«Two Brotherless Peoples»: On the Constitutive Traumas of Class Struggle

by Akis Gavriilidis

Published in Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society (2008) 13, 143–162.




In this article, I use as a starting point a “social symptom” showing that Greek left patriots have mixed feelings towards Jews, whom they perceive as a threat but also as a model for imitation, on account of their universally accepted victim status. I consider that these feelings are linked to a specific subjectivity formation, which I term “radical nationalism” and I attribute to the specificities of 20th century Greek history: to the civil war during the 1940s, and the subsequent handling –or non handling– of the painful memories from this split in the national subject. Accordingly, in the first part I go through the genealogy of this subjectivity formation and its affective economy; but also, departing from this specific historical example, I try to draw some more general conclusions about social antagonism and the nature of the traumas in which it results–or really, in which it consists. Then, in the last part, I go back to a corpus of social discursive material –declarations, articles in newspapers, public rallies– and try to show how these illustrate my construction and in what sense they can be construed as efforts to suture the chasm of social antagonism.


Key words: nationalism; social groups; trauma; self-victimisation; enjoyment



In November 2003, at 80 years old, the composer Mikis Theodorakis–the archetypal “engaged” artist of the Greek left in the second half of the 20th century, famous also abroad for resisting the military dictatorship–declared:

We Greeks are a brotherless people, but without the fanaticism that the Jews have. There are two brotherless peoples in the world, we and the Jews, but they have this fanaticism and they impose themselves. Today we can say that this small people is the root of evil, not of good, which means that too much self-awareness and insistence is harmful. The reason why we are loose and have not become aggressive is that we had many more weapons: they had Abraham and Jacob, that is, shadows … We here had Pericles!

                                         (Eleftherotypia, 2003, my translation)

In this paper, I take this embarrassing statement as a typical example of a discourse formation that I will call “radical nationalism”, and I try to make some sense of it on the basis of certain events from the history of the Greek social formation during the 20th century, notably the very determinant civil war of the 1940s and the subsequent handling of its memory. To do so, I draw from recent work on social traumas and on the Lacanian notion of jouissance, and I investigate their possible use in the analysis of nationalism.


A strange enjoyment

The fact that a former leftist made anti-Semitic remarks is regrettable, but would not in itself be worthy of any further comment. However, that is not all there is. As Stuart Hall (1996, p 444) points out regarding anti-black racism, “[t]he play of identity and difference which constructs racism is powered not only by the positioning of blacks as the inferior species but also, and at the same time, by an inexpressible envy and desire”. This seems to be the case as well with regard to the above quotation, which is marked by ambivalence: the hatred for the Jews is based on envy, hence, to a certain degree, identification with or, indeed, admiration for them.

The enumeration of differences between Greeks and Jews is made on the basis of a previous similarity. This is their “brotherless” quality, which characterizes both of them and only them. Here we have the paradox of a dual uniqueness, of a kinship consisting in a lack of relatives. This paradoxical condensation of difference and identity is automatically and constitutively antagonistic, because the very existence of “two brotherless peoples in the world” is an oxymoron: if they are two, then each of them must necessarily be a brother to the other. Provided, of course, we are talking about the same father. In this case, indeed we are: the father in question is no other than the father of all fathers –God.

            According to Žižek, in the discourse of racism the “Jew” is somebody who steals our enjoyment:

You formulate your identity on the fantasy that the Other is the one who automatically wants to steal from you. These are the two basic fantasies: one is that the Other wants to steal from us our precious enjoyment. . . . The other idea, like with the Jew, is that the Other possesses some kind of excessive and strange enjoyment, which is in itself a threat to us. (Žižek, 1994)

What then, does Theodorakis admire/envy about Jews? He complains that they have been able to manage and promote their historical past better than Greeks: they made humanity accept that their cultural heritage is more important than the Greek one, although it is merely “shadows”. Theodorakis is speaking about ancient history and tradition (Abraham and Pericles), but, to my mind, this is a displacement. What he wants to compare belongs to a more recent past; it is each people’s casualties during the 1940s. The enjoyment that Jews are stealing from Greeks is indeed a strange enjoyment; it is the enviable position of the victim. Jews, rather than Greeks, have been recognised universally after the Second World War as the victims par excellence. As such, they are entitled to ask from the rest of humanity a special treatment: being exempt from any criticism.


The importance of being a victim

It appears that the position of the victim has special importance for people who are leftists or nationalists (or both) in Greece. There are several reasons for this, both general and specific:

1) Nationalism in general is essentially linked to the commemoration of losses. It has been noticed that no other sign is more apt to express the nature of nationalism than cenotaphs and monuments for the “Unknown Soldier” (Anderson, 1991, p 9). It is crucial for the forging of the imagined community to have a common mourning for the dead, our heroic ancestors who sacrificed themselves to safeguard the fatherland;2) An old layer in the discourse of Greek nationalism in particular has been the belief that poor Greece is discriminated against, that the “great powers” (or “imperialism”, in the Leninist version) conspire to harm its interests, that Greece is not given the high position it deserves.


