TOTW: History and how we tell it

  • Posted on: 23 September 2019
  • By: thecollective

I was reading the introduction to Seven Years Buried Alive and Other Writings and this quote on history stuck out to me:

“With each exciting and ultimately tragic narrative, we learn once more that anarchism is a thing of the past. Without meaning to, our erstwhile attempts to rescue an inspiring history for ourselves have the opposite effect. There is more than sarcasm in the accusation one sometimes overhears, that some anarchists of today are nostalgic for the capitalism of the late nineteenth century, or the States of the time before World and Cold Wars militarized all social space. Our sad comrades have so burdened themselves with anarchist history, fragmented and incomplete though it may be, that it seems they think better in hundred-year old-terms and theories than in anything of the present, let alone the future!”

They present to us dueling concepts of history, one that weakens and one that strengthens. There’s no shortage of examples of how anarchists can be weakened by stories of the past - both the now-distant past as described in the quote and even more recent events. My own coming into anarchism happened among the dying embers of the global justice movement that had as its high water mark the shutdown of the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, something which, at least in the US, it continued to yearn for and emulate over the following decade to little effect. So too with personal narratives - achievements never to be lived up to, failed activism that becomes the death of all activity - which can leave us paralyzed or locked in an activist treadmill.

What are some narratives (personal or grand) that anarchists tell themselves about the past? How do they weaken or strengthen us? How do you tell a story about the past that strengthens rather than weakens, and how much of that is on the storyteller versus the audience?

Comments

past narrative: no one did it like i want to do it

present narrative: no one’s doing it like i want to do it, i’m not doing it like i want to do it. i should do it. time’s running out.

future narrative: no one will do it for me.

"I do it, because nobody else will."

Just do it, NOW!!!

Well, I'll have a nap for a moment then maybe later on.

Speak for yourself, I’ll never do it. Everyone knows better than me.

You can't be approaching history by rejecting mythological narratives without being nihilistic at the same time. Even an history of "anarchism" leans toward the reproduction of myth, even if it is often a mythology of "history's losers".

The thing is that there's so many, near-endless perspectives from which to look at part stuff that happened or people did, but there's a lack of proper materials to verify/negate claims as you go further back into the "past". Like there's evidence that literacy was way more widespread among the "laymen" during medieval times than it is assumed, but since paper is hard to preserve, most of the remaining texts were on the cow skin used by the priest and aristocratic class, that still looks good today.

A relation with the world is also a relation with history; that cannot held separately. If people no longer can read anarchist texts and news (pun intended) in decades from now, then you can claim that anarchism, at least as a political and social paradigm pretty much has ceased to exist and it must be recreated all over again by the a new generation. But on the other hand, the State still going to be dominating, just as capital and its commodity, upon people's lives. So why this "burden"? Because after the civilizational cataclysms of the 20th century, authoritarianism is still seen as a solution for many people. Of course not out of their reason but inculcated convictions. People still don't fucking get it, that we're living under a system of made-up bullshit we call "society", and cannot separate this society from "life".

After reading your TOTW, I'm reminded of "Having Little, Being Much: A Chronicle of Fredy Perlman’s Fifty Years" by Lorraine Perlman where she writes of how Fredy conveyed the story of the world changers in the essay "Against His-story, Against Leviathan!".

"Where His-story exults in civic and military achievements, calling them Progress, Fredy’s story views each consolidation of state power as an encroachment on the human community. He addresses the reader as one individual speaking to another and makes no claim to follow scholarly rules: “I take it for granted that resistance is the natural human response to dehumanization and, therefore, does not have to be explained or justified” (page 184). The resistance story follows the chronology of Leviathan’s destructive march, but avoids using His-storians’ conventions of dating the events. This, as well as the poetic visionary language, gives the work an epic quality." - Lorraine

https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/lorraine-perlman-having-little-b...

History is the recounting of temporal otherness - awareness of, and stories about, times which are DIFFERENT from one's own - much as anthropology is the recounting of cultural otherness. Thinking in "hundred-year-old terms" might be a valid way of getting OUTSIDE the categories of the present, the propensity to think in neoliberal/cybernetic terms. Though, I say this without much sympathy for the specific hundred-year-old terms which (left-)anarchists tend to use.

Some dangers in writing/reading history: history can never be complete, there's a lot about the past that isn't recorded, and none of the accounts are exact (think of how a report on a battle or a demonstration won't list all the individuals involved or even the ants walking across the route); historians always depend on particular sources, which are usually partial and biased; historians read history through particular, present categories and desires, and this can make contact with otherness difficult; there's a tendency for winners to write the history because they write either the sources or the history books; and real past events are fragmented and multiple (like present events), history as a "science" is tied-up with nation-building and false homogenisation. None of this is a reason not to "do" history since something similar applies to all knowledge. It just means "be careful", "don't be too certain" and "add nuance". Deleuze says we should write nomadologies instead of histories, and nomad sciences instead of royal sciences... I think that's good advice, so long as we avoid slipping into the pomo trap of only telling small stories within small horizons. Anarchist history is epic nomadology.

I can see quite a few important uses for history in the practice of anarchy.

1. reminding people that statism is a temporary blip it that it has been breached/overthrown before. Examples: histories of stateless societies and liberated zones.

2. strategic learning: what "worked" in past societies/movements, what failed, and why (bearing in mind these conditions may or may not still apply). Example: James Scott's work on the arts of resistance, or the way Gelderloos talks about strategic learning in social movements.

