Reenacting their parents’ revolutions as farce?

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, History, Politics
May Day march of the Greek communists (KKE and allies) in 2008. Image used under CC license by xamogelo.

May Day march of the Greek communists in 2008. (Image shared under CC license by Flickr user xamogelo.)

“You can only imagine the bitterness this must have left in families [with] Republican, anarchist or socialist traditions,” I wrapped up my previous post about the lost children of Franco’s Spain. This might be something to keep in mind when eyeing the still vibrant leftist countercultures in the Mediterranean.

In Germany and Holland, countercultural hotbeds in the eighties, even the parties furthest to the left have long embraced classic social-democratic programmes that are more redolent of Willy Brandt than Karl Liebknecht. But in Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal there are still significant constituencies waving the red or black flags of revolutionary communism or anarchism. Maybe stories like those of Spain’s lost children are part of the explanation: the political emotions go deeper, are rooted in more personal stories.

This is what an IPS report on the Greek riots last month posited. Explaining the sheer intensity of anti-police violence, Apostolis Fotiadis reported:

Many [of the young people who joined the demonstrations] were joined by their parents, who experienced military dictatorship between 1967 and 1973. “I came because I felt responsible for the stalemate we left to these children to deal with [..],” said Tania Liberopoulos, a middle-aged accountant.

The protests were fed by the political memory of a history of social and political struggle. Almost by instinctive conscience, many people in Greece distrust the state. The latent Greek dislike of the police, which erupted so volcanically, has its roots in the old dictatorship when the police functioned as the colonels’ enforcers against the citizens.

Constant misuse of the police for anti-social purposes has led to its dehumanisation; officers are met with hate and contempt, and they hate back.

I’m not sure I buy into this – or at least, I’m not sure whether it works as much of a defense.

No doubt that political values and traditions are passed on from generation to generation, within families and even towns. There’s a small town in Germany called Mörfelden that was known in the state of Hesse as “Little Moscow” back in the 1920s – and to my surprise, there is even now still a chunk of about 15% of the electorate that turns out to vote for the DKP in local elections (that’s the tiny, old school communist party, which has no national support of note). A comparison of local election results and the town’s results in state and national elections, when the DKP is not on the ballot, suggests that a hefty part of this chunk actually only comes out to vote if they can vote for the DKP – even Oskar Lafontaine’s Linke is too revisionist for these people to come out, apparently. 

Riots in Greece (Image shared under CC licence by Flickr user Mendhak)

Riots in Greece (Image shared under CC licence by Flickr user Mendhak)

It’s not a large step to go from there to assuming that even if political views aren’t passed on comprehensively (or necessarily coherently) from one generation to the next, basic instinctive reactions like bitterness towards the police, rebellion against the existing order, are.

But then what? I know economic times are hard, but rebellion against the conservative government of the day ≠ rebellion against the Colonel’s regime. I don’t like conservatives either, but it’s just not. In a way, although they would never admit it, these Greek students might have more in common than they think with the anti-government protestors here in Hungary, even if their ideological sympathies are diametrically opposite. In 2006, I wrote about the riots here (the article was only published in much-abridged, Spanish translation, but here’s a Google Doc): 

[U]napologetic crowds [..] sang along with a rock song with lots of “Hungary” in it, and a heartfelt “Resign!” as refrain. A man appearing with a sheaf of rashly copied B/W leaflets had them snatched from his hands. A speaker talking of Transylvania harvested chants of “Down with Trianon!”, the 1918 treaty that severed two-thirds of the Hungarian lands from Budapest rule.

But most historical references are to 1956. A car sped past with the revolutionary flag, hole in the middle, held through the open roof. The Magyar Hirlap special edition (“Sad Morning on Freedom Square”), headlined one account, “They wanted to make a bloody ’56”. It refers to a slogan students were chanting, but also conjures up the image of a generation yearning to emulate the heroic fights of their grandparents – and doomed to imitate them as farce.

I found that generation later that night. With the MTV building off-limits, word was that youths would head to the Hungarian Radio instead. Second best, but also a historically charged choice: [it] was one of the key scenes of the 1956 revolution. [..] Eventually, a gaggle of real protestors arrived. And they looked fetching. Flags wrapped around their back, and tied over nose and mouth, to cover their faces. Just like in the pictures. One was even wearing a beret. [..]

Magyar Hirlap quotes rioting teens saying mere demonstrations are no good: “we’ve got to set cars on fire to achieve something”. They promise that the real chaos can be expected on Thursday and Saturday. A ” revolution” timed for when they “dont have to go to school, don’t have to work, nothing”.



