Swedenburg: Memories of Revolt
"The past is never dead," wrote William Faulkner, "it is not even past." Over the last two decades, historians, anthropologists, and others have begun to embrace this notion with gusto, and the politics of the past, including the politics of historical memory, have become an extremely fertile and lively field of scholarly inquiry. In Memories of Revolt, Ted Swedenburg brings the theoretical insights and methods of analysis developed in this field to bear on modern Palestine. The result is one of the most interesting, innovative, lively, and important books on twentieth-century Palestinian history, politics, and culture to have been published in recent years.
Swedenburg's book, based largely on research in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza in the mid-1980s, is an exploration of the ways in which veterans of the 1936-39 Palestinian revolt against British colonial rule and the Zionist project it protected remember that historical event. However, Memories of Revolt is not, and does not purport to be, an oral history, a work whose goal is to draw on the recollections of those who lived through this period in order to produce a fuller and more accurate historical narrative. Swedenburg is not primarily interested in determining the truth or accuracy of what his interviewees remembered and recounted about the revolt or in whether those memories do or do not agree with other accounts. Instead, his central concern is to see how these elderly villagers (mostly men) understood what they had experienced during the revolt years and what their recollections may tell us about currents and conflicts in Palestinian popular consciousness, past and present.
Memories of Revolt thus explores the complex (and sometimes contradictory) ways in which individual and collective memories of the revolt (including representations of this historical episode produced by Palestinian, Israeli, and other scholars, as well as by political leaders) have been constructed, reworked, and inflected under the influence of subsequent developments and historical experiences and of various other discourses (including Zionist historical narratives and various forms of Palestinian nationalism). Swedenburg's project also has an important class dimension: As he points out, most accounts of the revolt, whether supportive or hostile, have focused on what members of the Palestinian Arab elite did and said. In contrast, Memories of Revolt focuses on pre-1948 Palestine's peasant majority--from whose ranks most of those who took up arms in 1936+n39 were drawn--in an effort to explore the politics of nonelite historical memory and consciousness.
Swedenburg's inquiry into Palestinian popular memory and popular consciousness makes use of concepts and categories developed by (among others) Antonio Gramsci, Ranajit Guha, the Popular Memory Group, and Raymond Williams. For example, he reads interviewees' criticisms of wealthy Palestinian notables for their alleged corruption, their lack of patriotism, and their failure to sacrifice on behalf of the national struggle (in contrast to the peasants, depicted as consistently honorable and militant) as a manifestation of what Gramsci termed "subversivism," a form of "negative class consciousness" characterized by implicit or explicit lower-class denunciation of elites but not by a clear or coherent articulation of the subaltern classes' own distinct interests.
Swedenburg also draws on Gramsci's usage of the term "common sense"--developed in his explorations of Italian peasant consciousness--and, following Guha, divides it into "those elements that people use to make the compromises necessary to live under a system of domination and those elements by which they attempt to oppose or resist that ruling order" (p. 76).
Swedenburg insists that Palestinians' memories of the revolt have been inflected by, and must be interpreted in relation to, the complex, changing, and sometimes contradictory web of popular common sense, as well as both later Palestinian nationalist discourses (which have sought to portray the 1936+n39 revolt in ways that serve their vision of the national struggle) and official Zionist/Israeli discourses which have sought to "erase, discredit and marginalize the Palestinian past" (p. 76), especially the historical record of Palestinian presence, national identity, and resistance. His challenge to the polar oppositions and simplistic dichotomies that underpin most Palestinian nationalist accounts of the revolt is particularly important and enlightening: For example, in his discussion of the recollections of men who served as rebel commanders and then defected to the British, Swedenburg argues with admirable nuance that what at first sight may seem like straightforwardly treasonous "collaboration" actually contains elements of an implicit subaltern critique of the upper-class nationalist leadership.
Memories of Revolt is clearly a book of great strengths, but there are nonetheless a few things with which one could take issue. Swedenburg's chapter on Israel's efforts to establish its official version of the country's history as the sole truth, by bulldozing Arab sites or by recasting them in terms that suit a Zionist historical narrative, covers issues other scholars also have addressed and is thus perhaps less innovative than those chapters that focus more directly on Palestinian historical memory. Some concepts Swedenburg utilizes to make sense of what his interviewees have told him about the revolt are not as sharply and clearly defined as one might like, and, in the wrong hands, they might lead to an essentialization of peasant consciousness--although Swedenburg himself is clearly aware of this danger and is at pains to emphasize diversity, complexity, and contradiction. A fuller discussion of some of the theoretical and methodological issues and potential problems involved in doing oral history and interpreting popular memory also would have been useful.
Despite these are minor concerns, Memories of Revolt is a very important and innovative book by virtue of its painstaking retrieval and subtle exploration of hitherto largely submerged or suppressed elements of Palestinian popular historical consciousness. It thereby underscores not only the great diversity and complexity in the attitudes, motivations, and experiences of those who participated in the revolt but also how their understanding of that historical experience has been influenced by all that has happened to them, and to the Palestinians as a people, in the half-century since, up to and including the intifada. A pioneering study of the politics of Palestinian historical consciousness, Memories of Revolt is essential reading for students of Palestinian history and politics; but it also can and should be read by anyone interested in how historical memory is produced, transformed, and struggled over, regardless of the region or period concerned.
Zachary Lockman teaches modern Middle Eastern history at New York University and is the author of Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).