his grisly family’s business interests.

There is no point looking for a grand US or western strategy in the Middle East these days, because there isn’t one. There is only trying to manage the cumulative catastrophe of the last century. And it is onto that stage that steps MBS with his inflated reputation as a “moderniser”.

There is something deeply archaic about this so-called modernisation. It is pivoted upon militarism and imperial redivision, as much as all the previous promises to “bring the Middle East into the modern era”.

None who desires peace or who is of the progressive left in the west should be fooled by this. Do you think that Donald Trump is deepening ties with the emergent centre of power in Saudi Arabia because either or both of them care about the rights of women or liberal freedoms? Or is that why Netanyahu’s Israel talks of the “good guys”?

The weak link in this chain of hypocrisy is Britain, thanks to the sustained anti-war and pro-Palestinian movements. And it is there that a big blow can be struck.

It is time to renew the pressure which has been building on and off for two years upon the Tory government and its coalition predecessor to sunder the corrupt relationship with the House of Saud.

If the labour movement in Britain can mount that pressure effectively, it will be the most enormous contribution to peace in the Middle East and, by weakening the gendarme of reaction that is the House of Saud, will open up pathways to truly radical, indeed revolutionary, change.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Catalunya: now popular democracy v. EU and its states


She went to vote in Barcelona, a city in a European Union state 

Do Rajoy, the Spanish state and their EU backers imagine there will be no consequence to the violent state repression in Catalunya?

It is a particularly brutal extension of elite contempt for democracy – referendums especially – across the continent.

That will not be lost among embittered layers at the base of European societies.

It signals something else. For decades the Spanish elites have sought to get beyond the politics of the Transicion 40 years ago and to have all the political questions contained within the less than democratic, and monarchist, constitution of 1978.

In much the same way Greek politicians have complained about being stuck in the Metapolitefsi, the residue of the great clashes of the mid-1970s following the fall of the Junta.

The repressive forces on the streets of Barcelona today resemble those of a Junta.

Forty years of first social democratic and then neoliberal integration into the EU and cooptation of the labour movement have not succeeded in turning a page on this history. Just as in France the reference point of 1968 has not been buried, despite the declaration by Nicolas Sarkozy a few years ago to do just that.

The period is long over in which modest rising prosperity for most could lead to seeing the capitalist integration of the European Union as a vouchsafe also for democracy in those southern European countries that had emerged from dictatorship.

Indeed, it is now the opposite. Fascists – some MPs of the now defunct LAOS – entered the government of Greece in 2012. It was thanks to the EU working with the Greek elites and right to bring down the elected government of George Papandreou and replace it with a “technocratic” administration headed by a banker, who brought LAOS into the coalition.

For two years we have had rhetorical complaints from Brussels about the anti-democratic outrages of the governments of Poland and Hungary. But the implication was that these were expressions of a distinctly eastern European cultural problem – the answer to which was more integration into the capitalist European institutions.

Instead of pathologising the peoples living east of the Oder-Neisse or Danube, we need to look much further west – to what is happening in Catalunya today – to recognise the extent of the anti-democratic and authoritarian threat.

You don’t need to go far back to conjure up very similar images to the baton-charging Spanish paramilitary police today. They look almost identical to the police mobilised from across Germany to suppress the G20 summit protests in Hamburg in July.

There’s been a huge reaction against austerity and neoliberalism in the last five years. But for most of that time most people thought that they could bring the change they desired just through the limited mechanisms on offer from parliamentary democracy.

But we have seen an elected, left wing Greek government crushed by undemocratic concentrations of power. Then a huge referendum result overturned in just 24 hours.

There is discussion among serious commentators in Germany of the next government following the polarised and shock election last week not being formed until January. In the meantime, the interim government might perhaps unconstitutionally authorise troop deployments to Syria and Afghanistan, without a parliamentary vote. That this can even be discussed openly is telling.

France is under a state of emergency and legislation by presidential decree has become normalised.

Every state is increasing spending on security forces. All justified by “the Muslim terror threat”. Nato demands a rise in arms spending.

It is now not only economic well-being and survival of working people and the poor which are at stake. So too are democratic freedoms, something which we were assured capitalist Europe would safeguard, even if there were some economic “problems” as overheads.

The far right and fascists want to go further. But they are not having to batter their way to political advance against the state. It is the state that is beating a path for them by battering popular and democratic opposition.

Nests of fascists in Spain are openly trying to organise. Who opened the space for them these last two weeks? Not they themselves, but the sons of Franco in the governing Spanish right and the repressive apparatus of the Spanish state.

There is a political consequence for the anti-capitalist left in all of this. It is that the territory of our fight is not only economic and social, against austerity and neoliberalism. It is now firmly on the political terrain also. The broad political terrain, not just the electoral.

We have to offer an answer to the authoritarianism centred upon a more radical conception of democracy, from below and based upon a different way of running society.

That poses a challenge also to all the left reformist forces in Britain and in Europe.

The pressure of governmentalism – with the fig leaf of party-sisterhood with the Spanish social democrats of PSOE – is to say nothing, to say that these are purely internal matters for the territory of Spain, and to hide behind the Madrid constitutional rhetoric which is being deployed to cover a violent and anti-democratic assault in Barcelona.

Conversely, to speak out now and rally to the rights of the people of Catalunya is to declare an insurgent and anti-capitalist orientation. It is one which forewarns all that more militant and more profoundly democratic methods than a simple election or referendum will be required – even to hold a contested referendum or to have the outcome of an election respected.

That dilemma is pronounced in Britain today. It is the only country in Europe where a left-led reformist party has grown substantially and looks capable of becoming the next government.

