Defeat is a Wound, Forgetting is Death: The Importance of Political Memory
Like a river fed by many tributaries, political struggles draw nourishment from multiple sources. Collective memory is one of these sources of sustenance. Much academic work has been done discussing how different communities sustain themselves by building and developing a sense of collective memory. Transmission of this memory, including practical knowledge and philosophical assumptions, is integral to the continuity of communities over time.
One of the ways that the ruling class stifles and weakens revolutionary movements is through the propagation of ideological histories. People’s struggles are shrouded in mists, whether of obscurity or, when too large to ignore, sticky sentiment. What should be the collective and inviolable asset of the people is thereby transformed into a vehicle for the repression of struggles and of the advance of people’s consciousness. And if academics are resolutely opposed to covering up these struggles––which has been nominally the case in the historical discipline for some time––they can simply be walled off in academia and forced to run the career treadmill. Where the river can be dammed, it is dammed. If not, it is diverted or, in the last case, remapped so no one can quite remember where it actually flows.
Only through a process of continually learning from our own and others’ mistakes and refining our practice can we achieve political aims, no matter how modest. This is why the seemingly trivial practices of recording meetings, writing histories, and penning personal reflections are so vital to the health of the revolutionary cause. Without a past, without the fruits of past struggles, of past reflection, we are starting from the beginning over and over again. This is one reason why it’s valuable to have some strong institutional structures, since that can facilitate these kinds of projects. Political practice is what ultimately wins victories, but we can’t situate our practice properly without a through knowledge both of the general situation (External) and our own (Internal).
This is how a movement can survive a thousand defeats; but in forgetting we kill not only our own movements but those that came before us. Even worse, negligence in this matter only harms new revolutionaries and young Marxists who won’t have any larger grasp of the tradition into which they are inserting themselves. While we will hopefully always have the global and historical moments (1917, 1949, 1871) to remember, within my city the problem seems to be much more acute. Organizations I’ve been a part of have difficult communicating their own history to me. In part this is out of a hesitance to implicate former members and expose them by name, which is understandable. On the other hand, every organization that calls itself revolutionary should have a sense of its own history and the ability to transmit that history to newcomers. Even if the organization is very young, it will still possess a history and established ways of doing things.
Of course, the objection might be raised that to harden our work into a “tradition” is equivalent to setting a formula in stone. We condemn ourselves to solemn and useless repetition of old techniques and old words long deprived of meaning. And to that I say: an organization is far more likely to flail and uselessly repeat itself if it does not have a record and a deep grasp of its own past. Traditions should be established precisely to be criticized and put to new uses, while providing a general guard against the most obvious errors. Whether a group fossilizes into an archaic joke or not would more likely depend on the quality of its line and its ability to refresh itself, drawing on the human capacity for creativity and adaptation. We must rigorously distinguish between empty reenactment and a living relationship to our history and traditions.
With that said, we should all work hard to strengthen our collective memories, both for our own uses and as a service to the communities we are (hopefully!) embedding ourselves in. Just as the movement is at the disposal of the people, so too should its history always be their history. When we forget our past struggles, we can lose the sense that struggle is even possible. I’m all in favour with a clean break from past errors. But first we have to figure out what those errors are in the first place!