Archive That Comrade!

Left Memory Politics, Toxic Fame and the Populist Archive
A talk with author Phil Cohen

“Don’t mourn, organize!” was a favored campaign slogan of the old Left, part of a commitment to struggles of long duration against social injustice and a belief in the ultimate triumph of socialism. But with the rise of identity politics, the importance of memory work, of recording and celebrating hitherto hidden and ignored life histories, has been widely recognized along with a nostalgic tendency in some quarters to mourn the “world we have lost” where working class culture, tied to the labor movement, was a major and progressive political force. But are the do-it-yourself archival practices of the me-too generation really an effective tool for building a shared sense of culture and community in which feelings of anger and loss can be addressed, so that grief does not have to be sublimated in grievance?

By the same token, how successful has the New Left been in challenging the multi-media apparatus of fame and celebrity which has come to dominate the politics of public commemoration? How far can the rise of the populist archive, designed to communicate ‘positive images’ of maligned minorities, be seen as a response both to the death of the collective hero, and as a reaction against the competitive individualism promoted by the fame academy?

In this talk Phil will address these questions by looking at some recent controversies surrounding public memorials, monuments and archives in both the UK and USA and by arguing for an alternative democratic politics of the archive.

Phil Cohen is a scholar activist who has worked for over 40 years with working class and immigrant communities in the East End of London as they respond to the impact of large scale demographic and socio-economic change linked to globalization and de-industrialization. As an urban ethnographer he is especially interested in how political and cultural values are transmitted between generations—or not. Among his many books are Knuckle Sandwich: Growing Up in the Working Class City (Penguin 1978), Re-thinking the Youth Question (Palgrave 1998), Reading Room Only: Memoir of a Radical Bibliophile (Five Leaves 2013), Graphologies (Mica Press 2015) and Archive That Comrade: Left Legacies and the Counter Culture of Remembrance (PM Press 2018). Website and blog:

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We Make Our Own History: On Marxism and Social Movements

We Make Our Own History: On Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism
Talk and Discussion with Alf Gunvald Nilsen

We live in the twilight of neoliberalism: the ruling classes can no longer rule as before, and ordinary people are no longer willing to be ruled in the old way. Pursued by global elites since the 1970s, neoliberalism is defined by dispossession and ever-increasing inequality. The refusal to continue to be ruled like this — “ya basta!” — appears in an arc of resistance stretching from rural India to the cities of the global North.

We Make Our Own History — a book co-written by Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen — investigates this scenario through an exploration of how social movements are forging new visions of a future beyond neoliberalism and by reclaiming Marxism as a theory born from activist experience and practice. In this talk, Alf Gunvald Nilsen will discuss some of the main arguments and ideas put forward in the book with reference to changing movement landscapes in different parts of the world-system.

Alf Gunvald Nilsen is associate professor of sociology at the University of Bergen (Norway) and Visiting Senior Researcher at the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa). He is the author of Dispossession and Resistance in India: The River and the Rage (Routledge, 2010) and the co-editor of numerous books on social movement theory and research, including Marxism and Social Movements (Brill/Haymarket, 2013) and New Subaltern Politics: Reconceptualizing Hegemony and Resistance in Contemporary India (Oxford University Press, 2015).