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Anecdotes and Memory as Class Struggle

Nebulous anecdotes are always treated as evidence when it comes to the supposed evils of communism: "I know someone who lived under a communist regime, they had a horrible time, and so you are naive for even bothering to challenge cold-war dogma."  Well I've met some people who lived through the fall of these regimes who have a different perspective, who did not necessarily have a horrible time until, say, perestroika, but apparently their stories don't count.  More importantly, I know a lot of people who are living under capitalist regimes and having a horrible time but I don't rely on their anecdotes as proof of capitalism's vileness.  This is because anecdotes are generally useless when it comes to critical thinking: it needs to be said that anecdotal "evidence" has never counted, and never will count, as scientific or logical evidence.

From the always funny Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

There is a reason that any historical text that relies primarily on anecdotes is considered unscholarly.  Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's Mao The Unknown Story, for example, was roundly dismissed and belittled by serious academics because its citations consisted primarily of anecdotes told to the authors by unnamed peasants.  The problem, obviously, is that anecdotes fail the scientific test of falsifiability: they can neither be falsified or unfalsified since they are personal stories (in the case of Chang and Halliday's rightist screed, personal stories that even lack identifiable people) and an individual's experience of a given historical event is their specific experience and no one else's.  Anecdotal reliance becomes more dubious when the authors began to tell stories from the point of view of the person who experienced the event in question––when they start to imagine what this person was thinking, extrapolate the meaning of an obscure sentence, push someone to recall something from the angle the authors want it recalled from.  Hence, in Wild Swans, Chang could write long passages from the point of view of her grandmother's interior monologue during the Long March… but interior monologues are the business of fiction, not critical research, since they cannot be reconstructed decades after an event––especially by someone who never lived through the event in question.  I cannot recall what I was specifically thinking during a specific event a decade ago because I'm no longer in that moment; nor should anyone try to recall it for me unless I'm a character in a novel they're writing (a novel which would be, based on my life to date, extremely boring).

None of this is to say that oral history does not count as proper history.  Let's be clear: anecdotal stories and dubious memoirs are not the same as a serious study based on researching oral history.  Oral historians tend to unify disparate strands of personalized anecdotes into a coherent and critical whole; they don't just say, hey this was my singular experience and screw the rest of my people who experienced it differently, but are actually quite attentive to the notion of collective experience.  And modern historians who are trying to found their research on oral histories usually work very hard to find  points of intersection between what was passed down orally and what was recorded, focusing on key contradictions and those moments where the recorded historical hegemony tellingly produces gaps.  People who rely on anecdotes as history, on the other hand, don't give a flying fuck about oral history because if another oral account undermines their prized anecdote, they simply dismiss it because it is not as personal and individualized.

There is a reason, I think, that pseudo-historians who rely on anecdotes often end up telling a history that perfectly replicates an "official" history––and oral historical traditions, it must be said, usually emerge to counter these official histories rather than reify them.  Someone who tells an anecdotal story about how their RCMP grandfather's righteous assaults on indigenous nations in the Yukon, for example, is not telling an oral history but simply a stupid anecdote that does nothing more than verify a hegemonic discourse… the oral history, on the other hand, is contained in the unified telling of the nations who experienced the meaning of this grandfather's anecdotal tale.  I don't care, therefore, about someone's singular experience when it comes to making sense of history.  Marco Polo had a singular experience of China, and recorded all of his lovely anecdotes in his memoir travelogue, but only a moron would think that his thoughts should be treated as historically pure.

