The Weight of all Past Generations

The tradition of all past generations weighs like an alp upon the brain of the living.” — Karl Marx

“…there has been enough of poison spread in this country during the past years and months, and this poison has had an effect on people’s minds. We must face this poison, we must root out this poison, and we must face all the perils that encompass us…” — Jawarhalal Nehru

Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana

Each of the above quotes is ultimately about how we, in the present, interact with the past. The last, by Santayana, is by far the most oft-quoted and also the one that most misunderstands what history is and why it is important. In the “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” Karl Marx better encapsulated what the past means to the present. Lastly, in his 1948 speech announcing Gandhi’s assassination to a stunned nation, Jawarhalal Nehru identified that some of the legacies of history are, in fact, poisonous. Ultimately, the past is important as something that lives within all of us regardless of whether it is remembered or forgotten.

The above quoted line from Marx is part of a larger statement about the legacy of the past on the present. In discussing the events that followed the February 1848 revolution in France he amended Hegel’s observation that, “great historic facts and personages recur twice,” by adding, “once as tragedy, and again as farce.” The point he was making goes far beyond the cliché that history repeats itself: “Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth; he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand.” Those “traditions of all past generations” are often the things that are the easiest to grasp and thus as we act in the present we often do so by placing ourselves in the stories of the past. We fill roles previously played by predecessors and in doing so we “assume their names, their battle cries, their costumes to enact a new historic scene in such time-honored disguise and with such borrowed language.” In other words, when the French acclaimed Louis Bonaparte it was not because they had forgotten the past, but because they remembered it too well. 

Does that mean that we should forget history in order to escape its legacy? I would be a poor historian if that were my recommendation. We do need to understand that the past is not a series of objective facts that can be plucked from the tree of knowledge to reveal “how things really were.” Neither can we rely on memory — clouded as it is by our own psychologies, biases, and the passage of time — as a source of historical truth. In the end, history as a discipline is much better at illuminating who we are in the present than who we were in the past. The tired old debate about the “original intent” of the “founding fathers” is as misguided as it is worthless. It is hard enough to get a handle on the inner workings of even those who we are closest to much less long-dead personages that lived in radically different cultural and intellectual contexts. We can see, however, that they left us a founding document within which slavery was enshrined. And it is possible to trace that legacy to the establishment of a racial caste system in this country; to war, to Jim Crow, to lynching and violence, and to our current political and social structures and institutions that continue to disadvantage people of color in the contemporary United States. The past is not separate from the present, in other words, it is constitutive of it.

The quote from a devastated Nehru came as he sought to make sense of the murder of Mohandas Gandhi, his dear friend, mentor, and hero, to an Indian nation still just four months removed from the triumph of independence and the tragedy of Partition. The speech that Nehru gave was extemporaneous, yet expressed his clear understanding of the legacies of the past. “The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere,” he began, but later corrected himself: “The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. The light that has illumined this country for these many years will illumine this country for many more years…” Gandhi, the man, may have been gone, but his message, his spirit, and his influence were woven into India. The fabric that made up the nation, however, had many threads and those of Gandhi were accompanied by those that helped produce his murderer Nathuram Godse. The product of a long-gestating Hindu nationalist movement based on the ideology of Hindutva (“Hinduness”), Godse saw Gandhi as a traitor who failed to understand that only Hinduism could provide Indians with “the incentive to national solidarity, cohesion, and greatness.” To Nehru, then, this horrific act was not just a a single isolated event since it was product of many of the same forces, the same past, that had produced Gandhi himself. As a result, when Nehru implored his people “to root out this poison…and face all the perils that encompass us,” he did so out of fear for what would happen if that poison was left to do its work on the body politic of India.

Yet, for all Nehru’s warnings about the presence of a poison, the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination demonstrates the difficulty for those in the present to engineer the remembrances of those in the future. Nehru’s wish was for the message of Gandhi to live on while that of his murderer would fade from memory. The reality was very different. The Hindu Mahasabha Party of which Godse was a part, did break up following his trial, but reconstituted itself in the 1950’s under a different name. After several more iterations it reemerged as the Baratiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980. In 2014 the BJP emerged as the ruling party in India under Prime Minister Modi, a position it still holds today. The following year, right-wing Hindus used the occasion of the anniversary of Gandhi’s murder to promote an effort, “to build a temple to honour Godse, a man they now describe as a hero for ridding the nation of Gandhi.”

Santayana treats remembrance as something objective and uncontested. The past, however, is not reducible to a series of lessons that can smooth our path to progress. It is instead complex, messy, and infinite and failing to understand that almost always serves the interests of the powerful. In a different speech at a different time, Nehru tempered his optimism about India’s future with a sobering reminder that “the past clings to us still…” To paraphrase Marx, the past doesn’t just cling to us, it does so with the weight of “all past generations.”

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