The French Revolution initiated a decades-long phase of bourgeois revolutions across Europe and beyond that raised the flags of democracy, national liberation, and civil rights against the injustices of the feudal system. These political convulsions prepared the ground for the international ascendancy of the capitalist system in the nineteenth century. Yet in most countries, the democratic promises of the bourgeois revolution remained largely unfulfilled. The Greek war of independence that began over 200 years ago was no exception.
The heroism of the Greek masses in the struggle against their oppressors was continually diverted and exploited by the reactionary landlords, the great powers of the Concert of Europe, and, indeed, by the Greek bourgeoisie itself. Ultimately, the pending tasks of this revolution would be taken up by the workers’ movement in the 20th century.
The crisis of the Ottomans
The French Revolution sent shockwaves across the world, with reverberations felt in the Balkan provinces of the declining Ottoman Empire. Here, contradictions were piling up between the rising bourgeoisie and the backward Ottoman regime. The Ottoman social system in the Balkans in its early stages was markedly different to feudal Europe, which was based on serfdom. Instead, the surplus produced by the peasants was predominantly acquired by the state through taxation, a system characteristic of what Marx described as the Asiatic mode of production. The Sultan owned most of the arable land. He granted tracts (timar) to his officers and notables, but the exploitation of peasant labour was legally restricted. In fact, the Ottomans removed many of the feudal exactions that characterised the last chaotic phase of Christian rule in Greece. In contrast with the preceding period, the first two centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans saw remarkable prosperity and stability. Fiscal pressure was relatively low, the state invested in public works, and the Porte guaranteed order and political stability. Christians and Jews were burdened with additional taxes and faced certain disadvantages vis-à-vis Muslims, but in the main relations between religions were harmonious. The Rum millet (the Roman, i.e., Christian, nation) enjoyed significant fiscal, legal, and administrative autonomy under the suzerainty of the Orthodox patriarch. The peoples of the Balkans understandably preferred the rule of the Ottomans to that of their rapacious Christian “saviours” of Venice or Hungary.
This Pax Ottomanica rested on two pillars: relatively low taxes and a well-oiled, centralised state apparatus that could maintain law and order. These, in turn, depended on the continued expansion of the Ottoman Empire, which provided ever-growing sources of income for the Porte and for the military and administrative bureaucracies. In the late seventeenth century this turned into its opposite as the empire’s expansion stalled and, subsequently, went into reverse. The Porte became locked in struggle with its powerful European neighbours: first with the Venetians and the Austrians, and, later, with the Russians.
The voracity for resources could no longer be directed outwards, through new conquests, but had to express itself inwards, through a sharp increase in fiscal pressure on the population. But the perennial underfunding of the realm meant that its complex fiscal apparatus also became more disjointed. By the 1780s, only 20 percent of taxes reached the central government, the rest being syphoned off en route to Istanbul (McGowan, The Age of the Ayans, 1997, p. 714). A dense web of privilege and corruption emerged around the collection of tax. Taxation was outsourced to local and regional potentates, both Turkish and, especially, Greek (known as proestoi or kotzabasides) who, naturally, took the lion’s share for themselves. Religious authorities also took their portion. Their privileges soon congealed into feudal property forms. This state of affairs acquired a legal expression in the çiftlik estates, which turned potentates into virtual owners of the land. At the bottom of the social pyramid were the tax-paying peasants, the ragiades, who became practically serfs. As we can see, the decadent Ottoman Empire was sustained on a local level by rapacious Greek potentates and by the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church. This sowed the seeds for class struggle within the war for national liberation.
The ever-growing exactions of the tax farmers and the feudal lords asphyxiated the development of trade, industry, and agriculture. At the same time, the weakening of central authority saw an increase in banditry and piracy. Far from keeping law and order, the Ottoman armies, usually composed of Albanian mercenaries, partook in the looting. In an attempt to attain a modicum of order, the Porte sanctioned the formation of bands of Greek irregulars, the armatoloi (arm bearers) – whose loyalty to the sultan, however, was ambivalent. The armatoloi could turn their weapons against the authorities – and occasionally did so.
Greece became a major battleground in the struggle with Venice and Russia and was periodically ravaged by the warring armies. The fertile plains became depopulated as peasants settled in remote mountain villages, far from the reach of pirates and tax farmers. Some took up arms and became klephts, bandits of sorts who, in some ways, avenged social injustice and represented a form of primitive rebellion. Indeed, episodes of revolt abounded, but they had a spontaneous, desperate character. The downtrodden Greek peasantry had no national consciousness, no organisation, and no programme. To become a revolutionary force, the peasant insurgency required the intervention of another class, which at the time could only have been the bourgeoisie.
The Greek bourgeoisie
This stagnation notwithstanding, the eighteenth century also saw elements of bourgeois development in the Greek provinces of the empire. Industrialisation and population growth in Western Europe increased demand for Balkan agricultural products, namely cotton, tobacco, and maize. This stimulated agriculture, processing industries, and commerce. The islands in particular became important centres of trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. Around this trade cropped up related crafts such as shipbuilding. The Greek merchants exploited the decline of Venice and the turmoil that overcame France in 1789 to become crucial actors in Mediterranean shipping. In mainland Greece, some significant centres of trade and industry also emerged, namely Ioannina in the northwest (under very peculiar political conditions, as we shall see). The growing economic power of the Greek bourgeoisie demanded corresponding political power. At the same time, the expansion of trade in agricultural products prompted landlords to intensify the exploitation of the peasantry and to enlarge the çiftlik, exacerbating class antagonisms in the countryside and preparing the ground for peasant rebellion.
However, the remarkable aspect of the emergence of the Greek bourgeoisie is that its most important contingents were to be found outside of Greece proper. For centuries, communities of Greek merchants had lived on the Mediterranean and Black Sea rim, in cities such as Odessa, Alexandria, Venice, Livorno, and Marseille. Yet the crisis of the Ottoman Empire dispersed new waves of traders and entrepreneurs, who began to settle further afield, in Bucharest, Vienna, Paris, London, and Saint Petersburg, where they plugged into the blossoming European capitalist economy. Karl Marx observed: “How important this trade [from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean], and the Black Sea trade generally, is becoming may be seen at the Manchester Exchange, where dark-complexioned Greek buyers are increasing in numbers and importance, and where Greek and South Slavonian dialects are heard along with German and English.” Their most advanced representatives espoused the ideas of the Enlightenment, were enthused by the French Revolution, and developed a national consciousness. In the epoch of bourgeois revolution, nationalism was a progressive force. The ideal of national unification strived to replace the hodgepodge of overlapping feudal laws and administrative divisions that acted as a corset for the developing capitalist economy. At the same time, nationalism was a democratic force insofar as it challenged feudal estates and broadened the body politic to encompass the entire nation.
