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Whose heritage?

(April 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 185, April 1995, p. 29.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Theatres of Memory
Raphael Samuel
Verso £19.99

The cry that Britain has been turned into a massive historical theme park is common these days. Many feel uneasy that they are being asked to participate in the recreation of a mythical ‘national heritage’ which only serves to reinforce the most conservative values, and to play up the importance of our rulers and the rich through the ages.

Not so, says the historian Raphael Samuel, who in this first of three volumes about popular history and culture argues that the attempts by ordinary people to reclaim the past are to be welcomed.

Much of the movement for conservation has come not from right wingers but from the left. He points out:

‘The Body Shop emerged from Brighton counter-culture; the Campaign for Real Ale from beer-swilling radicals. Covent Garden, in its present form, sprang from a “community” agitation in which the newly radicalised students of the Architectural Association played a big part.’

Samuel castigates those who attack popular history and ‘heritage’. He sees them as dry academics who believe history is their exclusive preserve, or as elitist left wingers who look down on the involvement of the masses. His dislike of this snobbery is woven throughout the book as he celebrates different aspects of living history from below.

But there is a problem here. There is a difference between the various attempts, current especially since the 1960s, to express history from the point of view of the poor, the oppressed and exploited, and the portrayal of the past as a golden age of pastoral cottages, home baking and cobbled streets.

Most of what passes for ‘heritage’ today hinges on the second interpretation, and even when it focuses on the farm labourer and mill worker rather than on the stately home owner, it tends to sanitise the past rather than give a more rounded view.

Surely this is precisely the point of the critics of the heritage industry. The past is presented as a comfortable never never world, without misery or destitution, let alone class struggle or conflict.

And those who seek to present it in this way have their own political agenda. It is usually the people who defend ‘heritage’ who also believe that history is a packaged past, not something which living men and women are constantly in the process of creating. Samuel half recognises this. He says for example, ‘The historicist turn in British culture coincided with the decline of Labour as a mass membership party, with the demise ... of socialism as a worker’s faith.’

This should lead him to extreme caution about the whole heritage industry, but it does not because he somehow conflates ‘heritage’ with popular history or culture. This makes Theatres of Memory a frustrating and in the end unsatisfactory book.

There are also some technical problems. Do we really need two chapters on Dickens, or, more particularly, Samuel’s critique of the film Little Dorrit (they are reprints from two different publications)? His criticism of the film does, however, provide a good example of the double bind he is in. Here he argues that the present perception of Victorian ‘heritage’ prevents us from seeing an accurate view of Dickens’s London.

Christine Edzard’s film may be accurate in its period detail but ‘the critical and radical intentions ... are continually betrayed by the prettiness of the scenic properties.’ This is because of ‘an imaginative revolution which has taken place in perceptions of the Victorian past, and the altogether new value conservationism has given to “period” setting.’

The analysis strikes me as basically correct – but isn’t it what Patrick Wright was arguing in On Living in an Old Country? And doesn’t it contradict much of Samuel’s earlier thesis?

Socialists should surely welcome and applaud much conservation and any revolutionary struggle will involve defending much which is under threat from the ravages of capitalism.

But there has to be a distinction between preserving and rediscovering much of what has taken place in history and allowing those who want no change in the future to impose on us their version of the past.

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