In addition, we have had the following specificity:  In the 40s, a bloody civil war took place between communist-led guerrilla groups and the national army, assisted by British and then US military aid. After five years of combat, the communists were defeated and, for 25 years, they faced a fierce police and administrative repression (for more historical information about this period, see Voglis, 2002). During that period, even before the formal suspension of civil liberties by the colonels in 1967, Greece had been a literal case of “permanent state of exception”, to use an expression by Giorgio Agamben (1998). What in the latter’s text seems an elaborate abstraction has been, in Greek society, an everyday reality. There was a situation of a “dual legality”, or a large «grey zone” at the limits of the official legal order. To describe this zone of indifference or indeterminacy between legal and illegal action of the state, mainstream lawyers and political theorists used expressions such as “para-constitution” (Voglis, p 224) and “para-state” (in Greek para-kratos, a state existing beside the “normal” state; this term is constructed in exactly the same way as “para-digm”, which is “what shows itself beside” –Agamben, 2002). Under this regime, tens of thousands of people were arrested and deported to reformation camps, a kind of Aegean gulag; many were executed and many more were refused jobs and social status. “Political exclusion in the Civil War defined the position of the leftist political opposition in the public arena as a nonexistent one. The alternative public topoi for the Left were either incorporation in the state mechanisms (declarations of repentance) or, strictly speaking, non-existence (death or refuge)” (Voglis, p 83).  But, more importantly, this repression –in the political sense of the word–was combined with another one in the psychoanalytic sense: an oblivion or cancellation of the political character of this conflict. The defeated communists, and everybody suspected of being related to them, were banned from the Greek civitas on the basis that they were criminals engaged in “anti-national activities”, not political opponents. Quite significantly, the term used by state officials to describe members of the “Popular Army” was “bandits” [symmorites]–here, again, a term used widely by Agamben (1998) as the name of a figure analogous to Homo Sacer, the banned one whose life can be destroyed without any sanctions or any sacrificial value.


The shift after the 60s

As a state power cannot only rely on prohibition and exclusion, from a certain point on the Greek state tried to find ways of transforming its discipline-type domination into a more “bio-political” one (Deleuze, 1990). This effort started in the 60s, and, after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1974, the “ban” against leftists was gradually lifted. It is certainly not possible thoroughly to address here all the complex historical, social and political transformations this shift implied. As far as the scope of this article is concerned, I note that this “rehabilitation” of the former “bandits” into the national body was performed through the recognition that these people, after all, had heroically participated in national resistance against the German occupation and had suffered many casualties. Thus, their struggles and their losses deserved the nation’s respect, irrespective of what happened afterwards.

The first codified formulation of this theory in the public domain is to be found in a musical work precisely by Theodorakis. The “Axion Esti” [Dignum Est], a very complex and ambitious “magnum opus” based on a poetic book by Odysseas Elytis (another nationalist artist), describes, in a hagiographic but admittedly fascinating way, the tribulations of the small and innocent Greek people, the efforts of evil foreign forces to destroy it, and its final aestheticised triumph and glorification. The musical version was first presented in 1964 and has been presented many other times since; from the beginning it had an immense appeal and now has almost become a “second national anthem” for Greece.

The dominant themes of the book are holiness, innocence and persecution. The Biblical reference, apart from the title, is underlined also by the structuring of the book in three parts: The Genesis, The Passion and The Gloria. In the first page, Psalm 129:2 is cited as a motto: “Many a time they afflicted me from my youth: yet they have not prevailed against me”. Apart from persecution mania, the book is also eminently megalomaniacal; it is the gesture of somebody aspiring to reveal to a whole people the hidden truth of their experience and to provide them with guidance. It is clearly the discourse of a prophet. The Greek people are presented as a divine people, chosen and created directly by God, who endowed them with their promised land and their language, both of which are of sublime beauty and perfection; within this privileged people, the poet-prophet has himself a privileged role, as an intermediary for the accomplishment of Greece’s divine mission.

In one part of the work, a fantasy well known to psychoanalysts is expressed: Elytis, like Senatspräsident Schreber, imagines himself as the wife of God who carries in his (her?) entrails God’s “seed”:


And close to the wooden shutter

where I lay sleeping on my side

I pressed the pillow tight against my chest

and my eyes filled with tears


I was in the sixth month of my love

and in my entrails stirred a precious seed



this small world the great!

(Elytis, 1974, p 15; italics and paragraph formatting as in the original)


Freud notes that the German magistrate had “arrived at the firm conviction that it was God Himself who, for His own satisfaction, was demanding femaleness from him” (Freud, 1984 [1910], p 166). Later on, Lacan provided a commentary on the Schreber case, most of which could apply as well to Elytis’s text: 


The world he describes for us matches the conception to which he has raised himself after the period of the unexplained symptom of the profound, cruel, and painful disturbance of his existence. According to this conception which, moreover, gives him a certain mastery over his psychosis, he is the female correspondent of God. Henceforth, everything becomes understandable, everything works out, . . . since he plays the role of intermediary between a humanity threatened to the very depths of its existence and this divine power with whom he has such special ties. Everything works out in the Versoehnung, the reconciliation, that positions him as the woman of God.