This bourgeois diaspora retained economic and personal contacts with the Greek Ottoman lands and became sorely aware of the feudal fetters on their country’s development. It is no coincidence that the precursors of the Greek Revolution consisted of expats. In Paris, Adamantios Korais, a man of the Enlightenment, a liberal and a supporter of the French Revolution, was an ideologist of Greek nationalism and a sponsor of Greek culture and education across Europe. More importantly, in Venice and Vienna, Rigas Feraios, inspired by the extreme left wing of the French Revolution, was a militant republican, a revolutionary democrat, and a Balkan federalist. His fiery manifestos written in the vernacular demotic Greek, rather than the elitist katharevousa preferred by Korais, were a call to arms that rallied all the oppressed peoples of the Ottoman Empire (including, significantly, Muslims) against the feudal yoke. Rigas Feraios was not just a theoretician, but also an activist who established the first Greek revolutionary nuclei in Central Europe. He was executed in Belgrade in 1797 after being handed over to the Ottomans by the counterrevolutionary Austrians. His immortal slogan was: better to live one hour as a free man than 40 years as a slave and a prisoner!
Three events gave a powerful impetus to the existing ferment that existed among the Greek bourgeoisie, both in the Ottoman lands and among the diaspora. Firstly, as noted above, the French Revolution made a profound impression on the Greeks and other Balkan peoples. The revolution was not simply a distant source of inspiration, but actually arrived at the shores of Greece at the tips of Napoleon’s bayonets, while he was commander of the Army of Italy. The French army defeated the Venetians and occupied the Ionian islands in 1797. The occupiers modernised public administration along liberal lines and implemented some of the progressive policies of the revolution against the nobility, the old bureaucracy, and the clergy. This inflamed revolutionary sentiments on the islands and in the Ottoman lands as well. After the Napoleonic wars, the Ionian islands came under British control. Despite the reactionary outlook of the Concert of Europe, this archipelago remained an important centre for the Greek bourgeois revolution. As noted above, liberal and nationalist ideas also inspired the Serbian rebellion of 1804. Although it failed to conquer full independence, it fended off the Ottomans for over 10 years and put armed insurrection on the cards for other Balkan peoples.
Secondly, Russia actively fanned nationalist sentiments across the Balkans. It played the card of Orthodox solidarity, but its real motivation had nothing to do with religion or national affinity. Russia’s expansion towards the Caucasus and south-eastern Europe in the eighteenth century put it at loggerheads with the Ottomans. The Tsarist Empire craved direct access to the Mediterranean and coveted the strait of the Dardanelles. The rebellions of the peoples of the Balkans could undermine the Ottoman Empire from within and, eventually, lead to its dismemberment and the formation of small Christian statelets loyal to St Petersburg. During the Russo-Turkish war of 1768-1774, the Russians had given support to a Greek uprising in the Peloponnese. They tolerated and occasionally sponsored Greek nationalist activities in their territory. Marx’s later hostility against Greek and South Slav nationalism stemmed from this Russian connection. However, Russia’s policy in the Balkans was Janus-faced. On the one hand, it sought to undermine the Porte by fostering nationalist rebellions. But on the other hand, the feudal Romanov autocracy feared the revolutionary movement of the Balkan peoples, which, it suspected, could spread east of the river Prut, into Russia. This impression was not unsubstantiated. In fact, the Greek Revolution of 1821 was one of the sources of inspiration for the Decembrist uprising of 1825 in Russia. As we shall see, Tsarist Russia was an untrustworthy ally of the Greek people and its policies were contradictory. In any case, the mistaken perception that Russia would intervene in support of Greece helped build up momentum for the insurrection of 1821. Against the rapacious designs of Russia, Britain, and, to a lesser extent, France propped up the decadent Ottoman Empire. As Marx put it: “Too impotent and too timid to undertake the reconstruction of the Ottoman Empire by the establishment of a Greek Empire, or of a Federal Republic of Slavonic States, all they aim at is to maintain the status quo.”
The third event was perhaps the most consequential. The decomposition of the Ottoman Empire was accompanied by the rise of powerful regional chieftains. In 1788, Albanian potentate Ali Pasha rose to power in the pashalik (governorate) of Ioannina, which extended across western Greece and Albania. To the detriment of the Porte, he came to concentrate tremendous power in his hands. An enlightened despot, he overhauled the administration, stimulated trade, invested in public works, and sponsored education and culture, all while imposing law and order with a heavy hand. He clashed with the landlords, the tax farmers, and the central authorities in Istanbul. In this conflict, he leaned on the Greek bourgeoisie of Ioannina, which prospered under his rule. Very much like the absolutist rulers of Early Modern Europe, Ali Pasha mobilised the bourgeoisie against the forces of feudalism. Ali Pasha’s Ioannina became an important centre for the Greek national awakening. In September 1820, tensions between Ali Pasha and the Porte escalated into war. This event convinced Greek revolutionaries that the time for insurrection had come, as the sultan’s hands were tied in the war with Ali Pasha. This time round, however, the rebellion was not spontaneous, but was carefully organised and premeditated.
The Society of Friends
In 1814, three humble Greek merchants in Odessa set up the Filiki Eteria – the Society of Friends. This was a secret society of democrats and patriots modelled on the Freemasons and the Carbonari. It was also inspired by Rigas Feraios’ example. During its first three years of existence, it wandered in the wilderness, enlisting only a few dozen recruits, mostly among middle-class intellectuals in the diaspora. However, a small organisation that connects with historical necessity and with the course of events can grow fast, as long as it has a committed base of cadres.