But it is precisely because of that, and the questions of the state, authoritarianism and democracy, that people must take sides.

A run on the pound, should Labour take office? Yes – quite probably.

The right and its friends in the state acting like Rajoy? Perfectly possible.

This is about the defence of the national rights of the people of Cataluya.

But from Ireland to Greece it is about much more than that also.

Democracy and radical change – or authoritarianism and reaction.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting the AfD wrong


Naming the enemy on an anti-AfD protest

This Foreign Policy piece seriously overestimates the role of Alice Weidel and underestimates the fascistic character of the rising wing of the AfD.

The party is referred to with all sorts of euphemisms and cognates of populist. When it comes to mentioning the actual neonazi and fascist elements in and around it there is the most absurd understatement:

“The Saxony Anhalt branch of the party sees itself as part of a mass movement of radical rightists, which includes unsavory characters who wear swastikas on their arms.”


All this, plus not grasping that anti-Muslim racism is not just a scapegoating propaganda tool but an organising ideological principle – a Weltanschauung, means it presents as weird paradoxes things which are perfectly rationalisable for AfD cadres.

So, the piece asks how it is that a lesbian banker with a common-law marriage to a Sinhalese woman and living with their two adopted children in Switzerland can be a joint-lead candidate for the AfD.

It’s not so difficult. The homosexuality is presented as a private affair and in this instance a modest variation on the essential nuclear family. The AfD says Germans should have kids – those are the “new Germans”, not immigrants, that the country needs.

And touched on here, Weidel and the AfD – despite its pro-family and anti-gay traditionalists – have a simple answer. Germany will tolerate homosexuality – shorn of any politicised threat to the right and church reaction. The real issue over homosexuality is “hordes of anti-gay Muslims”. That’s what we need to focus on.

It’s true that “populists” can rail against bankers. But parties like the AfD are not anti-capitalist. Rather their pseudo-anti-capitalism masks a firm commitment to capital and a desire to become its major political instrument. The Nazi party craved support from big business, including bankers entwined with the big German corporations. It was “Jewish bankers” it directed its venom against.

What is more upstanding for the AfD base than a proper, ordoliberal German banker, whose propriety is vouchsafed by residency in Switzerland?

As for having a brown-skinned partner. That’s easily dealt with also. She’s Sinhalese. Therefore Indo-Aryan in “race” terms. Probably Buddhist (or possibly Christian) by religious faith or background. Certainly not Muslim. On the contrary AfD members can tell themselves she is anti-Muslim and that they are “not racist” because “look at the non-white people who are anti-Muslim”. Myanmar – for example.

And so the lines of argument can go on.

They are highly contradictory and elaborately contrived. But that’s the point. That is how fascistic ideology works.

It is not just bigotry or even “hate speech”. It is certainly not just saying offensive things.

The bundle of contradictory elements – associated with the bundle of alienated layers of different classes it tries to hold together – is tied by organising elements of its ideology.

It is not some general “anti-immigration” sentiment, as referred to here. The Islamophobia – anti-Muslim racism – has a constitutive role. It is a form of racism which allows for an alternative worldview of western, white (or Indo-Aryan and those given whiteness by permission) civilisation being under threat from an enemy without (the Muslim Middle East and North Africa) with its extension via a fifth column within.

The “Marxists” are implicated in the cultural and security assault through their “Multikulti” and undermining of the nation, and its past. The difficulties of presenting the party in a society which has high acceptance of homosexuality are dissolved and refashioned via the Islamophobia. It does heavy lifting ideologically. It is not just a piece of nasty propaganda.

And at the core of the fascisising wing of the AfD festers anti-semitism too. For it is the classic such portmanteau ideological tool into which modern economic discontents can be put in one compartment, with medieval-originated ideas of Jewish usury in the other – the whole package then serving to absolve actual capital and its economic and state system.

Neither this piece nor a Comment is Free column by professor Cas Mudde in the Guardian following the German election shock grasp this.

A major reason why is the refusal to go beyond the term “populist”, which is now so widely applied to a range of very different phenomena that it has lost its specific historical referents and means very little at all.

A second reason is not to capture the evolving nature of these kinds of parties across Europe. It is not unilinear. But in the AfD’s case it has been very rapid in its four year history and with an overall sharp radicalisation towards the racist, insurgent right.

A third is a refusal, on whatever grounds, to use the term fascist for those elements (or whole parties) which not only have characteristics of fascism, but contain people who have fascist histories and are articulating fascist strategies.

But perhaps the biggest reason is that anti-Muslim racism is pervasive across Europe and exists in a number of registers. One of them still is among liberals and centrists – and state officials – for whom Islamophobia is only some skinhead thug pulling the headscarf off a woman on the bus.

Meanwhile, they would regard banning the woman from working in a school as not at all racist, but a contribution to social integration.

I think this is the biggest weakness. It leads to the blindspot of not seeing that Islamophobia (with anti-semitism in its wake) is a critical adhesive for gluing together the fissile politics necessary for fascism, and those forces approximating it, to self-organise.

And it is in that process that racism against Muslims, and other forms, are themselves radicalised and take on a violent eliminationist character.

To see the fascist dynamic on the far right, you need to see the critical elements that allow for and organise the fascisising process, whose logic is the development of a mass physical force in the service of reaction.

Anti-Muslim racism is one of those critical elements.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Islamophobia – more than hate crime, state ideology


3500 (3).jpg

Local police officer and worshippers following the Islamophobic terror attack in Finsbury Park

Islamophobia – anti-Muslim racism – is being described on much of the broadcast media as a form of “extremism” or of “hate crime”.

