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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter II. The “Critical turns”: Subverting the Romantic narratives

Our social question

Giorgos Skliros
Traduction de Mary Kitroeff

Texte intégral

1Title: Τό κοινωνικόν μας ζήτημα (Our social question)

2Original Published: Αθήνα, n.p., June 1907

3Language: Greek

4The excerpts used are from the second edition of Τό κοινωνικό μας ζήτημα, ed. by Nikos Yannios (Athens: Σοσιαλιστικό Κέντρο ’Aθηνῶν, 1922), with the subtitle ’Aφιερώνεται στόν Ἓλληνα Ἐργάτη, Γ.Σκληρός,’ pp. 44–49.

About the author

5Giorgos Skliros (born Giorgos Konstantinidis) [1878, Trabzon (Gr. Trapezounta, present-day Turkey) – 1919, Alexandria]: medical doctor and socialist theorist. He was born into a well-off bourgeois family. At a young age, he was sent by his family to Odessa and then to Moscow, where he studied medicine. There, he became familiar with socialist ideas, especially Georgi Plekhanov’s theories. In 1905, he participated in the workers’ uprising in St Petersburg where he adopted the penname ‘Skliros.’ Due to his revolutionary activity, in 1906, he fled to Jena, where, between 1907 and 1911, he interacted with other young Greek intellectuals of the time who were also students. Together with Dimitris Glinos, who would later become a prominent figure of the socialist movement in Greece, he played an important role in the founding of the Φιλική Προοδευτική Ἓνωση (Progressive union of friends). In 1907, he published the essay ‘Our social question,’ which earned him immediate fame. After ‘Our social question,’ he published two articles in the newspaper Νουμᾶς as part of the debate initiated by his book. In 1909, he published the essay ‘The Eastern Question,’ which referred to the political reality of the era following the Young Turk revolution. However, his bad health, financial problems, and the pressure exerted by his brother and relatives to complete his studies did not allow him much time for other activities. In 1912, he settled in Alexandria, and until his death contributed extensively to the reviews Νέα Ζωή (New life) and Γράμμτα (Letters). In 1919, an article entitled ‘The current problems of Hellenism,’ as well as another in memory of Plekhanov appeared in the Γράμματα. In this last one, he criticized Lenin and Trotsky, and condemned the Bolshevik Revolution as a coup d’état. During the last years of his life, Skliros became more conservative. The First World War and especially the Russian Revolution had turned the conflict between the adherents of Bolshevism and the socialists such as Abraham Benaroya, into a definite rupture in Greece. By his first biographer, the Marxist historian Yiannis Kordatos (1891–1961) Skliros was accused of confusing pre-Marxist materialism with dialectic materialism. However, during the 1970s and 1980s, when the debate over social democracy resurfaced after the splitting of the Communist Party in 1968, figures like Skliros and their intellectual contribution assumed a central role in political debates.

6Main works: Τό κοινωνικόν μας ζήτημα [Our social question] (1907); Τό Ζήτημα τῆς ’Aνατολῆς [The eastern question] (1909); Τά σύγχρονα προβλήματα τοῦ Ἑλληνισμοῦ [The current problems of Hellenism] (1919); Ἡ φιλοσοφία τοῦ πολέμου καί τῆς εἰρήνης [The philosophy of war and peace] (1923).


7Socialist activity had already appeared in Greece by the 1880s. The most important figure of that period was Platon Drakoulis (see Abraham Benaroya, The socialist frenzy of two decades). The same period witnessed the development of the demoticists’ movement organized around Ioannis Psicharis which promoted the use of the Greek vernacular. This first generation of demoticists did not connect the ‘Language question’ with the ‘Social question.’ In their view, the implementation of the demotic version of the language would contribute to the regeneration of the nation and to the accomplishment of the ‘Great Idea,’ the irredentist vision of annexing to the Hellenic Kingdom all Ottoman territories inhabited by Greek-Orthodox populations. Actually, this group consisted of established bourgeois figures unfavorable towards socialist ideals. In 1902, they sponsored the publication of the review Νουμς under the directorship of Dimitris Tagopoulos (1867– 1926). Despite its limited audience, the new review developed into a forum for the debate of all contemporary young intellectuals, and constituted a means for the propagation of the demotic language.

