Clamor: Your DIY Guide to Everyday Revolution.

Clamor ceased publication in December 2006. This website contains information for your reference and archival purposes only.

Ready, Aim, Misfire

Nick Mamatas

The Revolutionary Organization 17th of November (17N) of Greece always seemed less like a true revolutionary organization and more like a lazily researched creation of a screenwriter or potboiler novelist. Named after the day when a student uprising in Athens was brutally crushed by the US-backed military junta that ruled the country at the time, 17N carried out a 27-year-long campaign of assassination and bombings designed to punish the Greek ruling class for various betrayals and to demonstrate its opposition to American military and economic intervention in the region. The targets were a grab bag: CIA station chief Richard Welch was the first to fall in 1975, shot at point-blank range. Junta-era police chief Evangelos Mallios was also assassinated, with the same .45 caliber pistol that was used to kill Welch. By the 1980s, 17N had perfected bombing techniques and increased their tactical understanding of assassination and attacks against buildings. However, politically, 17N was still trapped in a pulp fantasy version of anti-capitalist politics. This summer, when a wayward explosion in the busy Pireaus port led the Greek police to the injured bomber Savvas Xyros, 17N was cracked wide open.

In order to understand 17N’s longevity and its eventual failure, we must first take a look at Greek politics. There have certainly been other red terrorists in Europe – the Red Army Faction in Germany and Direct Action of France come to mind – but 17N emerged out of a hotbed of radical politics and from a working class used to flexing its muscles. Germany’s RAF, for example, was little more than a personality cult surrounding Andreas Baader and its actions were not so much military attacks against capitalism as they were an attempt to exorcise the ghosts of Nazism from a generation born too late to fight Hitler’s rise. There was little outlet for anti-capitalist activism during Germany’s postwar boom and class struggle was on the decline. The RAF was based as much on the need for adventure and the desire to escape Germany’s button-down clockwork society as it was on Marx or Mao.

Greece had a qualitatively different experience than the rest of Europe in World War II. In 1940, the dictator Metaxas rebuffed Mussolini’s ultimatum and fought off Italian armed forces, the first defeat of any sort the Axis faced in the European theater. British forces began moving into Greece but retreated after Hitler’s army punched through the Metaxas line and took the country, though the battle took long enough to foil Germany’s plan to occupy Moscow before the onset of winter (this is generally considered a major turning point in the war). With the formal army collapsed and the British quitting the field, the population of Greece began a resistance movement of its own, one which radicalized the population and also tied up 50 Nazi battalions for much of the rest of the war. The bulk of the resistance was carried out, guerilla-style, by Communist National Liberation Front (EAM) and its military, the People’s National Army of Liberation (ELAS), though there were also massive displays of power by the urban working class, including a 1942 general strike that kept the Nazis from deporting workers to Germany. There was also plenty of infighting between Communist and non-Communist resistance fighters.

After the war, Britain sent 40,000 troops to Greece to disarm ELAS, and then, with the happy political cooperation of none other than Stalin, installed a dictatorship of royalist Nazi collaborators to rule over the country. So much for the stark lines of good and evil between Axis, Allies and Soviets – they all teamed up to make sure that a radical government with the possibility of real political independence would not form in Greece. The US also got in on the military action, including introducing napalm into modern warfare by using it against Greek villages believed to be housing Communist guerillas. Over 100,000 Communists and other radicals were exiled or detained in concentration camps, some for more than 20 years. More than 500 former resistance fighters were executed for crimes like the murder of German soldiers during the war.

Today, the issues surrounding World War II, and, later, the CIA-backed military junta of the late 1960s and 1970s, still dominate Greek politics. The mainstream of Greek political thought claims that the left still has not realized that it was on the wrong side by not embracing a British puppet government – the only alternative the center sees is life as a Cold War leftover like Bulgaria. However, the left and the labor movement are still relatively strong in Greece and Greek activists have engaged in major strike actions, protests, and direct action against NATO, the US Balkan wars, and the European Union. 17N emerges from an environment where radical politics are often influential, not from some abstract need to play revolutionary hero.

At the same time, 17N’s many killings and attacks against US military concerns and Greek businesses meant little. 17N, in its 1977 manifesto Appantissi sta Kommata kai tis Organosseis (Responding to Political Parties and Organizations) challenged the critique that much of the mainstream far left (a variety of student groups, Trotskyist organizations, Eurocommunists and some anarchist-influenced radicals) had offered of terrorist violence, saying that its attacks “shouldn’t be seen as isolated acts of violence, but as parts of a long-term, multifaceted revolutionary process.”

The problem, of course, is that 17N’s acts of violence weren’t part of a revolutionary process. This summer, the police crackdown revealed that 17N was a very small group. These weren’t student radicals or rank-and-file worker activists but were rather religious icon painters (as surprising as finding a white NRA member supporting the Black Panthers), a bus driver, and a couple of teachers. 17N is also a family clique – three of the suspected terrorists are Xyros brothers, sons of Greek Orthodox priest Triantafyllos Xyros from Ikaria, an island populated by Communist exiles.

17N, rather than inspiring an insurrectionary mood, usually tailed radical activism. For example, in November 1985, 1000 activists occupied Athens Polytechnic (a college) after police shot a 15-year-old protestor during a demonstration commemorating the November 17th crackdown. 17N didn’t engage in that struggle or join the movement; it carried out a bombing attack against a police bus, killing 22 cops, while offering no support to the real political movement against police murder.