But there is something distinct about Islamophobia. Not distinct in that it is in some way worse to be the victim of anti-Muslim violence compared with, say, anti-gay violence.

It is distinct in that Islamophobia has been central to the policy and legitimising ideology of the again expanding “war on terror” and of every major state and government in Europe and the US.

It operates in two ways. The first is open and direct, as when right wing politicians claim that Muslims as a whole somehow create an “extremism” or “tolerate extremism” or are incompatible with the “liberal values” which we are told underpin our societies.

The second is not so direct.

In 2005, the British government of Tony Blair did not actually set out to fan anti-Muslim racism, in the way that last year the Tory party of David Cameron and Theresa May did in the London mayor campaign.

But when it was confronted by the very consequences of the war on terror that many people from MI5 to the anti-war movement had warned of – that it would increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks in Britain – it faced a choice.

It could accept that those consequences had indeed been predicted. But that would mean having to change the war policy, which was a product of the special relationship between Britain and the US, and of the big power interests of both states in the Middle East and the world following 9/11.

And it would have to accept that opponents of the disastrous “war on terror” had been right.

To do that would have spelled the immediate end of Tony Blair. And it would have probably meant that the kind of political surge we have now around Jeremy Corbyn would have happened then – over a decade ago – on an even bigger scale than it did.

It would also have called into question the underlying militarism of the British state, and deepened the social feeling for a radically new course.

So it could not do that. Nor have successive governments been able to. Because they hold those militarist and corporate power interests central.

So it had to come up with something else. It had to locate the 7/7 attacks in Britain as being in some way the fault of Muslim communities.

It did not set out to create a climate where Muslims would be attacked on the street.

But because it could not admit to the true explanation, it had to come up with a false one – and that is why it went further down the road of Islamophobic racism.

Instead of rationally trying to understand and break out of the cycle of war and terror, it maintained that cycle and tried to explain away terrorism as the product of irrational Muslims who in some way or another incubated terrorism.

And so there is a uniqueness to Islamophobia in Britain.

It is that British governments committed to imperialist interventions alongside the US must generate Islamophobia.

And once generated it becomes a political tool in its own right. It becomes more crafted – through policies and large state mechanisms such as the Prevent strategy.

It becomes used more directly – whether by the far right or by Tory politicians trying to win elections. And then there is an auction between the two.

It moves from the default, fake, racist justification of the failed war on terror to permeate the state and the political interventions of the right and – in much of Europe – large parts of the centre left as well.

It becomes cruder too. Tony Blair’s career sums that up. Gone are his artful formulations of 2005 after the London bombing. Now he is as explicit as one of the far right Trump ideologues – there is a war of civilisation against an evil problem which he says is specific to Muslims and their culture.

And, as many of us warned 16 years ago, Islamophobia becomes the cutting edge for the growth of other forms of racism, also serving fundamentally as false ideologies to mask real problems – low pay = blame migrants.

We all want hate crimes investigated and perpetrators caught.

But Islamophobic racism is not just a hate crime – as when some thug attacks a woman wearing a hijab.

It is centrally driven by the state, defending corporate capitalist interests through militarism, war abroad and authoritarianism at home.

And in it we see why despite decades of anti-racism, racist ideology is continually refreshed in new forms and reinvigorated old ones by the capitalist system and state we live under.

That is why in uniting against Islamophobia and racist division we need movements and politics which oppose imperialism, war and capitalism – one of whose central ideological props is now anti-Muslim racism.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Juncker and May need each other


Whatever the spat between them this week over dinner, Jean-Claude Juncker and Theresa May are both of the pro-neoliberal centre right, and they need each other

“Praise god it’s not Russia this time!”

The Russian embassy in London neatly trolled Theresa May as she stood on the steps of Downing Street this week accusing Jean-Claude Juncker and the EU of interference in the British general election.

It was an extraordinary claim. Though it has to be said, the leaking to Germany’s leading conservative paper by officials on the Juncker side of what seems to have been an ill-tempered over-dinner meeting with May to discuss Brexit was unusual only in terms of who the target was.

Britain is not Greece. But the behaviour of the Luxembourgeois Juncker came as no surprise to anyone in the southern European country that has been ground in the maw of the European institutions over the last eight years.

Not just hostile leaks, but crashing the banking system was the kind of intervention the European Commission and European Central Bank engaged in at the end of June 2015 – directly to interfere through methods of financial terrorism in the Greek referendum.

Those fanatically pro-EU liberal figures praising Juncker in this spat with May would do well to remember that his Bollinger-fuelled bullying continues to be directed at the Greek pensioner, the Spanish unemployed youngster and the French factory worker trying to preserve their workplace rights and job.

Others of us have been reminded that liberal free-market capitalism has had only ever a nodding acquaintance with democracy and popular sovereignty.

And both Juncker and May are wholly committed to the neoliberal, corporate capitalist policies whose failure is measured in widening inequality, mass unemployment across Europe and a permanent class war from above.

Both are also of the centre right. He was the prime minister of Luxembourg who turned it into a tax haven, before moving on to his sinecure in Brussels.

That makes May’s claim about “interference” in the British general election all the more absurd. As the local government elections confirmed this week, the general election on 8 June presents a straight choice – either the return of a May government, or its defeat, with the only alternative being a government led by Jeremy Corbyn.

The very last thing that Juncker, Angela Merkel, the outgoing Francois Hollande or any of the European institutions or mainstream governments wants to see is a victory by a socialist-led Labour Party in Britain.