For there is no pure history that stands above classes and class struggle; at best there can only be a critical history that seeks to make sense of the motion of history itself––and the motion of history is class struggle.  In this context, disparate anecdotes are simply moments that tell us something about class fidelity.  Grounded in memory, anecdotal evidence can be nothing more than evidence of class positionalities.  More than once on this blog I have cited Mobo Gao's story, at the beginning of The Battle For China's Past, about a conference where the memory of an historical event was challenged:
"A couple of years back Sun (2007) gave a talk on the Cultural Revolution… She thought she did a good job by presenting a balanced and fair view of how it unfolded.  When she finished a student from China in the audience asked Sun a very pointed question: 'What is your family background?'  Sun admitted that both her parents were intellectuals who were victimized during the Cultural Revolution.  Then the student said: 'So no wonder. My father used to be the production team leader in my village.  He still recalls the Cultural Revolution with fond memories because that was his most brilliant years.  Those were years when the farmers felt proud and elated.'  Sun was shocked by the encounter and by the realization that there could be views of the Cultural Revolution that were so different from hers." [Gao, The Battle For China's Past, 13]
And Gao also argued, in the same book, that history "is not simply a picture or reconstruction of what happened: it is our present construction of the past.  The way we construct the past depends on how we conceptualize ourselves and our world in the present." [Gao, 3]  Meaning that historical accounts, and memory itself, is affected by class struggle and that our class positions now determine how we comprehend the past.  Treating anecdotes as evidence, however, obscures this critical understanding of history and usually ends up justifying the historical accounts of the ruling class.  This is because we tend to seek anecdotal evidence that concurs with the understanding of history we believed in the first place, the understanding that sanctifies the ruling ideology to which we subscribe.

Thus, memory itself becomes a class battleground.  Anecdotal evidence is usually an attempt to undermine this battleground, to pretend we are neutral observers and only recording what real individuals experienced, when what we are really doing is producing what Kazuko Ross once called faction––fiction masquerading as fact.  Memoirs, she pointed out, are the most worrisome "historical" pieces of writing because they claim to be real history, and people who want "personal" stories that confirm their unquestioned biases of a given event are ready and willing to proclaim these dubious anecdotal retellings as properly historical: "the 'eye-witness' report has to conform to preconceived positions before being accepted… as a true account.  Therefore the eye-witness can only witness what we already know."

All of this is to say that it is extremely naive for someone to assume that a cold-war narrative of history is automatically correct simply because they've chosen to focus on those anecdotes that confirm this narrative.  If historical memory itself is a class struggle then we need to recognize that there will always be anecdotes that confirm the hegemonic narrative… this is because these societies, being socialist, were still involved in class struggle and so it is logical to assume that the different class positions of these struggles would produce different and often contradictory narratives of a given moment in history.  Rather than simply default on those anecdotes that confirm what we already believed about these events––anecdotes that conform to preconceived positions––critical thinking needs to avoid naive anecdotal analysis (which likes to pretend, in a reversal common amongst pseudo-intellectuals, that the naivete rests in critical thinking) and begin at that point where memory and history are treated as part of class struggle.


  1. I was going to be very angry with you until you mentioned how oral history is different from anecdote- so now i'm not mad. In the last year of my undergrad i took an oral history methods and an anthropological methods course at the same time and it was crazy how defensive the oral history stuff was. And the oral history people were saying that you could only go back max one lifetime with oral history research, where the anthropologists were saying that it seemed there were fairly valid oral histories of volcanic eruptions going back 1,500 years that described details of the eruptions found by geologists later. Of course 'a volcano exploded' is different than 'this is how we felt and acted when the germans invaded".

    So many times in a discussion on communism, someone from a clearly bourgeois family will stand up and be like "my family was a victim of communism, they took our land, our estate, our factory and we had to flee to france with nothing but a tremendous fortune" or some variant thereof. And its like, let me play you a sad song on my tiny violin my ancestors were slaving away in coal mines while yours were exiling it up in Paris. On the other hand, those stories are valid experiences of how revolutions are experienced by the bourgeois.

    I was told many awful things about communism, especially how catholics were oppressed in communist poland- it wasn't until i grew up and started meeting people from russia and other post-soviet contries who had left after the economy collapsed and almost all of them started telling me really different things about life in the u.s.s.r and how capitalism was experienced as economic devastation rather than 'freedom'.

  2. Phew... it's a good thing I thought to make a distinction between anecdotal "evidence" and oral history! Interesting how people teaching "oral history" methods are more defensive than those who accept that oral history, when researched and compiled properly, already accept it as valid. I'm not sure what department/program you took the oral history methods course in, but I would guess that might have something to do with it. In any case, yes the overall point is that anecdotal arguments are not akin to oral history mainly because they aren't proper "history"; they're just oral declarations of fact without any research aside from something that often sounds like urban myth style reasoning, or something that just echoes dominant historical accounts.

    It is interesting how you can meet people with different stories when it comes to the break-up of the former Soviet Union. It is also interesting that their stories do not count as the "truth" when the stories that depict the USSR as the most horrible place ever are considered a priori correct.


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