On 28 October, the Daily Telegraph accused the University of London Union (ULU) of having “banned” representatives of the union from attending the University’s official Remembrance Service.
Quite how the union’s democratic body taking a decision not to officially attend constitutes a “ban” is beyond comprehension. However, what is in danger of being lost here is the debate about the politics of Remembrance, over and above any manufactured “scandal” or constitutional wrangle within ULU’s Senate.
The chief charge laid against those who refuse to engage with official Remembrance ceremonies is that they have “politicised” the act of Remembrance. Yet, declaring something to be “beyond politics” is highly political. It effectively insulates certain institutions and practices — invariably those of the ruling-class —from criticism. In doing so, it restricts the parameters of what is considered up for discussion to a very narrow terrain and acts as an ideological buttress for those in power.
Remembrance ceremonies, much like the Crown and other venerated official institutions, are political — they can and should be contested and opposed. This is exactly what ULU student representatives Michael Chessum and Daniel Lemberger Cooper have done.
The politics on display at the official ceremonies are those of the ruling-class, at whose behest millions of working-class people have killed one another. The symbolism at Whitehall is not a humanistic display of regret at the legalised mass slaughter of the 20th century, but a pageantry of monarchism, militarism and imperialism. This is evidenced by the prominence of the Royal Family, the heads of the Army, the Navy and the Royal Air Force, and the British government.
Last year’s ceremony was officiated by Tony Blair, architect of a war in which over a million Iraqis died. This is a ceremony commemorating the dead, presided over by those institutions which murdered them, and the individuals who gave the orders.
Centrally involved in official Remembrance is the Royal British Legion. The Legion was established by Douglas Haig, commander at the Battle of the Somme, who was responsible for some of the highest military casualties in British history. It was set up quite deliberately to circumvent grassroots veterans’ organisations, such as the Labour-aligned National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers which excluded officers from membership, and the left-Liberal organised National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers, which campaigned under the slogan “justice not charity”.
The Remembrance ceremonies of these official institutions are predicated on forgetting who was responsible for death in war. Official Remembrance was part of a post-war nationalist drive to displace class-struggle with the myth of national unity and consensus. These ceremonies present a view of history which writes out of existence any dissent which runs counter to this myth of unbroken national glory.
Marginalised are the struggles of demobilised soldiers against the mass unemployment, slums and degradation in the promised “land fit for heroes” after World War One. Excluded from memory are the mass anti-war marches in 2003. Ignored is the history of mutinies and fraternisation in the armies of the imperialist powers.
Resigned to a footnote too is the radicalisation of soldiers at the end of the Second World War, which saw a “Forces Parliament” in Cairo vote to nationalise the banks, build four million houses, and nationalise land, mines and transport. In April 1944, it was forcibly shut down by the military authorities; press reports of its decisions were censored, and the servicemen responsible for instigating it were re-posted. Even during the Second World War itself there was no consensus on the sort of society people wanted to see afterwards.
We need our own Remembrance — for instance, meeting where we can discuss the history — one which does not whitewash history but seeks to learn from it, and apply its lessons to the struggle for a better world.
If we are to break the grip of ruling-class ideas and institutions over our class, we must challenge the potent nationalist myths which permeate the official Remembrance ceremonies.
Part of building a movement capable of achieving a society cleansed of war and militarism is ensuring that the honourable act of remembering the war dead goes hand in hand with anger and contempt for those who sent them to their deaths.