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Tom Hayden

Tom Hayden

Posted: December 20, 2009 02:57 PM

Greece and the Global Sixties

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I am here as a witness to the importance of memory to the future.

Direct action to build a participatory democracy in the image of the Greek city state was the chosen ideal of the first activists of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the early 1960s. The college papers of the young Martin Luther King Jr., written in the 1950s at Crozer Theological Seminary, included 13 references to Greek thought, typical of students in those years. That the Greeks held slaves in the midst of their democracy only meant that the struggle for a democratic polis was unfinished or not even begun for the many.

It was apparent to Martin Luther King and millions more that the representative democracy of elected officialdom could not, and would not, meet our needs, most obviously because we were disenfranchised -- 27 million young people and African Americans in our South.

We could not wait for the older generation to notice that the future they had prepared for us was nothing more than the past recycled, history as a Xerox machine. We believed in action to win our freedom in the moment, to create communities of resistance, and to challenge the tired and complacent. With Henry David Thoreau, we wanted to vote with our whole lives, not with a mere piece of paper. We believed that everyone deserved a voice in the process of making decisions that put their lives at risk (like the Freedom Rides), or threatened their expulsion from school or their forced draft for Vietnam (the same issues faced by Greek students under the dictatorship). Our decision-making assemblies became latter-day versions of the ecclesia (at least as we imagined it), with sometimes as many as 3,000 participating in decisions, and with rotating leadership. Socratic dialogue, though not the notion of philosopher-kings, was basic to community organizing. We wanted people to gain their own authentic voices, not follow charismatic demagogues.

An organizing principle of our movements, and of the new society we aspired to build, was that every person should have a voice in the decisions affecting their lives. Only such a commitment, we believed, could motivate people to dedicate their lives to a cause that might take a lifetime.

We were aware, of course, that ancient Greeks were themselves divided about the ideas of participatory democracy, and how American conservatives would cite the Greeks against our experiment in democracy. Like my experience with Irish-Americans, the face of Greece in Sixties America was Spiro Agnew. Then during the resistance to dictatorship we met and admired the Greece of Ritsos, Mercouri, Theodorakis, Lambrakis, Costa-Gavras, Pappas, and Andreas Papandreou.

We never resolved how and whether participatory democracy could be constructed after our revolution, but it suited the needs of a seemingly spontaneous movement that was challenging all hierarchies.

But I am here to acknowledge the contribution of the early Greek city-state vision to the global change of the Sixties, in which a younger generation cast off the repressive yoke of the Cold War nuclear arms race and sought to throw open the future to more democratic, communal and sustainable possibilities.

The Sixties at Fifty

I have yet to meet anyone who realizes that next month, January 2010, marks the beginning of the fiftieth anniversary of everything we experienced in the Sixties. We never aspired to be Immortals, and now our time is passing rapidly. But the nature of the media offers us one more opportunity to engage in the battle for memory.

Put simply, there are many who want to erase the memory of the Sixties, because they still consider it a virus to be contained. When the first George Bush invaded Iraq, for example, he declared that "the Sixties syndrome was defeated," as if the "syndrome" was a weakness that had to be removed if America's reputation as global policeman was to be restored.

Others like myself are champions of the legacy of Sixties social movements with an interest in teaching and transmitting those principles of participatory democracy to future generations.

Still others I describe as the politicians of memory. They wish a selective memory that proves their belief that America's system is flexible, responsive, the most adaptable in the world. They have a point, but the danger with the politics of memory is that the radicals who made change possible are forgotten or reduced to faces on postage stamps. There are no monuments to the movement against the Vietnam War.

The Long Sixties

We need to understand the roots of the Sixties in the global Cold War which began with the Truman Doctrine here in Greece, extended through years of repression and silence in many countries like ours, but also contained the seeds, or precursors, of the Sixties before they were noticed. For example, the process of African decolonization, and the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement, stimulated alternatives to the Cold War nuclear arms race. One indirect result was the US decision to desegregate public schools -- partly in response to global criticism by the Soviet Union and newly-independent African countries.

These undercurrents burst to the surface in 1960 with the release of Epitaphios here in Greece and the assertion of a new sensibility. In America there was the so-called Beat Generation of oppositional poets and lifestyles suddenly attracting a new generation to a counter culture far outside conventional politics. The consciousness of the Beats was built in large part on the African-American blues culture. In Greece perhaps a similar development occurred with the rebetiko cultural revival.

The end of this "Long Sixties" should be drawn in the mid-Seventies, I believe. The date is important, for it partly answers the question why the period came to its end. There were many false moments when the death of the Sixties was declared; for example, the killings at Kent State University in 1970. Our innocence, according to this autopsy, died under the onslaught of extremism on all sides. Our generation died of an overdose of excesses, it usually is added.