After 1817, the Society of Friends experienced breakneck growth, as it oriented towards more plebeian elements and loosened its strict membership criteria. From a small conspiratorial in-group, it became an organisation of thousands operating a vast network. It began to recruit talented agitators and organisers, such as Theodoros Kolokotronis, a klepht leader who had fought for the British armies in the Ionian during the Napoleonic wars, and who was to become the brilliant military leader of the Greek War of Independence; Anagnostaras, also a veteran from the Napoleonic wars; Odysseas Androutsos, an officer in the army of Ali Pasha; and the priest and people’s leader Papaflessas.
On the eve of the insurrection, in fact, the Society of Friends was a broad church. In addition to the first generation of radical middle-class republicans and its new plebeian recruits, it also attracted conservative bourgeois elements and Greek feudal chieftains. As historian Tasos Vournas explains (Syntomi istoria tis ellinikis epanastasis, 2011, p. 75), it was divided into three great camps that vied for supremacy during the course of the entire Greek Revolution:
- The bourgeois-democratic camp, which represented the original spirit of the Society of Friends. This faction based itself on the exploited masses of the people, which it mobilised around the crucial promise of land reform, and on the progressive wing of the bourgeoisie. In 1821, it dominated the Society of Friends through the figure of Alexandros Ypsilantis, a liberal ex-officer in the Russian army during the Napoleonic wars.
- The bourgeois-conservative camp, which represented the more prosperous sectors of the bourgeoisie. They were opposed to Ottoman rule but feared the awakening of the masses. They saw in British intervention the safest road to liberation. Their main representative was Alexandros Mavrokordatos.
- The reactionary feudal elements (landlords, tax farmers, armatoloi chiefs, the upper echelons of the Church), who had prospered under the rule of the Porte but were driven by the course of events to turn against it. Initially, they attempted to hold back the uprising and, once it started, to curb all progressive reforms and suppress the masses. On the diplomatic front, they oriented towards Russia and, at times, towards Britain. Essentially, their politics were empirical and sought to defend their privileges throughout the maelstrom of revolution.
In preparation for the uprising, the Society of Friends attempted to utilise the manpower and the networks of the kotzabasides (the landlords and tax farmers) and the armed militias of the armatoloi. At the same time, the Society’s organisers agitated among the peasants by promising land redistribution and inflaming their class hatred of their Turkish and Greek oppressors. This contradictory policy prepared the ground for civil war within the revolution.
Everywhere, the lords demurred and hesitated, or in some cases openly turned against the Society of Friends. The Metropolitan of Patras, Germanos III, who is now glorified in bourgeois history, also did the utmost to sabotage the struggle. Only in the Peloponnese (more commonly known at the time as Morias), where Ottoman rule had shallower roots and the local elite was more independent-minded, did most potentates support the insurrection. But, even here, they wavered until the last minute, and were only convinced by the fabricated rumour that Russia had declared war on Turkey and seized Istanbul. This rumour was propagated by Kolokotronis and his men, who rightly believed that if the uprising gathered sufficient momentum the chieftains would have no alternative but to cast their lot in with the revolution. Historian Tasos Vournas reproduces a discussion between the revolutionary priest Papaflessas and a gathering of local chieftains and clergymen:
“‘What forces can we count upon, Papaflessas?’
“‘What can I say, kotzabasides? You want to know our strength? Return to your districts, gather your guns, and count them – those are the forces we have.’
“‘What are you jabbering about, Papaflessas? Why do you go around stirring up trouble among the simpletons? Why do you peddle these fairy tales? You are a liar and a trickster!’
“‘You don’t want to join the struggle? Very well, do as you wish. I will go to Arkadia and Mani and raise an army of two thousand men and start the revolt!’”
The Society of Friends also strived to secure the Tsar’s support, which strengthened the conservative factions as they attempted to dispel Russian fears that theirs was a revolutionary outfit. Indeed, the uprising was envisaged as a two-pronged attack. A popular insurrection across Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria would be assisted from the north-east by Ypsilantis, who would enter Greece from the Romanian Principalities bordering Russia ahead of a multinational Balkan army, in an effort to drag Russia into the war. The rebel armies assisted by the Russians would enter Constantinople.
The 1821 uprising
The Greek Revolution began in February 1821 in the Danubian Principalities of modern-day Romania, an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire ruled by Romanian boyars and Greek Phanariot nobles. The initial offensive was remarkably successful. Ypsilantis’ band of Greek volunteers crossed the Prut from Russian Moldavia and linked up with the rebel forces of Vladimirescu, the Romanian revolutionary leader, who galvanised a powerful peasant army around the promise of democracy and land redistribution. The initial ethos of the rebellion was internationalist and appealed to all the oppressed Christian peoples of the Balkans. Ypsilantis and Vladimirescu defeated the Ottomans and their allies in a series of battles and occupied Bucharest.
However, the Russian intervention that Ypsilantis had counted upon failed to take place. Russia had allowed Ypsilantis to prepare the rebellion, but, once it began, turned its back on it. Russia publicly disavowed the movement. Frustrated by this turn of events, and under pressure from the conservative wing of the Society of Friends, in the spring Ypsilantis turned against the peasant leader Vladimirescu in an attempt to assuage Russia’s suspicion. He publicly denounced Vladimirescu and had him arrested and executed on May 27, 1821. This is one of the darkest pages of the history of the Greek Revolution. It sealed the fate of the Romanian uprising. The peasant insurrection fizzled out and the rebel armies began to lose ground. By June 1821, Ypsilantis had to retreat and seek refuge in Austria. He was arrested by the Habsburgs and spent the following seven years in jail. Worse still, Vladimirescu’s execution also jeopardised future alliances of the Greeks with the other oppressed peoples of the Balkans – an alliance which, as Rigas Feraios had pointed out, offered the surest path towards victory.
The rebellion also failed to materialise in Serbia, pointing to the tragic divergence between the different liberation movements in the Balkans. In Istanbul and in Asia Minor, the rising was rapidly put down by the Ottomans. This was also the case in Cyprus and, to a lesser extent, in Crete, where the demographic balance of forces was less favourable to the Greeks. In important theatres of operation, such as Thessaly and Macedonia, the violent opposition of the Greek landlords derailed the movement. There were instances when Society of Friends activists were handed over to the Ottomans by the Greek kotzabasides. The upper echelons of the Church also turned their backs on the rebellion. In Istanbul, Greek Patriarch Gregory V denounced the revolution and excommunicated Ypsilantis and other leaders of the Society of Friends. This did not save him from the wrath of the sultan, who turned him into a scapegoat and had him executed.
