Searching for joy, remembering solidarity, struggling against pain. Memory and the struggle for hope by Jonathan Grossman

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Abstract

Testimony about survival and struggle against oppression and exploitation is necessarily about pain and evil. Despite this, there are created moments and situations which embody joy and beauty – the best that human beings can create, not the worst they are forced to endure. There is sharing, generosity, compassion, solidarity, happiness of people with each other and through each other. There is the elation of defiance and struggle, the joy of hope, the collectivism of hope and the hope of collectivism. These are located both in working class everyday lived experience of capitalism, and in the specifically organized and mobilized struggle against it. These are resources of everyday life, crucial to the struggle to fundamentally qualitatively change that everyday. But they are very often neglected resources because they are the resources of denigrated people. In this paper, I am concerned to identify from testimony such often suppressed and/or ignored memories.

To do this, I have revisited existing testimony used already for other purposes and searched my own memory and the memory of others. This process of re-investigation provides moments which illuminate the joy and happiness, particularly those of solidarity in struggle.  Some of these are outlined in the paper.

Ernst Bloch argues that “to be human is really to have utopias”. A central feature of our times is a pervasive sense of insecurity and alienation – sometimes as an absence of human security and solidarity, sometimes as a loss of these. Memories of survival and struggle in the past offer visions of hope and experiences of joy in sharing and caring – human solidarity, collectivism, comradeship. We need an oral history of the hope and joy of these possibilities which have been created even in the context of everyday survival and struggle against the realities of oppression and exploitation. This should not be instead of accounts of pain and suffering, nor at the expense of the fullest possible exposure of the realities of the everyday inhumanity of capitalism. Instead, it should be about helping us to better know and understand the struggle against pain and suffering, so that we can better draw on the resources already created in everyday life to transform it. The world is not going to be changed by oral histories and oral historians. The millions of ordinary people who are going to change the world through their organization, action and solidarity will be strengthened by drawing on the legacies and resources of shared joy and happiness which they have already created in the midst of capitalist barbarism.

Introduction

In the now current orthodox political-speak of the new South Africa, we are facing a problem of “lack of skills and lack of capacity”. We are assured and reassured that this is a global problem, particularly acute in the developing world, but facing the advanced economies also. This might well be true. The paper which follows is based on a different view: that the key problem we are facing is a lack and systematic suppression of compassion, solidarity and collectivism – and of the human joy which is embedded and generated by these. Further, that this is not an absolute lack, but a constructed lack based on the suppression and denigration of the capacities and skills for compassion, solidarity and collectivism which are already located in the everyday of ordinary working class life. It is not an absence then, nor actually a lack – it is a denial and thereby a waste of what is already there. The challenge to oral historians and those drawing on oral history is to bring into vision and hearing the evidence and expressions of these skills and capacities.

I have worked in different ways with domestic workers since 1988. I have never once been amongst them without hearing loud conversation and moments of laughter. Yet it is commonplace to read well-intentioned account after account of the “silence “of domestic workers and the need to “give them voice”. It is important to do this with the trust and knowledge that we are not dealing with the problem of silence – but rather with the problem of silencing; not the problem of those who appear silent, but the problem of those who impose silencing and will not or can not hear. It is not then simply about a denial of capacities for compassion and solidarity – but the active theft, suppression and trampling of these.

Accounts of the everyday of working class life and struggle are properly and necessarily accounts of pain. Despite this, there are created moments and situations which embody joy and beauty – the best that human beings can create, not the worst they are forced to endure. There is sharing, generosity, compassion, solidarity, happiness of people with each other and through each other. There is the elation of defiance and struggle, the joy of hope, the collectivism of hope and the hope of collectivism. These are located both in working class everyday lived experience of capitalism, and in the specifically organized and mobilized struggle against it. These are resources of everyday life, crucial to the struggle to fundamentally qualitatively change that everyday. But they are very often neglected resources. Why? It is easy to identify processes of silencing and unwillingness to hear amongst the oppressors, exploiters and their supporters and agents. More important for us is to identify the ways in which our own ears and eyes might be desensitised to hear and see.