This is nonsense. The Sixties ended when our causes succeeded, leading to the decline of our unified focus, and the opening of new channels of expression within the mainstream. A parenthesis spanning the decade of our twenties came to an end with the end of the Vietnam War, the uncovering of Watergate and purging of Richard Nixon and imprisonment of his cronies (Agnew among them). Then came the end of the 21-year-old vote, the end of the forced draft, the return of thousands from exile in Canada.

In Greece, I believe the Sixties ended with the collapse of the dictatorship in 1974. Perhaps the closure was represented by the huge concert in Athens, "the most legendary musical concert in modern Greek history" honoring the return of Democracy, captured on film in the documentary Songs of Fire. The banned songs of Theodorakis, and the banning of Theodorakis himself, ended with the composer on stage side by side with Ritsos. November 17, the date when the tanks occupied the Polytechnic and the killing commenced, became the date of the first democratic elections after the dictatorship and a national day of commemoration ever since.

I have titled a recent book The Long Sixties, from 1960 to Barack Obama because I believe the print of the Sixties is felt reverberating even five decades later. The demonstrations against corporate globalization in Seattle, Genoa, Cancun; the massive social forums begun in Porto Allegre; the elections in Latin America of former guerrilla leaders and political prisoners; and even the youth uprisings in Greece in recent months, constitute a recycling of the human desire for justice that arises when the old institutions fail.

Barack Obama was conceived in 1963, the time of the great Washington March, a time when interracial sex and marriage was criminalized in much of my country. In time he became president, not simply on the strength of his political gifts, but because the Sixties made him possible -- the changes in voting rights laws, the crushing of segregation, the achievement of affirmative action, the reforms of the formerly-segregated Democratic Party and the presidential primary process allowing greater popular participation in elections, all as a direct result of the Sixties in America. But I am getting ahead of my narrative.

The Global Sixties


There has been too little research on the global nature of the Sixties, since the Sixties were experienced mainly on local and national levels, not through some sort of international Comintern of the old model.

There were transnational movements before in history, like the European working class movements of the 19th century. And there were periods, such as the 1770s or 1840s, when multiple currents of social activism erupted surprisingly at the same time around the world.

More reflection is required on how these global upheavals occur so spontaneously. One of the best analyses is the book 1968 in Europe by my German friend Martin Klimke (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). Another, oddly enough, is the declassified CIA report titled "Restless Youth," sent to President Johnson in 1968. These attribute the Sixties to the Cold War, Vietnam, and the expanding enrollment of alienated youth in colleges and universities. The CIA report concludes that the movements were far from being "communist-inspired"; in fact, it says youth rebellions were occurring in the Soviet bloc as well. Of course the CIA report was unable to depict itself -- and other clandestine and faceless bureaucracies -- as the target of the rebellion. The CIA concluded delicately that "the role of the United States in world affairs, particularly US involvement in Vietnam, is most evocative" in sparking student passions.

The Greek student movement is little mentioned in these reports. The CIA analyzed 18 countries, but not Greece, despite its hand in the 1967 coup. The newer book 1968 in Europe covers 15 separate countries, but with Greece lumped in a chapter with Spain.

I looked through 15 histories of the Sixties, with titles like 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, The Global Revolutions of 1968, and 1968: The World Transformed -- and found no references to Greece -- with the exception of the $549,000 secret check to Richard Nixon from the Greek dictators' intelligence service, passed through Thomas Pappas (in Ric Perlstein's Nixonland, 2008, p. 518).

Perhaps "Greece in the Sixties" is remembered in another historical category because of the dictatorship, but the omission in Sixties historical literature is a serious one, promoting the popular understanding of the Sixties as mainly concerned with middle class lifestyles. This is distorted historiography. Greece after all was the fulcrum of the Cold War which dominated the Sixties generation. The 1967 coup was one of many CIA-assisted ventures that were typical of the time. The Greek dictatorship was imposed in response to the departure from Cold War politics that the Center Union coalition represented. The November 17 movement's resistance to tanks on the Polytechnic campus was a symbol as great historically as that of Tlatelolco Square in Mexico City five years earlier. If I may say so, Melina Mercouri was as great a global figure representing a revolution in the arts as was Jane Fonda -- and Mikis Theodorakis as great as Pete Seeger, and Costa-Gavras as great as Stanley Kubrick.

So I think it is very important to write Greece into the history of the Sixties. And not only Greece, but all the countries of the global South, who have been neglected by the media's preference to obsess on music, marijuana, long hair, lost bras, and the end of innocence.

Movements Against Machiavellians

Finally, I would like to spend a few minutes on an alternative model of the Sixties, a model of social change drawn from my experience, research and teaching over the years. (If I may say so here in Greece, I feel like something of an archeological site myself, with decade buried under decade. This long experience does bring the gift of perspective, which I now want to share).