  1. FBR  •  Jan 22, 2009 @12:29 pm

    Germany and the Netherlands may have been “contracultural hotbeds of the eighties”, but there was never a serious Communist party over there -unless you think the Unified Socialists were a serious Communist party in Germany… and besides the eighties was a very very good decade for the right wing, worldwide.
    All the other countries you name -Greece, Spain, Italy- had serious Communist parties and often communism -or left wing socialism- was synonimous of resistance, with all that word carries.
    The Communists in Spain, once relatively strong, are now an electoral joke. Izquierda Unida gathers all sorts of persons dissafected with the status quo, but has really no national agenda or workable program. One of the keys of PSOE’s historical success has been not only their moderation and the reforms, but also their tribute to the party’s past, even if it’s more in the form than in the substance. Clenched fists, red banners, the name “Obrero” and -very important- anticlericalism: this gives many voters the (correct) sense that they are voting, indeed, for the heirs of the Republic.
    As for Italy, the PCI was the only Communist party who truly reformed itself. They could do that, also because the Socialist party left a vacuum in the Social-democrat spot, as it moved to pragmatic alliances with the Christian Democrats and to making business out of politics. There were two main fractions in the old PCI: a huge majority was for reformist policies, and a tiny minority was for radical change (this also helps explain the surge of the extreme-left): most of that minority is what formed Rifondazione Comunista, a fringe party that can’t fill a medium size Roman piazza. The new Democratic party is the heir to PCI. Their members don’t use the red banner, but don’t crinch their teeth at the sight of one, for it also stood for great democratic and popular struggles.
    In both these countries, protest movements have more to do with visceral anarquism (I didn’t use the capital letter on purpose). A temporary show of rage because of the lack of opportunities and, at the same time -as a dear friend told me once- to celebrate the fact that there was really no socialist revolution going on.
    Greece -of which I know less- is another matter. If the people were allowed to vote after WWII, Greece would have gone to the Soviet sphere of influence. The Yalta/Postdam partition was done against the will of many peoples… and the Greeks were overwhelmingly left-wing… exactly the way the Polish, for example, were not. So, the PASOK and both Communist parties were not only strong and somewhat radical: they were harshly repressed, specially during the military dictatorship (1967-74) staged to prevent PASOK’s access to power. PASOK became mainstream, not so the Communists. I think this helps explain the magnitude of the latest riots, and the prevalence of their symbols, and even ideals.

  2. nimh  •  Jan 22, 2009 @1:35 pm

    Hey FBR! Thanks for your take.

    If you have the time, do check out the longer post this one digressed from as well – the one about Spain’s “lost children” of the revolution. I have something in that post about the respective roles of the PSOE and IU in the establishment of the Law of Historical Memory (the latter seems to have played a role of note). Your response would be welcome as always of course.

    I do have a couple of additions to your take here, mostly re: the presence of the far left then and now:

    – The Dutch Communist Party was serious enough. It got 10% of the vote after WW2. As late as 1972, it had rebounded from marginalisation to 5% of the vote. All in all, the party was represented in parliament for 68 years (1918-1986); longer than all but two or three parties.

    – The German communist party actually entered parliament with 6% of the vote in 1945, but it did, for sure, soon disappear. The obvious reason lies in the East-German dictatorship and the way it discredited communism in the West. But the party was also simply forbidden from 1956 till 1968.

    Maybe, if the communist party had not been prohibited from functioning as a legal, parliamentary “home” for the far left, it would not have scattered quite as much as it did into a variety of anti-parliamentary and terrorist groups in the sixties/seventies?

    My main point here, however, was simply that back in the seventies and early eighties, there was still a vocal constituency for revolutionary ideologies. Now – well, they’re definitely still more present in Germany than in Holland (or Britain) – but the German ex-communists mostly just sound like old-fashioned social democrats, and most of the far left sound & fury nowadays comes from Southern Europe, France and Italy etc.

    – As for Rifondazione Comunista (RC) in Italy – come on, it is not “a fringe party that can’t fill a medium size Roman piazza”. It got 6-9% of the vote in every election from its first appearance in 1994 through to 2006. That’s 3.2 million votes in ’96 and 2.5 million in ’06. A 2-3 times higher share of the vote than Ralph Nader ever got, and these are unrepentant communists.

    It had a disastrous election last year, for sure, but arguably mostly because the fear of Berlusconi had RC voters casting strategic votes for the Democrats en masse in a “camp battle” between left and right. Whether it will still have a future mostly depends on the fate of electoral reform plans which would doom smaller parties.


    Re your broader point about the riots being more about a “visceral anarchism” than any coherent ideological beliefs, though, for sure — that was sort of my point in comparing the rioting Greeks with their “far-right” Hungarian counterparts. Those also don’t have much in the ways of ideology, really, just an emotive dissatisfaction with The Powers That Be And The Way Things Are, and an instinctive disdain of “the commies” and to some extent the state, police and public TV that’s often passed over from generation to generation.

    As in Greece or Spain, history provides plenty of reasons for how these feelings came to be passed on down the generations (leaving aside their pre-WW2 roots), but have become, I don’t know, blurred and in a manner of speaking trivialised to the point where the rioters are reenacting “the heroic fights of their grandparents .. as farce”.

  3. FBR  •  Jan 22, 2009 @3:26 pm

    Rifondazione didn’t fill one third of Piazza del Popolo to protest on the day of George Bush’s visit to Rome. The Autonomi (far left) drew in a lot of more people. I was in Rome at the time. This gives more strength to the idea that anger is driving more people than the old ideologies, who are sometimes only a makeover.

  4. nimh  •  Jan 22, 2009 @3:53 pm

    Fair enough, you were there, they literally couldnt fill half a Piazza that time. But a party that’s routinely gotten over 2 million votes and 6%+ is not a “fringe party”, c’mon.

    Re: your (and my) broader point – i.e. your last sentence – we’re probably really not far apart. I see a new generation using the symbols and acting partly on emotions handed over by their (grand)parents — but expressing them in a farce-like, blurred manner. A rather incoherent echo of past ideology, mushed into a general sense of malaise or, as you call it, more “visceral” type of anarchism.

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