However, in important parts of central and western Greece and on the Aegean islands, the movement was successful and held its ground. Here, the protagonists were people’s leaders who embodied the aspirations of the masses and channelled their revolutionary energy, such as farmer Meletis Vasileiou in Athens, the cobbler Panagiotis Karatzas in Patras, and sailor Antonis Oikonomou on the island of Hydra. The movement acquired a decidedly revolutionary character on the islands, where bourgeois society was more developed and, alongside a progressive merchant class, were semi-proletarian masses of sailors, shipbuilders, dockers, etc. In Samos, the Karmaniolo party (after the French revolutionary Carmagnole) established a Jacobin-style government that waged war against the Turks but also against the Greek potentates and landlords. Yet most of these episodes of people’s government came to a rapid end, as revolutionary leaders left for the battlefront, allowing conservatives to reassert their power on the home front – and not peacefully, as reactionaries imposed themselves through a series of local civil wars.
In Hydra, for instance, seaman and people’s leader Oikonomou established a revolutionary government with an extremely advanced bourgeois-democratic programme. Among other things, he expropriated the local merchant fleet for military purposes and imposed heavy taxes on the rich shipowners. But, when he dispatched the bulk of his men to assist rebels on the mainland, a coalition of local lords and shipowners overthrew him and had him arrested. After a successful jailbreak, the agents of the Hydra shipowners assassinated him in the Peloponnese. Throughout the Greek revolution, the militancy of the peasantry and semi-proletarian urban masses was sadly matched by their disorganisation and political naivety, which in turn reflected the social fragmentation and heterogeneity of these layers.
While in the summer of 1821 the revolution scored important victories in Rumelia (Central-Western Greece, Euboea, and Attica) and the islands, its epicentre was undoubtedly the Peloponnese, which in a few weeks came under almost total control of the rebels (save for a spattering of besieged Ottoman fortresses). Here, the movement had a contradictory character. As noted above, it was kickstarted by democrats and people’s leaders connected to the Society of Friends who mobilised the exploited peasant masses around the expectation of land redistribution. However, in contrast to other regions, local landowners, chiefs, and tax farmers also joined the fray (often reluctantly), seeing the revolution as a means to advance their own, narrow interests. This contradiction would be resolved violently.
Events were unmasking fundamental truths about the class forces at play. Russia, fearful of revolutionary contagion, and unwilling to jeopardise the Holy Alliance, betrayed the Greek rebels. The Greek landlords and potentates, who owed their privileges to the Ottomans, baulked at the uprising and at times sabotaged it. This was also true of the upper echelons of the bourgeoisie, as the case of the Hydra shipowners reveals. For its part, the Church excommunicated the rebel leaders. The driving force of the Greek Revolution of 1821 were the exploited masses of town and country. Their intervention ensured the victory of the rebellion in a small but strategic strip of territory in central and southern Greece and on most of the Aegean islands. Unfortunately, these masses were largely unorganised and lacked a coherent programme. As soon as revolutionary passions abated, the bourgeois and landlords would try to reimpose themselves. In late 1821, a series of regional power bodies (usually known as senates, or gerousies) led by landlords and chieftains, the kotzabasides, mushroomed across liberated Greece. They became springboards of counterrevolution.
The bourgeoisie is an exploiter class that lives off the labour of others. In its inception, however, it was also a revolutionary class that struggled to remove the feudal fetters on its development. It consequently also played a progressive role, insofar as it embodied a new, more productive economic system: capitalism, along with the bourgeois democratic nation-state.
The most indubitable feature of a revolution, as Trotsky famously said, is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. The bourgeoisie, being a small minority, could only overthrow feudalism by rallying the oppressed masses of the nation behind it, by giving its interests a general, national expression. The only way to destroy the privileges and power of the feudal lords was by unleashing the energy of the toiling nation. However, the bourgeois revolution inevitably involved deception, as the class interests of the bourgeois exploiters conflicted with the aspirations of the masses, which were bound to remain unsatisfied insofar as fundamental property relations were not transformed. As Lenin explained in 1921:
“A hundred and fifty and two hundred and fifty years ago the progressive leaders of that [bourgeois] revolution (or of those revolutions, if we consider each national variety of the one general type) promised to rid mankind of medieval privileges, of sex inequality, of state privileges for one religion or another (or ‘religious ideas’, ‘the church’ in general), and of national inequality. They promised, but did not keep their promises. They could not keep them, for they were hindered by their ‘respect’— for the ‘sacred right of private property’.”
These revolutions flew the flags of freedom, but despite their high-minded promises, they ultimately descended into exploitation and state oppression.
The exploited peasantry and the impoverished townsfolk played the most revolutionary part in bourgeois revolutions. The fiercest blows against feudalism were delivered by these masses – often without the bourgeois and, at times, against them. As a property-owning class, the bourgeois feared the plebeian rabble arguably more than they loathed the Ancien Régime. Ironically, the bourgeois often played a reactionary role in the bourgeois revolutions. This was not a unified class. Its humbler representatives, whose lower strata blended into the plebeian masses, were bolder than the more affluent bourgeois, who were often bound up with the feudal regime and sided with counterrevolution.
The Greek Civil Wars, 1824-25
In December 1821, the forces of reaction began to flex their muscles. The first Greek national assembly gathered in Epidaurus, in the Peloponnese. Most representatives were elected undemocratically by the senates or councils of local oligarchs. The gathering recognised the authority of these regional bulwarks of reaction and Mavrokordatos, the leader of the conservative bourgeois faction, was elected to preside over the national Executive Committee (i.e., the executive arm of government). The powers of the rebel military forces, controlled by the bourgeois-democratic faction, and in close contact with the armed masses, were curtailed. Most importantly, the assembly proposed that nationalised Ottoman estates be sold to private bidders rather than distributed among the landless peasantry. The formal justification for this policy was that it would raise desperately needed funds for the newborn republic. However, in reality this would allow Greek landowners to gobble up the Turkish estates. Yet the implementation of this policy proved impractical, as many lands had already been occupied by the armed peasantry. Civil war was necessary to carry out this agrarian counter-reform.
