Avraam Benaroya and the Impossible Reform*
Ladies and Gentlemen, true believers and goy, good afternoon.
I am going to speak about Avraam Benaroya, socialist extraordinary, lawyer manquée and protagonist of the workers’ movement in Greece. After a rapid sketch of the historical background and some biographical information, I am going to present the creation of the international socialist movement of Salonica, its opinions on the national question, and Benaroya’s activity – initially in the Federacion and in the Communist Party that he founded, and then in cooperation with socialist reformers. I will also mention the law, imposed by the latter when they governed Greece in 1924, against national and religious discrimination, and finally I will trace the development, after their defeat, of the powerful authoritarian and antisemitic discourse that came to dominate public life.
Actually law and constitution, not to speak of constitutional law, were considered rather less sacred than one might wish in Greece early in our century. The central rump of the country, i.e. Old Greece, by the way one of the first European states to accord legal equality to Jews, boasted exemplary political stability and freedom since the 1860s, notwithstanding the impoverishment of the common people. Modernity encroached however, and the constitutional reform of 1911, implemented after a succesful pronunciamento of the military, included both a redefinition of property rights that opened the way for the most embracing agrarian reform in Europe, and provisions for the substitution of the droit d’ exception, of military law and the state of siege, for normal right. From now on the state would actively intervene, by legal and not-so-legal means, both in the distribution of property and in the play of social and intellectual forces – a tradition proudly upheld till our days.
At that time, however, Avraam Benaroya was still a young misfit, living in the European part of the vast, multireligious, multiethnic and multinational Ottoman Empire that stretched from Istambul, as the capital city was called by the dominant Turks, to the Adriatic. At the intellectual and commercial centre of these provinces the flourishing port of Salonica was to be found, and at its lowest and poorest part, which extended then behind the quai, the Palia Paralia of today, one might encounter this lean figure: piercing eyes, mustachio, swarthy complexion and minuscule body – a prospective lawyer turned teacher turned printer but actually a professional revolutionary of the Bulgarian version of the Bolshevics, the Tesniaki.
2. Avraam Benaroya and the creation of the Federacion.
Benaroya, born in this old centre of the Balkans, Salonica, and speaking fluently six languages, soon came to know the peninsula from east to west and from north to south. Notwithstanding his special qualities, we may well take him as an archetypal Balkan revolutionary and as a representative figure of many Jewish and socialists in this part of the world. He grew up in Lundt, Bulgaria, in a sepharadic family of small merchants; studied law in Belgrade but did not graduate; he became instead a teacher in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, where he published, in bulgarian, The Jewish Question and Social Democracy. He then returned as a socialist organiser to Salonica immediately after the Young Turk revolution of 1908.
Idealistic and pragmatist at the same time, in Salonica he played a leading role in the creation, in 1909, of the mainly Jewish Fédération Socialiste Ouvrière, or simply, in ladino, Federacion. The organisation took this name because, built on the federative model of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, it was conceived as a federation of separate sections, each representing an ethnic element of Macedonia – Jewish, Bulgarian, Greek and Muslim. It initially published its propaganda in four languages, i.e. ladino, bulgarian, greek and turkish, but in practice the two latter sections were under-represented if not inexistent. The democratically organized Federacion soon became, under Benaroya’s leadership, the strongest socialist party in the Ottoman Empire, created combative trade unions, attracted important intellectuals and gained a solid base of support among macedonian workers; it also cultivated strong links with the Socialist International. In 1910-1911 Benaroya directed its influential newspaper, the Solidaridad Obradera, printed in ladino. Following the war of 1912 however, Salonica was incorporated in Greece, and socialists faced unexpected dilemmas. A new world was now being shaped by merciless struggles among competing political and economic powers. Nationalism and capitalism, inaugurating a century of incessant strife, created through blood and iron national states in the place of the multiethnic Ottoman Empire. The material, human and moral cost was, of course, unimaginable.