Labour’s plans to renationalise the NHS and rail, to invest and to redistribute wealth are entirely at odds with the rigged economic orthodoxy and breach the rules that lock it into the EU. Just as European-wide effort went into holding back the surge of Jean-Luc Melenchon in France in favour of promoting the Blairite Emmanuel Macron, so are they all committed to a Tory government in Britain.

So why the heat over that dinner? First, it is a sign of the clashes to come over the Brexit process. Those are perilous – for both sides.

Less remarked upon in this story is who it was that Juncker was speaking to when his entourage leaked that dinner table conversation and his haughty assessment of it.

It was the rest of the EU and its 27 governments. Beneath the proclamations of ironclad unity, the European Commission and Merkel have been working flat out to hold a common front.

Last year Merkel made an astonishing speech to the German equivalent of the CBI. She told big business not to go off seeking sector by sector deals with London – car manufacture, machine tools and so on. Instead, everything had to go through the German state and in turn through the EU negotiating team, in which Franco-German interests are strongly represented.

The EU is a powerful bureaucratic entity in its own right. But European capitalism is not a singular force with a single state. It is an agglomeration of national capitalisms – with sectional interests – and 27 states semi-organised in a hierarchy.

The primary aim in the Brexit process, say EU officials, is to maintain that arrangement. But if all were well, why would any effort be required to do so? All is not well.

Economic stagnation has produced enormous political strains in one European country after another. France is the latest, where neither of the twin party pillars of the political system made it into this weekend’s second round of the presidential election.

In Italy, the third biggest economy in the EU, the national carrier Alitalia has just gone bust. EU state aid rules prevent a nationalisation rescue. The anti-EU Five Star Movement is ahead in the polls.

We are often told that all the 27 EU states have a common economic interest in this Brexit process, which means “all the cards are in their hands”. It is true that the giant German economy could cope with a rupture in trade with Britain if no deal came out of the Brexit negotiations.

Other countries are not so sanguine. The government of the Netherlands is impeccably pro-EU. But the high proportion of Dutch trade with Britain means bosses and politicians there are much more nervous about Brexit.

So one side of this was shoring up the EU27 members and reinforcing the mantra that Brexit must be painful to ordinary people in Britain pour décourager les autres.

The second thing the Brexit dinner revealed was the essential unreality of the Tories’ negotiating position. Labour’s Keir Starmer hit the mark this week when he said a Corbyn-led government would rip up the Tories’ otherworldly plan, and outline a strategy based upon workers rights and economic growth – for the many, not the few.

One reason for the mess of the Tory negotiating position is that May is just not very good. Her lack of competence is attested to in how she was caught flatfooted by these leaks.

But it runs deeper than that. It is rooted in what the May government has been trying to do over the last nine months, which is to square a circle and exit the political mess David Cameron left them with after failing to win his referendum.

Behind all the chauvinistic flag-waving aimed at recuperating votes that went to UKIP in 2015, May wants a big business Brexit. And big business remains of the view it had overwhelmingly this time last year when it campaigned hard for Remain.

It would much prefer Brexit to mean not Brexit. That has been politically impossible in the wake of the referendum. With a majority of just 13 MPs in the Commons, the May government has been susceptible to the threat of revolt from two minority wings.

The Brexit fantasists – the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who think that waving a Union Jack will restore the British Empire – and the ideologically committed pro-EU minority of Kenneth Clarke and Anna Soubry.

The farrago of the government’s position is a product of this basic instability. And it is led by a prime minister who Clarke described on candid camera at the time of the Tory leadership succession last year as lacking in any big ideas and an eternal pragmatist – from reluctant Remainer to apparently hard Brexiteer.

May has surrounded herself with advisors from her time at the Home Office, which she ran with all the narrow-mindedness of a provincial Tory magistrate.

She is now hoping for a big majority through which to assert some control, not to pursue some hard Brexit, but to bury the referendum and return the Tory party in government to close alignment with the City of London and big business. That centres upon something she has been trailing for some weeks, to the alarm of the Tory Brexiteers.

It is to seek a long transitional arrangement with the EU in which all the strictures of the single market – which is not a trading relationship, but a legal enforcement of big business’s rights – are maintained, possibly renewed every year by vote of parliament.

It is to buy time and to avoid the kind of clashes that could open ruptures at the top – in Britain and in the EU – through which an insurgent popular anger could break.

As in any negotiation between capitalist interests there is antagonism. But May and Juncker have much more in common in seeking to control this process and quell what Diane Abbott called “a roar against the establishment” delivering the Leave vote in the referendum.

There are tensions. But they need each other – Juncker needs a big Tory win on 8 June.

And if you want to see what real interference looks like – then if Labour can continue to recover in the polls, it will be in your face in the coming weeks.  Including from Brussels, from Berlin, from Paris and from Washington.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

France: an historic moment for the left


Jean-Luc Melenchon with tens of thousands of supporters at an alection rally in Paris

Radical left (including far left) – 7.7 million

Social Democracy – 2.3 million

Liberal centre – 8.7 million

Right (including independent right-wing Gaullist) – 9.2 million

Fascist right – 7.7 million

The decline of the principal parties of the left and right (broadly defined) in the first round of the presidential election has revealed a new reality in France. They had 55 percent in the first round in 2012. Now they have 25 percent.

Where does it go from here? There are figures from the social democrats and the traditional right who would like it to go back to a decade ago, when between them they took in the first round 21 million votes.

That is not going to happen. Together this time they won less than 10 million votes. Le Pen’s strategy is spelled out in documents produced by Front National theorists. It goes beyond 7 May and the National Assembly elections four weeks later – though both are critical for the FN.

