Memorialisation and Cultural Control
I’ve just re-read the old Marxist maxim about the philosopher’s task being to change the world rather than merely interpret it, and that took me back to my 21st year when I chucked in a Phd to join ASLEF, re-join the working class, and drive trains in an act of solidarity with my family history and culture.
That Marxian adage also got me thinking about the relevance of the study of history to the general context of today’s mess of capitalist potage and also to the specific debate about the 1914-2014 WW1 centenary: a what’s the point of the past sort of thing.
All that other earlier life stuff about Gramsci and cultural hegemony (artisanal bread?) is also bound to surface in the head when pondering on this question and particularly all the 1914-2014 brouhaha. Political control of the meaning of the past is part of the liminal and subliminal agenda of any government – and would seem to be particularly the case with this one, if Mr. Gove’s speech is anything to go by.
His speech ruffled a lot of red and white feathers and smoothed a lot of blue ones – but what he said is surely not controversial. He said, in essence, and somewhat tautologically, I suppose, that WW1 was a good war, a just war, a necessary war, a war worth fighting; he also said that the much-derided strategy of attrition was correct, both piecemeal and in total, and ultimately justified by victory.
Well, he would say that wouldn’t he?
What else could he say?
Once a society collectively questions the necessity for, and utility of, a war that resulted in two and a half million casualties, then, by implication, that society questions the whole legitimacy of its rulers at that time. And once that particular legitimacy is questioned, then, by implication, all the consequences and entire subsequent history resulting from that rule are also questioned. And that chain of consequence carries right on down to this present moment.
So to question WW1 is to question our present day political arrangements and all the objectionable economics of capitalist modernity. To question WW1 is to question the whole edifice of current ruling class control, the distribution of wealth and discriminative social inequality.
That is why it is so important to get involved in the memorialization debate about WW1: questioning interpretations of the past can help change today’s world.
That’s the point of the past and its study.
Further to this debate, Jeremy Vine conducted a phone-in discussion on his Radio 2 show. Callers voiced their opinions about the impact of ‘O What A Lovely War’ with Gary Sheffield and Michael Billington crossing swords over whether the show was/is ‘left wing propaganda’ or a realistic portrayal of the war from the point of view of the common soldier. Gary Sheffield takes the line that the show tells us more about the 1960s than it does about attitudes a century ago. He didn't contextualise his own interpretation, of course.
Neil Faulkner says the following about this process of memorialization in his ‘No Glory’ booklet:
He writes of the last veteran, Harry Patch, who announced that ‘war is organised murder’; he then adds that ‘Now he is gone, the ground is clear for politicians like Michael Gove, broadcasters like Jeremy Paxman, and military historians like Max Hastings to ‘revise’ the history of the First World War.’
Neil Faulkner thinks that the Commons vote against military intervention in Syria had a huge effect upon Mr Gove; he points out how Mr Gove blamed public opinion for this: Gove said the Iraq conflict had ‘poisoned the well of public opinion’. So Neil Faulkner asserts that ‘This is the context for the row about the First World War. This is why Michael Gove kicked off the New Year’ with his speech about the Great War.
Faulkner derides Gove’s declaration that the UK was fighting to preserve a liberal-democratic order: ‘…the underlying aims of the rulers of all the great powers were identical: to carve up the world in pursuit of profit and power. The First World War was an imperialist war.’ Tariq Ali, in the Guardian on March 14th 2014, referred to the conflict as ‘an inter-imperialist war’ – every age rewrites history, and that’s just what this age of migration, multiculturalism and globalisation is doing, perhaps.