3. The Federacion and the labour movement in Greece.
Balkan military adventures started long before and finished long after the Great War. In September 1912 the conflagration between the Ottomans and the so called Christian Balkan Powers broke out. Some months later, and after the Sultan’s armies had abandoned the lands north and west of Adrianople, an even crueller blitzkrieg erupted in which Greece and Serbia took from Bulgaria most of her spoils. The Treaty of Bucharest, signed in the summer of 1913, did not bring peace to Greece. Tension persisted, resulting in violent ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, in Macedonia, Thrace and Asia Minor. Atrocities against defenceless populations became common currency all over Balkans, preparing vicious wars that separated ethnic amalgams with rivers of blood, strengthened their economic, political and cultural dependence, gave to the military prime role in the state and to the state unprecedented power upon society, and finally cemented the translation of social conflicts into national terms. Antimilitarism, a staple of socialdemocratic propaganda and always cherished by the Federacion, became now a priority for many, socialists and others.
In Greece itself chaos reigned in the New Provinces, where central authority was either unable or unwilling to protect the so-called "foreigners" from spoliation and persecution. Salonica was more prominent in the eyes of the world, and also more controllable, but Benaroya and friends passed difficult hours. Veniselos, the wily Liberal Prime Minister, opted for conciliation with its Jews; his enlightened ideals actually promised good prospects for capital and relative protection to labour. The policy of divide et impera however was an almost unavoidable option for the ruling elite, in view of the critical situation it faced in the New Provinces, extending from Mount Olympus to the present day northern borders of Greece, an area in which Hellenes faced strong national antagonists plus the antinationalist socialism of the Federacion. Official treatment of "enemy races" as subhuman was even prepared by decades of obscurantist rhetoric and it reflected racist doctrines long cultivated by prominent intellectuals with the support, among others, of the Court. Equally indebted, then, to the Panhellenism of the Megali Idea were the alternative policies between which the state was poised, of national purity on the one hand and of selective integration of "foreign elements" on the other.
In light of the new situation socialists leaders like Benaroya had to address national oppression as well as economic exploitation, phenomena in some cases converging and in others divergent. As wars brought about huge replacements of power and property, official or unofficial expropriation of the "foreigners" became an evident way to defuse social tensions, to increase pressure on unwanted groups, and to create a cheap labour force. Jewish tobacco workers, for example, might be both exploited and oppressed as non-Greek elements, while Greek Orthodox poor of Salonica might refuse to pay rent to a Bulgarian proprietor, or even occupy houses of Dönmes who had found refuge in Constantinople. Jewish peddlars who were prohibited from plying their trade had few options except finding dependent and badly paid employment. Slav speaking peasants might side with the new regime, in which case they could easily divide Muslim estates where they worked previously as little better than serfs, or support let’s say the Bulgarian cause and be expelled beyond the borders.
In sum, together with the violent redistribution of roles and resources the Greek state, like all Balkan and most European states, assisted the nationalization of a multinational or un-national population. From now on it marginalized "foreigners" and at the same time it organized a cohesive "national body" by manipulating cultural symbols and by officially or unofficially extending to certain groups privileged access to education, work, justice, hygiene, dwelling, infrastructure, army service, etc. In short, it practically conjoined national with class differentiation; instead of erasing social distinctions inherited from the Ottoman era, it established inegality and polarization. Benaroya and the Federacion could not but voice their dissent, even though they soon accepted the new territorial status quo.
4. The rupture between national and international socialism.
Old Greece socialists, badly organized and in the main friendly to Veniselos, tried not to rock the boat and some even played the race card. They could not stomach that a non hellenic and emphatically internationalist troupe, as they perceived Federacion, happened to be the strongest mass organisation on Greek soil, and might even become the nucleus of the emergent socialist party. Benaroya, however, achieved exactly that.