It is to reconfigure French politics and its system between two poles: the “globalisers” and the “patriots”; the “internationalist neoliberals” and the “economic nationalists”. And it is to make that coterminous with “pro-system” and “anti-system”, conventional and insurgent, “elites” and “the people”.

It is to suppress the social realities of class from expression in politics. Class cannot be erased entirely. It is a fundamental material fact of everyday life. It is more to destroy the old left versus right polarity, based upon the historic class politics of France.

The FN, then, would be at the centre of a massive political and social pole. It would be free to hegemonise it, to organise it and to choose how to radicalise, and when to change tactics. It would have all the power of initiative to execute a bid for control of the state – with the support of enough of the elites, not in revolutionary conflict with them.

All that against the systemic forces, who would undermine themselves through their commitment to the politics, ideology and economic strategies which – as we saw in 2008 and even in the “good years” running up to it – bring great crises, not stability.

To say this is a longer term strategy is not to endorse the meme, which I’m sure is intended to sound alarm, but actually underestimates the coming period: “Macron 2017 = Le Pen 2022”. Ruptures and violent clashes are unlikely to hold off for five years and obediently synchronise with the French election cycle.

The committed Macronites – Manuel Valls, Guy Verhofstadt, Tony Blair, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, Hillary and Bill Clinton, and all the rest – also want to realign politics along this axis. That is what their year of the “liberal fightback” is about.

They share with Marine Le Pen the same medium term political goal – though their longer-term aims are antagonistic.

They believe that an essentially Blair-Clinton-Merkel centre can prevail and that their system will work – economically and politically – once the path is renewed to 1990s “modernisation” and the rejuvenation of the global liberal order.

The element of their own political histories and self-aggrandisement should not be underestimated. Just as Margaret Thatcher thought she had been a prime mover of history in bringing down the Soviet Union, so these Third Way politicians believe that it is they who delivered the neoliberal “golden age”.

They will miss me when I’m gone, Blair told his friends 10 years ago. “When history shows I was right, they will call for Enoch,” said Enoch Powell mouldering away in the 1980s.

Such realignment cannot be brought about if there is a powerful and insurgent force on the left. That is why both Macron and Le Pen want to crush the left.

In the first round of the presidential election there were 7.7 million votes for the radical and the anti-capitalist left. The 2.3 million voters who stuck with the Socialist Party, against right wing leaders telling them to vote for Macron, did so behind a left wing candidate.

Some 750,000 of those social democratic voters are so alienated from what Macron represents, and he was an economics minister in the disastrous outgoing administration of Francois Hollande, that polling suggests they will not vote for him in the second round. They will abstain.

In all, nearly 10 million people voted for the left, and in a ratio of more than three to one for candidates well to the left of someone from the better wing of mainstream social democracy.

In order for Macron and Le Pen to achieve the political realignment they want, these 10 million voters of the left need to be disorganised, demoralised and dispersed across the political field. Reduced to disoriented ions, then to be attracted to either of the two poles: Macon and Le Pen.

For 10 million is a big number. And the campaign which brought the 7 million to vote for Jean-Luc Melenchon was massive, with huge rallies, a dominating presence online, and a reach into layers deeply alienated from the system. It was a campaign that grew as Le Pen’s faltered.

This raises the potential for a very different reorganisation of politics, and therefore of the field of the class and social struggle. Not two poles, but three: a radical and insurgent left; a liberal centre, with satellites from the wreckage of the old party system; and the hard right cum far right.

That is the favourable political outcome for not only the left, but for the working class movement as a whole. Macron and Le Pen both know this. Both are enemies of the working class movement. Both want to stop that happening.

So both of them in the next two weeks to the second round on 7 May and then to the National Assembly elections will aim to pillage and plunder from the 10 million voters of the left.

It is not merely about accruing votes. It is a political onslaught aiming to destroy the advance made by the radical left, which now is an obstacle to both the centre and the far right creating the new political reality that they jointly believe serves them way beyond these elections – strategically for the coming few years.

The weapons of Le Pen, of Macron and of the left

The weapon of Le Pen is the considerable base of active support the FN has been allowed to develop over the last 30 years in working class areas. A cadre of activists fighting hard to take her fake anti-establishment message into the very strata where the radical left has just built a huge vote. Jean-Luc Melenchon outpolled Le Pen among the youngest group of voters despite the FN having been placed first for over a year in that demographic. Youth unemployment is at 24 percent.

Just 3 percent of PS voters and 12 percent of France Insoumise voters say they are so blindly enraged at the system that they are prepared to vote Le Pen in the second round. So much for the horseshoe theory: that the far left and far right are essentially one in the same. Some 31 percent of the centre-right’s voters, in contrast, say they will vote Le Pen in the second round. The FN grew out of the French right, with all its barbarities.

Le Pen wants much more than those 850,000 votes from the left. She definitely needs a lot more if she is to have any hope of finishing close or even winning. Some 43 percent of centre-right voters say they will vote for Macron. Denying her votes from the left and working class is crucial, and not only in stopping her advance electorally.

This is the portal through which Le Pen, and behind her fascism in France, hopes strategically to achieve two things. First: to dissolve the radical left. Second: then to advance as the “anti-system” force in a bipolar political system. This battleground is critical for the far right and for fascism in a way it is not for the capitalist forces of the centre.

The reason why there were so many violent clashes between the Nazis – who crucially had a mass street-fighting force marking them out dramatically from today’s FN – and Communist activists in Germany between 1929 and 1933 (as analysed in an very good book by Eve Rosenhaft) was not because the Communists were violent thugs just like the Nazis.