17N’s politics also started to drift in odd directions as it divorced itself from the powerful social and labor movements it could have been a part of. 17N not only assassinated US officials and Greek industrialists, but bombed tax offices to protest tax evasion. While claiming to be Marxist, 17N was also heavily nationalistic, up to and including supporting a total Greek takeover of Cyprus and standing against the EU on nationalist rather than class grounds. 17N even called upon the Greek military to shoot down Turkish airplanes and to carry out guerilla operations against Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus. A principled Communist group, of course, would be for Cypriot independence, not for Greek imperialism or for the current Greek government of Cyprus which was installed by the junta 17N was born to fight against.

Since Savas Xyros was captured, the 17N situation has gotten even murkier. The mainstream Greek press has tried to tie 17N’s leader Alexandrous Giotopoulos to a strand of Greek Trotskyism, in spite of that political school’s long-standing antipathy toward even revolutionary terrorism. As ol’ Leon said back in 1909 after a terror attack, “the smoke from the confusion clears away, the panic disappears, the successor of the murdered minister makes his appearance, life again settles into the old rut, the wheel of capitalist exploitation turns as before; only the police repression grows more savage and brazen.” And indeed, Greece recently passed an anti-terror law that curtailed democratic rights and expanded police powers. The search for 17N members dominates the nightly news and daily newspapers in Greece, pushing economic concerns off the front page while helping prop up the unpopular Simitis government and its austerity program.

Weirdness reigns elsewhere: one of the Xyros brothers under arrest was three years old when 17N formed. The Greek right and the US continue to claim that Greece’s social democratic ruling party, PASOK, must be complicit with 17N since members of PASOK fought against the junta of the 1960s (and indeed, in a country of only 10 million people, it is possible to draw connections between PASOK members and 17N members – six degrees of separation is an easy game to play). Sections of the Greek left point to 17N’s strange nationalist Marxism, the impossibility of a toddler terrorist and the fact that the otherwise tactically sound group used the same gun in many of its assassinations as proof that the group is simply run by foreign or domestic intelligence agents. Rather than demanding freedom for its captured members, a supposed 17N communiqué threatened kidnappings if the suspects don’t get a fair trial. Gee. 17N suddenly has a fair amount of confidence in Hellenic jurisprudence.

Many of 17N’s claims are correct. The US does sell arms to both Greece and Turkey, encouraging the two NATO members to dance at the edge of war over Cyprus and the sea in order to pocket cash from and control the policies of both sides. Greece’s weak economy was damaged still further through its membership in the EU. The post-war dictatorship and the military junta of the 1960s, both done with the explicit aid of the US and Britain, show the stark reality of imperialism. The 1967 coup, which saw thousands captured, tortured, and killed within months of assuming power, reflected nothing less than this statement by President Lyndon Johnson to Greece’s ambassador to the US: “Then listen to me, Mr. Ambassador, fuck your Parliament and your Constitution. America is an elephant. Cyprus is a flea. If these two fleas continue itching the elephant, they may just get whacked by the elephant’s trunk, whacked good ... We pay a lot of good American dollars to the Greeks, Mr. Ambassador. If your Prime Minister gives me talk about Democracy, Parliament, and Constitutions, he, his Parliament and his Constitution may not last very long.” And indeed, it didn’t.

However, 17N’s solutions were worthless. The righteous rage of the terrorist in the end means nothing. Revolutionary violence: sabotage, dust-ups with the cops at protests, militant defense against police and armed forces during strikes, general strikes, and even armed conflict are all acceptable as long as the mass of working and oppressed people are the ones engaging in that violence. 17N, like all terrorist groups, is, in the end, nothing more but a self-selected elite. Unable to complete the hard work of actually changing minds and fighting against the capitalist system in a way that empowers people and allows them to direct their own struggles, terror cells ask the working class to hold its coat. Anyone can take a trip to a sporting goods store and buy a gun or get some fertilizer and gasoline to make a bomb, but real revolutionaries have to do the less sexy stuff. 17N is divorced from real anti-capitalist politics and was reduced to attacking the MEGA TV studios with mortar shells in 1995 just to get some publicity and to give its members a windmill to tilt against.

There hasn’t been a single case of terrorism in history that has actually ignited a revolutionary social transformation yet. Instead, the premature turn to the gun or the bomb is a symptom of defeat; when social movements die down and reaction starts in, then a bitter cadre looks to weapons instead of to the working classes. The Greek working class in 2001 staged two massive general strikes with over 200,000 people out on the streets of Athens alone (again, there are only 10,000,000 people in Greece – an American protest of that ratio would involve 6,000,000 people) to fight against EU austerity. In the wake of the October 2001 US bombing of Afghanistan, Greek workers took to the streets in the hundreds of thousands again, some of them even decorating their American flags with fifty white swastikas on the field of blue.

And what were the revolutionaries of 17N doing at that time? Hiding in their basements and wondering if there was anyone around worth shooting.

Go to Top

Clamor Magazine (a project of Become the Media) P.O. Box 20128, Toledo, OH, 43610, USA.
Website by amphibian | Header graphic by Monkey Bubble Media