Through the incessant projection of socialist critique, and the adroit handling of workers’ strikes the likes of which Greece had never seen, Benaroya broke the national barrier just after the normalization which came by the end of 1913. Internationalism and antimilitarism could well express the feelings and the experiences of many people who saw their families and their properties devastated by the war, while young and old, Greek and Muslim, Jew and Slav intellectuals, workingmen and workingwomen, rallied to the concrete demands of the Federacion and gained important concessions and reforms. Benaroya himself though, together with another Jewish socialist, was exiled for two and a half years at the island of Naxos, not exactly a tourist destination at that time. The Great War soon followed.
Initially Greece did not participate in it. The Court opted for support to Kaiser Wilhelm, Queen Sophia’s brother, while the Prime Minister identified with the Entente, and gradually they polarized the body politic. The socialists were equally divided. In Old Greece the most prominent of them followed Veniselos, while the Federacion, adhering to its internationalist ideals, mobilized for neutrality, which also happened to be favoured by King Contantine and his militaristic entourage. Many organizations of Southern Greece actually approached the Federacion over this issue, while it lost the support of certain Greek socialists in Macedonia.
From 1915 onwards Federacion was buoyed by the popular reaction to the war. Both monarchist and Veniselist policy actually assisted the emancipation and the radicalization of the left, and Benaroya, keeping equal distance from both established political groups, was quick to turn the situation to advantage. In the 1915 general elections Federacion sent two deputies representing Salonica to the Greek Parliament, while it lost for a few votes a third seat. It already had strong links with internationalist groups and organizations all over Greece and abroad; from them the Socialist Workers Party was to spring up in due time. An interventionist Socialist tendency however, headed by the future Prime Minister Alexandre Papanastassiou, and siding with Veniselos in foreign affairs, also elected deputies at the time.
Actually the national question more than any other kept the Greek left divided until the German occupation of the country, in the 1940s. Papanastassiou and other reform-minded socialists practically collided with Venizelos’ liberal brand of nationalism. Benaroya and the Federacion, on the other hand, were influenced by the Austromarxists who, sensitive to matters national, searched ways to utilize socialism as a cohesion force in the decrepit Habsburg Monarchy; they elaborated the principle of personal autonomy, according to which national consciousness should be depoliticized and become personal matter. Modern states should be based on free association and allow self definition and self organization of ethnicities in cultural affairs, while a mixed parliament, proportionally representing all nations of the realm, should decide on economic and political questions. The Federacion traced the origins of its federative position in Balkan authors of the Enlightenment like Rhigas Velestinlis, and stressed that the forthcoming peace should exclude any change of borders or transfer of populations. The Socialist Workers’ Party, that was created with Benaroya’s initiative near the end of the European War, followed closely Federacion’s theses on national self determination, and wanted to transform the Greek state into a federation of autonomous provinces that would safeguard the rights of the nationalities, and that would participate in its turn in a federative Republic of the Balkan peoples. This was an ideal not as farfetched as it might seem today, and its elaboration owed a lot to Benaroya’s synthesis of moral with practical imperatives.
5. Benaroya approaches the Democratic Union.
Benaroya’s tactical abilities that so amply contributed to the creation of the Federacion, allowed, after an historic meeting with Veniselos, the building of the Socialist Workers’ Party and the General Confederation of Labour that united the bulk of mobilized workers and socialists of Greece and immediately became strong political players. His main achievement, however, laid beyond day to day tactics. He was much more than a simple translator of ideas: his hectic activity was guided by refined and original mental qualities that helped him analyze Balkan realities through the dominant socialdemocratic codification of marxism, and arrive at practical conclusions. Uncommon powers of mental abstraction helped him define, and when necessary redefine, strategic goals and orientations for the socialist movement, while his also extremely effective persuasion imposed these strategic orientations on the left – that is, until 1923.
His choices proved so successful that the rise of the Socialist Workers’ Party and of the workers’ movement disturbed the government. Perscution followed that led to a general strike in 1919. Subsequently social and political polarization, as well as the prestige of the newborn Soviet Union, strengthened the radicals and before long the party was affiliated to the leninist Third International. The Labour Centre of Salonica, another creation of Benaroya’s subtle vision, uniting more than twelve thousand workers of all nationalities, a good part of them Jews, became focus of radical socialism. The fall of Veniselos Government and the war in Asia Minor fuelled even more dissent leading to antiwar riots. In the wake of these developments Benaroya, thrown in prison again, as well as most of the leading lights of the party, were marginalized by the radicals. On the other hand moderate socialists under Papanastassiou started preparing their own revolution: their primary aim was now to overthrow the throne.