Despite the advances of the conservatives, the revolution was far from over. The assembly passed an advanced, bourgeois-republican constitution inspired by the American and French examples that enshrined the division of powers, parliamentary democracy, civil liberties and equality. Although its language was watered down deliberately to appease the absolutist powers of the Concert of Europe, it represented an immense step forward that put Greece at the forefront of the struggle for democracy and national liberation in Europe. Events in Greece awakened the enthusiasm of democrats across Europe. Hundreds of so-called Philhellenes from across the continent and beyond took off to the Balkans to fight as volunteers, whereas many others organised campaigns and gathered funds to support the cause of independence. In fact, the constitution of 1822 was drafted by an Italian Philhellene, Vincenzo Gallina. These sympathies were initially confined to liberal public opinion. However, as the war became more protracted, some conservative voices began to express support for the Greek rebels.
Indeed, as the masses were armed and mobilised, it was difficult for the big bourgeois and landlords to openly assert their power. In 1822, revolutionary Greece remained under tension as it had to fend off several Ottoman offensives. The Porte had defeated Ali Pasha in Ioannina and had free hand to deal with the Greek rebels. The conflict acquired a bitter, desperate character as Christians and Muslims perpetrated massacres against each other and pursued a policy of ethnic cleansing. The atrocities against Muslims in Tripoli and against Christians in Chios were the most gruesome episodes of ethnic violence. After a series of costly offensives, the Ottomans recovered some ground in Rumelia, but the rump of liberated Greece remained under rebel control.
The second national assembly gathered in the aftermath of a string of Greek victories in March 1823. However, the representatives of the bourgeois-democratic party, Dimistris Ypsilantis (brother of Alexandros and leader of the Society of Friends) and Kolokotronis failed to bring to bear the prevailing mood of enthusiasm and the confidence of the armed masses. They adopted a conciliatory attitude to the reactionary camp. Mavrokordatos’ Executive Committee managed to smuggle through restrictions on voting rights that decisively strengthened the hand of the big bourgeois and the landlords. They also imposed the location of the assembly: the feudal stronghold of Astros, rather than the bourgeois-democratic capital of Nafplio. The assembly was divided into three camps. The bourgeois-democratic wing of Ypsilantis, Kolokotronis and revolutionary generals Papaflessas, Androutsos, and Anagnostaras. The bourgeois-conservative camp was led by Mavrokordatos, who based itself on the big bourgeois of the islands, particularly the Hydra shipowners such as Georgios Kountouriotis. This faction banked on securing a British loan and the appointment of a monarch from a European royal family. The feudal faction, led by men such as Andreas Zaimis and Andreas Londos, represented the landlords, potentates, and tax farmers of the Peloponnese. They were organised in regional senates or councils, had a localist outlook, and sought to carve up the country into autonomous fiefdoms. The bourgeois-conservative and the feudal camp established a united front against the democrats.
The tension in the assembly was a foreshadowing of civil war. The gathering dealt with two crucial questions: power and land reform. With regards to the former, the reactionaries carried the day. Although the anti-democratic senates were abolished, the new Executive Committee and the parliament were controlled by conservatives. A delegation was sent to Western Europe to secure a loan and to negotiate the appointment of a monarch. The powers of the military, the bastion of the democrats, were curved further. However, the democratic deputies managed to wrest some constitutional amendments and deepen the charter’s liberal character. With regards to the land – the most important question of the revolution – the landlords carried the day. The sale of nationalised lands was ratified against the opposition of Kolokotronis, who demanded land for all army veterans. Nevertheless, this reactionary agrarian legislation often remained a dead letter. It failed to divest the armed peasantry of many of the lands it had conquered through bitter struggle. As a consequence, rural property relations in southern Greece lastingly acquired a fairly egalitarian character.
The defeat of the democratic camp at the second national assembly was entirely of their own making. They enjoyed overwhelming popular support and dominated the rebel armies. Objectively, they were by far the strongest faction. Their weakness was entirely political and subjective. They were outwitted by their opponents. Fearless on the battlefield, these leaders constantly wavered and compromised on the political front. The mood in liberated Greece was changing for the worse. In 1823, the war entered a period of impasse as the Ottomans retreated. Many rebel units were demobilised. Exhaustion and disenchantment spread among the masses. The oligarchs stepped up their political offensive. Indeed, after the assembly, Kolokotronis was co-opted into the Executive Committee, where he hoped to exert a positive influence. But he was dangled and twisted around the fingers of the oligarchs. In late 1823, unnerved by the manoeuvres of Mavrokordatos and his agents, Kolokotronis ordered the Executive to transfer to Nafplio, the stronghold of the democrats. From the town of Kranidi, off the coast from Hydra, parliament rebelled against Kolokotronis’ Executive and elected a new one. Dual power degenerated into civil war in March 1824.
The vacillations of the democratic camp partly were a consequence of its heterogeneous social base. As noted above, the peasants and the urban lower classes were formless and heterogeneous and had difficulties in articulating their class interests and in organising into a cohesive force. Most importantly, however, the leadership of the democratic camp itself was heterogeneous and represented contradictory forces. Kolokotronis, Androutsos, Anagnostaras and other rebel chiefs were not revolutionary bourgeois. In a way, they were representatives of the old order. They were the so-called oplarchigoi (warlords or military chiefs), who had been klepht and armatoloi leaders before the revolution, mercenaries in the Ottoman armies, or village priests, chiefs, and petty potentates. Their worldview was provincial, backward, and in some ways reactionary. As we shall see, Kolokotronis, Androutsos, and other such leaders would later collaborate with the big landowners. At the same time, they were usually closer to the toiling nation than to the big landlords and merchants. The esprit de corps of the rebel armies tightened their bond with the peasant masses and made them sensitive to their demands, which they came to express in distorted form. Their populist outlook drove them into an alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie represented above all by Dimitris Ypsilantis – a Westernised Greek from the diaspora who was influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution. But he lacked a solid social base and depended on the oplarchigoi. In the Peloponnese there were no sans culottes to provide the impetus that had driven the Jacobins forward.
Unsurprisingly, the civil war was a brief affair, and by the summer of 1824 Kolokotronis and Ypsilantis had been defeated. Lacking a clear programme, unaware of the class interests at play, and fearful that a protracted civil war would open the road to an Ottoman onslaught, they rapidly capitulated. Their enemies, in turn – especially the conservative bourgeois Mavrokordatos – were very much aware of their interests. Their self-confidence received a powerful boost at the outset of the civil war, as in February 1824 Mavrokordatos’ agents in London had secured a loan for the Greek republic. The Society of Friends was defeated and power was now in the hands of the landlord-big bourgeois coalition. Yet this alliance was brittle.