It was because the Nazis knew they had to penetrate into those working class neighbourhoods. That meant breaking by all manner of tactics – from violent intimidation, including murder, to political initiatives – the Communist or social democratic presence there.

When Golden Dawn in Greece launched their September offensive in 2013, they murdered Pavlos Fyssas. He was known throughout his neighbourhood. He was an anti-racist and popular rap artist. He was part of the political and social reality in that poor part of Athens-Piraeus. Someone hanging out in the open-air cafe, greeted by loads of young people. A physical presence of the young-left political culture that Golden Dawn have to destroy.

Similarly with the murderous assault on Sotiris Poulikogiannis and a group of trade unionists putting up Communist posters in Piraeus. He is a very known figure in the docks and in his neighbourhood. “Taking him out” had a political purpose. Cracking the skulls of the radical left in order to crack its base of political support and supplant a neighbourhood “Communist character” with one who is of Golden Dawn. A position in a locality conquered.

The Front National is not using those tactics. But it is capable of them. Jim Wolfreys is the latest acute observer of the FN to remind us that behind the carefully detoxified image that Marine Le Pen has confected it remains at core a fascist formation.

That is attested to by the fact that of 1,500 FN councillors elected three years ago some 400 had left the party by January of this year. Some cited factionalism and administrative chaos. Others, however, said that upon standing as a newcomer to the party and getting elected, they found to their shock that there was a hard core with fascist and violently racist beliefs.

That shows two things. That there is a strong fascist spine, and that the careful strategy of softening the image and building up an electoral coalition of different segments comes with overheads. It means a broad footprint electorally, but also a strategic gap between that and the sharp dagger that committed fascists know they must fashion if they are not merely to win some representative elections but to conquer actual power.

The FN strategy has been labelled, by analogy to the eurocommunist politics of the left developed in the 1970s, eurofascism. A theoretical reference point for eurcommunism was a reading of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. He wrote of a distinction between a “war of position” and a “war of manoeuvre”. In the war of position, a military metaphor, leadership of a bloc of social forces is built up over time, through intervention in the fields of political and social life – elections, for example – in order to gain strategic advantage on an impending field of battle.

Strength is accrued behind this “counter-hegemonic bloc” at the expense of the hegemonic bloc of forces supporting the old order and system. A war of manoeuvre is, by distinction, the open clash of forces – direct, with methods of struggle including violence and the immediate application of force.

Gramsci, unlike some of his interpreters, knew that a war of position gives way in moments of manifold crisis to a war of manoeuvre. You build up resources of strength to use them – not to admire them. Committed fascists in Europe know that too, whatever combination of tactics they choose at a particular moment.

The battle to secure the 10 million voters of the left from incursion by the siren and fake anti-establishment voice of Le Pen is therefore strategic. It is not only about the numbers of potential voters denied to the fascist project. It is about solidifying the radical left pole of politics in France. Upon that basis it is possible to push back hard to regain from the FN those working class votes that it has been allowed to build up, election after election, over the last 30 years.

It has done so not because people have gone over directly from far left to far right. But because it has been afforded the room to manoeuvre, within this war of position, to win one concentric circle after another, centred upon the support that forms immediately around its core – those who were previously of the traditional right, with all its reactionary ideas and prejudices.

The weapon to secure the anti-system left vote against the far right, and to aspire to unify the working class against this deadly hostile force, is a militant and mass front of working class and left organisations, with social movements and groups of oppressed minorities, against the FN.

That cannot be done under the banner of Emmanuel Macron. For his front – the one signed up to by the social democrats and Gaullist right – is aimed squarely against a militant and left-led anti-fascist insurgency. It is crafted to crush the radical left, without which there can be no effective anti-FN campaign. His programme is for an assault on working class life, from pensions to disapplication of the mandatory 35-hour week and strengthening the police and security state. He needs a pliant working class.

The Macron message and strategy cannot undermine the FN. They are a mirror of the FN’s. With paeans to the EU and to the wonders of global capitalism, he is prepared to see the former industrial towns of the north and the eviscerated areas of the south of France go to Le Pen – provided he can lift a vote from elsewhere using Le Pen as a scarecrow.

The weapon of Macron in the working class movement is the old parliamentarist and trade union bureaucracy of the Socialist Party, which has stood as political master over the Communist Party for 40 years. They are calling not for militant action against Le Pen, to unify the working class movement and to prepare for the neoliberal offensive of a Macron government.

They are giving political support to Macron. For those of the right of social democracy, it is because they believe in what Macron offers. They saw him more as their candidate than their party’s own over the last four months. For those on the left of the Socialist Party, such as Benoit Hamon, it is something else: a strategic impasse leading to tactics dictated by someone else.

Despite the treachery of the right, the left social democrats still cohabit with them in the same party. Moreover, they share some essential political parameters. They say an insurgent politics of rupture will benefit only the far right. The prime, public political argument that Hamon put against Melenchon – against whom he was not antagonistic in the campaign – was that he would lead to a chaotic break with the euro and EU. The only beneficiaries of that would be the Front National., said Hamon

He claimed, somewhat unconvincingly, that he had a plan to get some agreed change in the EU and modify the deadly ordoliberal- austerity orthodoxy. The German social democrat Martin Schulz was apparently in favour of it. Though deeply critical of Macron, Hamon’s political line was little different from his: we need to get this EU system working again, and I have the ear of someone in Berlin.