 (Lacan, 1993, p 77)


The sound of the lambs

But most of these expressions of national glorification were already present in the previous work of both Elytis and other national(ist) artists. What is really new in the Axion Esti is that it codifies, for the first time with such clarity, an interpretation of the recent civil conflict: it tries to explain (away) the eruption of social antagonism and the split of the national subject. Elytis, not a leftist himself, offered to Greek communists, and to the Greek society as a whole, a unified narrative, and provided them an acceptable symbolic scheme with which they could arrange and give sense to their recent experience: that evil foreigners steal the enjoyment from the Greek people by creating discord amongst them.

This is performed in a short text in prose within the work, which has the very telling title “The courtyard of lambs”:


MY PEOPLE said: “the justice I was taught I practiced, and look, centuries I’ve grown tired waiting naked outside the closed gateway for the courtyard of lambs. The flock knew my voice, and it leapt up and bleated at my every whistle. But others, often the very ones who used to praise my endurance, jumping down from trees or walls, were the first to set foot in the middle of the courtyard of lambs. And there I was, always naked, with no flock” –so moaned my people.

Then those who own a great deal(1), when they heard this creaking, were frightened. Because they know how to read every sign in detail, and often, from miles away, they can make out what profits them. So right away they put on the sandals of treachery. And half of them on one side and half of them on the other, they pulled the rest to and fro, saying: “Your deeds are good and fine, and here you see the closed gateway of the courtyard of lambs. Raise your hand and we are with you, and we’ll take care of the fire and the iron. Don’t worry about homes, don’t feel sorry about families, don’t ever let the voice of son or father or younger brother stop you. . . .”

And they marched, one against the other, the one not knowing the other. And the son took aim against the father and the older brother against the younger. . . .

Thirty-three months and more the Evil lasted. While they kept on knocking at the gate of lambs. And no lamb’s voice was heard except under the knife. Nor the gate’s voice, except at the hour when it sank into the final flames to burn. Because my people are the gate and the gateway and the flock of lambs. (Elytis, pp 93-95)


What is at stake in this text is the handling of a fratricidal guilt. This handling is performed through imputing the responsibility to treacherous and calculating foreigners, who are the “root of Evil”. These powerful Others can divide the unique people because they are already split in two halves themselves, “one on the one side and one on the other”. Greeks were deceived by them into killing each other with the hope of taking control over the “courtyard” and enjoying its fruits, only to discover that they themselves were the courtyard and its enjoyment.

The use of the expression “My people” is also remarkable here, an expression one normally expects to hear from the mouth of a king. Here, Elytis, as a new Moses, teaches “his” people the new law, the lesson from their recent experience: the civil war was an unpleasant parenthesis to an otherwise glorious history of a unique and unified nation; this temporary breach was an error, a bad dream we should forget and never repeat, in order to preserve our enjoyment.

This interpretation, codified in the Axion Esti, was subsequently repeated in more detail and in several variations by all kinds of opinion makers. Theodorakis himself did little more ever after than repeat it, both in music and in political statements. Later, he presented another “concept album” along the same lines; its title, borrowed from an older folk song existing in Greek and all other Balkan languages, was “The song of the dead brother”. This is obviously a link to the complex of ideas still obsessing him in 2003: If our brother is “dead”, it is only natural that we see ourselves as “brotherless”.


The “revenge of the defeated”

            After 1974 and the fall of the dictatorship, the integration of the left into Greek society was completed, culminating in 1981 with the electoral win of PASOK, the socialist party. During these years, an abundant quantity of leftist discourses emerged in historiography, memoirs, fiction, music, cinema, and practically every form of cultural production, and they dominated the public sphere. In these discourses, there was a powerful feeling of liberation, or of restitution of a lost pride; their authors expressed a sense of release from a several decades long obligation to silence themselves. Later, certain commentators described this as “the revenge of the defeated” (Mavrogordatos, 1999). For these critics, the leftist discourses were one-sided and apologetic; their point was retrospectively to justify the deeds of the left, or, indeed, to “overlook, minimize or whitewash leftist terror”, and to “claim (…) that leftist violence was an ‘aberration’” (Kalyvas, 2000, p 142). Whatever the case, the mere qualification of these discourses as “leftist” is not in itself sufficient to give us a full picture of what these testimonies were actually saying –and what was socially performed by this saying. The subjects speaking had no doubt about their belonging to the left; however, the meaning of a discourse is not derived from the identity and self-consciousness of the speaker, but rather from the laws and conventions that govern the development of the enunciations. More specifically, when we are dealing with an “apology” and a “justification”, we have to examine before which “court” this apology is taking place, and according to which code the accused will be judged.