In 1922 the Greek army was defeated by the Kemalists and a military revolution ensued that deposed King Constantine. It undertook many reforms, notably the distribution of big estates to peasants, but after a general strike it bloodily suppressed the workers. A little later, in December 1923, Benaroya, who preferred socialdemocratic organisational models and opposed bolshevisation, was expelled from the Communist Party and was obliged to quit the direction of its Salonica daily Avanti. Afterwards he focused his action on the Jewish community of Salonica, and participated in a splinter group that with help from Papanastassiou, Prime Minister now, tried unsuccessfully to split the Communist Party. At that time he agreed with the new Prime Minister both on the need of reforms and not revolution, and on the priority of abolishing the monarchy. An equally urgent imperative, though, was combatting the racism and antisemitism that were often cultivated by the state authorities themselves.
Papanastassiou immediately passed the temporary Legislative Decree "On the Defence of the Republican Regime", that imposed penalties on press attacks against the Republic and the minorities. It provided for at least three months’ imprisonment of anybody that "systematically distinguishes, through the press, for political objectives and disdainfully, the inhabitants of the country between natives and newcomers, Christian Orthodox or followers of other religions, speakers of greek or of other languages, and the like, or ascribes to them scornfully any qualities or habits". Even praising such practices was punished with imprisonment.
Resisting discrimination, then, was an essential part of the socialist programs of both Papanastassiou and Benaroya. Mainstream political forces however, Conservatives and Liberals alike, were angered by this decree. The reactionary judiciary prevented its implementation, and it was soon abolished by the military dictator Pangalos. We should not surmise from this, though, that all these abhorred the restrictions on free expression envisaged by the socialists, quite the contrary.
A pertinent analysis of interwar liberal political thought was made by Charles Roig. According to Roig, this thought assimilated the experience of the Great War by developing two complementary terminologies: one of them focused on the irrational and pathological face of the war, while the other rationalized it and presented it as a normal state of things. It created new political grammars called wartime right, droit d’ exception, or exceptional right, necessarily based on a "superior right", on so called "principles", "fundamental laws" and the like, by definition different from right but so imperative that they justified the abandonment of common legality. This process was completed in Europe before 1939, by which time "political-legal symbolism, as well as the current language of liberal democracies, had totally integrated verbal calculations of illegality, a transformation in which the notion of positive right contributed decisively. Fascism and nazism constituted another process of transformation of political symbolism, while a third interrelated process was bolshevism".
The same phenomenon appeared in Greece during the wars of 1912-1922, was intensified in the Entreguerre and reached its apex in the 1940s, when the borders between liberal and fascist discourse were practically abolished. In fact Greek politicians acted according to these "verbal calculations of illegality" even before they turned them into positive law, and perhaps even before they had organized them in a distinct discourse. Benaroya and the democratic socialists, on the other hand, were marginalized exactly because they would not follow any of these dominant transformations of political symbolism that led to authoritarianism.
After Papanastassiou’s fall, in the summer of 1924, the continuity between the oppression of "foreigners" and the persecution of socialists became evident, and it crystallized in the development of republican varieties of fascism. The permanent eclipse of the rule of law in Northern Greece, or rather the state’s refusal to replace Ottoman oppression of these provinces with any form of Rechtsstaat, signified the convergence of the so called Liberals with totalitarianism. Simple fascist recipes, however, did not fare well and proved unable to crush the left. Soon a part of the ruling elite turned to the Nazi model, systematically cultivating antisemitism as a means to divide the subalterns. The jewish origins of bolshevism as well as the spectre of internationalism were among the preferred slogans of this powerful current. As democracy waned, and repression of the minorities and of the left was entrenched, democratic socialism, of the kind envisaged by Benaroya, became more and more an impossibility.
