At a historical moment when an orchestrated unethical campaign of fear and authoritarian repression threatens hard-fought for civil liberties and undermines, however flawed its practices, representative democracy, it is sobering and necessary to remember and honour the struggles of the past.
LEVELLERS DAY – Burford, Oxfordshire.
Radical history inspires today. Learning the lessons of history from the pioneers of 1649 to the challenges of today
On 17 May 1649, three soldiers were executed on Oliver Cromwell’s orders in Burford churchyard, Oxfordshire. They belonged to a movement popularly known as the Levellers, with beliefs in civil rights and religious tolerance.
During the Civil War, the Levellers fought on Parliament’s side, they had at first seen Cromwell as a liberator, but now saw him as a dictator. They were prepared to fight against him for their ideals and he was determined to crush them. Over 300 of them were captured by Cromwell’s troops and locked up in Burford church. Three were led out into the churchyard to be shot as ringleaders.
In 1975, members of the WEA Oxford Industrial Branch went to Burford to reclaim a piece of history that seemed to be missing from the school books. They held a meeting in remembrance of the Leveller soldiers. The following year, Tony Benn came and read in the church and in each succeeding year, people have come to Burford on the Saturday nearest to 17 May, debated, held a procession, listened to music and remembered the Levellers and the importance of holding on to ideals of justice and democracy.
Want to read more…
SERTUC has published The Levellers Movement, an account of perhaps the first political movement to represent the ordinary people. You can download it free here The Levellers Movement. Hard copies have sold out!
Thanks to the Levellers Association, the Oxford WEA and the Oxford Trades Council for the material and images.
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.
A world without politicians – reimagining ‘Athenian’ democracy in the 21st century –Tony Taylor
Politicians are held in little regard, seen as corrupt, self-seeking and out of touch. Yet their place in the order of things is rarely questioned. However, as crisis consumes contemporary society, parliamentary democracy itself is exposed as a spectacle of deceit. Disillusioned with both politicians and the ballot box the demos retreat into passivity or flirt with fascism. Tony Taylor will propose its time to rid ourselves of these parasites and escape from the illusions of representative democracy. He will suggest that direct democracy as the authentic expression of ‘the power of the people’ is within our grasp, provided we recognise that politics and democracy, forever open to question, are our collective business and nobody else’s. Without such a revolutionary shift in our consciousness an Armageddon of humanity’s making lies on the horizon.
Οι πολιτικοί κρατιούνται ελάχιστα, θεωρούνται ως διεφθαρμένοι, εγωκεντρικοί και από άγγιγμα. Ωστόσο, η θέση τους στη σειρά των πραγμάτων σπανίως αμφισβητείται. Ωστόσο, καθώς η κρίση καταναλώνει τη σύγχρονη κοινωνία, η ίδια η κοινοβουλευτική δημοκρατία εκτίθεται ως θέαμα δόλου. Απογοητευμένοι με τους πολιτικούς και την εκλογική κουβέρτα, οι άνθρωποι υποχωρούν σε παθητικότητα ή φλερτάρουν με φασισμό. Ο Αντώνιος Τέιλορ θα προτείνει το χρόνο του για να απαλλαγούμε από αυτά τα παράσιτα και να ξεφύγουμε από τις αυταπάτες της αντιπροσωπευτικής δημοκρατίας. Θα υποδείξει ότι η άμεση δημοκρατία ως αυθεντική έκφραση της «εξουσίας του λαού» είναι μέσα μας, υπό την προϋπόθεση ότι αναγνωρίζουμε ότι η πολιτική και η δημοκρατία, ανοιχτά για πάντα ερωτηματικά, είναι η συλλογική μας δραστηριότητα και κανείς άλλος. Χωρίς μια τέτοια επαναστατική μετατόπιση στη συνείδησή μας, μια καταστροφή της ανθρωπότητας βρίσκεται στον ορίζοντα.
Apologies to my Greek friends for imperfections in the translation.