LM Archives
  1:17 PM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

'Who Controls the Past Controls the Future' (or so they hope)

In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Big Brother state has a Ministry of Information which continually rewrites official history in order to lend legitimacy to what is happening in the present. When the state changes sides in a war, the records are revised to show that it has always been at war with its new enemy; when an official falls from grace, his name and picture is removed from all the old newspapers; and so on.

The rewriting of history today may not have reached that Orwellian level of efficiency. But East and West alike, elites and experts are now hard at work reinterpreting many aspects of the past. And the reasons behind the new fashion for revising history have much in common with the official slogan which guided the Ministry of Information's work: 'Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past'.

By inventing a mythological past, governments and their supporters are seeking refuge from an uncertain present. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet bloc has unfrozen history and removed old certainties. Coupled with the arrival of capitalist slump, these events have thrown the world order into confusion. Fearful of the new, many in authority are trying to find comfort and legitimacy by promoting a safe and sanitised version of the good old days.

In the new states of Eastern Europe, the emerging elites seek to justify their rule by inventing entire national histories. In the USA, concern about the decline of American power is caught up in historical controversies about national heroes from Columbus to John F Kennedy. In the new Germany, the right is revising history to rehabilitate nationalism. And in Britain, the Conservatives emphasise the importance of past traditions in a bid to disguise the fact that they can offer us no future.

But Big Brother's slogan is too simplistic. Rewriting history and controlling the past is not enough to ensure control over the future. That will only be decided in the conflicts of the real world in the present. The authorities' attempt to mythologise all our yesterdays cannot be allowed to distract from the grim realities of their system today - and the grimmer prospects for tomorrow.

Below Frank Füredi examines the culture of pessimism behind the new cult of the past. On the pages that follow, and in the Marxist Review of Books (p43), we explore other aspects and examples of the fashion for rewriting history

Society often uses the past to flatter itself. National celebrations and anniversaries focus attention on moments of glory and triumph. This is why British television produces such a plethora of programmes about the Second World War - and why the war even makes regular appearances under the guise of a news item. The triumph of 1945 is relived time and again, as contemporary society is reminded that even after Europe was defeated Britain fought on.

In the recent period, as the glorification of the past has become more pervasive it has also become more problematic. The project of rewriting history always provokes disputes about its meaning. Today, throughout Europe - East and West - here are furious rows about who did what to whom in the past. Similar controversies abound in the USA, where even key national myths such as the pioneering spirit behind the opening up of the Wild West are no longer beyond question.

Nothing about the past can be taken for granted today. Traditional heroes are now vilified while former villains are resurrected as saints. So the project of commemorating the five hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus' landing in the Americas has provoked a furious denunciation of the man. In some quarters, this longstanding symbol of exploration is now portrayed as little short of a war criminal. Meanwhile former fascist war criminals from East Europe are in the process of being rehabilitated.

Take the example of the Slovakian, Father Josef Tiso. President of the puppet Slovakian republic between 1939 and 1945, who happily introduced the genocidal Nuremberg laws against the Jews, he was duly hanged for his war crimes. Today, right-wing Slovak nationalists treat Tiso as a hero and are even campaigning to beatify him.

The new hothouse of historical revisionism creates an atmosphere in which anything goes. The European right has launched a campaign to whitewash all of the past episodes it finds embarrassing. For example, it is now common to refer to the happy days of freedom in Russia under the Tsars. Newspaper articles often treat the last Tsar as a fully paid-up democrat who presided over a jolly old Russia, tolerant, prosperous and free. In the same way, the pre-1945 Baltic republics and East European countries are depicted as democratic and well-off societies.

Such a selective recollection of the past conveniently fails to recall the tyranny that was Tsarist Russia. The appalling levels of poverty before the October 1917 Revolution are but a minor footnote to the sentimental recollections of the good old days. In those days the Tsar was universally loathed; after his overthrow, even the British royal family refused to grant him asylum, for fear that his unpopularity might reflect on the House of Windsor. Not so long ago, it was also standard practice to refer to the interwar governments of Eastern Europe as tinpot dictatorships. The terms democracy, prosperity and freedom were conspicuous by their absence in discussions of the pre-1945 Baltic states and other Eastern states.

The monster Lenin

The invention of a happy go lucky pre-revolutionary Russia and prewar Eastern Europe is paralleled by the fabrication of the monster Lenin. Poor old Lenin never had a good press in the West, but with the 'opening' of hitherto secret archives new sordid details can be revealed.

According to one revelation (reported in the same reliable newspaper that brought us the 'Hitler diaries' and 'Kinnock's Kremlin connection'), Lenin ordered soldiers to 'cross the border' into Latvia and Estonia and 'hang 100 to 1000 bureaucrats and aristocrats' (see Sunday Times, 6 October 1991). You can almost visualise the incident. There is the monster Lenin, tucking into his breakfast muesli, trying to decide how many bureaucrats his soldiers should murder. Unable to focus his mind, he writes 'hang 100 to 1000'. The opening of numerous other secret archives in the old Stalinist states ought to provide plenty of raw material for the further creative rewriting of history.

Politicising the past

Of course, the real reason why new histories are being written has nothing to do with the opening of archives. It is an attempt to politicise the past-- a central feature of the intellectual crusade launched by the contemporary right. From the standpoint of this conservative reaction, it is now even possible to ask 'was there a Holocaust?'. All of the embarrassing episodes associated with fascism and the Second World War can now be re-examined.

Why should they want to rerun the Second World War? Because that experience has undermined the moral authority and credibility of the right ever since. The ugly past made it difficult for the right to take the offensive. After more than 40 years of suffering in silence, the collapse of the Stalinist bloc has given the European right the chance to let rip.

