Friday, 14 September 2007

My Greek revolutionary friends

Over at Castoriadis blog, Hermes and I have been debating with two Greek revolutionaries, Thanassis and Nick, regarding the Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis and his relationship to Hellenism/nationalism.

Thanassis and Nick were adamant that Castoriadis was a stringent anti-nationalist and committed internationalist. Thanassis pointed out Castoriadis’s formative relationship during the Axis occupation of Greece with Aghis Stinas and his Trotskyist internationalist group – ‘the only political organization in Europe which remained faithful to the ideas of internationalism during WW2’– while Nick referred to Castoriadis’s repeated condemnation of Greek nationalism and modern Greek culture, which Nick calls ‘sterile, sick and outrageously narcissistic’.

Both Hermes and I accepted that, of course, while Castoriadis was no Greek nationalist, the privileged status he affords Greco-Western civilisation – his consistent assertion that the Greek tradition is the history of freedom – makes us feel that his internationalism is somewhat hollow, particularly in these days when internationalism has become associated with cultural relativism, which has as one of its main targets the Greco-Western tradition.

Hermes said that Castoriadis realised that ‘one must place the Greco-Western tradition above others because the whole process of questioning traditions was a Greco-Western one. He is very clear on this.’

(Indeed, taking Hermes' argument a step further, it could be said that Castoriadis’s insistence on the uniqueness of the Greek tradition corresponds – and gives new meaning – to the assertion of Greek national ideology that Greek culture is transcendent and reflects the enduring potential of the people who created and bear that culture).

I also pointed out that while Castoriadis insists that nationalism and the nation are mystifications, in Pericles’s Funeral Oration – which Castoriadis calls ‘the most important political monument of political thought I have ever read’ – and in which the mission of Athens is revealed as, according to Castoriadis, ‘the creation of human beings living with beauty, living with wisdom and loving the common good’ – in other parts of the Funeral Oration, Pericles defines Athenian exceptionalism in terms we could identify as extolling the virtues of the Athenian ‘state’ and ‘nation’. I wrote:

‘The Athenian polis is not some anarchist commune and Pericles in the funeral oration as well as advocating living with beauty and wisdom also boasts about the power of the Athenian state – and its empire – and the valour, honour and the military prowess and endeavours of Athenians. Indeed, the Parthenon – built on Pericles’ instruction – is not just a monument to the Athenian pursuit of beauty, wisdom and the common good, but also to Athenian national assertiveness, to its glory and unity.

‘Is Pericles an Athenian nationalist? Sounds like it to me. If Pericles is an Athenian nationalist, then why does this not prevent him from simultaneously postulating Athens as a society geared towards beauty and wisdom, from describing a collectivity that satisfies the criterion for the project of autonomy, in terms Castoriadis would accept?’

In short, I am saying that the pursuit of beauty, wisdom and the common good are compatible with – and maybe even dependent on – devotion to the nation.

On a more general point, I have always found the persistence of a revolutionary fringe culture in Greece perplexing. I suppose it could be argued its durability is testament to the vibrancy, in its country of origin, of the Greek tradition – in which everything is open to radical questioning; but, unfortunately, I don’t find these revolutionaries that radical and their continued influence in Greece has probably less exalted explanations.

One of these explanations is that these revolutionaries still believe they’re opposing the junta – or, more correctly, are trying to compensate for the fact that between 1967-74 there was very little outward opposition to the junta.

In fact, apart from the funerals of Seferis and George Papandreou and the Polytechnic demonstration in 1973, the junta had a fairly pliant Greek population to deal with. Indeed, to cover up the lack of resistance to the junta, a mythology has developed around the Polytechnic demonstration, which credits students and youth with bringing down the junta, justifying a politics which directly confronts the ‘state’ and posits students and youth as the vanguard of radical politics and defenders of democracy.

Of course, the notion that the Polytechnic demonstration brought down the junta is patently false. The truth is that the Polytechnic demonstration brought down the idiot Papadopoulos and ushered in the gangster Ioannidis. What brought down the junta in 1974 was not the rebellious or revolutionary qualities of the Greek people, but the Turkish army and its invasion of Cyprus, indicating that it is Cypriots who paid, and continue to pay, for the restoration of democracy in Greece.

1 comment:

Hermes said...

Interesting how different people interpret the same thing in different ways. However, Thanassis and the other person seem like cardboard cutouts of traditional anarcho-communists - just spouting forth the usual clap trap. One of the most striking things I find is that for two seemingly clever people they are so unoriginal. I will not bother to take apart their arguments because it has been done so well already by you J.Akritas.

Also, your comment "In short, I am saying that the pursuit of beauty, wisdom and the common good are compatible with – and maybe even dependent on – devotion to the nation." is very good. Why is it that social justice (which is an important ideal in itself) is seen as compatible with Pericle's sentiments and devotion to the nation is not. Yes, they are both potentially heteronomous but they can also be autonomous systems as long as there are mechanisms to critique both projects.

What is most saddening about Thanasis and the other person is that they a reductionists i.e. there is only one project. I beg to differ. The human is incredibly complex and in my world there is room for the nation, social justice and devotion to wisdom and beauty. Actually, they are all mutually co-dependent. I suppose I appreciate the full breadth of human potential whilst other people seek to break the human down into little pieces. Sounds inhuman to me.