At this time of year, wearing poppies is almost compulsory for anyone in public life. The official narrative of Remembrance concludes that soldiers – from every war since 1914 – died so that we may live in freedom, and because we are so free, we must all remember this in an identical and state-sanctioned way. Objecting to the culture of official Remembrance is a relatively well-trodden path, and it has everything to do with respecting the victims of war and fighting for a better world.
Nonetheless, the level of abuse that is directed at any institution or individuals which fail to fall in line with the official ceremony is always a bit of a shock. Two weeks ago, the University of London Union – of which I am the President – passed policy in a relatively routine and democratic way which stated that although any student may attend whatever they liked, we would not send a representative on their behalf, as we regarded the ceremony as a political statement with which we did not want to be associated.
Since then we have been accused “disloyal and unpatriotic bullying” and have received numerous violent threats. This storm of condemnation has reinforced everything that we knew about Remembrance. It is an event which demands the suspension of rational thought and any sense of historical nuance; it demands our absolute and unquestioning attention. It is insidious, and it is deeply political.
Just as the Suffragettes, the Stonewall riots and the Chartists have become part of the celebrated canon of history while contemporary political rioters are vilified, it is only possible in isolation to say radical things about the futility and waste of the trenches so long as one refers to a war which is far enough in the past. Remembrance is a spectacle which relocates and unifies war; it allows the institutions of public life – politicians, media and military – to redeploy all of the old tropes about bravery and glory without having to interrogate the purpose of whatever war Britain is presently engaged in.
Politicians and the military high command salute the wounded and fallen of the past 100 years, like murderers holding special funerals for their victims. Many of those who return find themselves without proper state support, and a future with massive cuts to disability benefit and the rest of the welfare state. The idea that veterans and victims of war should be financially reliant on the sale of poppies is far more of an insult than is anyone’s personal decision not to wear one.
The single most important purpose of Remembrance is its amalgamation of all wars and atrocities into a single historical task in the service of human freedom. In schools and workplaces, busy and contested for time as our lives are, we have only one day dedicated to remembering the war dead, and when it comes it comes with the omission of the millions murdered by British state in Amritsar, in Africa, in Iraq; and millions more impoverished, enslaved and exploited. Anything that might imply injustice is renamed as tragedy.
The day after ULU passed its policy on Remembrance, I received an email which stated simply that “morons like you cheered Chamberlain”. Precisely the opposite is the case: I and others in the ULU leadership come from the only political tradition – the anti-Stalinist left – that was consistent in its total opposition to the rise of fascism in Europe. A generation of radicals volunteered to fight Franco in Spain while British politicians stood aside and hoped for his victory; and it was the communists and anarchists of the Jewish east end who fought Mosley at Cable Street, when the British state was content to let him march.
It is extraordinary and telling that in a country in which Wilfred Owen is taught almost universally in schools – whose ‘old lie’ could be recited by many GCSE English students – there is such utter intolerance of alternative forms of remembering. Many people who wear the poppy, lay wreaths and stand in silence genuinely engage in the act of remembering, sometimes for family members and for fallen friends. But the institution of Remembrance, its insistence on unthinking conformity and its vain performance of remembering, is not about respect.
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