Leftover delusions, yes; but were they really left? Discussing November 17

The dismantling of the November 17 terrorist organization sparked one of the Left’s periodic confrontations with its deepest political uncertainty: its philosophy – and, in some cases, its history – of violence and terror. Fourteen years after the Berlin Wall crumbled into souvenirs, few socialists still have faith in the revolution that will usher in a classless, communist society. Instead, disillusioned by the communist dystopia, most leftists have long since veered onto more reformist paths to socialism. Antonis Karkayiannis, a longtime journalist with Kathimerini, has always professed himself a non-aligned left-winger and has stood up to the heavy-handed tactics of communist parties. Unlike most of Greece’s leftist pundits, who reject any connection between the Left and the terrorism of November 17, Karkayiannis concedes that the group in fact came from the Left, in the sense that it was actuated by the fundamental elements of left-wing ideology and born out of leftist sects during a period of radical upheaval. Most crucially, November 17 embraced the idea of «revolutionary violence» which lies at the heart of official communist rhetoric. However, Karkayiannis points out that the terror of November 17 was out of time and place given the historical context and the actual practices of left-wing parties in the post-1974 era, a fact which renders its activity irrational and profoundly unpolitical. Karkayiannis’s recent first book «Terrorism and the Left» (Polis 2002) is based on a collection and reworking of editorials he wrote for Kathimerini after the big summer crackdown on November 17. The book is closer to the European tradition, using the history of ideas to interpret modern phenomena, rather than the more analytical and investigative style of Anglophone writers, which is characteristic of the majority of recent publications on the subject. The author sees the birth of urban guerrilla groups as an attempt to fill the vacuum left when official leftist parties abandoned revolutionary discourse. As a result, terrorist groups like November 17, he says, were out of sync with the historical and political context of the time – a context that invited democratic struggle rather than violent, extra-parliamentary conflict. It is in that sense, Karkayiannis argues, that the terror of November 17 had no rational or political premises. After the restoration of democracy, when November 17 became active, Greek society lacked the necessary conditions for urban struggle, says Karkayiannis. Its activity was not the type of armed struggle that results from underlying class enmity. Rather, it was individual violence cut off from the surrounding environment and driven by the paranoid fixations of a group of friends and relatives. Violence in history The author takes a careful approach to the question of violence. He does not deny the intrinsic role of violence in shaping history and human relations. History, Karkayiannis points out, «is essentially a history of violence, with endless wars, uprisings and violent confrontations» – and to that extent (that is, without the deterministic element), he accepts Marx’s interpretation of violence as the «midwife» of history. However, Karkayiannis says, the role of violence in history is one thing, whereas violence as ideology is quite another. The former derives from complex confrontations and clashes that mold nations, states, races, classes and politics itself. This type of violence or war is no more but the continuation of politics by other means – a genuinely activist and political rather than ideological interpretation of history. On the contrary, when revolutionary acts shift from the general level to the individual, from the historical to the circumstantial, they are then stripped of their activist, political character. People who carry out such isolated acts tend to «confuse facts with mere experience, and end up with fixation, obsession and paranoia, which are unpolitical phenomena,» writes Karkayiannis. Even Marx, he reminds us, rejected individual acts of terror for he believed they belittle the role of the masses. As such, the inspirers and founders of November 17 never seriously reflected on the meaning of political confrontation in the post-1974 period. Although it formally embraced Marx’s call for a violent insurrection, Karkayiannis writes, the Left in Greece never really had the power or the will to implement it. (The author does not hesitate to touch upon a taboo subject for the Greek Left, that is the use of terror tactics without any clear political purpose during the German occupation and the events of December 1944. These largely unexplored incidents, Karkayiannis asserts, are a «black hole» that still mars the history of leftist parties in Greece.) Hence, although November 17 was propelled into existence within the ideological domain of the Left, «it bears no relation to the Left, its militant tradition and political practice.» Attempts to link the Left’s long-abandoned revolutionary strategy with the tactics of urban guerrilla groups like November 17 are simply «not serious» and seem to be «systematically promoted by the Right and in a manner that provides terrorism with a specific political raison d’etre.» In the light of the above, Karkayiannis asserts, «it is a paradox and, at the same time, a sign of decay that the official leftist parties have avoided critically and decisively rejecting the paranoid violence of November 17.» It would seem fair, however, to object that if the Left does not see itself in November 17, this is perhaps less because the group was a distortion of leftist theory and rather more because the official Left itself has changed. Where Marx was wrong Karkayiannis ends his book with a devastating critique of Marxist parties and their penchant for violence. By viewing history through deterministic lenses, the author claims, Marxism inevitably takes the form of secular religion. Redemption for the chosen people, the proletarian class, lies at the end of historical evolution, the «withering away» of the capitalist class and the installation of a communist society. All values and deeds are sanctioned by the end of history. Anything that does not abide by it is a deviation – it is persecuted as a sin or a heresy. «There are many people, far more than the members of November 17, even large groups of people who, for some reasons are deeply and truly convinced that they have a superior understanding of the world and life, that they possess the deeper and sole ‘truth’ about the world and life… «This ‘assumption that they know the truth’ makes them think that they have a duty to convey it to the others by all means. This is a type of political autism which has so often resulted in crime.»