From this point of view, one has to note that leftists, trying to extricate themselves from the charge that they were banned and excluded from the political scene on the basis of their “anti-national activity”, endorsed and further promoted a set of values that undermined and excluded them from this scene in a subtler and deeper way: the leftists’ “justification” consisted in proving that what they did was not harming but favouring the (unity of the) nation, whereas an absolute condition for the existence of the left as a particular subject, the reason for its being, rests precisely on a split within the nation.  Kalyvas (2000) takes on what he considers to be “one of the central, indeed hegemonic, assumptions in the study of the Greek civil war: that the Left (…) has been the main (or even the only) victim of violence» (p 142, my italics). In my view, the assumption that “the Left has been a victim” is not the end of the line, but is only a means to an end, a part and parcel of a larger compromise package: the Left’s suffering was a specific case of the nation’s suffering, and a proof that they had defended the homeland (as a unified whole). The discourses that constituted the so-called «revenge of the defeated” formed part of an overall formation, a new set of conventions governing public speech, according to which not only “leftist violence”, but any kind of violence exerted by Greeks against Greeks, that is, the civil war itself, was an “aberration”.

Hence, this “absolution” of the left and its re-inclusion into the national body were performed along the same lines as its previous exclusion: the lines of nationalism. While before the dominant ideology condemned leftists as “anti-national elements”, it now accepted them as having, after all, contributed to the national cause and as having had many victims because of that. This, of course, left intact, or reinforced even more, the high value of the nation and of sacrifices in favour of it. What all of this discourse production was doing was tacitly to exclude from public awareness the antagonism that constitutes the national subject, although–or maybe because–that antagonism remains unspoken.


A new economy of jouissance

Here is where some elaborations on Lacan’s theory can prove helpful. According to Stavrakakis & Chrysoloras (2006):


What psychoanalysis suggests is that the persistence of political antagonism can be explained only when we become aware of the (libidinal and other) investment of political discourse, of the real of enjoyment. Here – in the passage from form to force – the pair identity/difference takes on a second, much more sinister dimension. Difference becomes antagonism: the antagonistic force threatens or is construed as threatening my identity but, at the same time, becomes a presence whose active exclusion maintains my consistency.  (p 148; my italics)


The “Axion Esti” narrative did precisely this: it actively excluded the internal conflict from official memory, but, at the same time, it preserved it as a lurking threat, a terrorizing negative example to be avoided.

I propose that its popular acceptance in Greek society resulted in the formation of an economy of jouissance. This economy consisted in a specific “division of labour” between the two sides of the civil war: the right wing kept management and control over the state, whereas the left were allowed the right to speak about the heroism and the sufferings of their struggle, and allowed thereby to gain the public’s sympathy and approval, upon the condition that they do so allegorically: they should speak only about their “national resistance” and censor themselves with regard to class conflict. These “assets” allocated to each group became a means of channelling collective investment and enjoyment –or renunciation of it. At least this is how they are described by Mavrogordatos (1999), in his appeal against the compromise package and its inequalities:


It is often said that each time the winners are those who write history, sealing this way collective memory. This is not an absolute truth, especially in the case of civil conflicts. Sometimes, the charm exerted by the defeated ones prevails. In this perspective, which is in essence deeply romantic, the defeated appear as “heroes” and “martyrs” for a “lost cause”, which is itself consecrated, irrespective of its concrete content. Struggles and sacrifices are sufficient, with no attention given any more to the goal for which these were made, nor to the means used. This way, the most varied cases of defeated sides can become an object of romantic contemplation: from the Southerners in the American civil war to the Democrats in the Spanish one (…). In the field of romanticism, the winners are understandably disadvantaged. Independently of their sacrifices, they are finally judged in the field of the down-to-earth reality they imposed due to their victory. (my translation).


Here, the author, on behalf of the victors of the Greek civil war, clearly expresses envy of the victimhood of the Greek left, which he sees as an affective capital, a source of “charm”.

The same complaint against leftists for obtaining an illegitimate advantage through this economy of jouissance is expressed much more clearly in other variations of this discourse. Papahelas, a prominent journalist for several mainstream Greek media, writes:


There is a type of guilty-based leftist Modern Greek, from whom Greek society has suffered for several decades. No, I do not mean the former leftist who made money and feels guilty because he betrayed his ideals. The leftist, in a lot of inverted commas, about whom I speak here, has the unique capacity to transgress every acceptable rule of behaviour with the excuse that “we fought”, “we went to jail”, “we participated in the Technical University events(2)” . . . . That is to say, he creates a sense of guilt in all others, so that he can have the perfect alibi. (Papahelas, 2007; my translation and italics)


So, this new economy of jouissance set a new frame in which the competition could begin again on a new basis: the conservatives seek to get rid of the «affective burden” of being only victors, not victims.


Undoing (the other’s) victimhood

We should note that this envy by conservatives towards leftists has exactly the same structure as the one expressed by Theodorakis for the victimhood of the Jews. It, too, manifests the subject’s impression that the group envied has a privileged access to an illegitimate enjoyment that is denied to him/her. The only difference is that, in the latter case, Theodorakis speaks on behalf of the Greeks as a nation, displacing the internal conflict onto an external one.

