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Issue #1723      March 16, 2016

Culture & Life

The business of forgetting

I was watching Antiques Roadshow last week, and two members of the public were explaining how the jewels they had brought along to show the program’s experts had been smuggled out of Russia after the Revolution by their grandparents. The expert they were talking to was full of admiration for their grandparents’ ingenuity in sewing the jewels into the hem of their garment, and also full of sympathy for the plight of the poor émigrés.

Muammar Gaddafi turned Libya from an Italian colony into the most progressive and prosperous country in Africa, a tower of strength.

No one commented that the jewels they smuggled out were the property of the Russian people or that at the time of the Revolution, the bulk of the Russian population lived in extreme poverty. Smuggling jewels out of the country was actually stealing from the Russian people. Nor did anyone point out that émigrés who fled the new Soviet state with quantities of jewels concealed in their baggage or about their person must have obtained those jewels by exploiting the labour of poverty-stricken serfs, poor peasants or workers in mines and factories!

Of course, one would be naive to expect Antiques Roadshow to sympathise with the poor anywhere. By definition, the program’s focus is on how valuable antiques can be, and the luxurious houses they originally came from. However, only a few years ago there was a much greater awareness of the crushing poverty that afflicted the bulk of the Russian people before the Revolution. The contrast between the living conditions of the Tsarist aristocracy and the workers and peasantry whose labour created their wealth was extreme and most of the world knew it.

With the help of programs like Antiques Roadshow, however, history is being re-written. People’s understanding of modern historical events is being reshaped in the interests of the well to do. The Russian workers and peasants are now the oppressors of the suffering aristocracy! But it is not only Russia that is getting this new look. Just observe the way the Second World War, the war against fascism, is presented on television. If modern TV coverage is to be believed, all the victims of fascist terror were Jewish, all the fighting against Hitler was carried out by Britain and the USA, the Resistance in Europe was run by London and the underground groups who fought the Nazis were made up of middle class democrats. It is all nonsense, but what else are people to believe if that is the only information they are given? Which is the whole idea, of course.

Also being swept under the carpet is the fact that it was members of the ruling class – British, European and American – that actively supported the rise of the Nazis. Especially the people who owned the big houses so beloved of Antiques Roadshow. After all, Hitler was going to save them from the Bolsheviks, whose influence among the workers was far too high for comfort in the 1930s.

Even more resolutely swept under the carpet is the overwhelming popularity of Socialism among working people in the past. So popular was Socialism that the ruling class had to adopt social democratic parties into their own arsenal, subtly remoulding social democracy’s class position and allegiances to convert social democratic parties into parties for the workers provided by the ruling class. They have presented no threat to capitalism ever since, being committed instead to “reforming” the system not replacing it.

After WW2 however, the popularity of revolutionary Socialism surged. Colonial peoples across the globe demanded their independence and usually opted for Socialism at the same time. Capitalism fought back with decades of neo-colonial war, coups, concentration camps and massacres. It was a heroic stage in the history of numerous countries of the so-called “Third World”, but with the overthrow of many progressive regimes in those countries, it’s a history that has been buried to ensure it too is forgotten. Capitalism’s control of the mass media in so many countries enables it to manipulate the collective memory in the interests of wealth and privilege, which it does with vigour and determination.

Also assiduously buried and expunged from the capitalist media’s public memory has been the historic role of the trade union movement. The many benefits that were won for working people by the trade unions, including everything from recognised meal breaks to paid holidays, are now thought of by many workers as something that simply happened, probably by government decision. That these things were gained only after bitter struggle by the organised working class has also been buried. The ruling class wants people to forget class struggle altogether. Unfortunately, life itself – and the greed that is the hallmark of capitalism – constantly throws up situations and conditions that force people to take a stand for their rights as workers and human beings.

More recently, we have had the murder of Muammar Gaddafi, who turned Libya from an Italian colony into the most progressive and prosperous country in Africa, a tower of strength in the non-aligned movement, a murder that was and still is presented as “the overthrow of a dictator”. Similarly misrepresented, of course, have been the coups, wars and destabilisations in Moldova, Ukraine and Syria, all of which imperialism would also like to sweep under the carpet and have everyone forget how they came about. If Russia had not forced its way into the issue, the US would have tried to utterly destroy Syria while laying down a smokescreen of lies to obfuscate what really is happening there.

One thing we can be sure of, as we move away in time from the immediacy of the numerous atrocities committed by capitalism in its relentless pursuit of profit, they too will inevitably become subject to the system’s selective memory, to the business of forgetting, designed as it is to protect capitalism’s class interest above all else. This makes it all the more important for the working class and its organisations to ensure that the true history of the modern era is recognised and recorded, preserved and protected, and capitalism’s falsification of it is exposed and rejected.

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