In the wake of the ‘Occupy moment’, one of the more interesting criticisms of the activism described by David Graeber as ‘new anarchist’, was that it lacked ‘institutional memory’. One can find this charge in writings by influential figures on the UK left such as Jeremy Gilbert and the late Mark Fisher. Here I consider what is meant by this term and question whether it makes sense as a justification for the institutional turn (the movement away from street-based direct action to party politics associated in the UK with Corbynism).
What is institutional memory and why is it supposedly desirable? Gilbert observed that people involved in the ‘Occupy moment’ of 2011 seemed oblivious to the fact that the practices of the square occupations were similar to those used at the European Social Forum of only a few years before. He concluded that, as long as the activist left lacked an institutional memory, then every fresh upsurge would appear to participants as a kind of Year Zero. Fisher, meanwhile, put it like this: ‘If you do not have something like a party structure then you do not have institutional memory, and you just end up repeating the same mistakes over and over... we should aim to learn from our mistakes in order to succeed next time... That requires, if not a party structure of the old type, then at least some kind of system of coordination and some system of memory.’
Two things were being argued. One, that left-wing institutions are capable of funnelling correct interpretations of their experiences from one generation to another, and two, that the lessons of experience can only be transmitted by such organisations.
But if we accept, for the sake of argument, that left-wing institutions can act as repositories of experience and interpretation that enable their members to avoid having to reinvent the wheel, is this how they function in practice? Take the institutional turn, for example. In the mid-2010s, there were very few left-wing institutions, whether new and trendy or old and fusty, who thought the conditions existed for a revival of social democracy. Nor were there many who considered past defeated dalliances with the Labour left (entryism, Bennism, the GLC etc) to be worth attempting to resuscitate.
In other words, insofar as institutional memory existed on the left, it militated against joining the Labour Party. That this did not prevent the widespread entrance into Corbyn’s Labour of formerly anti-parliamentary institutional leftists should caution against its invocation as a panacea. Nothing illustrates better than the institutional turn that when a new opportunity arises, what yesterday seemed like the hard-won voice of experience will today seem like tired cynicism.
It is unclear whether the institutional turn has resulted in a new institutional memory for the erstwhile anti-parliamentarians, and what happens to Momentum and The World Transformed will be telling in this respect. What is certainly the case is that for many on the anti-parliamentary left, Corbynism represented a Year Zero in their political involvement to a far greater extent than had, for example, Occupy. Their prior experiences and memories of street-based activism could only be transferred with difficulty, if at all, into the institutional sphere.
But if it is unrealistic to expect left-wing institutions to act either as repositories of experience and lessons learned, or even as steadfast defenders of a given tradition, what place does this leave for memory and history in left-wing politics?
Despite the arguments of the aforementioned articles, in reality, history and memory could not be dismissed by the ‘new anarchists’ any more than they could be summoned by the institutions. If we return to the evidence presented by Gilbert, the apparent lack of an institution did not prevent the efficacy of political memory among ‘new anarchists’, indicated by the similarity of activist practice he observed from the European Social Forum to the square occupations. We could trace this further back, to the road protests of the 1990s if not beyond, from which a line could be drawn through anti-capitalist summit-hopping to Occupy. Various organisational and practical aspects of these movements are suggestive of continuity rather than continually starting afresh in supposed Year Zeros. At the same time, the scale and potential of this form of politics increased as the purpose of the protests moved from targeted disruption to a more open-ended prefiguration.
In a 2014 interview with the From Alpha to Omega podcast, Peter Hudis and the host, Tom O’Brien, discussed the then still recent square occupations and international protest wave in the light of revolutionary history. Given the impact of the subsequent institutional turn, it is tempting to look back at this period as one in which contemporary arguments for an institutional form of left-wing memory were all pervasive. However, this conversation, in its analysis of the ‘Occupy moment’ appears to make the case for an activist memory of a different type. In relation to Occupy, Hudis makes the point that revolutions of the past also saw freely associating workers experimenting with directly democratic forms of living and working, not as a projected outcome of a transition to socialism, but as a necessary precondition for that transition. Prompted by O’Brien, Hudis goes on to reflect on how the memory of the soviets as a form of revolutionary struggle in Russia was carried from 1905 to 1917 not by the parties, but by the array of people who had participated in and been inspired by them.
Neither the recent history of direct-action politics in the UK, nor the broader history of revolutionary movements, suggest that activist memory requires a left-wing institution to preserve its lessons. That is emphatically not to say that organisations are useless or that ‘institutions’ should not attempt to learn and educate on the basis of past experience. However, on the eve of the institutional turn, the simplistic assertion that the left lacked and needed institutional memory was one of a few key misreadings of the politics of the moment, the desired political outcome of which had the paradoxical effect of temporarily rupturing a promising, if limited, line of left-wing continuity.
I agree that some kind of "left-wing institution' as a prerequisite to avoid 'memory loss' isn't necessary.
Such 'memory' resides in all forms of collective action and struggle. In my lifetime these have ranged from housing ( rent strikes/ squats); resistance to many forms of discrimination (women's movement/ gay rights/disability); oppression of minority ethnic communities; not to mention struggle around anti-war/CND. Climate Change is currently the most high profile case.
Then there's the myriad of struggles relating to more local issues.
The vast majority of these struggles were born outside of ( or at best within the margins of) the confines of political parties - of whatever variety . So why should we expect any kind of 'institutional memory ' to be lurking there? All the more reason to be prepared to look elsewhere for answers.
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