As a part of this effort to situate one’s own position in relation to victimhood, we can also consider the coining of the term “brotherless”: the formulation “we are a brotherless people”, at first sight expresses sadness and solitude, but also a narcissistic pride (“no one resembles us”). But it could be read, as well, as a reaction to this “fratricidal guilt”, as a displaced memory–or a performative negation–of it: one says publicly “what a pity [/joy], outside Greece we have never had any other people as a brother”, but this could also mean: “what a pity, once we had brothers within Greece, but these do not exist any more –because we killed them”.

The same goes for other leftist discourse productions as well. During the 80s, Theodorakis, while still a member of the communist party, declared that, for him, there are some “Pharaoh’s wounds” for Greek music, among which are the “Turkish-gypsy sound” and the “star-system” (Theodorakis, 1984, p 121).  Obviously, if we have Pharaoh’s wounds, we have to look for a Moses to lead the chosen people to salvation. But what should they be saved from? Theodorakis’s discourse is marked by the same “complex of cultural encirclement which sadly blossomed into the renowned party that was to throw all Europe into war” (Lacan, 1993, p 211, speaking about that which marks President Schreber’s delusion). For Schreber, German culture was threatened by Slavs and Jews; for Theodorakis, too, Roma and Turks are not the only threat of contamination: the “star system” and the record companies are a danger as well; but, importantly, the declaration does not fail to notice that two executives of big multinational music firms active in Greece were respectively of Jewish and Armenian origin.

There is one common element in these two otherwise inexplicable “object choices”: Jews and Armenians have been the victims of two major genocides of the 20th century. This is why Theodorakis feels that they threaten his “national Thing”.  As Zizek explains:


what gets on our nerves, what really bothers us about the ‘other’, is the peculiar way he organizes his enjoyment (the smell of his food, his ‘noisy’ songs and dances, his strange manners . . .  The basic paradox is that our Thing is conceived as something inaccessible to the other and at the same time threatened by him; this is similar to castration which, according to Freud, is experienced as something that ‘really cannot happen’, but whose prospect nonetheless horrifies us.   (Žižek 1992, p 165; italics mine)


In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Theodorakis gave yet another example. There, he suggested that Jews not only influence US and world politics, but also block his own access to the public: since they “control most of the big symphonic orchestras in the world”, they “boycott his work” (Shavit, 2004).

            Later, Theodorakis claimed that his problem is not with the Jewish people as such, but with current Israeli policies in Palestine. In my view, this is not the reason, but the rationalisation. The existing aggression of the Israeli state was not an absolute factor which by itself caused Theodorakis to substitute a negative opinion for a favourable one; rather, it is an excuse that allows already existing negative feelings to be expressed publicly. These expressions were not due to a set of “hard facts”, the perception of which made the subject adopt a different approach, but were linked to the fantasy structure whereby these facts obtain a meaning for the subject.

I can perhaps better illustrate this with another similar example. In August 2006, during the Israeli invasion in Lebanon, there was a rally organised in Thessaloniki by PAME, a trade union linked to the communist party of Greece. The rally headed towards the monument for the Jews exterminated during the 40s, and attached thereon photographs of dead Lebanese children; they then protested outside the offices of the Israelite Community of Thessaloniki. This was because, as they said, “the Jews of Thessaloniki never condemned the attack” (PAME 2006; my translation).  So apparently it was legitimate for them to be treated as a semi-official embassy of Israel. But one cannot help thinking that this act was an “acting-out” of a tendency repressed for a long time out of political correctness: Greek communists could not bear the fact that Jews receive honors and monuments for being victims; as soon as they found the perfect excuse to do so, they rushed to spoil, to abolish this privilege.

The Israelite Community protested against this act of defamation; in a short, unsigned article published on August 4, 2006, in Rizospastis (the organ of the GCP), however, these protests were rejected on the basis that “the point of this action was to produce the association, reasonable to everyone, between the horrible facts of back then and those of our time”. For the rest, the article states that “we understand the great sensitivity” of the Thessaloniki Jews, because “the Nazis exterminated also many thousands of communists” (as if the article was saying: “be reminded that you were not the only victims, we were too”). In the article, the name of the group

protesting is mentioned, twice, as Israeli rather than Israelite Community of Thessaloniki.

These examples show that Greek communists did not just start being critical of Israel/ the Jews only when (because) the latter proved to be aggressive and because they are against aggression as a matter of principle, but because they saw this aggression as a fact belying the Jews’ unique victim status. So the PAME members are permitted to release the hatred and envy they had to contain up until then. This explains the intense generation of affect that accompanied this act, which had a high emotional charge for everybody involved.