8However, a second generation of demoticists gradually took the lead. Much more aware of contemporary socialist ideas, these young intellectuals had studied in Germany, mostly in Jena and Berlin, where the debate over social democracy and revolutionary Marxism was vivid. For them, the ‘Language question’ was interrelated with the ‘Social question.’ Therefore, the issue at stake was not the accomplishment of the ‘Great Idea’ but an educational reform, one of many reforms that the country desperately needed. Figures such as Alexandros Delmouzos (1880–1956), Manolis Triantafyllidis (1883–1959) and Dimitris Glinos (1882–1943) played a key role in the debates. They founded the Ἐκπαιδευτικός Ὅμιλος (Educational association) in 1911, which constituted the most important vehicle for the propagation of the demotic language. They were also politically active in the Liberal Party and were given the opportunity, especially during the second term of Eleftherios Venizelos’s government (1917–1920), to pursue radical educational reforms. However, contrary to Psycharis and others who did not live in Greece, these young intellectuals had to face the inertia of the system. Delmouzos, the educational expert of the group who had been appointed the director of the Girls’ School at Volos for three years (1908–1911), was accused of damaging public morality as he introduced the demotic language in school teaching. He was tried and found guilty for that.

9Thus, at the dawn of the new century, a number of thinkers managed to articulate a new political agenda. It is within this intellectual atmosphere, in a period of profound criticism and demands for social change, that Skliros’ seminal work ‘Our social question’ appeared. The largest part of the book dwells upon Marxist theory, providing a schematic description while focusing on ‘class struggle’ and the character of historical development both in Europe and in Greece. In Greek society, Skliros points out, unlike the European case, the indigenous aristocracy had vanished due to the Ottoman conquest, and thus the Orthodox population had to attach itself to the only institution available, their Church. However, increasing contact with the West contributed to the development of a diaspora bourgeois class, which, in the end, played a key role in the “national awakening.” Thus, the Greek revolution was of a “bourgeois character” but also inspired by “aristocratic ideals.” Following that, Skliros presents an account of the contemporary ideological atmosphere in Greece, pointing out that ever since the independence, there had been two political and intellectual trends in Greek society. The first one, based on “imagination” attached to the ‘Great Idea,’ supported the expansion of the state and the “reestablishment of the Byzantine Empire.” This trend would not pay any attention to social issues. The other trend was based on reality, considered the policy of expansionism catastrophic and gave priority to social reform, but failed to generate a strong popular appeal.

10The publication of the book triggered a heated debate among the demoticists, since they had to take sides on whether they considered language a national or a social issue. The introduction of Marxist analysis gave the discussion a new twist. Alexandros Delmouzos first published an article entitled Πρóς τούς Δημοτικιστάς (To the demoticists) in Νουμς, a review of Skliros’ text that stimulated further debate. The main issue at stake was whether certain Marxist principles could be applied to the interpretation of Greek history and society, or to the specific role of the demoticist movement in class struggle. The demoticists who participated in the debate would either adopt or reject Skliros’ analysis, based on the priority given to the ‘National question.’ Thus, the first group was called νασιοναλιστές (nationalists), most prominent among them being the poet and critic Petros Vlastos (1879–1941) and the diplomat and theorist Ion Dragoumis. The second group was called σοσιαλιστές (socialists), and included major figures such as Alexandros Delmouzos and the novelist Costantinos Hatzopoulos (1868–1920).

11Skliros’ arguments were taken up by the most significant Marxist historian of the time, Yiannis Kordatos, who published the κοινωνική σημασία τῆς ’Eπανάστασης τοῦ 21 (The social significance of the 1821 revolution) in 1924. Kordatos argued that, after the mid-eighteenth century, a Greek bourgeois class emerged by taking advantage of the new trade opportunities. This class played a crucial role in the conception and implementation of the Greek revolution. Thus, the bourgeois elite was attributed a progressive role. Moreover, it was argued that Greece had already achieved the bourgeois stage of society and that it was time for a socialist transformation. Kordatos’ work was met with a fierce reaction both from the Right and the Communist Left. On the left, the Stalinist wing, which became predominant after the Sixth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party (1934), condemned Kordatos for serving the interests of the bourgeoisie. Yannis Zevgos (1897–1947), a major figure of the Communist Party, objected to Kordatos by arguing that the bourgeois class had betrayed the Greek popular struggle of 1821. Moreover, he claimed, during the nineteenth century, the bourgeois class only profited from favorable royal concessions and would not do anything to improve the social conditions of the populace. On the right, the reaction to the critique of historical continuity between Modern and Ancient Greece was even fiercer. In many schools, students were suspended for reading the book, and in certain cases professors were even fired for teaching it. The Holy Synod of the Greek Church issued a critical response to the book, refuting in particular the way Kordatos described the role of the clergy in the Revolution.

12Skliros’s intellectual legacy, popularized and also fiercely contested, reemerged in the 1980s. Historians such as Rena Stavridou-Patrikiou have demonstrated the significance of his work by focusing both on his intellectual impact as well as his involvement in contemporary social and political debates.