Definitions: by social movements, I mean determined gatherings of unrepresented people outside the hierarchal institutions bringing pressure to bear to address moral injuries or material grievances. In time, their longings consolidate into more moderate (pragmatic) and militant (radical) tendencies.

By Machiavellians, I mean those technicians of power who seek to preserve power and advantage for such institutions as the state, the corporation, the military, and the media, drawing on the maxims contained in Machiavelli's small book The Prince. They too divide over time into moderate reformers and militant fundamentalists or dictators.

There was one figure whom Machiavelli was unable to conform to his philosophy of power, that of the prophet Moses, who represented another sort of power. Machiavelli uncomfortably classified Moses as a religious agent of God, and therefore irrelevant to the exercise of power. In doing so, he left Moses as the enduring symbol of the spirit of social movements against slavery, at least in the West.

As I have said, social movements germinate at the margins, usually invisible from the contented view of the Machiavellians. They erupt by surprise, as with the poem "Epitaphio," based in the memory of a suffering woman and child from an old photograph.

They must pass through moments of trial where their cries, if not stifled, will reach a broader constituency and become a movement. The 1963 murder of Deputy Grigoris Lambrakis, meant to stifle protest, turned instead into a mass movement of dedicated young people. (The Mayor of New York City, John Lindsay, later told me that he held a private screening of Costa-Gavras' film Z for the hierarchy of his police department, so concerned was he about a similar pattern in the United States.) The first killing of a student leader, Sotiris Petroulis, in 1965, only mobilized greater anger among the Lambrakis' generation.

The murder of John F. Kennedy, shortly after he began supporting the civil rights movement and alternatives to the Cold War, had an opposite effect to the Lambrakis' killing, causing a confused depression that only worsened as murder followed murder in America, effectively decapitating the potential leadership of a progressive majority governing coalition.

The movement marches towards the political mainstream, becoming a measurable factor in public opinion surveys and the electoral process. In time, the demands of the movement reflect a majority of opinion, testing the willingness of the Machiavellians to accommodate. In the case of Greece, this majority was reflected in the Center Union's 53 percent parliamentary vote in 1964, and its momentum towards a future prospective victory at the polls in 1968. This probability was too much for the national Machiavellians, and their backers in Washington, to accept. And so there came the coup, and a more ferocious coup after that, leading to 28 deaths on the campus in 1973. But the repression only deepened the public disenchantment and resistance, which led to even more irrationality from the elites, culminating in the Cyprus crisis, finally ending in their demise in 1974. (At the risk of misunderstanding, the Greek unraveling seemed not unlike Watergate, in which a generalized constitutional crisis brought more moderate Machiavellians to force Nixon from office.)

When the movement succeeds in its main objective (democratic voting rights for disenfranchised people, ending an unpopular war, dissolving a dictatorship), the resulting paradox is that the movements tend to demobilize and divide. Many people enjoy the return to normalcy with new protections, and they return to their private lives in everyday life, enriched by the reform. On the other hand, the Machiavellians, having conceded an enormous reform under popular pressure, are mobilized to redefine and do battle for their core interests (preventing a left-wing government from emerging from the new democratic process, protecting investment opportunities for their patrons, covering up their unpunished crimes, polishing their reputations anew, urging the population to "not look back," etc.)

The activists who have been deeply revolutionized by their experiences often are unable to join the more pragmatic of their generation in plunging into the new democratic space. Instead, they can become bitter avengers, as happened with violent underground groups in most of Europe and North America, typically in the late Sixties but later in Greece. These factions in Germany, Italy, France, and North America (the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army, the Front de Liberacion du Quebec, etc.) were mirrored by the November 17 faction in Greece, and their violent aftershocks lasted for decades. [I found the recent novel about the November 17 group by Tobias Hill, The Hidden, as well as the recent German film The Baader-Meinhof Complex to be fruitful in portraying the dynamics of these undergrounds.) My point is that these patterns of violence are rooted in sociology and history, not the defects in ethnic character which are almost always alleged.

On the Reforms of the Sixties

The Sixties era ended in significant reforms almost everywhere in the world as a result of the clash between movements and Machiavellians. In my country, the following happened in a short historical period:

- voting rights for southern black people and 18-21 year olds, totaling 26 million Americans
- the end of the Indochina wars
- the end of the compulsory draft
- the fall of two presidents
- new oversight of the imperial presidency, the CIA and the FBI
- amnesty for 50,000 draft evaders in Canada
- normalized relations with Vietnam
- the freedom of information act
- the media fairness doctrine
- the Roe v Wade supreme court decision legalizing abortion
- the strongest environmental, consumer and health and safety laws of the past 40 years
- democratic reforms of the presidential primary, delegate selection rules
- union rights for public sector employees
- fundamental reform of school and university curriculum
- freedom of sexual desire and lessening of censorship
- expanded participatory rights for marginalized minorities, from college students to disabled Americans.

