In recent weeks I’ve been trying to write something both critical and useful about the present COVID-19 crisis. My stumbling effort is put to shame upon hearing of the death of the great Greek critic and political activist, Manolis Glezos at the age of 98. Even in his final decade he was still writing, a book on social mobilisation here, a history of acronyms there.
Together with Apostolos Santis, he earned legendary status in Greece on account of their dramatic act – the date, April 30th 1941. The daring duo tore down the swastika from the Acropolis. It had been hung on the ancient monument by the occupying Nazis. In their words they determined to remove the flag as it “offended all human ideals”.
However he was to become frustrated by the attention given to this impulsive heroism, remarking that ‘everyone identifies me with the flag incident…but I had done things before that, I had done things after that, and I’m doing things now.’
Indeed he had. Across the decades Glezos was imprisoned twenty eight times by the Germans, the Italians and then by Greek governments, suffering torture and solitary confinement. At the coup d’état of 21 April 1967, Glezos was arrested as a leader of the Left Opposition. During the Regime of the Colonels, the military dictatorship led by Giorgos Papadopoulos, he was exiled until his release in 1971. Looking back on nearly 16 years of incarceration he commented:
“They say to survive in prison you should love yourself, eat and read. Well I never loved myself, I didn’t care about food but I constantly read.”
His mercurial life witnessed him struggling with the classical contradiction between the price of involvement in parliamentary politics and the necessity of an extra-parliamentary commitment to struggle from below. In fact he was elected to the Greek Parliament on four occasions prior to the 21st century, twice as a representative of the United Democratic Left in the 1960s whilst still in prison, twice in the 1980s on a PASOK ticket, at the time the Greek version of the British Labour Party. It would seem he was chastened by this latter experience, withdrawing from Parliament to devote himself to the nurturing of grass-roots democratic projects and initiatives.
This focus was inspired by his love for the short-lived, but vibrant period of Athenian democracy, which in the words of Castoriadis sowed a seed, both frail yet hardy, for the future. When elected in 1986 as President of the Apeiranthos Community Council on Naxos, his home island, he immediately sought support for abolishing the privileges of the council, promoting the creation of a People’s Assembly founded on principles of direct democracy. Evidently the experiment was successful for many years, before it ran out of democratic steam. It would be fascinating to find out more about its demise, whether, to take but one factor, it foundered on the lack of a democratic commitment within a hierarchical Greek educational system.
He returned to mainstream political activity as the new century beckoned, involved in the rise of a rainbow alliance of the radical Left, Synaspismos. which was to give birth to SYRIZA [The Coaliton of the Radical Left]. The streets, oι δρόμοι, beckoned too. In March 2010, Glezos was participating in an anti-austerity protest in Athens, when he was hit in the face by a police tear gas canister. He was carried away injured. Back in the corridors of power he was elected as a SYRIZA MP in 2012 as the new found party rose to power on a wave of popular, progressive support. Thence in 2014 he entered the EU parliament, gaining 430,000 votes, more than any other candidate in Greece. Once there he addressed the assembled by way of Euripides and Theseus, arguing that the European Union should aspire to the example afforded by Ancient Athens, a free city, free of tyranny and ruled by the many.
Unsurprisingly Glezos was appalled by SYRIZA’s capitulation to the Troika following the people’s overwhelming rejection of a deal with the creditors, expressed in the July 2015 Greek referendum. In the aftermath he is quoted as reflecting,
“I apologize to the Greek people because I took part in this illusion, let’s react before it is too late”.
For now it does seem late in the day. Political disillusionment remains the norm in my adopted country. For Glezos resistance still ran deep in his veins. In 2017 in a scene of unbearable poignance, on a rain-soaked November day, this remarkable man, 95 years of age at the time, paid lonely homage to the fallen of the 1973 Polytechnic Uprising.
Four decades of neoliberal ideology, its explicit encouragement of self-centredness has undermined our belief in the common good. Ironically Manolis Glezos dies at a moment when the collective spirit threatens to rise from the ashes. For now I’ll leave him to have a last word with regard to not forgetting the past if we are both to grasp the present and the future.
The struggle continues,
Ο αγώνας συνεχίζεται
Why do I go on? Why I am doing this when I am 92 years and two months old? I could, after all, be sitting on a sofa in slippers with my feet up. So why do I do this? You think the man sitting opposite you is Manolis but you are wrong. I am not him. And I am not him because I have not forgotten that every time someone was about to be executed [during WWII], they said: ‘Don’t forget me. When you say good morning, think of me. When you raise a glass, say my name.’ And that is what I am doing talking to you, or doing any of this. The man you see before you is all those people. And all this is about not forgetting them.
—Manolis Glezos, 2014