The left of the Socialist Party is tied not only to the right in their joint electoral endeavour for the National Assembly elections. It is tied politically also. And by endorsing Macron, it has subordinated itself further. The only people strengthened by that are Macron and his allies such as Manuel Valls, and Le Pen herself. That is because she wishes to portray herself as the candidate “of the people”, now temporarily having relinquished the leadership of her party to present herself as everywoman: the embodiment of France against the old political machines.

Macron is relying on the bankrupted old forces of working class politics in France to break the insurgent left and deliver it back to the centre, possibly with some offer of seats for the social democrats – with their 6 percent on Sunday – in the National Assembly. Le Pen is also relying on that. For if the leaders of the left insurgency embrace the old political game, she will be free to appeal to the millions who reject it and who voted left in numbers which the FN cannot have expected six weeks ago.

Two paths – servitude or a new resistance

There are two paths in the next 12 days. One is for Macron and his vacuous rallies to dominate. That is what Le Pen wants. Her surrogates have said for months that Macron is the figure she would prefer to fight in a second round.

The other path is for the third pole of 7.7 to 10 million voters of the left to continue to assert itself in France. A ruthlessly independent pole, adopting a two-fold policy. That is a direct fight, with methods that the FN has rarely faced in its history, against Le Pen and aiming to deny her working class votes. A cordon sanitaire around the fascists – for that is what they are. A militant and mass movement which confronts her.

The left is not in the final round. It can be in the streets, workplaces and neighbourhoods, and with an equally important second message: an iron hard line of political division against Macron, preparing working people, young people and the social movements to fight the incoming Macron presidency. Challenging the forces of the centre to join the effective anti-fascist fight, welcoming any that do, but refusing political concession to their brand of dissolving left and working class power.

Macron will not fight Le Pen effectively. He will joust with Le Pen aiming for the playing field they both want. In a militant confrontation with Le Pen, the left can strengthen itself and also undermine Macron. To lead to a second round where the votes are counted in the shadow of a political reality defined by the left leading its 10 million voters in the extra-electoral field.

On that basis also to deliver a radical left vote in the National Assembly elections, which will be contested against the liberal centre, the right and the far right – equally. It means fighting to break the FN, but refusing to give political support to Macron. The centre-right has called for a vote for Macron. It is their business to win their 7 million voters to do that. But they will have to clash with their base on issues from Islamophobia and racism to gay marriage to do so.

The left can force them to – by not joining them behind Macron. The gain is two-fold. The suppression of Le Pen in other areas so that she is less able to penetrate the working class, and the disorganisation of the systemic right, who are at the centre of the French state. The police thugs who terrorise Black youngsters in the banlieue will be with either Le Pen or Fillon/Sarkozy.

Our side, meanwhile, will unite and rally against Le Pen with the effective methods. That will force their side to scrap with their own base, which they have helped lead towards Le Pen in the first place – because they collaborate with the FN all the time.

That all requires a political and organisational rupture with French social democracy and with its marionette of 40 years, the Communist Party of France. Whatever the motivations, and with them his political-personal weaknesses, Jean-Luc Melenchon throughout the election campaign was for refusing an old style pact with those decrepit old forces. He was right. In the same way that the Labour reformist Keir Hardie was right to break completely from electoral pacts with the Liberal Party in Britain over a century ago, and Andreas Papandreou was right to destroy the old Centre in order to found Pasok in Greece in the 1970s.

That’s seen now more clearly than in the near miss of Melenchon being in the runoff. The Socialist Party and the Communist Party, in the false name of anti-fascist unity, are aiming to restore their own fortunes at the National Assembly elections, over the corpse of this radical breakthrough by the insurgent left last Sunday.

In endorsing Macron, they do three things. They give political support to someone who will launch an offensive against working people. They help Le Pen – for she wants this political constellation of her against all the old party machines. And they do Macron’s bidding in trying to rip away a part of the “insubordinate left” back to the centre, in return – if they are lucky – for some local pacts to deliver some parliamentary seats.

Marine Le Pen gained 1.3 million votes on Sunday compared with 2012. But it was lower than what she ought to have got if her share of the vote in the regional elections, on a lower turnout, in December 2015 had been maintained. On that equation she should have gained 3.5 million – nearly 10 million votes over all on Sunday.

Melenchon, on the other hand, did gain over 3 million votes compared with 2012. Out of the ashes of the catastrophic presidency of Francois Hollande, it is the radical left and not the fascistic right who have gained the most.

The cheerleaders of the international capitalist class are in danger of making themselves look even more ridiculous by claiming that this is their moment. Marine Le Pen is not behaving as if it is her moment – but rather, with some cunning, that is only a moment on a slightly longer journey.

This is actually the moment of the fighting left. The agency for rupturing into a half century political settlement has been someone whose politics are actually closer to the patriotic social democratic left than they are to anti-capitalist revolutionaries.

But the rupture is made, in any case – égal. And that poses a challenge for those of us who are of the anti-capitalist left. Our politics – in a practical, and therefore real sense – were formed out of 1968. In the intervening years it has been easy for them to become buried under sedimentations of formulae and reflexes built up in decades of relative social peace, punctuated by minor eruptions. And with each subsiding of an eruption, so the sediment thickened.

Now there is a great rupture. Our biggest enemy is old formulae and habits of thinking. The recently old – that is. The older theorisations from times of great upheaval can be very useful.

The anti-capitalist left has a huge amount to offer in assisting this process of forcing the reconfiguration of politics in France to the advantage of the working class and of the oppressed. To bring that to bear, however, does mean being as radical as the young French people who voted en masse for Melenchon, and providing them with the tools to maintain this insurgency.