The defeat of democratic socialism – and let us note in passing that, as Benaroya’s example itself shows, democratic socialism did not always contradict revolutionary socialism – meant the marginalization of its protagonists. Benaroya remained politically active after 1924 but as he stayed outside the principal political formations of the left, the communists and Papanastassiou’s socialists, his capacity of action was increasingly restricted. In Salonica he had a difficult life, especially after the Liberals’ antisemitic turn, by the end of the 1920s, and the repeated coups d’ État of 1935 that destroyed the Republic as well as the hopes of the democratic left. In the 1940s he lost a son in the war against Mussolini, survived the German concentration camps, and led a small socialist party after his return to Greece. Disgusted by the dominant obscurantism, he emigrated to the promising land of Israel in 1953; he was then installed in Holon where he died in 1979, aged ninety two, in utter poverty but indomitable in spirit.
Strolling around Salonica you will come across many streets named in honour of fascist dictators, antisemitic army and police officers, bigoted third rate politicians and many many well meaning but otherwise unexceptional doctors, teachers and priests. Avraam Benaroya, on the contrary, an extraordinary child of this city, who championed social justice and contributed more than most in the democratization of the political system, is absent. One can only guess whether his bigger crime was being a Jew or a socialist, but there can be no doubt that his memory has been systematically suppressed.
His ideals, however, have all but become irrelevant. Economic exploitation, state oppression and nationalist conflict still create, in South Eastern Europe and in the Middle East perhaps more than elsewhere in this unstable because unjust world, tensions whose resolution is not in sight. Economic and political democracy, as well as the depoliticization of religious, ethnic and national difference, in other words the goals in pursuit of which Avraam Benaroya spent his tumultuous life, seem today more imperative than ever. One has not to be an extreme pessimist to predict that the contempt into which they are currently being held may presage new catastrophes, of scale comparable to the Shoah.
* * * * *
* Announcement at the 1st International Conference of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, "Remember Salonika", Thessaloniki, June 25-28, 1998
On Benaroya see my article ΣπÏρος MαρκÎτος, “H ‘ΦεντερασιÏŒν’ και η εδραÎ¯ωση του ελληνικοÏ σοσιαλισμοÏ” [Spyros Marchetos, "Federacion and the Roots of Greek Socialism"], in EταιρεÎ¯α MελÎτης EλληνικοÏ EβραÏŠσμοÏ, Oι εβραÎ¯οι στον ελληνικÏŒ χÏŽρο: ζητÎ®ματα ιστορÎ¯ας στη μακρÎ¬ διÎ¬ρκεια, ΠρακτικÎ¬ του A’ ΣυμπÏŒσιου IστορÎ¯ας, ΘεσσαλονÎ¯κη, 23-24 NοεμβρÎ¯ου 1991, AθÎ®να, ΓαβριηλÎ¯δης 1995, σ. 151-172.
On Federacion see my article cited above, as well as George B. Leon, The Greek Socialist Movement in the First World War, * 1973; AντÏŽνης ΛιÎ¬κος, H ΣοσιαλιστικÎ® EργατικÎ® OμοσπονδÎ¯α ΘεσσαλονÎ¯κης (ΦεντερασιÏŒν) και η ΣοσιαλιστικÎ® NεολαÎ¯α. Tα καταστατικÎ¬ τους, ΘεσσαλονÎ¯κη, ΠαρατηρητÎ®ς χ.χ. [Antonis Liakos,The Socialist Workers’ Federation of Salonica and the Socialist Youth. Their Charters, Salonica s.d.].
On ethnic cleansing see ΣπÏρος MαρκÎτος, O AλÎξανδρος ΠαπαναστασÎ¯ου και η εποχÎ® του. AντινομÎ¯ες του μεταρρυθμιστικοÏ σοσιαλισμοÏ, AθÎ®να 1998 [Spyros Marchetos, Alexandre Papanastassiou and his Time. Antinomies of Socialist Reform, Athens 1998], ch. 5. On the atrocities of all sides see Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Report of the International Commission To Inquire into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars, Washington, Carnegie Endowment 1914.
