Winning the battle
Celebrating the conviction of Golden Dawn leaders is all well and good, says Eddie Ford, but freedom of speech is the left’s biggest weapon
After a trial lasting over five years, with 60 defence lawyers and 250 witnesses, an Athens court last week ruled that the fascist party, Golden Dawn, is a “criminal organisation”. The court also announced verdicts for 68 defendants, including the party’s leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, and 18 former MPs and MEPs, who were convicted of various offences, such as murder, attempted murder, assault and so on. Tens of thousands celebrated outside the court house, some comparing the moment to the liberation of Athens from the Nazis.
One of those convicted, Giorgos Roupakias, had already confessed to the murder of 34-year-old leftwing rapper Pavlos Fyssas, popularly known as “Killah P” - who was chased and stabbed to death as he came out of a bar. The outcry generated by this murder forced the rightwing New Democracy government - then led by Antonis Samaras - to do something about GD. Under pressure from ND’s coalition partner, Pasok, a full investigation was launched, with Michaloliakos spending 18 months in pre-trial detention (the maximum possible). Yet the case only went to trial in 2015 after Syriza came to office (it was certainly never ‘in power’). GD’s leaders now face up to 15 years in prison, though the organisation has not been officially banned. In other words, the party was not done over by the courts for being unconstitutional - rather, for blatant violations of the criminal code (premeditated murder, protection rackets, etc).
Before his account was closed down, Michaloliakos tweeted: “When illegal immigrants are the majority in Greece, when [the government] hands over everything to Turkey, when millions of Greeks are unemployed on the street, they will remember Golden Dawn.”
As for its political outlook, it is a noxious brew of ultra-nationalism and reactionary prejudices of the worst sort - Michaloliakos himself being an open Hitler admirer, once saying in a TV interview: “There were no crematoria, it’s a lie. Or gas chambers.” GD is notorious for its use of symbolism and imagery redolent of the Nazis. Unsurprisingly, its role models are the former Greek dictators, Ioannis Metaxas of the ‘August 4 regime’ (1936-41) and Georgios Papadopoulos of the ‘Regime of the Colonels’ (1967-74). To this end, at the age of 16 Michaloliakos joined the nationalist August 4 Party led by Konstantinos Plevris - the latter describing himself as a “Nazi, fascist, racist, anti-democrat, anti-Semite”. Michaloliakos helped to found the “Popular National Movement - Golden Dawn” in 1993.
GD’s main programme is to promote the idea of a Greater Greece through the expansion of Greek territory into southern Albania (Northern Epirus), the Republic of North Macedonia, southern Bulgaria, and ultimately Greece’s reconquest of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and western Anatolia - a totally mad idea. They also want the complete Hellenisation of Greek Macedonia and western Thrace through the expulsion of northern Greece’s last remaining Macedonian-speaking minority (the so-called ‘Slavophone Greeks’) and the Turkish-speaking Muslim minority of East Macedonia and Thrace that were settled during the Ottoman period. Naturally, they aspire “to combat Islam in the region”, as they did by contributing fighters to the Greek Volunteer Guard that helped capture Srebrenica during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
In May 2009, GD took part in the European elections and received 23,564 votes (0.5%). A year later it gained 5.3% of the vote in Athens, winning its first municipal council seat. But its breakthrough came in the parliamentary elections of May 2012, when it picked up 7.0% of the popular vote and won 21 seats in the 300-member house. As a result of the January 2015 election the party became the third largest in parliament, despite winning only 17 seats on 6.3% of the vote. We must remember that the Greek parliament operates the undemocratic ‘top-up’ system, whereby 50 seats are given as a bonus to the party receiving the largest share of the vote, being filled by candidates of that party who were not declared elected on the lower rungs (the constituencies) using a semi-proportional system.