Social groups and their traumas

            I propose that this affect is directly linked to the “economy of enjoyment” established by the Axion Esti narrative. Although abundant reference was made to the events of the 40s in public discourse, this did not really permit the thousands of people who participated in the armed struggle to treat and settle with the pain they had experienced. This mourning was never completed, because the loss was dissociated from (part of) its real causes. In his famous essay on mourning, Freud (2001 [1917]) had noted that the melancholic’s lost object may be “a loved person, or some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on” (p 243; my italics). We can combine this remark with another point made in the same essay, according to which

In yet other cases one feels justified in maintaining the belief that a loss of this kind has occurred, but one can not see clearly what it is that has been lost, and it is all the more reasonable to suppose that the patient can not conceive what he has lost either. This, indeed, might be so even if the patient is aware of the loss which has given rise to his melancholia, but only in the sense that he knows whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him. (Freud, 2001, p 245)


The “revenge” of the defeated Greek leftists, their numerous reference to their casualties and sufferings, concerned indeed “some abstraction or ideal” which, however, had taken the place of another abstraction. These losses were mourned, but they were mourned as national and not as antagonistic losses; leftists knew whom they had lost, but did not know–or were not permitted to declare publicly–what they had lost in them: namely, not a number of physical persons, nor “one’s country”, but the possibility of transforming the social and political organisation of the country.


Vamık Volkan (2001) has developed the concept of “chosen traumas” suffered by social groups. These traumas become “transgenerationally transmitted”, evidence of which “can be found when one combines the study of psychoanalysis and history”:

Within virtually every large group there exists a shared mental representation of a traumatic past event during which the large group suffered loss and/or experienced helplessness, shame and humiliation in a conflict with another large group. The transgenerational transmission of such a shared traumatic event is linked to the past generation’s inability to mourn losses of people, land or prestige.

                                                                                                (Volkan, 2001, p 87)

In the case under consideration, however, there is one crucial difference. The above scheme deals with the traumas of “large groups”, including “ethnic or religious groups within the same country” (Volkan, p 87), but leaves aside the question of how and on what basis these “large groups” were formed. It takes for granted that they are, at least in principle, clearly defined and distinct from other groups–especially those which inflicted this “narcissistic injury” on them. But in social antagonism, we have the following peculiarity: the groups are not ethnic, nor religious, but political. Hence, they are open-ended; furthermore, they do not pre-exist the beginning of the conflict, but are formed–and perpetually trans- or reformed–precisely by it.

In his article, Volkan does make one extremely useful reference to the role of the trauma in the formation of groups itself, albeit as a secondary function which intervenes at a later stage:

Over generations, such historical events, which I call chosen traumas, (…) become more than a memory or shared piece of the past. With time, the chosen trauma changes function. The historical truth about the event is no longer important for the large group, but what is important is that through sharing the chosen trauma, members of the group are linked together. (Volkan, p 87)

In the case of the Greek civil war, an example of this function of trauma might be seen in Voglis’s (2002) reference to the experience of imprisonment of Greek communists. Several communists faced serious problems when released during the 50s. These were not due to difficulties adaptating to the changes of post-war life, nor to the bad memories of confinement; indeed, in a certain sense, they were due precisely to the “good” memories of confinement: to the fact that “the solidarity, egalitarianism, and commitment of the political prisoners in communal life was a unique experience that was never repeated in their later lives” and that “part and parcel of this collective life was the sharing of the traumatic experience of prison …. Death, execution, torture and refuge created bonds of solidarity among the people who found themselves on the side of the defeated” (p 234).

Ahmed (2004, p 25) has claimed that “emotions play a crucial role in the ‘surfacing’ of individual and collective bodies,” and that “such an argument challenges any assumption that emotions are a private matter, that they simply belong to individuals and that they come from within and then move outwards towards others. It suggests that emotions are not simply ‘within’ or ‘without’, but that they define the contours of the multiple worlds that are inhabited by different subjects”.  In what follows, I will discuss what conclusions may be drawn from the way this “sharing of the traumatic experience” “defined the contours” of social groups in the Greek case. In this discussion, I distance myself from a linear/humanistic scenario on the subject and its trauma. According to this scenario, in the beginning we have a “subject”, which is, or will normally become “complete”. Then a blow intervenes from outside and impairs the subject, which, however, remains otherwise basically the same—except for the fact that something has been subtracted from it, which produces negative unconscious emotions. Our duty, then, would be to restore the subject to its previous condition, to bring about a reintegration of this lost part, and this would be its “cure” (see, for example, Leys, 2000, pp 2-3: “the restoration of memory through technologies designed to get the patient to remember by restoring the ‘pathogenic secret’ to awareness is one of the major goals of therapy”).  It has been argued (Papadima, 2006) that this scenario corresponds to a pre-Freudian/early Freudian approach to psychic trauma. In his late work, however, Freud moved towards a different conception, inter alia through the use of the term splitting (“Spaltung”; on this move see Leys, p 24, and generally all of chapter I). “Splitting” refers to “a general characteristic of subjectivity itself; the subject can never be anything other than divided, split, alienated from himself. The split is irreducible, can never be healed; there is no possibility of synthesis” (Evans, 2001, p 192).  Papadima (2006, p 7) adds that


In this understanding of Freud’s term, there can be no humanistic concept of a self made whole after recalling and reliving a trauma, an idea at the heart of the first dissociation debate and taken up by trauma paradigm writers. The self cannot be made whole because it was never whole to begin with.