In previous oral history conferences, without the same clarity of approach or purpose, I used stories and writings from workers and youth to present accounts of struggle and visions of hope held in the past.  With the views outlined above guiding me and shaping my approach, I have revisited testimony which I have previously used to document pain and struggle against evil. In the first part of this paper I want to re-present some of that, simply to show accounts and memory of moments of joy and happiness described in the context of imposed pain and evil. In the second part of the paper I return to the question of what is happening to us so that we too often reflect the pain of the struggle but not its hope and happiness.  I use these two parts to develop and address a call for an approach around the title of this paper: Searching for joy, remembering solidarity, struggling against pain. Memory and the struggle for hope

Part 1: Searching for joy, remembering solidarity.

The history of the workers movement is a history of sustained processes of oppression and exploitation. That makes it a history filled with many moments of pain. It is also a history of recurrent struggle and ongoing survival. There are moments of joy and happiness which are parts of that history. If they are there in the history, they are there, somewhere, also in the memories of that history. But they may be suppressed because the hope which was their active element is trampled, and they may be ignored because people are looking for something else. What follows is a set of snapshots of the kinds of moments and episodes which that simple search for happiness in accounts of struggle and even pain reveals.  They are presented as an attempt to illustrate, rather than an attempt to prove.

In 1988 a group of hotel workers were dismissed for taking part in the then biggest stay-away in South African history. They met every day for six months to struggle for re-instatement.  (cf. Dimissed workers collective. 1990)

  • One day, the dismissed workers were visited one day by a group of municipal workers. In the racialised divisions of the old and new South Africa, the council workers would be called coloured, and the dismissed workers African. They had different first languages and different “cultures”. The council workers were awkward and even shy. The account from the workers, included in a booklet, reads like this. 

“One day – it was a Friday – some coloured workers came into our hall. They were carrying bags of food. And they told us that they got this food because they were working extra. Then they discussed with each other and decided: ‘ We are not going to take this food to our families at home. We have got a family also at Community House. And they are very hungry. So we will take this food to them”’ Workers, this food was not so much. It couldn’t even fill our stomachs. But it made us feel full with strength. And you shouldn’t think we were only thinking and worrying about ourselves…..You must know this. So that when there is another struggle you will remember that even words from a comrade can fill the heart and stomach of workers who are hungry and tired. And next time, we can be ready with solidarity action also. “ 

I like to think that they went home that night and somehow shared something better than normal because they were happy and proud that they had been able to give something and reach others.

  • The dismissed workers were talking about the pain of the struggle. Their account reads like this.

“One com said: ‘The worst pain is when I must see my children and know that I can not give them the things they need”. Another com answered like this: “That is a terrible pain. But think also about the future. In ten years time, what do you think your children will say? Will they say “I am cross and do not respect you because ten years ago you could not buy me the things I needed?’ No. They will say: ‘My mother, my father, I am proud of you. Because at the time of the stay-away you were there…In the workers’ struggle against apartheid and the bosses capitalism, you were there.

The dismissed workers were happy that day, and happy together. History would know and remember them with respect. They were not only struggling for their jobs. They were struggling for their children. Not just bread, but roses. (cf Oppenheim. 1911).           