The second civil war pitted the Peloponnesian landlords against the island bourgeoisie, namely the shipowners of Hydra. The latter enjoyed British support and benefited from the loan floated in London (although much of this money ended up being embezzled!) Tension between the two factions had built up throughout the year. In October 1824, the islanders strengthened their hand in the election of a new parliament and a new government closely aligned with their interests. Suffrage was restricted further. This incurred the ire of the landowners. They stopped paying taxes to the new government in their fiefdoms. The landlords struck an alliance with Kolokotronis and his men, who remained at large in Tripolitsa. Hostilities began in November 1824.
The government forces rapidly defeated the rebels. In January 1825, Kolokotronis demobilised and asked for an amnesty. Along with other rebel leaders, he was imprisoned in Hydra. Others were executed. The insurgents were undermined by their dispersion and their vacillations, which reflected their political confusion. The government was strengthened by British assistance.
In fact, London’s policy in Greece had changed somewhat. Initially hostile to the Greek Revolution and supportive towards the Ottomans, the resilience of the Greek Republic after two years of fighting had made the British revise their strategy. Foreign Secretary George Canning adopted a friendlier attitude towards the Greeks. He thus intended to drive a wedge between the newborn Greek state and Russia. In the second civil war, Canning saw the shipowners as more reliable allies than the Peloponnesian potentates, whose outlook was closer to feudal Russia. More importantly, the kotzabasides of the Peloponnese were traditional elites with a strong connection to the land and operating clientelistic power networks. In comparison to the shipowners, the kotzabasides had a more solid social base, and were thus potentially more independent and unpredictable in their relations with the Great Powers.
Bourgeois revolutions have such a character, not because bankers, prosperous merchants, and industrialists stood on the barricades and led the charge against the Bastille. On the contrary, these elements often acted as a brake on the struggle. They were bourgeois because the bourgeoisie was the only class capable of reaping the fruits from the revolutionary crisis of feudalism and reorganising society on a higher basis. The scattered industries of mediaeval Europe could only be concentrated and modernised by the whip of the capitalist market, freed of feudal encumbrances. The ideological rebellion of the Enlightenment that prepared the political revolution could not transcend the boundaries of the rising bourgeois class. The plebeian masses that struck down the Ancien Régime were heterogeneous and could not formulate a viable, independent programme for social transformation (although they aspired towards socialism in utopian form). The proletariat only existed in embryonic form. The masses’ efforts ultimately prepared the ground for the bourgeoisie’s victory and for their own defeat.
The revolutionary role of the bourgeois has often been exaggerated by self-proclaimed Marxists, particularly by the Stalinists. Their Menshevik two-stage theory rigidly demarcates the bourgeois-democratic and the socialist phases of revolution. The former presupposes the existence of a progressive, national bourgeoisie, with which the workers can strike a revolutionary alliance against the old feudal, semi-feudal, or colonial order. Yet such a “progressive bourgeoisie” does not exist, as the experience of twentieth century revolutions eloquently reveals. The Stalinists play up the role of the bourgeois during revolutions in the past. This is the case in Greece too. However, the point is precisely that the bourgeoisie imposed itself because the toiling masses could not yet devise an independent course and develop their own leadership and programme. The role of Stalinist leaderships (and their Menshevik precursors) has been to deprive the workers of such a programme when social conditions had become mature for proletarian revolution. It is important to know the real history of the War of Independence because a distorted view of history can be used to justify a false theory with disastrous political results.
Britain’s flirtations with the Greek state alarmed the Porte. Independent Greece was a thorn on its side. It was accelerating the internal crisis of the empire. Sultan Mahmud II decided to reassert his authority in the southern Balkans once and for all. For this, he mobilised the forces of Muhammad Ali, the longstanding ruler of Egypt. Of Albanian origins like Ioannina’s Ali Pasha, he was formally an Ottoman governor obedient to the sultan. In practice, however, Muhammad Ali had become omnipotent after the defeat of the mamluks in the early 1810s. He had modernised the Egyptian administration and implemented a number of progressive reforms. This applied to the Egyptian military too, which, heavily staffed by ex-Napoleonic French officers, represented one of the most efficient and disciplined armed forces in the Ottoman Empire. The sultan secured Muhammad Ali’s collaboration and had him dispatch his son, Ibrahim Pasha, to Crete in mid-1824 at the forefront of a formidable army and fleet comprising almost 17,000 soldiers. He was to reconquer the Peloponnese and the Aegean islands. From the north, another notorious Ottoman general, Resid Pasha, was tasked with the crushing of the Greek rebels in Epirus and Rumelia and moving southwards to converge with Ibrahim.
The offensive began in February 1825, at a time when the Greek armies were disorganised by the second round of civil war and the revolution was at an ebb. The masses were demoralised and exhausted, and power was firmly in the hands of the unpopular shipowners. Some of the most talented Greek military leaders were in jail (Kolokotronis) or dead (Androutsos). However, the Ottoman offensive rekindled revolutionary sentiments. The masses rallied behind the imprisoned Kolokotronis and demanded his release. Facing a state of intense popular agitation, the government was forced to yield and in May 1825 Kolokotronis recovered his leadership position in the Greek army to the enthusiasm of the masses.
Utilising revolutionary rhetoric, Kolokotronis put up stiff resistance to Ibrahim Pasha. The invading army was able to make advances in western and central Peloponnese very gradually and at a high cost. Contradicting government orders, which prioritised conventional war, Kolokotronis employed guerrilla tactics against the enemy. This was his finest hour. The tragedy of Kolokotronis was that his military genius and revolutionary mettle lacked a clear political programme, which could only be provided by the radical democrats of the early generation of the Society of Friends, now completely broken and scattered.
