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Jacoby, R. (1984). Remembering ‘Social Amnesia’. Free Associations, 1A(Pilot):16-22.
   

(1984). Free Associations, 1A(Pilot):16-22

Remembering ‘Social Amnesia’

Russell Jacoby

Social Amnesia1 was written amidst the dying embers of the New Left. The fires have not reignited, and perhaps the book's polemical heat recalls a period irrecoverably past. Nevertheless, the inability or refusal to remember provoked my efforts; and this inability has hardly been transcended. To be sure, social amnesia often surfaces as its opposite, an instant historical consciousness, or the complete confidence that the past is past. One chapter of Social Amnesia, ‘The Politics of Subjectivity’ examined left slogans — ‘the personal is political’, ‘smash monogamy’, and so on. At the time, I was assured that my critique was irrelevant; the slogans had already been surrendered.

The new slogans, however, were no better, and frequently worse, than the ones they replaced; they registered a social forgetting, not an advance. Several years later I wrote an update to ‘The Politics of Subjectivity’. The essay, ‘The Politics of Objectivity’, discussed the ‘new’ Marxist-Leninist groups that thrived by virtue of an unmastered past; blank anti-authoritarianism yielded blank authoritarianism. If the new left blindly promoted the self and emotions, the new Marxism-Leninism blindly prescribes the antidote of class analysis and correct lines. When its devotees hear the word subjectivity, they reach for the science of Marxist-Leninist Thought. The fetish of self progresses to the fetish of selflessness. I also indicated the difficulty of viewing the left as passing through coherent phases. Political stages may belong to a time when a ‘living tradition bound the left’. Now political shifts appear mechanical, perhaps random.2

The chapter, ‘The Politics of Subjectivity’, not only discussed these shifts; its own publishing history reflected them. Originally I submitted ‘The Politics of Subjectivity’ as a separate essay to New Left Review, which always appeared to us insecure Americans as representing an elegant and self-confident Marxism. New Left Review flatly rejected the piece, commenting that all its editors thoroughly disagreed with it.

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