  • In 1998, after years of campaigning, domestic workers won some minimal sectoral legislative protection. A group produced a pamphlet aimed at informing employers about workers’ rights. It was a situation containing pain – the very need for the legislation reflected indignities, oppression and exploitation imposed on the workers. In a general meeting of a domestic workers’ forum, workers were discussing the reaction of their employers.  A section of the transcript of that meeting reads as follows:

“I greet you comrades. Eh, with my employer I handed the paper, and she took the paper and read it. Eh, I remember that day, she left a paper on the dressing table. I met her, in the gate leaving with (for) the school. She greeted me, she asked me even how are you, I just said I’m fine, yourself? She said I am also fine. She left. She came back again, she greeted me again, and she asked me: “How are you?” I said “I’m fine and yourself?” She said: “She is fine”. And really she was very, very kind, and the phone rang, she went to the phone. She said: “I am coming back to you”.  She went and picked up the phone and she came back she  greeted me. She again asked: “How are you?” [And people are now laughing.] (my emphasis. JG) (General Meeting 27 March 1999)

The ordinary story of a domestic worker is very often a story of employers treating her “as a thing”, “worse than their pet dog”, ignoring her as a person.  This is a story of the worker’s bemused bewilderment at what happened when an employer encoutered minimal legal, with the employer floundering in her search for an unconvincing, unconvinced pseudo-respect. There are many things to hear in the transcript. When the worker told the story, she was talking to other workers. They understood the situation. They laughed together. It would have been so easy not to hear the collective laughter.

  • Adelaide worked as a domestic worker. She was also a councillor when interim councils were introduced during the transition before South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. As a councillor she trained other domestic workers in procedures of how to vote before the elections. On the day of voting, her employer called her and addressed her with patronizing ignorance: “Adelaide, today is voting. Do you know about voting?” Adelaide chose silence – an ordinary response amongst workers who mask their knowledge by assuming mantles of the same ignorance the employers presume of them.

I like to think that she chose that silence as an assertion of her dignity, and that instead of the pain of indignity, she took pleasure from her knowledge of the employers’ ignorance. She did not tell me this story in an interview. I listened, as she told the story to other workers. They could affirm her and knew about what she was saying. It allowed them some joy in seeing their own version of the same story – moments of the triumph of their dignity in the account of hers.

Part 2: Struggling to hear joy in the struggle against pain

It was not and it is not difficult to find the kinds of happiness I am talking about. It is sometimes much more difficult to find them expressed directly and affirmed directly in words. They have to be read into situations and drawn out of other words, silences, actions and inactions.  I like to hear those things in retrospect – but unfortunately, even when I had the opportunity, too often I did not ask.  I wish now, for example, that I had asked Adelaide to speak about dignity and joy in dignity. Because then I would be able to say these things using her words. And part of the reason I did not ask was that my vision was focused elsewhere so that I could not always see what to ask. In each case, there are different ways of hearing and seeing. In each case, the problem, I would suggest, is with the hearer and the viewer.

Oral history often uses transcripts of interviews and conversations. How does one capture emotions which are not necessarily spoken? They may be represented by gesture, expression, silence – rather than by words. What is the orality of joy, happiness, hope, pride amongst the victims of capitalism? What do they sound like? These are emotions. The emotions can be named and expressed in words – but the words can be spoken without the emotions. There may not be words spoken, but the emotions can be real and felt without the words. There may be silences which mean that the emotions are not there – and silences which are there precisely because the emotions are also there. And there may be sounds and words which need to be heard and understood if the emotions embedded in them are to be identified. Whatever else is involved, memory always has an element of construction in the present of what happened in the past. It makes it all the more important for the oral historian to be acutely aware of what it is of the present, and how it is that the present is shaping memory of specific aspects of the past. Similarly, the oral historian must be acutely aware of what it is of the present and how it is that the present is shaping what we hear and how we hear.

Why is it so easy for collective memory of trauma to remain articulated even amongst those who did not live the trauma, but collective memory of hope and joy not, even from those who lived the hope and joy? Why is it so easy to recognize the depth of pain involved in a denial of human dignity, but apparently so hard to identify the depth of hope and joy involved in its assertion? What does the memory of joy and solidarity have to do with the struggle for hope?

Hope is an active element of memory of joy and happiness. It is the necessary basis for memory of the joy and happiness of solidarity and collectivism of past struggles, to be shared as knowledge of these things amongst generations who did not live those past struggles. I doubt that it can be captured or understood by those who do not know the taste of hope in the present and who do not draw from that for hope about the future.  But it is precisely a lack of hope which characterizes so much of the melancholy of the post-everything commentating and writing former left.

