It is that time of year when almost every public figure wears a plastic poppy, to commemorate the casualties of war. James Turley inquires into the roots and role of this practice
It is one of those curiosities of British culture which become so ingrained that they take some effort to see how weird they are - every autumn, television news, parliament, public rallies and establishment knees-ups are invaded by small, unassuming plastic poppies.
The stated purpose of this business is twofold. Firstly, the poppies raise money for the Royal British Legion, which offers charitable services to ex-servicemen and dependants. Secondly, the poppies provide publicity for Remembrance Sunday, the second in November, when we - according to the Legion - "remember those who have given their lives for the freedom we enjoy". As a first observation, then, the poppy appeal is clearly enough a nationalist business of some sort, whereby we accept those dead soldiers as 'our war dead', who died for 'us'.
This is true as far as it goes - but it leaves a lot of unanswered questions. How does the poppy come to stand for the horrors of military conflict? Why does it do so - what is it about such conflict that needs to be embodied in this way, and whose interests does all this serve? To elevate an analysis above this banal level, then, it is necessary to look at the peculiarities of the poppy appeal. And the key issue is: why a poppy? The official explanation is well known - it derives from the 1915 poem by lieutenant colonel John McRae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.1
The poppy thus became symbolic of the monstrousness of World War I, the grinding combat and unparalleled death toll. While McRae's poem still retains something of the patriotic fervour that drove tens of thousands of young men to their doom - "To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; be yours to hold it high" - the poppy symbol has since become more overtly tragic (as, for instance, in the final shot of Blackadder goes forth).
But the problem remains. OK, so there is a traditional association between poppies and the trauma of war that comprises the British Legion's stock-in-trade - but still, it is surely not the only thing that puts people in mind of the trauma of war. Why not pin images of severed arms to ourselves? What about gas masks, bayonets, cheap head-stones?
Freud and Althusser
In dealing with the mechanisms whereby specific objects come to stand in for other content - that is, fetishism - there are two key thinkers to whom we must refer: Freud and Marx. Marx will inform the discussion as a whole, so let us consider Freud. From his first key work, On the interpretation of dreams, Freud is intimately concerned with the role of such transference of meaning, if initially only in dreams.
For Freud, a dream has two different contents: the manifest content (what actually happens in a dream), and the latent content (the desires and unconscious quirks from which the manifest content is made).2 His real target, however, is the "dream-work": that is, how does the latent content become the manifest content? What happens in this process? He identifies two main mechanisms - condensation and displacement. Condensation involves a number of desires being squeezed into one element of the manifest content.
"The dream," writes Freud, "when written down fills half a page; the analysis, which contains the dream- thoughts, requires six, eight, 12 times as much space."3 Displacement, meanwhile, puts the main focus of the manifest content elsewhere than the pre-eminent part of the latent content - what the dream was about (as in, "I had a really weird dream about ...") is never what the dream was really about.
Given that there are, at least, strong superficial similarities between this theoretical issue and that of production in Marxism, it is unsurprising that Marxists have frequently made the link and used Freud's concepts. Most famously, Louis Althusser formulated, out of Freud's condensation and displacement, his own concept of "overdetermination", which sees something analogous happening on the social, rather than the psychological level.4
For Althusser, social forces take the role that desire does in Freud, and produce great events (like revolutions: his example is October 1917), as well as minor cultural practices, after they interact and combine in unpredictable ways.
But what does all this have to do with poppies?
Quite simply, the poppy is overdetermined in precisely this way. We have, for one, the long-standing tendency of capitalism towards military conflict, and towards technological developments that render even 'small' wars catastrophic. We have capitalism's implication in the emergence of nationalist doctrines; and nationalism's strong requirements on art, ideology and the rest to meet its needs - the needs of capital and the needs of war.
Out of this stew comes the need for a great unifying symbol - and all that is required then is for capital to be concentrated in lands where poppies thrive, and turn those lands into graveyards. Overly grisly or morbid images are inappropriate for the simple reason that they are too 'one-sided' - they accomplish the task of getting people to cough up for wounded soldiers, but not the task of cross-class unity around 'our' wars.
Althusser can shed another sort of light on the issues at hand. His highly influential theory of ideology5 states, among other things, that ideology "works" by getting us to do things, by enlisting our participation in rituals. Groups of rituals comprise practices, and groups of practices comprise institutions. For example, certain prayers and masses and so on embody a given religious sect; while groups of such sects form the institution of religion as such.
In this light, it is clear that the remembrance business functions on the basis of identifiable rituals (getting us all to wear a poppy, getting us all to be quiet for two minutes of a Sunday), which act as support for the role of the British Legion, which in turn is a part - despite its formal independence as a charity - of the British armed forces.
The role of the poppy
We may now examine in more detail the role of the remembrance rituals.
We have said that the appeal is nationalist, but let us look more closely at how this works - it could, after all, be argued that "dying for freedom" is an internationalist gesture, as indeed the hawks of this era like to. The first thing to note here is the very omnipresence of the poppy in early November. Why is it on every lapel in parliament? What are these MPs trying to say? Quite simply - it is a declaration of loyalism, of fidelity to the state.
It is often difficult, when anti-war liberals reliably cross the barricade and announce their support for "our boys" immediately upon the commencement of hostilities, to see clearly quite how simple and crude this manifestation of loyalist feeling actually is. How could it get more simple than declaring unconditional allegiance to the armed forces, the most 'armed' of all the 'armed bodies of men'? Wearing a poppy is the same thing - it is the same declaration of blind loyalty embodied in a fetish.
Indeed, we may find in the 'Support our troops' type of liberal the ideal poppy wearer. They are against war in a pacifistic gesture, but this opposition is nuanced by making it clear to the generals - I am on your side. And this is precisely what the poppy embodies: terrific tragedy which, through its removal to an external fetish, becomes a buttress for exactly the force responsible for that tragedy.
The message is clear - our boys, and our wars. And what necessarily disappears in this is class. The vast majority of fallen or wounded soldiers have been members of our class - proletarians driven, through destitution or patriotism, carrot or stick, into the very belly of the capitalist state. We do not make the childish gesture shared by pseudo-radical moralists and ultra-leftists alike of rejecting these people as some abstract enemy, but see them instead potentially as a different type of soldier, worker-soldiers in the militias which will overthrow this whole rotten system.
And, finally, what really necessitates the nationalist obliteration of social class is the second part of the message. Because, though they certainly are 'our boys', they did not die in 'our wars', but in the hideous and pointless slaughters endemic to bourgeois rule. Our only war will be literally and truly the 'war to end all wars', the war against capitalism and for communism.