Progressive Nostalgia

November 3, 2008

A friend just sent an email raising the idea of ‘progressive nostalgia’. I thought I’d comment on it here.


This is at the root of my PhD on the Political Past. It’s an interesting question because much of the literature on nostalgia sees it as a wholly reactionary – or at best, a regressive – state of mind.[1] Yet there are many examples of nostalgia being used as a spur to radical political action. For example, Peter Glazer has discussed ‘radical nostalgia’ in connection with Spanish Civil War commemoration and activism in Bush’s USA.[2]  


My thinking so far is that this is a question of political optimism: has the high point of our national history already passed or is it still to come?


Reactionary nostalgics believe that the nation is in decline and wish to return to a brighter age. This might involve radical action but its aim is primarily restorative. Progressive/radical nostalgics remember the struggles and martyrs of the past precisely because they have not won, because they have not achieved their ends. They wouldn’t want to return to the past but instead stress the need to bear it forward with them, to achieve what their forbears could not.


Thoughts on this would be welcomed…


[1] See Lowenthal’s discussion of this in ‘Nostalgia tells it like it wasn’t’, in Christopher Shaw and Malcolm Chase (eds), The Imagined Past: History and Nostalgia (Manchester and New York, Manchester University Press, 1989), pp. 18-32

[2] Peter Glazer, Radical Nostalgia: Spanish Civil War Commemoration in America (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005)

2 Responses to “Progressive Nostalgia”

  1. James Graham Says:

    I think it will be interesting to track the narrative behind Obama’s recent victory and how it evolves over time.

    For one thing, Obama’s own story already has some elements to it that sound uncannily similar to fiction, whether the fiction in question is the West Wing or, as I wrote earlier this week, Superman. His acceptance speech cemented that, fixing his victory firmly in the context of the American dream and black emancipation.

    But there’s another narrative doing the rounds on t’internet, that being the idea that the campaign formed out of the ashes of Howard Dean’s crash and burn in early 2004 and that the techniques developed for that attempt have been gradually honed and perfected to the point that the 50 State strategy became a realistic prospect this year. That story itself is bound up with the anti-war movement, the development of MoveOn during the Clinton impeachment and so on.

    A lot of Brits have drawn parallels between 1997 in the UK and 2008 in the US, but the euphoria of 1997 quickly dissipated and it is hard to see how, even at the height of their popularity back then, Labour managed to engage the disaffected in a comparable way to how Obama has managed this year (turnout went down compared with 1992 and half a million fewer people voted for Blair in 97 than voted for Major in 92). Most left-inclined political activists look back on 1997 with nostalgia, but more as observers than as participants (my clearest memory was literally watching the BBC coverage projected on the big screen in my student union courtesy of the Film Society). There is nostalgia for the moment but not the movement. Will Obama’s 08 supporters have a different experience even after a degree of disenchantment inevitably sets in? Or will they simply look back on it all and see another politician who took them for granted?

  2. thehistoricalshiver Says:

    The question of nostalgia for 1997 is very interesting. I recently bought a second hand video of election night and it had me in tears. I didn’t watch it at the time and don’t remember being at all engaged in the election but it still has that poignancy.

    Even though this is the remembrance of a victory, it still isn’t restorative nostalgia; it isn’t longing for a ‘better’ time. None of the change Labour hoped to (and in many cases, did) bring about had yet taken place; in practical terms the country was still in the same situation as it had been one month before. So it’s more about a time when possibilities were still open and hope still mattered. If anything that nostalgia is heightened by the knowledge that the hope did dissipate.

    That may very well be the case looking back on Obama’s victory from a decade or so hence. But I think it is a bit different because, as you say, it’s associated with a wider movement, reflected in the incredibly high levels of voter turnout and public engagement.

    I take your point about the link between Obama’s campaign and the anti-war movement and MoveOn, but I don’t know whether that narrative would be strong enough to outweigh the possible risks of disillusionment. On the other hand, Obama’s victory will always be seen as the culmination of the civil rights movement. In that respect the question of whether or not he fulfils the hopes placed in him becomes less important.

    And that is connected with the presence of the past – although nostalgia may be the wrong word. No one would want to go back to the days when those kinds of protests had to be made, but equally there is clearly a need to honour past heroes and to keep their stories with us. That wasn’t the case with Blair. Yes, the British left has its martyrs but they did not point in a direct line to 1997. I think that’s the difference.

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