There are lessons here. After 50 years of personally supporting generalized revolutionary aspirations, time and again I have witnessed reform as the result. These reforms would not have been achievable without revolutionaries of one sort or another. These reforms cannot be dismissed as superficial, because they created new openings for the disenfranchised and reallocated resources in positive ways. They were won through the power of social movements, not because the established powers decided on their own to become more generous. For these reasons, those who call themselves radicals and revolutionaries might want to take some credit and embrace these reforms before the memory of how they were achieved fades away.

On the other hand, the more radical among us are not wrong in their complaint that the powerful institutions remain the same, that they have co-opted some of yesterday's radicalism to regain a certain legitimacy. But it seems wrong and indulgent to maintain that the more things change the more they remain the same. Tell that to African-Americans, to American women. Tell that to the people of Bolivia, Chile, or Venezuela. It is not exactly so. And where the Machiavellian institutions still dominate, there are communities of meaning everywhere where progressive people pursue their cultural, political, educational and environmental rights in an atmosphere where struggle is encouraged from one generation to the next. Only remember Earth Day in 1970 and look at Europe's environmental policies or the streets and halls of Copenhagen today, and one sees that the struggle is progressive, expanding, and ongoing.

Reform is the space of cross-pressures where movements and Machiavellians negotiate new norms versus old privileges, not in a final sense but only in a provisional one.

I urge you to reflect on the reforms that emerged from Greece in the Sixties, from greater democracy to women's rights, from the margins to the mainstream, from confrontations to unnoticed acceptance. I think you will find the paradox I have found, that great things have happened in our lifetimes and yet the poison of undemocratic power continues to threaten our very lives.

From Vietnam to Afghanistan

Let me conclude by noting an example of how these Sixties memories influence our perception of the present. Our American president, whom I strongly have supported, recently began a speech on his decision to escalate the Afghanistan War with a reference to Vietnam. He said the two wars were not alike, in part because "the world" -- or 41 countries -- support the broad coalition. It was multiculturalism in defense of a military occupation led and controlled by the United States government, despite grave reservations by the public in America, Europe and around the world. But Barack Obama could not speak of unilateralism. Barack Obama is trying to use the image of European and NATO support to convince the Congress, the media and the doubting public that this is truly a war supported by a supposed "international community."

Have we come full circle? Is the Cold War being replaced by a Pentagon doctrine of The Long War against international terrorism? Are NATO nations expected once again to be satellites of the United States or face the consequences? Are domestic liberties to be limited by new anti-terrorism laws? Are whole subpopulations of Europe to be considered an enemy within? Is the bombing of faraway Muslim countries the response to Muslim grievances in Europe? Many American and British counterinsurgency officials actually say that Europe is becoming the new "center of gravity" in this Long War.

I have been in four European countries in recent years -- the UK, Sweden, Norway, Germany -- before coming here to urge another alliance, an alliance for peace, before all of us are swallowed in an old alliance in new packaging, the same North Atlantic Treaty Organization, now killing and bombing across South Asia.

Recently, Gen. James Jones, President Obama's current national security adviser and the former commander of NATO, said that "NATO has bet its future in committing the alliance to sustained ground combat operations in Afghanistan. If NATO were to fail, alliance cohesion would be at grave risk. A moribund or unraveled NATO would have a profoundly negative geo-strategic impact."

There you have it. This is an American war with a NATO cover, a reminder of Andreas Papandreou's long ago warnings about superpower dominance. A war fought to maintain the distribution of power and resources in the world. A war that will destroy any hope for a renewal of the Great Society in the Sixties. A war based on deficit spending for militarism for the few and cuts in social expenditures for the many.

Greece is only a tiny part of this venture, with official reports of $260,000 (US) in spending and 145 troops in Afghanistan. (Europe as a whole has spent over $4 billion (US), sent over 35,000 troops, suffered at least 450 deaths and some 1,500 wounded.) Greece, I understand, has refused to send additional troops as President Obama is requesting. I hope that Greece, with its progressive tradition and government, will go even further, and announce a firm deadline for the withdrawal of all its troops from Afghanistan in less than 18 months, the time President Obama says he will begin to draw down. Greece could lead Europe towards a new approach to NATO's role in Afghanistan and beyond. That is my hope and my appeal to you.

Tom Hayden was the keynote speaker Dec. 14 at month-long festival on Greece in the Sixties in Athens. He is the author of
The Long Sixties (Paradigm, 2009).