It would be useful here to recall a remark by Louis Althusser (1972) about the nature of social antagonism. Although today few people would be inclined to identify right and wrong approaches in terms of “reformism” and “revolution” respectively, the main point of this excerpt is still valid and pertinent:

For reformists (even if they call themselves Marxists) it is not the class struggle which is in the front rank: it is simply the classes. (…) For reformists these classes exist before the class struggle, a bit like two football teams exist, separately, before the match. . . One day the two classes come up against one another and come into conflict. It is only then that the class struggle begins.…

Revolutionaries, on the other hand, consider that it is impossible to separate the classes from class struggle.… In order for there to be classes in a «society», the society has to be divided into classes: this division does not come later in the story; it is . . . the class struggle, which constitutes the division into classes. You must therefore begin with the class struggle if you want to understand class division, the existence and nature of classes. (pp 48-49)


If social antagonism is not the conflict between two given groups that are always identical to themselves, but rather an always already existing conflict, an encounter which informs the very identity of antagonistic groups, then the traumas of social antagonism are of a constitutional, not accidental nature. They are also of a more or less permanent nature. They do not derive from a single “blow” that occurred once in the past and then is transgenerationally transmitted, but from a division constantly reproducing itself.  It is not the case here that a subject (say, “the Serbs” as in Volkan’s article) already existed, and then one day “later in the story” suffered a one-off injury by some other group existing independently, “like a football team”, outside the first one (“the Muslims”): the loss is there before the subjects come into being, and is precisely a reason for their coming into being.

But the mourning of social antagonism is infinite/radical in yet another sense: if this “injury” is what forms and constantly transforms social subjects, and if it is a permanent condition of existence of human societies, then these subjects necessarily can not (always/fully) “conceive what they have lost”, because, in a certain sense, there is nothing (stable) to conceive. This loss does not concern a substance, a “Thing” that is removed from a finite set of other things to which it previously belonged; it informs the boundaries of these sets themselves, which, unlike State borders, are always uncertain. In an interstate war, it is normally clear whether a nation “suffered a loss of territory” or not; this is less clear, however, in civil conflicts, where the question of who took what from whom is of a much more abstract and immaterial nature.


The “hitch” of class struggle and the impossible re-conciliation

            In the following quote, Žižek theorizes “class struggle” as this constitutive loss of social subjects:

Although “class struggle” is nowhere given as a positive entity, it none the less functions, in its very absence, as the point of reference enabling us to locate every social phenomenon–not by relating it to class struggle as its ultimate meaning (‘transcendental signified’) but by conceiving it as an(other) attempt to conceal and ‘patch up’ the rift of class antagonism, to efface its traces. What we have here is the structural-dialectical paradox of an effect that exists only in order to efface the causes of its existence, an effect that in a way resists its own cause.

In other words, class struggle is ‘real’ in the strict Lacanian sense: a ‘hitch’, an impediment which gives rise to ever-new symbolizations by means of which one endeavours to integrate and domesticate it . . ., but which simultaneously condemns these endeavours to ultimate failure. (1994b, p 22)

Radical nationalism is a good example of this productivity of an absent cause, a permanently failing effort to symbolize/conceal (the traumas of) class struggle. The leaking of this discourse becomes more understandable if attributed to this structural determination rather than to personal inconsistencies. Theodorakis’s statements could usefully be read as a hopeless effort, almost moving in its futility, to suture an unbridgeable gulf, to reconcile oneself with the unbearable.  To illustrate the way the Greek left sutures the trauma of class struggle with “radical nationalism”, I will give two more examples. The one is an excerpt from another speech by Theodorakis (2005) with the–very telling–title «the Big Lie»:

Since EAM [the communist-led National Liberation Front] had two million partisans (out of the 7 million living in Greece at the time), this means that the overwhelming majority of the active population had been reconciled, unified, and were participating like brothers [in Greek: synadelfômenoi] in the common struggle, pursuing common visions. (my translation).

To begin with, it is a strange sophism to present the adherence of two out of seven million citizens to one of the parties of a civil war as evidence of… reconciliation. But why reconciliation? To re-concile means to bring again together those who were previously divided. But this discourse is about the period before the civil war. This verbal volley, the consecutive use of three synonyms (“reconciliation, union, and brotherhood”) is evidently a projection of later considerations onto the past, a will to go back in time, before the supposed “loss”, and correct it retrospectively (nachträglich, as Freud used to say): if the Greek people was once a brotherhood (at one with itself), then it was less “brotherless”.

Continuing, Theodorakis says:

[The civil war] marked the Greek population through fire and iron, it transmuted them profoundly, it restructured them and made them somebody else, to the point that, although so many years have passed, even today we do not really know for what reason they were submitted to the ordeal of the civil war. But is it indeed possible that all these appalling and incredible phenomena did take place in reality? I dare say that deep inside perhaps we do not want to know the truth. (my italics)


This discourse that promises to reveal “the great Lie”, and in the end admits that it itself does not (want to) know the Truth, creates a confusing and embarrassing effect. This is plausibly the result of, and a reaction against, a traumatic encounter. Traumatic not just in the sense of «painful», but in the sense of an “appalling and incredible phenomenon” which we are not able to symbolize: of what is impossible yet real.


