Memory, History, and Oppostion under State Socialism

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Ruble S. Watson, ed. Memory, History, and Opposition under State Socialism. School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series. Santa Fe: Distributed by University of Washington Press for School of American Research Press, 1994. x, 210 pp. References. Index. $16.95, paper. $35.00, cloth.

The introduction to this collection begins with one of the finer Soviet-era anecdotes: "Armenian radio is asked `Is it possible to foretell the future?.' The reply is: "Yes, that is no problem: we know exactly what the future will be like. Our problem is with the past: that keeps changing." Commencing on this ironic note, the book unfolds into several nuanced and original studies of how social memory and historical interpretation was managed within various state socialist regimes. The most innovative element of each chapter the emphasis placed upon the ambiguous nature of officially sanctioned historical discourse. In direct conflict with theorists of totalitarianism, who assert that physical repression and fear were the primary elements of state power, the contributors of this book provide a multitude of examples of how official ideologies in many cases came to discredit the state or even provide the metaphors which could be used to imagine a new order. As Rubie Watson directly states in the introduction, this is a collection which examines the meaning of "actually existing socialism" and not the socialism of Cold War ideologues. Rather than presenting chronicles of physical repression, this collection presents a number of contexts in which memory and experience is cautiously repressed by social actors (with the implicit risk that it might slip away and confront the repressors in the future).

Among collections which examine the dynamics of state socialism, this collection is one of the best edited and most innovative. The product of a seminar organised in 1991, all of the chapters cross-reference each other producing a work with a high degree of coherence. Perhaps most boldly, the chapters by Watson and Humphrey argue for a theory of social power within state socialist contexts which is distinct from theories of class oppression and colonial oppression. This controversial theoretical approach is supported by a very rich summary of the literature on state socialism world-wide. Although four of the nine chapters focus on China specifically, the reader will find theoretical debates which draw from a rich bibliography of work from Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia. Just as the people of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union remember and debate the advantages and disadvantages of their former political regimes in recent elections, this book provides a concise summary of European, American, and dissident analyses of state socialism. …