3. using history to validate anarchist claims about the state, capitalism, etc, and/or

4. using history to rebut particular claims by political opponents. It's not self-evident that capitalism plunders poor countries, police exist to enforce dominance and not to protect the public, etc... it takes historical knowledge to "prove" these claims. Ditto with lower-level claims - Prohibition failed, abortion laws lead to underground abortions and deaths, the Civil Rights Movement only "won" because it had a militant as well as a pacifist wing... there's a whole load of liberal, rightist, Stalinist etc myths which can only be dealt with historically.

5. emotional effects - generating hope or rage, making us feel less alone and demoralised, creating powerful symbolic reference-points for fantasies, etc. I think this is the role of Hakim Bey's historical work, and of things like the Robin Hood myths.

Anarchists use all of these - but also tell other kinds of historical stories which I find more worrying. The idea of continual upward progress (even if with blips - as in Bakunin's argument) is emotionally powerful but empirically false and politically dangerous. The reverse story of continual decline is more realistic but potentially debilitating. I prefer to tell stories where history is a battle, or shifting relationship, among different forces, with strategic and tactical balances of forces at different points. Hence my affinity for things like Kondratiev wave theory and Kropotkin/Ward's social/political principles.

There's dangers of history but there's also dangers of ahistoricity. The idea that a present oppressive reality is natural and timeless, rather than a social/historical construct, is useful for power. The establishment seems to go out of its way to encourage forgetting of particular histories - to the point where I'll periodically find out about some major event within or just before my lfietime, that I've never heard of before. There's a misleading impression that there's no social struggle or repression in western countries, which arises more from what people DON'T know than what they do. In the current phase of capitalism, the elite also prefer ahistorical types of analysis in areas like economics and sociology - as if people can be discussed without historical or cultural context, as feedback machines. Talking about global wealth inequalities without histories of colonialism and core-periphery relations for example. Or individuals as always-already economically rational actors, strategic players, self-branders and so on. In these cases, historicisation is tied-up with denaturalisation.

So yeah. TL;DR: tell epic nomadologies, tell strategic stories rather than up-down progress-regress stories, historicise things that are naturalised, use history to access temporal otherness, but also remember that sources are partial and biased.

Excellent comment as usual @critic.
LET'S MAKE MUHRIKAN ANARCHY GREAT AGAIN!!

Historical nihilism -the inherently iconoclastic critical and rational exercise of dismantling mythplogical narratives on history- is a power still enough tapped, that has only been started to be used by closet anarcho historians in and out of academia. Historical narratives based not on prefab convictions but on the acknowledgement of any historical fact as an enigma with many open ends.

What was the Thirty Years War, if not the first international capitalist war? Yet the ideologues of democracy will present the Peace of Westphalia as the corner stone of European unity.

The greatest challenge to me lies in taking in the individual (not those heroic "personalities", but just any individual in a given context) out of the mass grave of history and restitute them above those countries, empires, movements, religions and monarchies.

History is always about heroes of the State, it is never about the unknown individualist who pursued honesty and self-awareness.

WE ARE OF THE GRAND SPANISH TRADITIONAL ANARCHIST TENDENCY BASED HISTORICALLY IN CATALONIA AND WE ALL SCREAM OUR DOCTRINE AT GATHERINGS SO THAT WE ARE ALWAYS HEARD, AND WE FIRE ŔIFLES IN THE AIR AT CROWDED PUBLIC MEETINGS LIKE WE DID IN BARCELONA IN 1937, VERY LOUD AND FORCEFUL PERSUASION TO LISTEN AND OBEY, THAT IS OUR HISTORICAL LEGACY, SCREAM AND SHOOT RIFLES AND BLOW UP THINGS INFRONT OF LARGE NUMBERS OF SPECTATORS AND THEN ROUND THEM UP AFTER BURNING THEIR LOCAL CHURCH, SHOOT THE PRIESTS, YES, AND GIVE THEM GUNS WITHOUT BULLETS AND SEND THEM OUT TO OTHER TOWNS TO RECRUIT AND SCREAM, SHOOT AND BLOWUP THINGS UNTIL THE WHOLE COUNTRY IS ONE BIG SCREAMING SHOOTING EXPLODING ENMASSE PSYCHOPATHIC HISTORY, ANARCHIST SPAIN 1938!!

We we're told we were on our way to work. It was a lie. Avenge us.

or else it wouldn't even be history!

yes it does. its writers and readers. buncha nerds. ooh, sick burn.

that in history everything is elevated, whereas a long time ago when i started to study the meaning of being an anarchist i felt that it's best to just be as excluded as possible from larger narratives and spectacles, but i'm not sure if i agree with that still, lol.

it depends how you like it. it makes as much difference as if i should leave a suicide note or not, or just keep it silent and live a long life and die of other causes. history and a bird's caw p much the same

Humans typically think of human history as separate from the history of our environments. Lately we’ve been delivering most of the blows, but historically ice ages, meteors, asteroids, volcanic eruptions, floods, earthquakes, etc were all partly responsible for who we are. When the forests of Lebanon fell to civilization, that altered local cultures and life ways too, etc. I live in an area where someone named “cougar Annie” is famous for having killed most of the cougars. After her crusade against the wild, walking in the forest in these parts became and remains, a qualitatively different experience - less fear, less instincts, less raw connection to our environment. Human history isn’t t just isolated human events- which themselves are nearly impossible to decipher in their entirety because of the infinite variables involved, but the story of our local and sometimes global, environments. We make our environments and our environments make us.

Also almost every movement and probably individuals even, ‘washes’ history to their suiting and mantras and dogmas. Be it Marxist Leninists rehabilitating Bolshevism or Stalin, or trans activists rewriting/inventing large aspects of sexual/identity liberation or anarchists tendencies blind to alternate explanations of ‘what happened and why it happened”. In other words from history to anthropology, either collective, milieu based or individual lives, the past is almost always anthropocentric and washed to a lesser or greater degree according to beliefs.

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