The public discourse on the bicentenary: The democratic tradition of the revolution

Newspapers are one of the important means to shape express and shape public discourses on history. Particularly on anniversaries or important events that claim a connection to the past, the publication of relevant texts multiplies. Such was the case with the bicentenary of the 1821 Greek Revolution. Since its first anniversaries, the revolution, as the birth act of the modern Greek nation and subsequently of the state, provoked intense debates about its meaning, significance and the parameters that determined it. In early 2021 newspapers began publishing relevant articles by historians, political and social scientists on the meaning of the revolution two hundred years later. The narratives that emerged moved along two main axes. The first concerned the negotiation between the perception of the revolution as a national and as an international event. The second was between the modernist narrative and the democratic characteristics of the revolution. The second axis will be addressed here, in reference to the publication of the book entitled 1821. Two hundred years of history. The democratic tradition, edited by Antonis Liakos (Themelio, 2021). The 14 texts in the edited volume, written by historians, philosophers and political scientists, were first published in the newspaper Avgi during 2021. In them, as well as in the discussion in the final section of the book, aspects of the revolution are highlighted, focusing primarily on the history of ideas: how did the revolutionary process engage with ideas, was infused by them and affected them in turn? What reverberations did they leave behind? These are some of the questions that the chapters of the volume addresses. The book is organised in three sections (Revolution–Democratic Deposits–Discussion), in which the authors address specific issues of the revolutionary process in order to shed light on broader issues.

The first part, entitled “Revolution”, includes contributions by Antonis Liakos, Christina Koulouri, Nikos Theotokas, Popi Polemi (in collaboration with Anna Matthaiou), Sia Anagnostopoulou and Aristides Baltas. Antonis Liakos, in his essay “1821-2021: Searching for the consciousness hinterland”, opens the discussion on what will be the main point around which the perception of the anniversary will evolve. Picking up the thread from how the revolution was already perceived in its own time and moving on to its conceptualisations in the light of previous jubilees, Liakos criticises the isolationism of the perception of the revolution exclusively within the national context and emphasises that, on the anniversary, its global character and its democratic tradition are elements that should be reintroduced into the debate. Christina Koulouri, writing on “The Nation-Phoenix”, focuses on the intellectual trajectories followed by the concept of palingenesis. Koulouri also discusses the way in which the concept came to encompass, beyond the revolution itself, the entire historical course of the Greek nation until 1930. Nikos Theotokas focuses on the intellectual earthquake associated with the 1821 Revolution. As the title of his text, “1821: When the revolutionaries demolished the only world that could contain them”, indicates, Theotokas analyses the way in which the revolution produces its subjects, on the one hand, and the way in which the shocks do not end with its termination, but continue through antagonisms, contradictions, oscillations and conflicts for several decades after its termination. Popi Polemi writes about the book’s contribution to the revolution. In her article, “The book and the antinomies of revolutionary times”, she traces the path from the publishing production of the Enlightenment and the adventures of publishing during the revolutionary period to publishing production in the liberated regions and the first printing presses of the Greek state, inviting us to reread the revolution and through the history of the publishing phenomenon. Sia Anagnostopoulou writes about “Modernity of the revolution and the knots of history”. The idea she introduces is that very quickly, at the core of the modernity expressed by the revolution, distortions (“knots”) blossomed, through which materials of the old world were reproduced. In the Greek case, the prime example is the modernist dimension of the revolution, which may have incorporated different meanings over the years, but never acquired emancipatory dynamics. The first part closes with Aristides Baltas’ text titled “Patriotic knowledge of the senses, fixation of memory: Opsi and Kopsi”. In this text, Baltas refers to the deep memory that derives from the place itself and the experience produced in it. In the long term, memory needs to be secured and, in this way Baltas brings into the discussion the need of memory selection and the need to retain those connected to the democratic traditions of the revolution.

The second section is organised around the general title “Democratic deposits”. “What is the Greek ‘We the people’ today?” asks Dimitris Christopoulos in a review of Greek citizenship from the constitutions of the revolution to the 2015 Citizenship Code. His essay concludes with the crucial need to update the issues of inclusion, which were raised at the historical beginning of the Greek state, with respect to its democratic heritage. Nicos Mouzelis, in his contribution titled “The course of Greek parliamentarianism”, traces the history of parliamentarianism in the Greek state from 1844 to the present. He demonstrates that in each of the great periods in the history of the Greek state, major historical changes have shaped the need for new political and constitutional balances in the way that the parliament functions. In the same token, contemporary challenges are linked to the need for the emergence of a parliamentarianism that will move from client interests to national and social goals. The democratic legacies of the 1862 revolution are addressed by George Sotirelis in his essay “The misunderstood revolution: 1862 as an extension and completion of 1821”, underlining its correspondence with the legacies of the 1821 Revolution and its contribution to the country’s progress towards European democratic constitutionalism. Yannis Stavrakakis focuses on the concept of popular sovereignty in his article “The 1821 Revolution and the dynamics of popular sovereignty”. Stavrakakis traces the conceptual trajectories of the term “popular sovereignty” from the 19th century onwards and the way it is linked to the demand for democratic politics. Polymeris Voglis deals with the history and the conceptualisations of the terms in his text “Revolution and Independence”. Voglis focuses on the very concept of revolution, the way it has prevailed as the dominant term by which we refer to 1821 and the opportunity that the anniversary provides to rethink and update meanings in the face of the need for a new narrative about the revolution. Vangelis Karamanolakis writes about the Left’s relationship with 1821 in his essay “1821 and the Left”, which traces the genealogy of the Left’s reception of the revolution from the early 20th century onwards and raising the question of the contemporary Left’s relationship to the issue. The gendered dimension of national identity and the way it was influenced by perceptions of egalitarianism is examined by Maria Repoussi in her essay “1821-2021: The poetics of gender”, who highlights new ways of reading the revolution, but also of understanding the way in which Greek citizenship has been shaped. Pantelis Kyprianos deals with the history of education in his contribution “200 years of Greek education: The conservative frustration”. Kyprianos shows how, at least until the post-dictatorship “metapolitefsi” years, a combination of factors including conservative politics and state bureaucracy thwarted the enlightening potential of revolutionary texts and led to the inability of Greek education to keep up with international developments.

The third section of the book includes a discussion between Antonis Liakos and Dimitris Arvanitakis on the radical origins of the revolution, based on the latter’s book The radical moment of Greek emancipation: The French presence in the Ionian Sea (1797-1799) and the nation of Greeks (Crete University Press 2020). The discussion shows how 1821 is a chronotope, which, apart from the revolution itself, includes all the processes, fermentations and events that led to it . It also highlights the radicalism of the ideas and social fermentations that preceded the revolution, particularly in the Ionian Islands. The discussion, which largely concerns the bridges between Italy, the Ionian Islands and the Greece state under formation, highlights, through a different path from previous texts, the need to focus on the democratic legacies of the revolution, and mostly in their most radical moments, before the national took precedence over the social.

The contributions to this volume, and especially considering that the texts were originally published in the press, constitute an important contribution to the public history of the revolution on the occasion of the bicentenary. They contribute significantly to updating the meaning of the nineteenth-century revolutionary process, by opening up questions that are often critical towards mainstream narratives and create a dynamic of tension balance with the prevailing perceptions of 1821. Rather than insisting on the isolationism of the national context and prevalence of the narrative of national supremacy (and its inverse, national dependency), they put the global parameters of the revolution back on the map, but above all its social demands and democratic legacies – its radicalism – which tends to be condemned to national oblivion.


Aimilia (Emilia) Salvanou, post-doc researcher DUTH

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