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Colonial Skull Museums

Due to the frenetic need, in the face of capitalism's current crisis, for the ruling class to reinforce the ideology that capitalism is the end of history––that nobody should even think about communism––the Spectator has recently argued that "Britain needs a museum of communist terror."  Not only do they join the ranks of other ruling class attempts to decide on the memory of anti-capitalist resistance, there is something creepily ironic about this latest presumption about the "massive death toll" of communism.  The article's picture of stacked skulls, the notorious image of the Khmer Rouge's "Killing Fields" says it all: while I'm not interested in defending the Khmer Rouge (my thoughts on them are best represented by this AWTW article), it's a little weird that a British museum wants to go all "skull crazy" about the victims of communism.

This was the image from the Spectator article.
The weirdness and irony lies in this fact: British museums, along with many other European/American/Canadian museums, have a long history of representing colonial genocide in the artifacts they display.  So much of what they own were taken, during moments of genocide, from the peoples they subjugated and massacred.  But let's not even be metaphorical, here: these museums also have a history of displaying the human remains––skulls and skeletons––of these subjugated peoples.  Now they want to collect the skulls of communist victims to make a new grisly museum?  Whatever they would be able to collect from Cambodia would be insignificant from their own skull museums.

No, this is not a metaphor.  Last August Robert Mugabe claimed that British museums had taken and displayed the remains of Zimbabwean people it had murdered during its colonial regime.  Whatever you might think about Mugabe now (my readers' opinion on him is a spectrum, and in this article I'm not interested in clarifying my own position) is not at issue.  What matters is the fact that Britain actually confirmed Mugabe's claim, admitting that "[t]he Natural History Museum has around 20,000 items in its human remains section."  Oh yeah, it's also "considering" the request to return these skulls and skeletons to Zimbabwe so they can be properly buried.  So if it wants to have a museum commemorating human remains, why take things from communism?  Why not just trot out the remains of its own victims… oh yeah, because we shouldn't be reminded of the horrible death toll of colonialism, that brought capitalism into existence, because communism is the true terror.

And Britain is not alone in its skull museums.  In one of those strange moments of synchronicity, hours before I read this asinine Spectator article I read Vajra Chandrasekera's Strange Horizons review of Nnedi Okorafor's Binti where he talks about how Germany collected the human remains of its colonial victims in Namibia: "The skulls were taken from victims of the genocide, transported to Berlin to be mad-scienced for signs of racial inferiority. There are thousands more such human remains in various institutions in Germany to this day."  So basically, Germany collected a bunch of the human remains of its victims so that it could experiment on them in the interest of racial science.  This is not Nazi Germany, mind you, but pre-fascist Enlightenment Germany.  Nor was this "just a German thing" (as insipid moralists who like to imagine that the horrors of Nazism were unique to "German culture") but pretty much what the rest of Europe was doing: from the horror stories of Spanish colonization of the New World, to the exterminatory logic of American expansion, and to every state involved in the colonial project.  Which goes to show that Cesaire and Fanon were correct when they argued that the kind of thing the Nazis visited upon other Europeans was a normal state of affairs for colonized and enslaved non-Europeans for centuries before the Holocaust––i.e. that the Holocaust was unique only insofar as the genocidal practices of colonial European powers was turned upon Europeans themselves.

So when I read these insipid articles about the supposed horrors of communist excess I want to know why the author does not think that the world in which they live is not the meter of violent excess.  Forget the illogical number of people that ignorant apparatchik journalists seem to believe Stalin and Mao "personally" murdered (by now the death toll in reactionary popular imagination, that no serious academic would ever agree with, is such that Russia and China should have ceased to exist decades ago since the numbers claim that, when added to the better known death tolls of WW2, their entire populations would be annihilated completely) and just focus on this fact: there are already museums in these capitalist countries that are stock-piling remains that signify the horrors of capitalism.  If you really want a skull museum to remind us of horrible things maybe your beloved country should start with what its museums already own… Half a century ago, after all, the same country had no problem proudly displaying these skulls and skeletons.