I doubt that joy of and in processes of struggle can be appropriately captured and reflected by people who are bitter, cynical and miserable about those same processes. It is part of a paradox, which I am unable to explore here, that some of the depth and reality of the pain of everyday life is also lost when it is chronicled by those who can only see pain. Nor are they, we, going to be overwhelmed by a tumultuous cacophony of joy from the agents of those processes of everyday survival and struggle. It is necessary to recognize the absence, loss of hope as a core part of the pain of the present. In relation to the working class and its organizations in South Africa, I have elsewhere described the process as the theft of hope. (cf. Grossman 2000, 2006) Memory of happiness gets silenced and suppressed – when it is embedded in moments and processes which have become sad and bereft of hope. What once was, and once was real seems fantastical in a context in which it either part of what has been rendered “unrealistic”, and/or rewritten into something lesser and poorer than it was.

In talking about an everyday life and struggle of pain, ordinary working class people also sometimes talk with joy. But it is not that often that they talk about joy. And it is seemingly not that often that they are asked. If they do and are, it is more likely to be in the context of refugees from everyday life, rather than as agents shaping and struggling to change it. Furedi (2006) writes about how “the politics of happiness makes him mad”. He does so with exasperation – which I share – for the bourgeois moralizing of the British political establishment. He writes, understandably, out of observations of some of the self-indulgence and self-preoccupation of the professional middle class in advanced capitalist society. There is little in that approach which can recognize and appreciate the liberatory assertion of dignity, the generosity of sharing, the joy of giving in the lived experience of the oppressed and exploited of our world. It is a view which too easily reduces happiness to an individual psychological state of “self-fulfillment”, without recognizing a happiness which is embedded in the exercise of agency, as an essentially collective, shared activity of human solidarity. There is something particularly galling in the reality of a working class subjected in more and more of every component of daily life to the totalizing vision of capitalism – and then to middle class post-everythings expressing their personal disappointment with totalizing vision per se.  Sometimes, this is compounded by the (Western) romantics of the rural social movements and their liberated zones. So much more exciting to spend “30 days in a rural liberated zone” than to find joy and hope buried in the everyday of the urban working class, just down the road.

There is little hope that from such a perspective, the search for happiness in memory that I am talking about can be successful. But I think that search is crucial, and I think that the resource of happiness is there, in the history and accounts of the history, as it is here in the present of everyday life. The more I have tried to make sense of some of these issues, the more I have been returned to basic writings of Marx around alienation. It seems that whatever else is happening, we are in a reality of the capitalist everyday which is characterized by precisely the sets of alienations that he identified: from nature, from self, from the product of our labour and from each other. Working class history is the history of many moments of such alienation in the context of oppression and exploitation. It is also the history of the struggle against these. And in that history, there are repeatedly and pervasively moments where something better and richer and more humane than that alienation is achieved – a solidarity, togetherness, collectivism which bring their own joy and which tell us about a future which can truly be different. Oral history and oral historians have the possibility of capturing some of those moments. With the possibility comes a challenge and responsibility.

I believe that if we are to rise to the challenge of this work, we need a visionary approach which:

  • Refuses to become lost in the cynicism of post-modernism and the refugee status of crude nostalgia
  • Recognizes the seeds of the problems of today in the movements of struggle of yesterday;
  • Recognizes the seeds of the better future of tomorrow in the movements of struggle of today;
  • Respects and affirms the agency of ordinary working class people;
  • Can see and hear struggle at the barricades of everyday life, understanding that the silence of ordinary working class people is very often a problem of those who can not hear; that the passivity of ordinary working class people is very often a problem of those who can not see;
  • understands that we have to politicize happiness and joy, as much as we politicize pain and sadness (cf. Colectivo Situaciones. 2007);
  • recognizes that the best of the past has to be made real and used as part of the struggle of today and  that the newness of struggle of today has to be enriched with the best of struggle of yesterday;
  • can imagine what it would otherwise never capture: a joy and happiness in collectivism, inclusive solidarity and shared humaneness which are in revolutionary opposition to the competitive individualism and oppressive and exploitative relations of private ownership and capitalism in all its forms;
  • which seeks to find and affirm the struggle for roses in the midst of the struggle for bread (cf. Oppenheim, 1911);
  • and joins with Marx in understanding that philosophers have merely understood the world: the problem is to change it.

Conclusion

The study of the history of the workers movement is a study of many moments of pain and suffering and few moments of joy and happiness. For some of us involved in periods of historic upsurge in mass working class struggle, moments of solidarity and happiness in struggle came, for a while, to seem ordinary. In retrospect, and particularly the retrospect of our times today, they now come to seem extraordinary. Sometimes, they are shrouded by too many layers of our own lost hopes.  And yet, even in retrospect, there was something profoundly ordinary about them – they were created by millions of ordinary people as part of a vision of how things could be. There was another crucial dimension of that ordinariness – it was about what could and should and did happen in everyday life. This was about transforming the lived experience of that life, creating moments in the everyday of the here and now which showed the possibilities of a different everyday in the future. As much as it was about getting away from the oppressions and exploitation of everyday life, it was not simply about the escape of refugees and exiles – but the construction of something different and better. It was about changing everyday life – not just moments of escape from it.  The struggle was and is surely about that – about ordinary people together taking history into their hands and making the solidarity, compassion, humanness and happiness that capitalism has rendered extraordinary an ordinary part of everyday life. Ernst Bloch argues that “to be human is really to have utopias” (Quoted in Aronson, 1999, p2). A central feature of our times is a pervasive sense of insecurity and alienation – sometimes as an absence of human security and solidarity, sometimes as a loss of these. Memories of survival and struggle in the past offer visions of hope and experiences of joy in sharing and caring – human solidarity, collectivism, comradeship. We need an oral history of the hope and joy of these possibilities which have been created even in the context of everyday survival and struggle against the realities of oppression and exploitation. This should not be instead of accounts of pain and suffering, nor at the expense of the fullest possible exposure of the realities of the everyday inhumanity of capitalism. Instead, it should be about helping us to better know and understand the struggle against pain and suffering, so that we can better respect the resources of ordinary working class people already created in everyday life to transform it. The world is not going to be changed by oral histories and oral historians. The millions of ordinary working class people who are going to change the world through their organization, action and solidarity will be strengthened by drawing on the legacies and resources of human solidarity, collective, shared joy and happiness which they have already created in the midst of capitalist barbarism.

Works cited:

Aronson, R. 1999. “Hope after Hope?”. Social Research, 66(2) Summer, pp471-494

Colectivo Situaciones. 2007. Politicizing sadness. http://info.interactivist.net/node/5490. Accessed on 29 April 2008.

Dismissed workers collective. 1990. To the last drop of our tears. ILRIG. Cape Town.

Furedi, Frank. 2006 Why the politics of happiness makes me mad. First published on spiked, 23 May 2006. http://www.frankfuredi.com/articles/happiness-spiked-20060523.shtml. Accessed on 29 April 2008.

Grossman, J.  2000. Working class collectivism: a legacy of hope for the new millennium?. Paper presented to the 11th International Oral History Conference, Istanbul, June 2000. Conference Proceedings. pp. 788-794.

Grossman, J. 2006. Grounding dreams of hope across time and space. In Livslang nyfikenhet.  Wingard, B. (ed). 2006.  HLS Forlag. Stockholm. 98-108 (Festschrift essay)

Oppenheim, James. 1911. Bread and Roses. Published in American Magazine December 1911. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bread_and_Roses accessed on 29 April 2008.

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