The recent French film Uranus serves as a model. In this film, set in postwar France, there is a kind of moral equivalence between the fascist collaborators and the communist members of the resistance. In fact, as individuals, it is the collaborators in the film that win the audience's sympathy. In Germany, meanwhile, the media has adopted the habit of referring to East European cities by their old pre-1945 German names. Who knows, they may be aware of something that we do not know about.

The rewriting of history is an attempt to justify something today. The past, or a particular version of it, is used to legitimise the present. The close concern with history indicates a failure to grapple with problems in the here and now. Instead of attempting to elaborate novel solutions for contemporary problems, those who look backwards suggest that the answer already exists somewhere in the past.

The past itself becomes a source of legitimacy, and anything today can be justified by coupling it with yesterday. Even meaningless phrases can acquire the semblance of wisdom once the past has been mobilised in their support. Tory education secretary Kenneth Clarke is a consummate practitioner of this art form. 'Let's get back to the fundamentals', he exhorts and everyone nods and seems to know what he means. In fact it means nothing. What are these fundamentals that invite our embrace? If they are so fundamental why would we abandon them in the first place?

In reality Clarke is relying on the widespread conservative instinct which suspects that what happened in the past must be better than what goes on today. To an extent, given the appalling state of affairs today, it is an understandable reaction. It is easy to draw the conclusion that something like education must have been better in the past than today. But was it? Anyone familiar with British social history can confirm that for the vast majority the quality of education was at least as poor. When Clarke invites Britain to return to the fundamentals, he is demanding a form of schooling that produced a semi-literate working class, carefully trained for subservience and exploitation.

The conservative imagination reaches its highpoint in the image of the good old days when there was no crime, when old ladies were helped across the street and no one was immoral. The contemporary obsession with the revising of history reflects an attempt to get back to this golden age. The usual procedure is to suggest that we have lost touch with our wise traditions because of some betrayal committed by do-gooders. For example it is suggested that British education ('the best in the world'), went wrong because of the experimental teaching methods advocated by the Plowden Report. According to Sir Rhodes Boyson, Tory MP and educator, Plowden has 'destroyed the academic opportunities of two, if not three, generations of children' (Sunday Times, 26 January 1992).

The idea is that, by removing Plowden and a variety of sixties radicals and do-gooders, Britain will revert back to its unproblematic past. The editor of the Daily Mail asks us to pause and remember:

'Remember, also, those days when most church men felt called upon to preach the Gospel rather than strike social attitudes: when pews were not so empty and prelates not so politically full of themselves.' (Daily Mail, 17 October 1991)

The message is to forget about such new-fangled notions as social problems, get back to preaching the Gospel and the churches will be full again just like they were during our grandparents' days. The simple fact that churches have been empty for rather a long time need not distract someone who believes that sermons are the answer to the problems of our time.

The attempt to revive tradition is being pursued to its full and absurd conclusions. The suggestion by the National Curriculum Council to return to the Western classical tradition in the teaching of music indicates the full scope of this obsession. In and of itself the debate on the teaching of music is a relatively trivial matter. What is important is that such a little issue can now become the focus of a big political controversy. This frenetic attempt to uphold tradition reflects a lack of confidence in the future direction of society. It indicates a desire to stop the march of time and to return to the safety of the past. The rewriting of history, even when executed with verve and panache, in fact means giving up on the future.

In an interesting column 'The profits of doom', Guardian journalist Ian Aitken observes that 'one of the disappointments for those of us who grew up during the war is the gradual withering of the energetic optimism which was the characteristic mood of the late forties and early fifties' (27 January 1992). Aitken accurately notes that the ideas of progress and human improvement have given way to a fatalistic sense of pessimism about the future.

The rewriting of history and the culture of pessimism go hand in hand. It is the sense of society being at an impasse, and even in decline, which makes the past an attractive focus of concern. A new book, The Great Reckoning, by former Times editor William Rees-Mogg and James Dale Davidson, provides a systematic representation of this culture of pessimism.

Doom and gloom

According to The Great Reckoning, history is punctuated by a series of cycles, which human beings do not understand. In the current cycle, ignorant men and women face a terrible economic slump with the gravest of consequences. The deep-seated pessimism of the authors is expressed not by the projection of their dreary scenario, but in their refusal even to pretend to offer a solution to humanity. The book is addressed to a small audience of privileged elites, who are counselled to flee the cities and adopt a strategy for survival: playing chess, seeking God and paying off outstanding debts.

The Great Reckoning may contain some eccentric themes but it very much captures the mood of the Anglo-American establishment in the nineties. It is a mood that combines the rhetoric of confidence with an unrestrained sense of pessimism. The confidence relates to their new found freedom to rewrite the past. With the disintegration of the old left, few obstacles stand in the way of the Western right's project. Others too, in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, can participate in the fabrication of a new history.

Claim the future

However, it is one thing to manipulate the past; it requires merely a selective memory, a flair for public relations, and the ability to use words in such a way that your contemporary interests are expressed in the past tense. It is another thing altogether to overcome the problems of the present and to inspire a clear sense of direction for the future.

The culture of pessimism allows establishment figures such as Rees-Mogg a narrow avenue of escape from their failure to engage the contemporary problems of society. They can divert the blame on to historic forces outside of human control rather than admitting that their own second-hand ideas are useless.

This state of affairs suggests a potentially ideal division of labour. Let the right absorb its energies in replaying cracked records and dreaming about the good old days. For our part, instead of rewriting history we would rather influence or make history ourselves. They can have the past - we would rather claim the future.

Spot the bad guys: In Uranus, fascist collaborators become the heroes and communists the sinners in a new interpretation of post-Second World War France

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 41, March 1992

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk