Author: basmaradwan

The Difficulties of Addressing Memories of Communism

By guest contributor Ilana Seelinger

Whenever you try to teach communist history, you run into the same issue: how do you address the conflicting memories of a contested past?

When you’re talking about communism in a country that experienced it, you can count on the fact that most students will approach it with some prior knowledge of the subject. Although they may not know the historical specifics very well, they will have grown up in a family that remembers the period in some specific way, negatively or positively. The students will also hear about the period from a teacher whose own biases will inevitably color the presentation. Memories of the communist period and their contestation thus continue to shape the post-communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe while their respective societies struggle to build an “official” public memory. It has proven tedious for these societal memories to take the myriad experiences of communism into account. Inevitably, some portion of society always ends up left out of the official public memory construction.

Teaching students in non-post-communist societies about the communist past presents an entirely different set of issues. The students’ parents and grandparents never lived in a communist regime themselves, so any memories they have of the period are likely to be based on the widespread anti-communist sentiment in the West instead of on direct experience of interacting with people who lived in communist countries. At worst, today’s students might not have grown up with any knowledge of communist history at all.  If they’ve learned something about it in school, even that is not likely to have been an unbiased account. In Western Europe and the U.S., history teaching materials on communism tend to follow a Cold War narrative and focus on political history and international conflict. This sort of education leads to a vision of a black and white world, in which everything formerly behind the Iron Curtain appears as a gray, undefined morass of less developed countries.

One way to bypass that Cold War narrative is to move from political history to more personal history, focusing less on changes in leadership and more on, for example, the lifestyle changes that each wave of new leadership brought with it. Modern methods in historical pedagogy for other periods have been steadily moving towards a focus on actual people’s lives rather than strictly chronological representations of political events; they have moved away from the political aspects of history towards a more experiential representation of the past, focusing on the historical actors themselves and encouraging analysis and questioning.  Why then should this not be the case for the communist past as well? By creating a well-rounded view of life during communism, one can help erase the sense of otherness that currently exists between the East and the West.

However, just as with history education in post-communist countries, it is imperative that in depicting the lives of people during communism, educational materials aimed outside the region also offer more than one view. Oppression has to be represented there, but it cannot  be solely oppression. Nostalgia for communism exists throughout the region, so there must  be something in any comprehensive set of communist history teaching materials that offers a discussion of why that is. Without both sides present, students end up lacking an understanding of the legacy of communism and the lasting effects it continues to have on the region today.

Here at the Department of Education of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague, this is a question we spent months wrestling with while putting together material on our educational website, Socialism Realised. What we offer is still a work in progress and is by no means a definitive answer to the question of how best to teach the history of formerly communist Central and Eastern Europe to people from outside of the region.

Using multimedia historical sources, mostly clips from feature films but also texts, photographs, a radio broadcast, and various others, we have attempted to put together a small library of material that will introduce users to the communist past in a multi-perspective way. Although we have used material focused on Czechoslovakia, we endeavored to choose items that could in some way represent common experiences across the communist bloc. Our overarching goal was to recreate as much of the complexity of life during communism as possible through multiple eras, bringing the experiences, thoughts, feelings and problems of people who lived through the era to the forefront of our instructional materials. We’ve separated the material, which covers various periods in time, into four axes: the way the regime presented itself (“Ideology”), the way people experienced the regime (“Personal Story”), how the regime oppressed its citizens (“Oppression”), and how people remember the regime now (“Memory”).

One of the periods that we explore is the Collectivization of agriculture in the early 1950s, when a rapid wave of forced Stalinist modernization turned the rural parts of the country upside down. An accurate representation of this period has to include material like the clip we call “Forced Eviction,” in which a rich farmer and his wife are forced to leave their family farm so that the collective can take it over. However, the section would also be incomplete without the clip called “Back to the Past,” in which women who once worked on a collective farm reflect back, probably forty years later, about what material gains collectivization brought them.

Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 4.42.26 PM

The catalogue page for “Back to the Past” on SocialismRealised.eu​

Jumping forward into the period of Normalization, which took place in Czechoslovakia between 1968 and 1989, we had to offer examples of both the reasons why some people fought for communism to end and why some feel a sense of nostalgia for it now. “Good Ol’ Days” is one of the latter type, showing people blithely reminiscing over the products they had as children without any thought towards the period in which they lived. “The Dilemma,” on the other hand, offers an example of the daily oppression that some people faced — in this case, having to choose between joining the Communist Party for a chance at career promotion and refusing to join and thereby missing out on professional advancement.

Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 4.41.26 PM

The catalogue page for “Good Ol’ Days” on SocialismRealised.eu

Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 4.39.59 PM

The catalogue page for “The Dilemma” on SocialismRealised.eu

It is important to note that while education on the period up to this point has mainly focused on one of the four axes, oppression, that was not the single defining feature of state socialism for all of the people who experienced it. We aim to capture more of those defining features, reflect a more diverse collection of experiences, and create a more multidimensional view of the communist past. As educators, our responsibility is to help students gain an understanding of the period that addresses as many of those experiences as possible. Our portal offers just a microcosm of the tapestry of experiences that people living in the Eastern bloc had, but by presenting the history through multiple different viewpoints, we intend it to be a true microcosm. 

The Archive is Burning: Walter Benjamin in Brazil

By guest contributor Niklas Plaetzer

Walter_Benjamin_vers_1928

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin never left Europe, yet his writings have had a remarkable impact on critical thought around the globe. As Edward Said suggested, the dislocation of an idea in time and space can never leave its content unaffected. “Having moved from one place and time to another, an idea or a theory gains or loses in strength,” so that its “travels” render a theory “altogether different for another period or situation” (226). The plasticity of ideas, their capacity to be torn out of context and made to speak in ever-new constellations, lies at the heart of Walter Benjamin’s own work. Benjamin’s thought never took the form of systematic exposition, but rather unfolded in essays, journal articles, sketches, and thought fragments. This was not just a stylistic choice; in fact, it corresponded closely to his view of a radical break in the linear time of progress—to a splintered temporality, shot through by the unmasterable memories of the oppressed.

 

Niklas #2

Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, iconically envisioned by Benjamin as “the angel of history”

Benjamin’s syncretic fusion of Marxism, Jewish mysticism, and the German Romantics continues to cast its spell on contemporary readers. Perhaps it is precisely this fragmented character, combined with the palpable urgency of his writings, that can account for the globalized interest in his work. But more importantly still, Benjamin’s relentless emphasis on dialectical reversal—on another kind of history, told from the “point of view of the defeated”—continues to resonate with post- and decolonial projects and a “reading against the grain” of history. Paul Gilroy, in his The Black Atlantic, explicitly drew on Benjamin to write a “primal history of modernity to be reconstructed from the slaves’ point of view” (55). Decolonial scholars continue to find inspiration in Benjamin’s scathing critique of modernity as well as his call to cling to a “humanity-in-the-making” amidst an unending catastrophe. In 2015, the international conference “Benjamin in Palestine: Who Owns Walter Benjamin? On the Place and Non-Place of Radical Thought” was held in Ramallah. It opened new paths for such an engagement with Benjamin from within states of exception, “among layers of rubble and generations of resistance,” escaping the confines of academic canonization (60–64).

 

Slipping under the radar of Euro-American academia, Benjamin has exerted a particular influence on Brazilian critical theory. In an admirable study on his reception history in Brazil, Gunter Karl Pressler of the Federal University of Pará, Belém, has traced this unusually fruitful interplay of traditions: between North and South as well as between thought and revolutionary practice. What accounts for the elective affinity between Brazilian critical theory and Benjamin’s work? Pressler ties it back to the 1960s, when experimental poet and translator Haroldo de Campos, one of the co-founders of the Concrete Poetry movement in Brazil, took inspiration from Benjamin to theorize translation as “transcreation” [transcriação], as a practice of “parricide dis-memory” [desmemória parricida] (p. 149-153). Haroldo de Campos and his brother Augusto thereby took a decisively “anti-Eurocentric, anti-ethnocentric, deconstructive strategy, beginning with the idea of cannibalism, understood as the appropriation of the vital energy of the Other, beginning with his destruction” (9). In doing so, they read Benjamin alongside a classic of Brazilian modernism, Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago (1928), in which cannibalism is reconfigured as a positive model of cultural appropriation by the oppressed: eating up the potency of the colonizing North, destroying its claim to control, and producing new, unauthorized constellations in the process. Authors like José Guilherme Merquior and Flávio R. Kothe further helped disseminate Benjamin and the Frankfurt School at a time when the Brazilian military dictatorship had taken over and the student movement organized its resistance against heavy repression.

For the Brazilian left, Benjamin’s peculiar Marxism seemed like a way to both articulate critical thought in solidarity with on-going movements, and still open up a gap within Marxist discourse, creating spaces beyond authoritarian orthodoxy. A turn to Benjamin also broke up space for counter-histories of Brazil itself, resonating with the memory of indigenous genocide and slavery. His phrase that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” has rung true in a society dominated by rural latifundistas (plantation owners) and a state ideology of “Ordem e Progresso” (Order and Progress). It also spoke to theorists who tried to position themselves between an elitist attachment to European intellectual production on the one hand, and the rising visibility of black, indigenous, and landless workers’ movements on the other. As Pressler argues, Benjamin thereby became part of 1970s Brazilian counter-culture, somewhere between Marx and Caetano Veloso.

Two key figures in this creative reception stand out: Leandro Konder (1936-2014) and Michael Löwy (born in 1938). As Löwy puts it,

there is a necessity to look at the past in Brazil—even recent past—from the point of view of the oppressed [derrotados], the poor, Blacks, women, workers, revolutionaries. In Benjamin, this sensibility finds a coherent philosophical expression. I believe that this has helped to develop a current of people in the social sciences, in the historiography of political thought, who are very interested in Benjamin. (200)

What unites Konder and Löwy is their appreciation for the deep melancholia of Benjamin’s thought, which they regard as the truly revolutionary attitude, at odds with a bourgeois belief in progress. For Benjamin as for his Brazilian readers, social critique must begin with a critique of the very idea of progress, including its leftist varities, and fuel a lucid melancholia from which there is no escape. Yet such Benjaminian melancholia has “nothing to do with fatalistic resignation and even less with the conservative, reactionary, prefascist German Kulturpessimismus,” Löwy emphasizes (9). “This is not a contemplative sentiment, but an active, ‘organized,’ practical pessimism, directed entirely at preventing the onset of disaster by all possible means” (9). For Leandro Konder, Benjaminian melancholia, “brought into tune with the calls for ‘revenge’ among the traditionally exploited social classes and stimulated by their movements of contestation,” should thus be understood as “melancolérico:” a melancholic kind of anger, organized and fueled by memory.

Löwy’s seminal book on Benjamin, Fire Alarm, was originally published in French, in his Parisian exile, where he has lived and worked since 1969. Born in São Paulo as the son of Jewish immigrants from Vienna, Löwy has not ceased to push Benjamin’s insights to new conclusions—such as ecosocialism—without ever abandoning a practical commitment to the radical left. Unlike many critical theorists, he also remains acutely aware of non-Eurocentric imaginaries at work in social struggles. He has written about the quilombo dos Palmares, the revolution of maroon slaves (fugitives) in the Brazilian North-East, who, until their defeat in 1695, resisted the onslaught of Dutch and Portuguese armies under the leadership of Zumbi dos Palmares. While the Haitian Revolution is today receiving increasing historiographical attention, the quilombo dos Palmares still remains a largely ignored event. Against such enforced forgetfulness, Löwy’s writings place it in an unusual conversation with the history of the 1871 Paris Commune and the struggles of international workers. But what might seem like an arbitrary juxtaposition is better grasped as a Benjaminian constellation of memories in resistance. They not only animate Löwy’s thinking, but continue to fuel the practices of Brazil’s opposition: for instance, when black movements, hip hop artists, or occupations of landless workers draw on the memory of Palmares, invoking the legendary name of Zumbi, as they fight for land reform and against institutional racism. As Benjamin’s Thesis VI puts it, “articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was.’ It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.”

Niklas #1

“Limpo Seu Historico” (“I clean your record”): street art in Cachoeira in the northeastern state of Bahia. Photo credit: Niklas Plaetzer, August 2017.

In June 2017, in the wake of the (arguably unconstitutional) impeachment of President Dilma Roussef, Brazilian Congress passed a bill that allows for the large-scale burning of historical documents from national archives after their digitization as part austerity plans. Already accepted by both chambers, the “Lei da Queima de Arquivo” (Law of the Archive Burning) is awaiting a final consultation process before going into effect. This controversial reform must be understood against the backdrop of what many consider to be a coup d’état by President Michel Temer. Yet the current political situation can hardly be considered an anomaly. As Benjamin put it, in his often quoted phrase, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”

With the “Lei da Queima de Arquivo,” Löwy’s Fire Alarm has taken up another scandalous reality. Its painful resonance speaks to the ways in which a postcolonial reading of Benjamin cannot be a calm, scholarly addition to a renewed and reconciled canon. The planned burning of the Brazilian national archives remains inscribed in a long history of erasure, of which Palmares is one powerful symbol and of which Brazil’s social movements continue to carry the traces. But reading Benjamin while the archive is burning also speaks to struggles in the present that remain undecided—in Brazil and elsewhere.

Niklas Plaetzer is an incoming doctoral student at the University of Chicago’s Department of Political Science, specializing in political theory. He holds a masters degree from Sciences Po Paris, where he worked on Hannah Arendt’s critique of sovereignty in light of radical democratic thought. At the University of Chicago, he is hoping to do research at the juncture of critical theory, constitutional law, and the politics of social movements, with a particular interest in Brazil. His work has previously appeared in the Journal of International Affairs, the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism, 3:am magazine, and the Review of Politics (forthcoming).