Historical Amnesia Goes Both Ways


The first time I heard the term historical amnesia, it was in relation to a discussion about American exceptionalism and the masses “forgetting” the more bothersome parts of their history of involvement (ironically, I can’t recall the specific source or case I first came across). But, rereading Noam Chomsky’s On Anarchism (again, ironically because at the time I read it, I did so without any real focus or retention), the now seemingly obvious opposite is also true: that the true victories and battles fought by the masses themselves are also victim to this international blank slate.

The blank slate is every despot’s wildest dream. Pinochet in Chile brought forth the first “laboratory” for the economic shock doctrine in Latin America, attempting to rebuild a “free market” utopia from a population too terrorised to resist. The United States rather handily covered up the violent overthrow of Allende’s government on the 11th of September, 1973, by egregiously taking advantage of the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001. While both were tragic events, only the objectively less damning and damaging is remembered for obvious reasons.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq shattered the country and its people, a war that still resonates throughout the region today. It too brought the vultures of capitalism in to profit off the lucrative spoils, not least being the insane boost in private military expenditure and rise of private armies like Blackwater. Many in the West today would know Saddam Hussein was overthrown and killed, and that he was a brutal dictator. Bring attention to the US-backed invasion of Iran, however, and the horrors of the Reagan administration are relatively unknown.

Those are just two of the countless examples one could dredge up just from the US, let alone any other imperialist or proxy venture. But just as history can be swept aside to keep literal skeletons in the global closet, it has also been swept aside to vanish what Obama supposedly promised to deliver: hope and change.

In fact, the Occupy Wall Street movement in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis is one such occasion, and also, somewhat awkwardly, the one used in the introduction of the 2013 edition of On Anarchism. Today, a new generation is being swept up in the US, and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the world, with the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Recall, however, that Black Lives Matter as an organisation has been around since 2013, but this year’s movement has been a mostly spontaneous civil rights protest that has merely had a simmered down and institutionalised label thrown on it.

But it is the movement, the engagement, that has had many joining calls for mutual aid and resistance, both in person and online – the number of funds and organisations I saw being promoted online was crazy, although it has died down over time. The impact this has had on people, however, will go well beyond 2020 and the Trump administration, hopefully putting pressure on the white hack and token brown oppressor to actually commit to making some real progress.


Because this exact scenario played out during the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2008-9. While on a much smaller scale, it threw open the gates to what could be a better world to generations of people suffering under decades of bipartisan neoliberal garbage. The power of the masses, while it lasted, was inspiring for those who attended, like Nathan Schneider (who wrote the introduction for On Anarchism). This in turn, however, revealed another step back through history to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.

Martin Luther King Jr may have been a major “face” of the time, but he was fighting for much more than just racial justice and equality (sadly two things the West is still struggling with). He and the original Black Panthers were targeted – MLK assassinated and the Panthers infiltrated and wiped out like the communists – because they were dangerous. Sure, the openly racist people may have thought so because god forbid black people had rights, but to those in power that meant little.

Clearly, seeing as having equality written into law has done relatively little. While the civil rights movements achieved the goal it is remembered for, it failed elsewhere through no fault of the organisers. MLK and the Black Panthers fought on class lines too. They organised people and communities, ran programs, fed children, not just in black communities but with poor white communities and other marginalised groups. Racial equality in principle was fine, but racial unity showing any sign of agitation against the capitalist system was unacceptable.

COINTELPRO, the FBI program that helped bring down the Black Panthers, is usually followed by the question of what it is. Andrew Marr, a UK journalist, was rather stunningly informed about it by Noam Chomsky in an interview about media propaganda; Chomsky remarked that it was “interesting [Marr] had to ask” what COINTELPRO even was, after he tried so hard to defend journalism as adversarial and important. The big dunk was when Chomsky told him, “I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. I’m saying if you believed something else you wouldn’t be sitting where you are now.”

One can go back further and beyond the US to even more obscured examples. The Spanish Civil War, which Chomsky talks about for most of On Anarchism, had quite a large and successful glimpse at what an anarchist society could look like. Chomsky details how history written afterwards either slanted extreme bias against this aspect of the War, or omits it entirely from the record. In short, they were basically crushed by the Republic, the Communist Party in part backed by the USSR. The Civil War was then lost to Franco; not to suggest a solely anarchist venture could have beaten the fascists (who knows), but that the fascists weren’t the only enemy they faced.

George Orwell, in Homage to Catalonia, described his time fighting in the war against Franco, being profoundly struck by the nature of the anarchist groups and collectives that had formed. During the War and upon his return to England after escaping Spain, he dedicated time to dispelling the falsehoods the international press, particularly England’s, were peddling regarding the crushing of the revolutionary movement in Spain. It is little wonder, then, how 1984 was intended to be an indictment of where England could end up, not just as a stick to bash the USSR with. As we parrot off one year but not the other when hearing 9/11, so too are we taught one book but not the other by unabashed socialist George Orwell.

Two decades earlier, the Russian Revolution saw the overthrow of the Tsar and the rise of the Bolsheviks under Lenin. As essentially the inspiration for the Communist actions in Spain, the Bolshevik Party crushed all opposition and, in the end, the Revolution itself. In this case, Orwell’s Animal Farm is indeed about Russia, but not a warning against socialism – a warning against the totalitarianism that wiped it out. Now, we know much about the horrors of the Soviet Union and the other fascist governments of Europe in the 1900’s, but nothing about the anarcho-syndicalists of revolutionary Spain, or the truth about the Bolsheviks, from Lenin’s own dictatorial reign to the Kronstadt Commune.

Any study of history and historical works requires a study, or at least an understanding, of the historian and the biases they will bring to their work – there is no “objective” history, even if facts are immutable. The amnesia that plagues whole societies as a result of a lack of history education and critical thought provides the perfect barrier between the struggles of today and the conflicts – good and bad – of the past. When this is coupled with the conscious or unconscious cover-up of these events, we find ourselves repeating the same back and forth, forcing progress to falter each time.

On a final note, I would also add that, unless people are willingly denying or obfuscating truth out of pure ignorance or for their own benefit, condemning them for not knowing or accepting your stance and arguments at face value will not work. Especially where narratives have been spun for decades, as with history or environmental concerns like climate change, peoples’ knowledge will always be different to yours. It is our collective knowledge and, one would hope, a collective desire for truth that should drive us to assist each other in learning.

Historical amnesia has crippled us for generations. The cure is simple – we just need to spread it.

Liked this? Read Ignorance, Instruction and Rhetoric

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