THE BACK SIDE OF HISTORY: By Massimo Passamani


Putting the past back in play in order to make an adventure of the future. I believe that the reasons for keeping past theoretical and practical experiences from becoming material for historians are contained in this perspective.

History is always the history of the masters, and this is not just because, as is well known, they are the ones who write it, but also because this world, their world, forces us to look at it through its own eyes. The organizers of obedience have always used the past for police and propaganda purposes, but this did not keep them from knowing it. On the contrary, precisely this knowledge has allowed power to unite events in the coherence of control, sacrifice and repression. For the past to carry out its function as an argument for the current society, it is necessary, as a minimum, to know what to remove, which is to say, the most significant reasons and episodes of the struggles of the exploited – everything that history presents merely as defeats. The exploited, on the contrary, have rarely been able to rescue history from a dull chronology – or a calendar vision with so many dates to celebrate – in order to find another coherence for it, that of revolt, and so to understand the motives, the most radical moments, the limits of the latter.

The apologists for domination have obviously not given up rewriting the past, but they are increasingly unfamiliar with it. In a world where one responds to every cause for malaise with a remedy that is even worse and that guarantees only the complete irresponsibility of the one who applies it; where the passivity of work is extended into “free time” through the contemplation of a screen (television or the computer); in which the masters themselves – powerful because of the submission that is conceded to them in the hope that they, at least, know where this world is going – are that much more self-assured because they have increasingly made the law “as long as it lasts” their own – in such an idiotic world that desires eternity, the past has no meaning. Now, if, on the one hand, this reinforces the totalitarianism of the present society (outside of me there is nothing), on the other hand, it renders its administrators more stupid. For the moment, since they can allow it. The intelligence – even historical – of a strategy of preservation is proportional to the dangers of revolt.

On the same level (here is why I said that one looks at history with the eyes of the masters), even subversives have felt “freer” once relieved of the weight of knowledge of the past. This is the idea that history (not just that of specialists, but even that which does not separate ideas and actions, that is written out of desire and that arms the intelligence) ends up imprisoning life. What goes unnoticed is just how historical this idea is. (What is the difference whether a reflection originates from reading what someone has said or whether it originates in knowing what someone has done? Let’s think of it as so many individuals together. Why is the first reflection considered, for example “philosophy”, while the second is considered “history”? In my opinion, there is no distinction.) Paraphrasing a well known aphorism, one can only say that the present ignorance has retroactive value. Now, this ignorance has many faces, if, as is evident, its distributors are, above all, the historians (including those “of the movement”).

So as not to go on for too long, it is enough to consider all the advertising noise with regard to a film on the Spanish revolution. To many anarchists this did not seem right. At last, the black and red banner, the revolutionary union, the collectives, self-management, Durutti. Now, to tell the truth, we ourselves are speaking.

Personally, to make myself clear, I have nothing against the discussions and books about the Spanish revolution. But has all this talk about it contributed to making us understand this distant event better (and this “better”, for anarchists, would have to be in the sense of a current perspective)? Frankly, I don’t think so. It seems to me, on the contrary, to contribute more to mummification, to testimonial, to monumental history. As often occurs, the occasion predetermined the contents. Books on libertarian revolution have increased. And yet, what does one say about a revolutionary movement – not just Spanish – like that of the 1930’s? What would self-management of the factories mean now? What do we do about unions? To which places of capital could an insurrectional conception now be linked? How do we create the possibilities so that in the revolutionary moment it passes suddenly, without transition, to the destruction or radical transformation of these places? What does it mean, in reality, to overthrow authority, what does it mean to abolish the market? Only by posing questions like these does discussion of revolutionary Spain take on significance. Only in this way does it become an open question in itself. But one can understand little if one looks to it as the realization, however temporary, of an ideal. With such an approach, all that is left to do is to distribute the small images of the saints. And then, for this celebration, it is necessary to dress up the events (even the bureaucratic control and the counter-revolution of leading “anarchists”) in their Sunday best. Why, for example, is so little known about the days of May 1937 in Barcelona? Why does no one speak of the calls from the uncontrollables who said that the “anarchist” ministers were reactionaries like all the rest, and that it was necessary to shoot them as well, just like all the others?

A few pages of history says more than an entire encyclopedia when the theoretical suggestion for a practice of reinventing it is read into the events themselves. One need only read in this way to know it. It would then be interesting to really reflect on the dirty tricks and the mistakes (and also on the splendid, joyous strengths) of those days. To connect those days to other insurrections and to other errors. To connect them to the present. To give an example, one could reread the history of insurrectional movements through the fracture – moral rather than police-related – represented by money (one thinks of the refusal to attack banks, starting from the Paris Commune, passing through revolutionary Spain, ending up at the French May [1968]; or, on the other hand, of the expropriations by workers in insurgent Patagonia in the 1930’s). Just as one can read it under the subterranean sign of gratuity and of the festival, or of amorous relationships. Or, or…

But those who attack property, silence leaders and shake up current social relationships without any aims, what might they tell us about individuals who tried to do this yesterday, the day before, or seventy years ago?

Willful Disobedience
Volume 4, number 3-4, Fall-Winter 2003