On Not Talking to a Fellow Leftist Friend

Greek leftists will have many reasons to recall the 2010s with disappointment and bitterness but one of their most painful memories will be the breakdown of friendships everywhere inside and around them.

Throughout this decade, directly or indirectly, leftists have been presenting their leftist friends which a stark choice: either they become their comrades by joining forces with them (in an organization, publication, series, festival, and the like) or they stop being their friends. Never since the splintering of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) in 1968 (or, for that matter, the Greek Civil War twenty years earlier) have so many leftists quarreled and split with their friends in the name of leftist principles.

This self-defeating realignment among friends occurs often at promising turns of radical politics everywhere.  Writing on fraternité as a tenet of the French Revolution, I have commented on the twin pre-revolutionary types, the rebel and the friend, which produced the revolutionary ethical man in the late 18th century. At that time, “before becoming first revolutionaries in the barricades, then comrades in the parties, and eventually citizens in the assemblies, individuals who aspired to fashion new selves outside a court, military, or religious setting forged the first modern friendships seeking to balance personal feelings and public virtues. Two complementary pre-revolutionary types emerged who challenged the formal allegiances and reciprocal favors among the nobility with the civic duties of virtue: the rebel and the friend. They emerged together as they created one another.  The rebel needed somebody by his side to fight tyranny. The friend needed somebody’s hand on his shoulder to save him from Werther’s sorrows. Together they overcame rank and sentiment to forge fraternité and fight for a higher purpose. The solidarity between rebel and friend produced a new agent, the revolutionary ethical man. … The revolutionaries idealized friendship as a communion of sentiments and a morality of sympathy, both characteristics represented by the two friends and comrades contemplating the moon while plotting rebellion in Caspar Friedrich’s painting, which is the emblem of my blog.”

However, since the late 18th century, the closer the rebels come to victory, the further away they move from their friends once they begin seeing them only as comrades. With the current decline of leftist trust and solidarity in Greece, friendships have been dissolving at a pace even faster than the dissolution of political commitments.

Great friends certainly share tumultuous attachments. Laurent Dubreuil embraces this affective intoxication, advocating eloquently a “passionate, maximalist, unlimited, unreasonable friendship” (“Friends of War,” Oxford Literary Review, Dec. 2009, 175). Friends go through periods of both stability and collision. “Nothing will decide once and for all that, in good faith, friendship must stop short of excess. … Rather friendship … is capable of its steady state no less than its flight of passion. It is suited to moderation and immoderation. It can fulfill and devastate beyond what is permitted” (175). Thus friendship cannot be controlled by collective interests and strategic formations. The law binding great leftist friends should be stronger than any law “above them” binding their friendship to the left.

That is why Dubreuil sympathizes with Maurice Blanchot’s reservations about the calls for an unconditional camaraderie dictated on the May ’68 demonstrators by the “fraternally anonymous and impersonal movement” (182). He insists that friends should not be absorbed into allies. Yet this is what has been happening during expansive mobilizations: “In the struggle a camaraderie resurges that often ends up superimposing itself on friendship or taking its place rather than enriching it. The great movements of the twentieth century, the revolutions, have left friends with little choice. It was often the worst. I recognise it under its revolutionary garb; it intones the funeral chant of sacrificed friendships” (182).

This chant has been heard again during the 2010s as Greek leftists, invoking another revolutionary covenant, have been demanding military loyalty from their leftist friends, testing them, and often failing them in the name of group purity and moral superiority. Even more than the defeat of their government, it may be the loss of their friends that will haunt these leftists for years to come, as they will be working hard at forgetting them. Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” may be one of them.

“Χτες ακόμα ήμαστ’ έτοιμοι να πεθάνουμε μαζί τους
σήμερα ζούμε κοιτώντας το ρολόι
γιατί η χλόη γίνεται άχυρο κι ο Aύγουστος Σεπτέμβρης.
Έρχεται η ώρα κι οι αρχηγοί σημαίνουν υποχώρηση
τραβιούνται πίσω τα νερά μένουν ξανά γυμνές οι ξέρες
ανακαλούνται οι ποταμοί και τα τραγούδια των νεκρών
“ήτανε λάθος” ο άνεμος που σήκωσε σημαίες
– τώρα οι σημαίες κείτονται στα καταστατικά
οι λέξεις πού βαζαν φωτιά γίνονται πάλι λέξεις

…μόνο το πολυβόλο συνεχίζει να θερίζει τα χρόνια μας
κάθε μέρα σκύβουμε περισσότερο ν’ αποφύγουμε τις σφαίρες
κάθε μέρα ξεχνάμε τους φίλους που σταματήσαν να γερνούν
χτες ακόμα ήμαστ’ έτοιμοι να πεθάνουμε μαζί τους
σήμερα ζούμε κοιτώντας το ρολόι.

Γεράσιμος Λυκιαρδόπουλος:  “Σημειώσεις για μια επέτειο γενεθλίων” ΙΙΙ (1966),  Υπό ξένην σημαία (1972), 23.

Just yesterday we were ready to die with them/today we live looking at our watches because the grass is turning into hay and August to September.                                                 The hour’s coming and the captains give the signal for retreat                                                 the waters recede and the shallows once again stand naked                                                     the rivers are recalled, as are the songs of the dead                                                                      “it was wrong,” this wind that raised the flags/- now the flags lie still among the statutes words that once set worlds on fire become again just words

… only the machine gun keeps on mowing down our years                                                   every day we duck our heads down further lest the bullets catch us                                     every day we forget our friends who stopped growing old                                                        just yesterday we were ready to die with them/today we live looking at our watches.

(I am grateful to Will Stroebel for his translation.)

Next to the mausoleum for the heroes of the movement lies an unmarked grave for their friends to whom they stopped talking on their short-lived march to victory. The “funeral chant of sacrificed friendships” intones the desiccated march of left melancholy amidst the ruins of the revolution, as in the 4th of Webern’s atonal 6 Pieces for orchestra (1910), op. 6 (here in 3:50-8:05).

April 21, 2017 (50 years since the Greek coup and the start of the anti-junta struggle)

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