In Rumelia, Resid Pasha also made advances, although the Greek forces also fought back heroically, particularly in the fortress of Missolonghi. This stronghold held out for almost a year and forced Ibrahim Pasha to redeploy some of his forces to Rumelia. The Greek government, however, banked not on the struggle of the masses, but on British intervention. Mavrokordatos in particular entered frantic negotiations with Canning’s agents to receive British support in exchange for turning the new country into a virtual protectorate. The fall of the fortress of Missolonghi in April 1826 inaugurated the most desperate phase of the Greek Revolution, reduced now to a strip of land in the eastern Peloponnese and Attica and a spatter of islands. Many potentates and armed chiefs began to surrender to the invading armies of Resid and Ibrahim. They, in turn, temporarily abandoned scorched earth tactics and began to grant amnesties to those who surrendered, guaranteeing property rights and in some cases bribing defectors. This policy of bribery was fomented by Michael Tositsas, a rich Greek merchant who became an inestimable ally of Ibrahim and Resid. On this basis, the two generals made significant advances in 1826 and the first half of 1827. Kolokotronis responded to this wave of desertions by exercising revolutionary terror. He murdered and expropriated the defectors, all while mobilising the revolutionary passions of the peasantry and the impoverished masses. His slogan: “fire and axe against those who submit!”
The government of the shipowners, now reshuffled to include some Peloponnesian landowners, was suspended in the air as real authority passed to the hands of Kolokotronis and the military chiefs. On this basis, the Greek Republic held its ground during the darkest hours of 1825-27. For two years, Kolokotronis’ partisans fended off the mightiest armies of the Ottoman Empire. This success cannot possibly be explained in narrow military terms. Its cause was rather political, and stemmed from the progressive, revolutionary character of the Greek bourgeois revolution, which found a subjective expression in the greater cohesion, morale, and popular support of the insurgent camp.
Last year, the Greek bourgeois, right-wing government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis celebrated the 200-year anniversary of the Greek Revolution, displaying it as an episode of national unity and singleness of purpose. It naturally presented a one-sided interpretation of these events, and brushed under the carpet the civil wars that tore asunder the nation and the terror waged by the embattled masses. This is unsurprising, as the Greek ruling class and its politicos are heirs to the kotzabasides and patriarchs that stymied and betrayed the revolution of 1821.
Today, the bourgeoisie condemns all violence and terror. It throws its arms up in horror at the bloodshed of the Russian Revolution. It conveniently forgets that “its” revolutions, from which emerged “its” modern bourgeois democracies and republics, also saw a fair bit of bloodshed. No ruling class gives up its power and privileges without putting up a bitter fight. The rising, revolutionary class must be prepared to respond to this in kind. The war of national liberation in Greece was accompanied by a bitter class war. In the class battles of today, we echo the great revolutionary Kolokotronis: “fire and axe against those who submit!”
The Great Powers and the end of the Revolution
In 1825-26, Canning negotiated intensely with Russia. This he did so behind the backs of France and of the staunchly pro-Ottoman Austria-Hungary, and of the Greeks themselves, seen as small change in the transactions between the Great Powers. In March 1826, Canning and Tsar Nicholas I agreed on an Anglo-Russian protocol for Greece. This envisioned the formation of an autonomous Greek province, formally part of the Ottoman Empire but in practice semi-independent and dominated by British and Russian interests. Russia finally became directly involved in Greek affairs. Prior to this, it had kept the Greek Republic at arm’s length, paralysed by fear of revolutionary contagion. But Canning’s initiative forced Nicholas I to intervene in these events, lest he be outmanoeuvred by London. Moreover, in early 1827, the Greek National Assembly elected Ioannis Kapodistrias as President of Greece. This prestigious statesman and intellectual, based in Switzerland at the time, had served as a Russian diplomat during the Napoleonic Wars and ascended to the position of Russian foreign minister in 1816. This turn of events further stimulated Russian interference in Greece. Paris would eventually also jump on the bandwagon.
In mid-1827, Britain and Russia attempted to broker negotiations between the Greek state and the Ottomans. While the new Greek provisional government (formed in the interim before Kapodistrias’ arrival) acceded to this mediation and to an armistice, the Ottomans refused and redoubled their efforts to reconquer the Peloponnese. This prepared the ground for armed intervention against the Porte. It must be recalled that the Royal Navy was present in the region, as the Ionian Islands were a British protectorate. This presence was scaled up in 1827 and strengthened by the arrival of Russian and French warships. Matters came to a head in October 1827 in the Gulf of Navarino, in the Peloponnese. After several skirmishes, the joint British, Russian, and French forces attacked Ibrahim Pasha’s fleet head on. In a few hours, most of Ibrahim’s ships were sunk or severely damaged.
In attacking the Ottomans, the British Vice-Admiral Codrington was acting of his own accord. He had been instructed to blockade the Peloponnese in order to force the Porte to accept an armistice. In fact, upon receiving the news of the battle, the British government and the Admiralty were outraged. They did not want to antagonise the Ottomans unnecessarily, which, they feared, would strengthen Russia’s hand in the region. London believed that a diplomatic solution brokered by Britain and acceptable to both sides was possible. The unintended engagement with the Ottoman fleet gave decisive impetus to full independence for Greece.
The Battle of Navarino helped consolidate the independent Greek state. Although fighting continued for several months and Greece’s borders remained porous into the 1830s, Navarino marked the withdrawal of most Ottoman contingents from the heartland of the Greek Revolution in Rumelia and the Peloponnese. But Navarino also accelerated the decomposition of the Ottoman Empire. The repeated failures of Ibrahim Pasha’s Egyptian contingents had strained the Porte’s relationship with Mahmud Ali, the independent-minded governor of Egypt. The catastrophic defeat at Navarino led Mahmud Ali to rise up against Istanbul. He staged a prolonged rebellion that the sultan only managed to subdue after years of costly fighting and at the expense of making additional concessions both to Mahmud’s rebels and to the Great Powers, who became deeply invested in Ottoman affairs. Moreover, as Canning feared, the Ottoman debacle at Navarino facilitated Russian advances in the Balkans. In 1828, Russia declared war against the Porte. It inflicted yet another painful defeat and temporarily occupied Edirne. The sultan was obliged to cede additional territories to Russia in the Balkans and the Caucasus.
