The Materiality of Memory
Memory, Resistance, Hope
Memory is short. A political truism, trotted out as uncontroversial. A piece of cynical wisdom, expressed with a resigned sigh about the futility of expecting the masses to learn from the mistakes and defeats of the past. We cannot expect anyone to hold the powerful to account; after all, they just forget. But despite being a truism, is it true? For socialists, for whom politics requires a class in part built of memories of exploitation and oppression, but also memories of its own strength, its role in building and rebuilding the world, the question ought to be of great concern.
If we are materialists, we start from the premise that memory does not exist in a distinct Other realm (some kind of Platonic reality separated from the world of people and things). When we ask questions about memory, we need to turn our attention to those who remember and the ways in which they go about this business. All memory is held by individuals with individual bodies. It is communicated in different ways to other individuals. Shared memory is a process that takes place in the world and in time, between embodied people. It is ritualised, materialised, temporal and place specific.
Shoring up memories is as necessary to the collective sustenance of memory as merely sharing them. That involves people writing accounts, talking them over, and reading and rereading what was written (an unread book has no meaning at all, even if we sometimes act as though the pages remember for us). And all of this work requires motivation, a reason. I enjoyed a wonderful breakfast this morning, but I cannot expect its memory to be sustained through generations. Why would anyone care?
If motivations are required for sustaining memory, they also exist for destroying and suppressing it. Peoples’ memory is short insofar as that memory is not sustained (whether trivial, like my breakfast, or not) or actively destroyed. Memories, invented and real, of the English Civil War, of Empire, of 1066 and all that, have loomed astonishingly large in my life. While memories of the early portions of the contemporaneous Coronavirus recede with a shocking rapidity. If memory is simply short why do such memories have different lifespans?
So is memory short? Sometimes, but the problem with this cliché—all cliché—is how it does not communicate much in its dogmatic simplicity, and even thereby distorts. The point should rather be that memory is as fragile as it is precious, as distortable as it is needed. What can be said of the materiality—the reality—of memory? And for socialists, what can be said of memories of resistance, of class antagonisms, of self-organisation?
The memories of resistance that endure for me are of the Poll Tax riots, the Miner’s Strike. I know of the anti-Iraq War demos, but despite being more proximate, indeed happening in my lifetime, this ‘event’ feels somehow further back in the archive of history than those others—even though I was not alive for them. All of which is to admit I have almost no living memory of mass resistance maybe prior to what has been happening in the last few years or even months—memories not communicated to me by some indirect medium—that are comparable to any of these events. (Not even of failed mass resistance.)
The flowery Hegelian language Marx uses to describe working class subjectivity can sometimes disguise its meaning. The transition from atomised workers, those with no relation to one another and therefore no class and no class memory, to a class that seeks to further its interests under capitalism (a class in-itself) and then to a class that seeks to end that class system that places barriers to its self-realisation (a class in-and-for-itself), all of that—at every juncture–is people engaged in developing, cultivating and sustaining shared memories. The very purpose of organisation is partly to be memory’s repository.
As someone who recently came out as nonbinary, certain shared histories and experiences related to this are acutely interesting. For queer people, a great deal of that writing and talking mentioned earlier in this essay was hushed by a horrific silence a mere few decades ago, a silence that continues to mute struggles today by having robbed a community of its elders. This was not a ‘natural’ silence. It was an epidemic worsened by deliberate social policy from governing bodies with homophobic and transphobic agendas, prominently by the quite deliberate (mis)rule of politicians such as Thatcher and Reagan.
This was not the first time there was such a historical break; another example can be found in pre-war Germany, the radical epicentre for trans self-understanding, both medically and culturally. When Nazism plundered and subsequently burned the library of Magnus Hirschfeld, the director of the visionary research group that operated within the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, they very directly destroyed memories. The subsequent murder of LGBTQ+ people in Germany continued that process.
As many on the left today gleefully align with transphobia, we see the consequences of forgetting for a political tradition that is more correctly built on a principle of solidarity with the oppressed. Attendant on the destruction of memories, the British left in particular has forgotten the lessons of Nazism’s previous culture war. Some now even align with theocratic and fascist groups in the US against trans people, an act that requires a stunning collective amnesia.
None of this is remotely unique to LGBTQ+ people, although the memories of the oppressed, the nature of their oppression, (like the oppressed themselves) are all profoundly, qualitatively unique. Nor is every forgetting something that happened long ago. The ongoing slaughter of the disabled in the UK (in the form of Tory negligence as well as active policies such as unjustifiable DNR orders) could leave a generational wound in the memories of that community, as invaluable experiences are lost. Racism has always relied on the severing of memory. What is left behind, in lieu of such memory, is a terrible void.
Conversely, every act of remembering is vital to the renewal of agency. When we recall these lost histories, we are strengthened, equipped with new lessons, strategies and self-confidence. Recovering these types of memories is therefore also a target of those who want to sustain oppression and exploitation. Revisionism (the attempt to obfuscate and erase) is at the core of every reactionary project, because oppression and exploitation requires sophistry to justify itself even to itself, never mind those it seeks to harm.
The incredible history contained in Andreas Malm’s book Fossil Capital is an example of how vital it is to remember. Malm shows meticulously that the origins of the current climate crisis—global warming—that threaten our species’ survival are rooted in class exploitation, in the use of technology to control labour power. Equally, Malm rubbishes the false memory, the nonsense theory, that such technology was rooted in ideologically neutral technological development overcoming natural scarcities. He shows how that thesis cannot stand scrutiny.
In this act of remembering, Malm is able to correctly frame the ecological catastrophe of our moment as rooted in the origins and developments of capitalism and the capitalist class, rather than as some kind of vague collective guilt shared by all. This additionally makes a nonsense of the Malthusian myth of overpopulation, which would see those in the Global South surviving the ravages of imperialism and climate catastrophe as equally to blame for their own fate as the CEOs who profit most from maintaining their condition.
Memory is vital. To shrug and dismiss its power to endure, to see the fragility of memory as a symptom of its being rather than of the negligence, murders and atomization of those who could, do, will remember, is an innocent mistake when our collective memories have suffered so much deliberate and accidental erosion. But it is a mistake. Peoples’ memory is as short as their capacity to remember, and as fragile as we ourselves, our bodies, our shared bonds, our handing down of stories, our efforts to retain and hold on and build anew.
Socialists need to ditch clichés about memory, and remember. We need to remember how our current ecological crisis is a result of certain class interests, and continues to deepen in furtherance of those class interests. We need to remember that this is true of many other crises we face. We also—desperately—need to remember that the harm done to the oppressed can be terrifyingly permanent in its consequences, echoing down history and weakening us all.
We need to remember that our class enemies want us to forget, and in forgetting to accept their narratives of hate and division. To make our memories robust, we must protect them from the obscurantism of the right. Thereby, we can invert the cliché and terrify our revisionist enemies who ultimately require our forgetting: memory is long!
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