A couple of weeks ago I was in Thessalonika, Greece. Discussions were very informative, as were questions at public talks, and events.
As throughout Greece – and Spain too – there have been a steady series of demonstrations in Thessalonika situated mainly around their city Assembly. For the summer, the temperature in Greece becomes outrageous and things slow down until well into the Fall. We will likely see a Greek awakening soon.
Still, even in the heat of the Greek Summer, the Assemblies kept meeting, albeit with fewer participants than in the Spring. At the event and Assemblies I spoke to young militant anarchists, somewhat more traditional young marxists, and, perhaps most interestingly, older folks new to politics who came out in the crisis and experienced the assembly as their first sustained activism. The ideologically more sophisticated and experienced leftists, let's call them the ides, regardless of their allegiance, had views quite similar from one idie to the next. The newer participants, newbies, without ideology, had very different reactions, again quite similar in many respects from one newbie to the next.
Everyone, newbie and idie alike, had one similar basic perception. From an incredibly inspiring beginning, the assemblies had declined into something quite a bit less hopeful. Numbers of people eager to attend were down and so too was the passion, élan, enjoyment, eagerness, and liveliness of those who did attend. To the question, why?, I got two different answers.
The ideologically sophisticated oldies blamed it. quite aggressively, on the ideologically disconnected newbies. The idies said the newbies were horribly anti political. The newbies didn't want political discussion, debate, or decisions. They wanted only a speak-out session, a therapy session, a celebration. And the newbies' hostility to the political, and to political people, caused the ideologically sophisticated idies to feel alienated and, in many cases, even to want to stay away, preferring going back to their communities and projects, where they were welcome and could function as they desired, to venturing into the Assembly.
The newbies, in contrast, blamed the bad trends on the ideologically sophisticated folks. The newbies claimed the idies were arrogant and pushy, and that they constantly repeated the same stuff over and over and accomplished little or nothing. The newbies saw the idies as boring losers, rather robotic, and a nasty drain on energy and innovation. The idies saw the newbies as ignorant and anti politics, not serious about change.
Who was right?
Well, as best I could tell, it was true that the broad mass of attendees was very nearly reflexively hostile to people who, by their tone and message, revealed themselves to be long time politicos. This wasn't anti Leninist, anti Trotskyist, or anti anarchist per se – or even anti organized party or project – it was all those things, because it was anti anything that was overtly ideological. And, yes, this presented a problem, because it did tend to impede the use of concepts and formulations needed to understand events and move discussions from complaint to action.
However the newbies were also right in their claims. You could see it inside of ten minutes, and it became more and more evident the more time you spent at an Assembly. The ideological folks acted like they owned the movement. They alone, in their own view, at any rate, understood social events. They were teaching, instructing, informing the rest – quite repetitively and without much life in their words and manner – and, honestly, they had little to say that everyone didn't already know in any event, and hadn't heard many times, only they could say it with bigger words.
So who was right about the cause of the problems?
I think the newbies were overwhelmingly right. Not because the idies didn't have a point – but because fault and responsibility rested far more with the idies. The newbies were new. They were honest. They were excited. And, my impression was, there was a sense in which the idies were actually afraid of them. The ides didn't want to hear the newbies and worried about their views being somehow "off."
I was reminded, in some ways, of the early emergence of the women's movement in the U.S. It did not occur at huge assemblies in town squares, of course, but, instead, in living rooms and kitchens where a different set of newbies (women who had previously been inactive) assembled and talked. But their talking was to a degree quite like the talking in the Greek Assemblies. Women decades ago revealed their lives. Explored them. Discovered commonalities, shared anger. It was emotional, real, inspired, moving. And I thought to myself, hearing about the Greek situation, what if in every living room and every kitchen decades ago there had been a couple of sophisticated ideological women, lecturing and in doing so crowding out the sincerity and honesty of the new women with the canned formulations of the experienced?
The answer, I thought, was that it would have been horrible. Space needed for precisely what the Greek idies were disparaging – space for people speaking out, for a kind of collective therapy, for collective celebration – would have been occupied, instead, by people talking at the upset women, and likely driving them away. Because the women in the late sixties and early seventies didn't have to endure that problem, we got an incredibly powerful women's movement.
Sitting and hearing young Greek anarchists and marxists say they didn't like the people in the Assemblies, and didn't want to work with them was surreal. Folks supposedly committed to creating a better world were basically saying, I don't like the population of my country, now turning out in huge numbers. I would rather be off with my own people. Well, that is the basic problem – not the natural and healthy desire of the population to go a step at a time, at its own speed, without being dissed and lectured at, and even feeling hostile, a bit indiscriminately, at folks doing the lecturing.
It seemed to me that as is often the case organizers were looking in entirely the wrong place for the big obstacle that needed fixing to turn a bad trend in the Assemblies into a good trend in them and the whole movement. They were looking at the pubic, as they sometimes look at the state, or at the media – but they were not looking at themselves, the easiest thing to correct and the main thing at fault.
That is what I saw, at any rate. Perhaps it was a total misimpression. Perhaps I merely experienced a small sample. Or perhaps my impression was fair, or even understated. What we can say, in any event, is that whenever this sort of hostility toward where the public is at strikes into the hearts of organizers, and often it does, the organizers need to rethink what they are doing, and why they are doing it. Dissing the public, much less avoiding it, as a way of explaining less than stellar success, is rarely if ever a path toward political and social progress.