In the last general election of July 2019, GD failed to win enough votes to reach the 3% threshold necessary for entering the legislature. However, Ioannis Lagos, one of its founder members, who was convicted last week, had earlier racked up enough votes to become a member of the European parliament under the banner of his own hastily formed party, National Popular Consciousness. Then there is Greeks for the Fatherland, founded on June 4 this year by former Golden Dawn spokesman IIias Kasidiaris, now getting between 1.5% and 3% in the opinion polls. Kasidiaris states that his new party is ideologically close to nationalist movements like Lega Nord in Italy. It currently has 17 regional and 34 municipal councillors. Maybe Michaloliakos was right when he said that the Greeks will “remember” Golden Dawn. It lives on.
Obviously, the Socialist Workers Party is pleased as punch that Golden Dawn has been declared a “criminal organisation”. Panos Garganas from Athens tells us in Socialist Worker that the verdict is a “huge blow” to Nazis and a “boost” to anti-fascists everywhere. He also claims to “owe a lot to the Anti-Nazi League in Britain, which provided an example of how to fight the Nazis, and we have built on that tradition” (October 9).
Anyway, what the SWP comrades are celebrating is GD being made illegal - even if technically that is not actually the case. For communists, this is a dangerous line of argument, as state bans on ‘extremist’ far-right organisations will inevitably rebound on ‘extremist’ far-left organisations and the wider workers’ movement generally. After all, we pose far more of a threat to the capitalist system. On the same page as the article by comrade Garganas, there is a link to a piece first published in February called ‘Their free speech and ours’.1 This article makes the correct observation that Marxists are in favour of full freedom of speech, saying “socialists fight for the widest possible expansion of democracy” and the “historic battle for free speech is to guarantee the right to speak without intervention from the state or the boss” - which does not mean “the right to speak unopposed or uncontested from below”.
But it seems that the right to free speech does not extend to bigots. Paraphrasing the views put forward by the Free Speech Union recently set up by the rightwing journalist, Toby Young, Socialist Worker says: “The argument runs that free speech means the right to say whatever you want, whenever you want, to whoever you want, without consequences”. Therefore being “offensive is not offensive, it is expressing free speech” and “anyone who objects is objecting to free speech, which means they’re the fascists”. It adds that “one consequence of this dangerous bilge is that if you tell racist bigots that standing up for racism and bigotry makes them brave free speech defenders, they’re going to act on it”. But people “have won the right not to be harassed, abused and attacked by bigots” - the distinct implication of the entire article being that bigots and racists are beyond the pale and so freedom of speech must not extend to them.
True, the article does say no-platforming is only for fascists and Nazis, not bigots or reactionaries generally. But it is worth making the point that, in October 1939, Leon Trotsky was prepared to testify as a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was denied a visa, but if you read what he was going to say to the committee, he opposed the banning of the American Nazi Party on the grounds that “the outlawing of fascist groups would inevitably have a fictitious character: as reactionary organisations they can easily change colour and adapt themselves to any kind of organisational form” - because “the influential sections of the ruling class and of the governmental apparatus sympathise considerably with them and these sympathies inevitably increase during times of political crisis”.2 Furthermore, argues Trotsky, “under the conditions of the bourgeois regime, all suppression of political rights and freedom, no matter whom they are directed against in the beginning, in the end inevitably bear down upon the working class, particularly its most advanced elements - that is a law of history” (my emphasis). It is a shame that the self-declared followers of Leon Trotsky ignore his teachings.
Then there is Karl Marx. As a matter of principle he stood for untrammelled freedom of speech. As he famously declared, “I am bold, but the law commands my style to be restrained. Grey on grey is the sole colour of freedom, the authorised one.” Not to mention: “you could not pluck the rose without its thorns!” - that is, free speech comes with thorns. Some people will unavoidably get hurt or upset. Of course, this does not mean the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. Nor are we saying that it is legitimate to plot to shoot someone, just so long as you do not pull the actual trigger yourself!
Freedom of speech is a key weapon for the left not only in the battle for democracy, but for the wider struggle for socialism itself.