In January 1828, Kapodistrias arrived in Greece and set his headquarters on the island of Aegina. This experienced politician was sympathetic to Russia, but he was far from being a Tsarist stooge. He was a renowned representative of the Greek diaspora who belonged to the more moderate bourgeois wing of the revolution. He had resigned as foreign minister of Russia because of the Tsar’s reluctance to support Greek independence. He had his own plans for the Hellenic State (as the Republic was renamed). In fact, in 1828-31, Kapodistrias led what can be considered as the final phase of the Greek Revolution. He attempted to buttress the fragile institutions of the new state and to establish an efficient and centralised administrative apparatus organised on a liberal-constitutional basis. He launched ambitious projects to reconstruct the country’s battered economy, improve agriculture, develop transport and infrastructure, introduce measures for healthcare and hygiene, and, especially, to build a modern education system that would train a new generation of citizens and state officials. He also undertook democratic reforms, such as granting civil rights to Jews. In a deflated form, this reformist programme expressed the continued vigour of the Greek bourgeois revolution and the expectations it awakened among the masses. Kapodistrias enjoyed widespread support among the people. His connection with the masses was embodied in his friendship with Kolokotronis. However, as a conservative bourgeois, Kapodistrias was distrustful of the people. He based himself on weak and disjointed state institutions rather than on the revolutionary élan of the nation. This made him vulnerable to the counterrevolution. Like Napoleon, Kapodistrias came to power during the ebb flow of the revolution. He established an authoritarian regime which, however, maintained the most basic tenets of the revolutionary programme.
Kapodistrias’ reforms antagonised the powerful landowners and potentates of the Peloponnese and Rumelia, the kotzabasides, as well as the rich shipowners of the islands. As in 1824, the landowners and the island bourgeoisie formed a reactionary united front. These local notables craved a decentralised regime that would not impinge on their fiefdoms. They resisted Kapodistrias’ reforms. Tensions with the central government culminated in Kapodistrias’ murder in October 1831 by agents of the kotzabasides. Britain supported the reactionary landlords and the shipowners. London disliked Kapodistrias for his perceived proximity to Russia, as well as for his independent character and his state-building programme.
Today, the Greek Stalinists present Britain as a force of progress in Greece in the 1820-30s. Their analysis is extremely mechanical. Britain was politically bourgeois and, economically, was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. Therefore, the Stalinists reason, its intervention in Greece must have necessarily strengthened the liberal tendencies in the war of independence. This impression, however, is refuted by events: we have seen how in 1821 Britain supported the decrepit Ottoman Empire and was only forced to switch sides by the unexpected resilience of the Greek Republic, backed the more docile and unpopular factions of the revolution during the civil wars of 1824, and, under a liberal Whig administration, liquidated it in 1832 with the imposition of an absolutist monarchy. However, the Stalinist analysis is also contradicted by Marxist theory. In capitalist Britain, the liberal bourgeoisie was firmly in the saddle. However, in their transactions with other countries they did not seek to impose their own political system. Their priority was to conquer new markets for their expanding industry (both to export commodities and to import raw materials cheaply), to secure strategic footholds important for the Empire and for their trading routes (in this respect, Greece was an important window on the Eastern Mediterranean), and also to undermine and displace their European rivals (in the Balkans, these concerns were directed against Russia). These objectives required weak statelets lacking a powerful popular base and thus submissive to London. To achieve this, Britain often based itself on backward, semi-feudal political outfits. This was clearly the case in Greece.
The assassination of Kapodistrias in 1831 generated a climate of chaos and civil war and justified Great Power intervention in Greece. In 1832, Britain, Russia, and France imposed a European monarch on the Greeks, Otto of Bavaria. Otto established an absolutist regime that was based on traditional power structures and was subservient to the Great Powers. He liquidated many of the constitutional conquests of the revolution. The Kingdom of Greece was run by three political tendencies, the British, the Russian, and the French parties - oligarchic camarillas which, as the name indicates, were bound to the foreign powers. European loans were the final nail that bound the new country to the Great Powers as Prometheus was bound to the rock. In practice, the small and indebted kingdom became a virtual colony. In the words of the great Marxist historian, Yannis Kordatos:
“The position of the Turkish beys, aghas, and pashas was taken by new occupiers, similar to the Turks, who were thieves and looters, along with their foreign sponsors. […] When we study the evolution of the national liberation struggle […] one draws the conclusion, on the basis of objective events, that the Revolution of 1821 was betrayed not only by the landlords and the Phanariot nobles, but by the bourgeoisie as well.” (Kordatos, I koinoniki simasia tis Ellinikis Epanastaseos, 1924)
The masses were the protagonists of the Greek Revolution. They were spurred into action by the promise of democracy, equality, and land reform. Their active intervention ensured the victory of the rebels in the war of national liberation against a foe that was militarily superior. However, these masses were formless, even more so than in revolutionary France. They failed to develop an independent leadership. The bourgeoisie exploited their energies for its own ends and, above all, was careful to check and hold back the revolutionary tide. Because, while the incipient Greek bourgeoisie was pitted against the Ottomans, it also feared the masses and their groping quest for equality and social justice. The bourgeois had no qualms about joining hands with the feudal lords and with the Great Powers in their attempt to put a lid on the mass movement, thus foiling many of the initial promises of the revolution. Lenin explained the contradictory character of the bourgeois revolution:
“The liberal bourgeoisie in general, and the liberal-bourgeois intelligentsia in particular, cannot but strive for liberty and legality, since without these the domination of the bourgeoisie is incomplete, is neither undivided nor guaranteed. But the bourgeoisie is more afraid of the movement of the masses than of reaction. Hence the striking, incredible weakness of the liberals in politics, their absolute impotence. Hence the endless series of equivocations, falsehoods, hypocrisies and cowardly evasions in the entire policy of the liberals, who have to play at democracy to win the support of the masses but at the same time are deeply anti-democratic, deeply hostile to the movement of the masses, to their initiative, their way of “storming heaven”, as Marx once described one of the mass movements in Europe in the last century.”
The relative underdevelopment and isolation of the Greek bourgeoisie made it particularly cowardly and treacherous, especially when compared with the French bourgeois thirty years earlier, which displayed more audacity.
Certainly, the reaction that set in with the arrival of King Otto in 1832 failed to turn the clock back to January 1821, and Greece retained the main planks of modern bourgeois legality that allowed for modest capitalist development. Yet the main promises of the revolution remained unaccomplished. These unfinished bourgeois-democratic tasks would be taken up in the twentieth century by a powerful new force: workers movement, thus becoming a link in the chain of the world socialist revolution, which heralds the true liberation of mankind.