It does mean breaking once and for all with a satellite status orbiting the Socialist Party and the Communist Party. They are dying stars. Out of their orbit is the only way to avoid going down with them.

Above all it means believing the evidence of one’s own eyes, not being consumed with the pain of one’s old wounds.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘How can you rape a whore?’


Tanks roll onto the streets at the start of the Colonels’ Coup in Athens on 21 April 1967

Those were the words of Jack Maury, the head of the CIA station in Athens, upon being asked whether the military coup in Greece that began with tanks on the street 50 years ago represented “the rape of democracy”.

The colonels’ coup was the response of the nexus of the deep state in Greece and its allies abroad to two years of enormous instability. That upsurge had been triggered by the popular insurgent events of July 1965.

They were meant to have been impossible in the authoritarian state constructed after the civil war in the 1940s. It had resulted in the outlawing of the Communist party, the exile of many militants and the banning of trade unions.

But still, the working class and young people especially rose in revolt in 1965. The trigger was a government crisis – the dismissal of the centrist prime minister Giorgos Papandreou. The response to this “Royal Coup” by memorandum quickly spread beyond the confines of parliamentary politics and into enormous street mobilisations.

It rocked the Greek political system and ruling class on its heels for over a year. But the movement stalled – the forces of moderation dominating. It was only then that the colonels were able to seize the opportunity to strike on 21 April 1967.

A wave of repression, state murders and torture ensued. That is what an actual coup d’etat looks like.

The junta lasted until 1974, its downfall prefigured by the student occupation of the law school and then the polytechnic uprising in Athens, in November 1973.

I first visited Greece in 1983 almost exactly 10 years to the day following the law school occupation.

It was on a school trip. We visited both the law school and the polytechnic. It was at the height of the short-lived reforming experiment of the Andreas Papandreou government. He was to capitulate to forces of capital, foreign and domestic, within the next year.

We stayed in a cheap hotel at the back of the polytechnic. It had been a secret police station and torture centre under the junta.

Just before Easter we visited two friends of our classics teacher. They lived just off Alexandras Avenue, on Ioustinianou, if I remember correctly.

They were both Communists. He was still in the KKE; she had joined one of the big Maoist formations during the metapolitefsi in the 1970s.

We listened rapt as they told us about a history of Greece very different from the classical period we were learning about in school.

They had been active underground during the dictatorship. And we learned something new about Gerald, our teacher, beyond the astonishing feat that it appeared he could recite from memory just about all of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Sappho, Euripides…

He was the best kind of English liberal. Nothing to do with the creeps of the Liberal Democrats, but in the mould of Bertrand Russell. He also had a passion for walking, and later produced two authoritative volumes of hill walks on the Greek islands and mainland.

That night he told us how this cover of a respectable English classics master enabled him to travel throughout Greece in the dictatorship years – sometimes with groups of schoolboys from Yorkshire he was taking on a trip over the Easter holidays. He was thus able to pass on messages and information between people he knew who were in the resistance, most of them of the radical left.

He was not politically sympathetic to communism. But he did think it the right thing to do to assist the anti-junta underground, which used civil and military tactics.

The generation of that struggle still forms a major part of the Greek society – so do the right wing authoritarian forces which were then interpolated between the security apparatus, the American embassy and the royal palace.

A woman who confronted a Golden Dawn gang trying to terrorise immigrants in her town’s street market recently gave evidence in the trial of Golden Dawn. It turns out she had been a student in Athens in the early 1970s and had taken part in both the law school and polytechnic occupations.

We stayed up nearly till morning that night back in 1983, getting quite (well, very) drunk, talking with our teacher and his remarkable friends, and listening to songs of the Greek left.

“Under the junta, we used to have to hide the records and play them at a whisper,” our hosts told us. “But not now. We can play them as loud as we like.”

One of the songs was “To Gelasto Paidi”. It’s a translation set to music by Theodorakis of a poem Brendan Behan wrote at the age of 12 for Michael Collins – “The Laughing Boy”.

In this version the words are slightly changed. It begins now not with “It was on an August morning…” but, “It was 17 November….” the early morning in 1973 when the tanks burst into the polytechnic to crush the uprising.

It’s unusual in that many songs of the Greek left – like, for example, the Italian Bella Ciao – are of a partisan style and speak of repelling the foreign invader.

Here, those responsible for killing “the laughing boy” are the so called “army of the people” – the national army, the embodiment of national unity in which all participate equally under national service and which is supposedly above politics, equally disposed to all the parties. An act of civil war, in other words – as was so with the killing of Michael Collins in 1922.

It is a reminder that although all the forces of international reaction, concentrated in Europe in the Cold War mechanisms of Nato, supported the Greek coup, it was the Greek state itself, acting on behalf of the ruling class, which executed and initiated it.

It had found the room to do so, not least in part, because the biggest moderating brake on the movement that preceded it was the idea of the popular revolt stopping short of seriously confronting and dismantling that state.

It was the idea of holding back from forcing through a division of the nation, with the poor against and expropriating the wealthy elites, as the only way to then unite a people on a true basis.

Instead, there was to be only change limited to what the liberal forces around Papandreou (the father of Andreas) would agree to.

The result was not a liberal transformation of Greece. It was the military seizing power.

The clip below is a reminder of something else too. The immense capacity of people to struggle, even when mistakes have been made leading to terribly adverse circumstances.

It is of the big concert in October 1974 after the fall of the junta. Theodorakis conducting. The great contralto Maria Farantouri singing.

The stars, however, are to a large extent the thousands in the stadium.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment