Memory and Social Movements

Memory and Social Movements

Stefan Berger, Institute for Social Movements, Ruhr-Universität Bochum; Christian Koller, Swiss Social Archives Zurich
digital (Bochum)
Vom - Bis
18.06.2021 - 19.06.2021
Url der Konferenzwebsite
Stefan Berger, Institute for Social Movements, Ruhr-Universität Bochum; Christian Koller, Swiss Social Archives Zurich

Memory studies and social movement studies have been two sub-disciplines that operated for many years without feeling the need to take notice of each other. The conference aimed at recapitulating the state of the art regarding memory and social movements and discussing perspectives for future research. As STEFAN BERGER (Bochum) and CHRISTIAN KOLLER (Zurich) argued in their introduction, the mutual neglect of the two sub-disciplines only began to disappear from the 2000s onwards. They traced the beginnings of social movement studies from the 1970s onwards recording their different trajectories in Europe and North America and pointing to key social science theories that were influential for the discipline that institutionalized itself through a set of journals and research centres. Whereas social movement studies was rooted in the social sciences, memory studies has its origins in cultural studies and can be traced back to the memory boom of the 1980s. It was initially absorbed with national memory and in particular traumatic national memory. Later on, it turned to transnational forms of memory, but questions of war and genocide remained very much to the fore. Hence, it is only within the last ten years that, from both sides, we find a range of scholars who began to explore the relationship between social movements and memories. Giving an overview of some of the key works and ongoing projects in the field, Berger and Koller then proceeded to introduce some of the lead questions for the conference. Do memorial cultures of “old” and “new” social movements differ substantially? What kind of lieux de mémoire are important for social movements? How important are memory cultures as a resource for social movements?

The discussion of the introductory panel focused around issues of spatial versus non-spatial memory and the relationship between individual memory and collective memory. A straw poll regarding the disciplinary self-identification of the participants showed that there were more memory studies scholars than social movement scholars present, whilst many also identified with completely different disciplinary contexts, including literary studies, cultural studies, global history, urban studies, labour history, historical sociology, genocide studies, peace studies and others more highlighting the caleidoscopic nature of scholarly disciplines today that are all dealing with questions of memory.

The first session of the conference dealt with environmental movements and united two papers dealing with the opposition to dam building in southern India and with movements against land-grabbing in India that witnessed intriguing alliances between socially-engaged artists and social movements speaking up for agricultural communities expropriated and exploited by large companies. JAWHAR CHOLAKKATHODI (Calicut) introduced the art installation “Sovereign Forest” that was shown at several international art festivals as well as locally in India and that amounts to an “object-oriented social enquiry” building on memory practices, community resistance and social movement activism. ARNAB ROY CHOWDHURY (Moscow) talked about Maharashtra-based social movements that campaigned against large dam-building projects and used mythopoetic and historical narratives about the past in order to underpin and strengthen their resistance – a classic case of social movements using memory as a resource to strengthen their efficacy. In both Indian examples, the conference dealt with rural movements.

In the second section, the memory of both rural and urban movements moved to the fore. With MICHAŁ RAUSZER’s (Warsaw) paper the conference heard about how diverse rural movements in interwar Poland used the memory of the abolition of serfdom demonstrating that this memory could be and was instrumentalized for very different political ends by a great variety of social movements. Moving to the city, SEBASTIAN HAUMANN (Darmstadt/Antwerp) talked about attempts to use the memory of the working class in attempts to preserve and restore working-class neighbourhoods in cities of the global north from the 1960s to the 1980s. He emphasized the very different narratives and motivations that lurked behind such an instrumentalization of working-class memory, ranging from a neo-Marxist desire to retain a proletarian public that would also become politically active again, to the bourgeois developers who signed working-class memory ironically to foster processes of gentrification. PHILIPP REICK (Aarhus) finally talked about the memorial landscape around the Paris Commune within German Social Democracy highlighting strong continuities between 1871 and 1921. In particular, he argued that this memory focused on a set of negative emotions that contrasted an evil liberal bourgeoisie with a slaughtered and defeated working class that would still one day arise to avenge its martyrs.

The topic of the memory of labour movements was continued with the third session that dealt specifically with the memory of strikes and revolutions. Two papers here dealt with the Swiss labour movement. DANIEL ARTHO (Bern) talked about the memory of the Swiss General Strike of November 1918, both in the socialist and in the liberal-bourgeois and conservative anti-socialist memory landscapes. The latter, he concluded, remained hegemonic until the opening of the archives fifty years after the event, when the many myths surrounding the alleged Bolshevik intent of the general strike could be laid to rest. By then, however, these myths had complicated the integration of the Swiss Social Democratic labour movement into the mainstream of Swiss society. CHRISTIAN KOLLER (Zurich) went through an amazing number of incidents of political violence in Swiss labour history asking why none of these incidents had produced a memory of martyrdom analogous to the martyrs that are in plentiful supply in Swiss national history. His answer was multi-facetted referring to the limited number of casualties, the fact that most of the casualties were outsiders and that the liberal-democratic frame of Swiss politics did not make for the construction of martyrs on the part of the reformist Swiss labour movement. If Artho had already introduced the memory of general strike, CHRISTIAN JACOBS (Berlin) introduced another general strike and its memorial landscape, namely the 2009 general strike in the French Caribbean. He detailed the invocation of the colonial past by the strike leaders and their successful delegitimation of French imperialism but he also recalled how the strike showed many colonial continuities that are still vital elements of social and political life in Martinique and Guadeloupe. WIKTOR MARZEC (Warsaw) finally asked about the memorial landscape of the revolution of 1905 in Poland, which, in different parts of the divided socialist movement in Poland had very different memory impacts and were scripted very differently. As he showed, it also played an important role in the scripting of Polish independence as a revolution against the 1905 revolution – a narrative that gained a lot of popular support in interwar Poland.

The conference continued with a session on women’s and gay movements. SOPHIE VAN DEN ELZEN (Utrecht) analyzed the transnational circulation of memories of antislavery in 19th century women’s movements in France, the Netherlands and Germany finding a close interrelationship that was constructed by women’s movements’ activists between the fate of women and the fate of slaves. Like the abolitionists fought for the freedom of the slaves, so the women’s movement had to fight for the freedom of women. Van den Elzen also discussed how issues of class and slavery were negotiated within the proletarian women’s movement and found that several women activists were prone to racist or racialized constructions of gender. GABRIELE FISCHER (Munich) and KATHARINA RUHLAND (Dortmund) recalled how the gay movement in Germany sought to shape the memory of homosexual victims in the concentration camp of Dachau. The International Dachau Committee (CID) had originally excluded the memorialization of homosexual victims (together with “asocial” and criminal prisoners) from the artistic representation in the memorial for victims erected on the site of the former roll call square in 1968. In subsequent decades, the gay liberation movement sought to rectify this and increasingly took a confrontationist stance vis-à-vis the CID. Temporarily, the pink triangle became a crucial symbol of the gay liberation movement, linking the struggle against ongoing criminalization of male homosexuality in West Germany to the commemoration of persecutions during the Nazi era.

The next panel discussed peace movements and movements for humanitarian interventionism. IRINA GORDEEVA (Berlin) analyzed the memory of Tolstoyism in the Russian dissident peace movement during the 1970s and 1980s, focusing in particular on the Trust Group that combined pacifism with ecological activism and had strong links with the War Resisters’ International. Intriguingly she also found that the peace movement declined from the 1990s onwards and has no significant presence in Russia today. NICHOLAS MOLL (Sarajevo) analyzed the historical analogies that were part and parcel of the European protest movements against the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995. The strongest analogies were with the Spanish civil war, the Appeasement Policies of the 1930s and the Holocaust. Moll arrived at a very positive assessment of the effect of those historical analogies that, according to him, helped to understand a wider public better what was going on in Bosnia-Herzegovina during those years.

The final session moved to national and nationalist movements in two very different contexts. SUREN MANUKYAN (Yerevan) analyzed the memory of the Armenian genocide in Soviet Armenia recalling a history of repression of that memory until the mid-1960s when, for the first time, there was an unofficial memorial march through the city of Yerevan. A monument for the victims of the genocide was inaugurated in November 1967 with a clear message from the Soviet elite: only the Soviet Union can guarantee for the safety of Armenians. A different, anti-Soviet memory politics was present in the huge Armenian diaspora, in particular in the United National Party, founded in 1966, but also in the Armenia Helsinki Group, formed in 1977. Finally, there were also diverse dissident groups in the Soviet Union trying to keep alive a memory of the genocide that was independent from that of the Communist authorities and at the same time criticizing political repression in the Soviet Union. STEFAN BERGER (Bochum) talked about the memory politics of right-wing populist parties in Germany between the 1980s and the present day, focusing in particular on the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Giving diverse examples, he underlined how diverse the memory politics was. Of course, there was the attempt to remove National Socialism and the Holocaust as the central anchor point of German identity, but in addition, its memory politics also mobilized the memory of anti-foreigner sentiments as well as anti-immigration ideas. Thirdly, it used the memory of a comprehensive welfare state and social legislation aimed at improving the situation for working people to argue that those parties, in particular the Social Democrats, who once stood for these values had betrayed them and that these groups were now represented by the AfD. Berger argued that the overall cosmopolitan memory frame of the mainstream parties did prevent a more robust response to the AfD memory politics and, using the theory of agonistic memory, as developed by Anna Cento Bull and Hans Lauge Hansen, argued that a more agonistic response to the memory politics of the AfD would be more successful in countering it.

In their concluding resume of the conference, Berger and Koller emphasized how the memorial cultures of the old and the new social movements did not appear to be so different. Both realms of memory were often attached strongly to particular “impact events” (Anne Fuchs), persons and places, and they both were most successful where they managed to link those to strategies for mobilizing their supporters through an emotional appeal that often invoked passions of solidarity, social justice and radical democracy, insofar as these movements were located on the political left. Bringing together memory activism and social activism and looking for repertoires of contention within the memory politics of social movements, they concluded, seemed very relevant research topics for all social movements discussed at the conference. Hence, it would remain an ongoing challenge to bring the disciplines of memory studies and social movement studies closer together in future.

Conference overview:

Stefan Berger (Bochum) / Christian Koller (Zurich): Introduction

Panel 1: Memory of Environmental Movements
Chair: Stefan Berger (Bochum)

Jawhar Cholakkathodi (Calicut): Seeds as a Site for Humanistic Inquiry: Mapping Memory and Movement through “Seed Care” and “Sovereign Forest”

Arnab Roy Chowdhury (Moscow): Framing the Collective Memory: The Politics of Mobilisations against Hydropower Projects in Maharashtra, India (1980–2004)

Panel 2: Memory of Urban and Rural Movements
Chair: Christian Wicke (Utrecht)

Sebastian Haumann (Darmstadt/Antwerp): Memories of Working Class Neighborhoods in the Fight against Urban Redevelopment

Phillipp Reick (Aarhus): Affect, Memory, and Social Movements: A Study of Collective Remembrance from the Mid-19th to the Early 21st Century

Michał Rauszer (Warsaw): Emancipation through Memory? Peasant Movements and Creation of Historical Memory at the Turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries

Panel 3: Memory of Strikes and Revolutions
Chair: Ann Rigney (Utrecht)

Daniel Artho (Bern): Conflicting Narratives: Collective Memory and Political Instrumentalisation of the Swiss National General Strike of November 1918

Christian Jacobs (Berlin): Negotiating the Past. 2009’s General Strike in the French Caribbean and the Colonial Past

Marzec Wiktor (Warsaw): Scripting an Aborted Revolution. 1905 Between “Dress Rehearsal” and Difficult Lesson in the Memory and Practice of Polish Socialist Movements

Christian Koller (Zurich): Martyrs of the Labour Movement? Commemoration of Protest Casualties in Switzerland

Panel 4: Memory of Women‘s and Gay Movements
Chair: Jenny Wüstenberg (Nottingham)

Gabriele Fischer (München) / Katharina Ruhland (Dortmund): Mind the Gap. How the Gay Movement Shaped the Memory of “Homosexual” Victims in Dachau

Sophie van den Elzen (Utrecht): After Abolition: Memories of Antislavery in European Women’s Rights Movements, 1830–1910

Panel 5: Memory of Peace Movements
Chair: Philipp Reick (Aarhus)

Irina A. Gordeeva (Berlin): Remembering Tolstoyans: The Soviet/Russian Independent Peace Movement in Search of Russian Historical Tradition of Pacifism

Nicolas Philipp Moll (Sarajevo): Spain, Munich, Auschwitz: The Role of Historical Analogies in the Protest Movements in Europe against the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1992–1995

Panel 6: Memory of National Movements
Chair: Christian Koller (Zurich)

Suren Manukyan (Yerevan): The Armenian Genocide Memory in Soviet-Armenia Dissent Movement

Stefan Berger (Bochum), History, Memory and the Populist Right in Germany from the 1980s to the Present

Stefan Berger / Christian Koller: Final Comment