Then, in the spring of 2004, Theodorakis opposed the UN SG Kofi Annan’s plan for settling the Cyprus dispute, invoking “the unprecedented and shameless pressures” in favor of it; “pressures that reveal, beyond any doubt, that behind the Annan plan are hidden the interests of England and the USA” (Athens News Agency (2004). And so we return to the same “evil forces” that supposedly created antagonism within “our” people during the 40s. By pronouncing again these “magical” names, “England” and “USA”, the radical nationalist is not merely returning to a previous negative experience and repeating it; he prolongs in the present and constantly reproduces the situation in which he is in a weak and helpless position. As Butler (1997) says:

[t]he force of the name depends not only on its iterability, but on a form of repetition that is linked to trauma, on what is, strictly speaking, not remembered, but relived, and relived in and through the linguistic substitution for the traumatic event. The traumatic event is an extended experience that defies and propagates representation at once. Social trauma takes the form, not of a structure that repeats mechanically, but rather of an ongoing subjugation, the restaging of injury through signs that both occlude and reenact the scene. (pp 36-37)


“The British” or “the Americans” are foreign enemies in another country, with whom we don’t come into contact and whom we can just hate without them knowing anything about our hatred. But in the Greek case we are dealing with an adversary who is both external and internal. He is internal in so far as, according to the structure of the fantasy of sovereignty, he is not (only) to be destroyed, but (also) to be included/ represented.  For the leftists to prove that they had acted in favour of national interests, they had to prove that they served the interests of their opponents as well. Their opponents, the group responsible for their «narcissistic blow”, are simultaneously part of the “abstraction” to which they attach the highest value and of which they aspire to be the champions: the nation, or the people.


This is what gives to radical nationalism a structure similar to that in the phrase: “There are no cannibals left in our area, we ate the last one last week” (Pêcheux, 1994, p 151). The performative nature of such statements, their nature as a gesture, is in a certain tension with their verbal content; and this tension is precisely the tension between the symptom and the absent cause it is trying to efface. Before the syntagm “our people” used in the above discourses, one could pose the question: whose people? Is this “we” part of this people or not? The speaker, leaving unclear whether he conceives himself as being the possession and/or the owner, constitutes a subject whose position is enigmatic, as in another of  Pêcheux’s phrases: “I have three brothers, Paul, Michael and me” (ibid.; by a strange coincidence, this joke, too, is about having brothers). The speaker here claims something resembling the sovereign function, since he speaks from the position of somebody who is both included in and excluded from the people.  This only accentuates an already existing paradox: since the term people can designate both the part and the whole (both the subject and the object of sovereignty), any enunciation with it as a subject runs the risk of appearing as an equation with only unknowns, as an infinite sentence (in set theory, the most common definition of the infinite is a set equivalent to a proper subset of itself).




In an extremely dense passage towards the end of his Homo Sacer, Agamben points out this radical oscillation of the meaning of the term people and then adds:

What Marx called class conflict, which occupies such a central place in his thought–though it remains substantially undefined–is nothing other than the civil war that divides every people and that will come to an end only when, in a classless society or the messianic kingdom, People and people will coincide and there will no longer be, strictly speaking, any people. (p 178)


I think this remark can be paralleled with some of our findings here. In this article, I tried to address a certain number of discourses as “political symptoms”. I tried to show the historical determination of these symptoms and their link to the specific circumstances of Greek society after the war. In general terms, however, these symptoms can be read as an expression of a disavowal of social conflict. They are an indication of extreme uneasiness before antagonism –including the antagonism produced, or expressed, by the action of the speaking subject itself. The paradoxical structure of the statements we went through resides, in the last analysis, in the fact that the subject on the one hand participated in civil strife, and obviously takes great pride in having done that, but at the same time conceives –or wishes- this struggle to have been an unpleasant exception, or really a kind of “messianic moment”: he expects it to be the violence which would put an end to all violence, the class struggle which will breach the unity of the nation only in order to lead to a situation of greater harmony and concord. In other words, these symptoms are produced insofar as one believes that the split and the void of antagonism, rather than a necessary condition of the existence of the people, is an intolerable scandal, which can, and should, be abolished, in order for the People finally to enjoy its full and real existence.


About the Author:

Akis Gavriilidis, Ph.D., is a writer and translator born in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1964, and currently living in Brussels, Belgium. He has published five books (in Greek), including Democracy against Liberalism, The Notion of Natural Law in Spinoza, and Billy Wilder: The (Self) Criticism of the Hollywood Spectacle. He has also published several original or translated articles in Greek, English and Portuguese in journals and on the Internet.


NPR Calls Him a Self-Declared Antisemite. The New York Times Insists He  Merely Opposed 'Israel's Conservative Policies' | Jewish & Israel News




(1) The original here reads “aftoi pou katechoun ta polla”. The verb “katechô”, apart from “owning” or “possessing”, especially in colloquial Modern Greek can also mean “to know”. An alternative rendering, covering both of these meanings, could be “the Great Masters”.

(2) In 1973, the Athens Technical University was occupied by students during an uprising against the military junta. The sit-in was crushed by a military intervention with many casualties.



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