On the alternative policies towards the minorities open to the Greek state in 1912-1914 see ΣπÏρος MαρκÎτος, "Tο πλαÎ¯σιο ενσωμÎ¬τωσης της σεφαραδικÎ®ς ΘεσσαλονÎ¯κης στην EλλÎ¬δα, 1912-1914", AθÎ®να 1998 [Spyros Marchetos, "The Integration of Sepharadic Salonica in Greece and its Context, 1912-1914", Athens 1998].
Public Records Office (Kew, London), FO 371.1994/32-37, Morgan to Onslow, Salonica 14.2.1914/8949Î‡ FO 371.1994/48-49, Morgan to Onslow, Salonica 16.10.1914/74239Î‡ FO 371.1994/48-49, Morgan to Onslow, Salonica 16.10.1914/74239Î‡ FO 371.1996/6, Morgan to Mallet, Salonica 21.3.1914/15048. See also the Report of the Red Crescent to Morgan, in FO 371.1994/46-53. On the transfers of Christians and Muslims see also FO 371.1996/19, Mallet to Grey, 16.4.1914/16761. An entire tome (FO 371.1996) covers the emigration of Bulgarians and Muslims from the port of Salonica.
See Eφη AβδελÎ¬, “O σοσιαλισμÏŒς των ‘Î¬λλων’: ταξικοÎ¯ αγÏŽνες, εθνοτικÎς συγκροÏσεις και ταυτÏŒτητες φÏλου στη μετα-οθωμανικÎ® ΘεσσαλονÎ¯κη” [Effie Avdela, "The ‘Others” Socialism: Class Struggles, Ethnic Conflicts and Sexual Identities in Post-Ottoman Salonica], Tα IστορικÎ¬ 18-19 .
See on this period in general, George B. Leon [George B. Leontaritis], Greece and the Great Powers, 1914-1917, ΘεσσαλονÎ¯κη, Institute for Balkan Studies 1974; George B. Leontaritis, Greece and the First World War: From Neutrality to Intervention, 1917-1918, Boulder 1990.
N.Δ. “ΠερÎ¯ κατοχυρÏŽσεως του ΔημοκρατικοÏ ΠολιτεÏματος”, 23η AπριλÎ¯ου 1924, in EφημερÎ¯ς της KυβερνÎ®σεως, τ. A’, σ. 558-559.
Charles Roig, La Grammaire politique du Lénine, Lausanne, l’ Age d’ Homme 1980.
On the period see ΣπÏρος MαρκÎτος, O AλÎξανδρος ΠαπαναστασÎ¯ου και η εποχÎ® του. AντινομÎ¯ες του μεταρρυθμιστικοÏ σοσιαλισμοÏ, AθÎ®να 1998 [Spyros Marchetos, Alexandre Papanastassiou and his Time. Antinomies of Socialist Reform, Athens 1998], ch. 10.
Certain articles of Benaroya have been published in AβραÎ¬μ MπεναρÏŒγια, EλπÎ¯δες και πλÎ¬νες, [Avraam Benaroya, Hopes and Deceptions] εισαγωγÎ® – επιμÎλεια ΘÏŒδωρος MπενÎ¬κης, AθÎ®να, ΣτοχαστÎ®ς 1989. He also penned, in greek, a history of the Greek workers’ movement with interesting autobiographical elements: AβραÎ¬μ MπεναρÏŒγια, H πρÏŽτη σταδιοδρομÎ¯α του ελληνικοÏ προλεταριÎ¬του, [Avraam Benaroya, The First Career of the Greek Proletariat] επιμÎλεια – σημειÏŽσεις: ‘Aγγελος EλεφÎ¬ντης, AθÎ®να, OλκÏŒς 2 χ.χ..
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