Our social question

13[…] Indeed, the character of our revolution was greatly confused. Deep down it was a bourgeois revolution, brought about by the unprecedented prosperity of the inner and outer bourgeois elements, and by the awakening of a national sentiment, especially among the developed bourgeois classes and by the nation’s literati.

14Certainly, the contribution of the example of the French revolution was not slight, nor was that of the general awakening of the bourgeois elements in Western Europe.

15Besides this, however, [our revolution] also bore many lordly, warlike, semi-feudal elements which were placed together with the clergy at the head of the movement. While the most important thing was that, officially, the revolution was not of a social character, class against class, but of a racial, national one, its purpose being the political liberation of the entire nation from the foreign race. Add to this that this nation was the Hellenic one, that is to say the descendants of that ancient glorious Greece, while the tyrant race were the barbarian, heathen Turk, and you will understand why the European aristocracy was not unfavorably disposed towards the Greek revolution. Having declared the revolution in the name of the “great traditions of Greece,” the Greeks tended, mainly intellectually and psychologically, towards the nearest Byzantine-Christian traditions, with which they had a direct psychological connection.

16Their ideal was the possible re-establishment of the former Hellenic Byzantine state, which went on to be crystallized in the fairly utopian “Great Idea,” a mixture of confused past aristocratic and present bourgeois ideas and instincts. In this way, the Greek revolution, born mainly on the basis of bourgeois material prosperity and development, was waged in the name of fairly aristocratic ideals and traditions.

17In any event, the nation gained its liberty, having in its hands an entire heritage of traditions and ideals of a mostly aristocratic character, in the name of which it had declared the revolution.

18And now there were only two paths for it to follow: the path of reality, which was in accordance to the existing powers and the existing factors or the path of the great historical traditions, which, when put into action, did not correspond completely to the conditions of the past, and did not rest upon actually existing factors and data.

19According to the first path, sensing its small powers, its bourgeois character and the major change of the historic and social conditions compared to the former Byzantine regime, the young Hellenic nation had to adopt tactics which would be as realistic as possible and which would be limited to the collection, organization and development of its own economic, moral and intellectual powers; moreover, with the contribution of the people’s natural intelligence, it was possible, through judicious and systematic work, for this to be achieved in a relatively short time, transforming Greece into a model of a civilized Eastern state, a kind of “Eastern Switzerland,” which would win the true admiration of Western Europe and which would act as a shining beacon, towards which all the peoples enslaved by Turkey would instinctively turn. These tactics would also have the other great advantage of leaving the state free of any historical traditions, usually of a conservative and retrograde character; this would allow it to rid itself, without difficulty, of any dead and harmful element which had survived by virtue of the ages-long slavery, to bring about easily whatever social reforms, both practical and beneficial, in accordance with the general spirit of civilization, and, in general, to be equipped with a progressive, liberal and democratic spirit, in accordance, after all, with the nation’s bourgeois foundation. This could be one path. The other, the one of the “great historical traditions” and “historical law,” would necessarily produce a different character, and give completely opposite results. According to this [path], passing over its true powers, its bourgeois foundation and the ensuing great historical changes, the new state should consider itself as the sole legal representative and heir of the former aristocratic Byzantine state, and aim, as much as possible, at its full re-establishment under its original form and its Hellenic foundation; but since this was hampered by many new and serious factors, these had to be ignored at any cost, to be supplanted, replaced by others which exist only in the imagination, etc. In this way, two worlds of reality came into being: the one was the true [world], [the world] of action, [the world] which was important to all the non-Hellenic world, and the other was that of the imagination, the one which was not recognized by the outside world, but which was of absolute importance to the Hellenes! The results of this dualism I believe can be easily understood by all. Once Greece had decided to walk the path of the “great historical traditions,” as a natural consequence it had to submit and yield to an entire series of disastrous, yet unavoidable consequences. […]

20Which of these two paths should the reborn Greece take? The path of reality or that of tradition? And even if we all agree that the first path would be preferable in all respects and would, without fail, give the best civilizing and other results, I believe no less that there will be no one who will imagine that it would ever be psychologically possible for the nation to follow such tactics and such a judicious path! This would require another development, another psychology, another era… The nation which struggled and was liberated in the name of the “greater Greece,” by virtue of its psychology and its development and its era, could only take the path of the “great traditions.”

21This was unavoidable, inevitable and, as such, any criticism at this point is redundant. Another issue [is] to what degree did this policy of “traditions” benefit and what results did it produce. Here, a strictly objective criticism is unavoidable and mandatory because the [conclusions] drawn may benefit us in the future by indicating the weak and disastrous points of the tactics [followed] so far, and thus inducing [the nation] to change, reform or even abandon them.


Mary Kitroeff (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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