Institution: University of Aberdeen

Author: Christopher J. Grundy

At the turn-of-the-century the concepts of ‘race’, ‘heritage’, and ‘identity’ were already taking on biological colours, dangerously reducing ideas of inferiority and superiority to the genetic dimension, laying the ideological basis for the unequivocal evil of Nazi expansionism and the Holocaust. C.G. Jung’s theory of archetypes, for example, is a paragon of this. Flying in the face of such pernicious approaches, the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs and the art historian Aby Warbung independently developed two theories of a “collective” or “social memory.”

Their otherwise fundamentally different approaches meet in a decisive dismissal of the concept of “racial memory,” which alloyed the thinking of academic work of pre-World War II thinkers. Building on the work of Emile Durkheim, Henri Bergson and Sigmund Freud, Halbwachs coined the term ‘memoire collective’ (collective memory) in his book Les Cadres Sociaux de la Memoire in 1925, “making the claim that his contemporaries were not yet used to attributing memories to groups” within and comprising society. More specifically Halbwachs shifted the focus from racial or biological interpretations of memory and remembering, to the influence of social groups such as “families, social classes, and religious communities.”

Halbwachs emphasized the importance of subjectivity, and made the question of who was remembering central to the debate. Crucially, the concept of collective memory, seemingly answered the question posed by Nietzsche, namely how humans could maintain their nature consistently through generations. In Halbwachs’s proposition, the specific character that a person derives from belonging to a distinct society and culture, is determined by the socialization and customs of the group of which the person is a member, rather than through phylogenetic evolution.

Halbwach’s theory still holds up well today, and undoubtedly offers significant insights into the dynamics and interactions of communities within societies, yet sceptical opinions are numerous and seemingly well founded. Nicolas Russell, for example, doubts whether Halbwachs’s theory of collective memory can be helpful in studying societies which do not conceptualize group memory in the same ‘episodic terms’ as Halbwachs. Richard Handler, on the other hand, underlines the paramount importance of ‘identity’ in Halbwachs’s theory, and points out that we must not take for granted “that our modern concept of identity is useful in describing pre-twentieth-century Western culture.” Further criticism of Sociaux de la Memoire is put forward by Assmann and Czaplicka, who argue eruditely, that Halbwachs’s explanation of the transformation of “memoire” into “histoire” is unsatisfactory as it does not fully take into account the importance of the structure of knowledge, which forms the basis of group consciousness. Assmann and Czaplicka go on to highlight the influence which is exerted by the basic attitude toward history of the groups constituting society. This introduces another variable which may dilute the usefulness of collective memory as an analytical tool.

Lewis Coser on the other hand, turns the spotlight onto the Soviet Union in order to elucidate a potential weakness of ‘collective memory.’ Specifically, Coser states that with the end of the Cold War, the people of Russia “had been forced in the last few years to shed their own collective memory like a skin, and to reconstruct a largely different set of collective memories.” Thus, Coser illuminates the potentially insubstantial nature of Halbwachs’s theory, and undermines its ability to be used to understand societies who are subject to radical internal upheaval.

Perhaps the strongest criticism of Halbwachs comes from the contemporary sociologist Barry Schwartz, however, who takes issue with the presentist approach that Halbwachs employs. Schwartz points out that if taken to its ultimate consequences, it would suggest that there is no continuity in history altogether. This can of course be dismissed a priori, as one of the fundamental tenets of collective memory theory is the explanation of the preservation of group identity through the generations.

Furthermore, philosophers such as Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche as well as more contemporary thinkers such as Bourdieu and members of the Frankfurt School can offer substantial counter-arguments, some of which will be examined here. Studying the concept of ‘collective memory’, as espoused by Halbwachs, it becomes clear that individuals’ feelings of belonging to a group with a strongly defined identity plays an essential part in understanding the origins of the First and Second World War. It is therefore crucial in setting the context in which the entirety of 20th and 21st century politics and international relations has, and will continue to take place. The unquestionable importance of Halbwachs’s theory makes it vital to analyse the criticisms levelled at it, which is what this essay will attempt to do.

At its core, the Halbwachsian theory of collective memory has the attribution of memory to groups. Interestingly, the question of who constitutes these groups is of key importance in understanding how “families, social classes, and religious communities,” remember their shared past. As Russell states:

“According to Halbwachs, groups reconstruct their past experiences collectively, and so even though an individual does have a particular perspective on this group reconstruction of the past, he or she does not have an independent memory of the past.”

Thus, the conception offered is by nature an emancipatory one, in the sense that it attributes to groups a unique ability to reconstruct past events. This is an issue the Marxist thinker Gyorgy Lukacs pits himself against. In Lukacs’s interpretation, capitalist society is structured as to be opaque to the consciousness of the people comprising it. More specifically, modern capitalist societies are organized in relation to the process of production, and it is in those terms that groups such as families, religious communities etc. interact. Rather than reconstructing the past and establishing a collective memory conceptualized in the idiosyncratic terms of the group, citizens living in capitalist economic systems are inevitably subjected to a distorted view of reality, as, so Lukacs argues, capitalism relies on individuals fulfilling “their historical function unconsciously.” Put differently, Paul Connerton states that, “it would be suicidal for them [the bourgeoisie] to uncover fully how their social structure worked, since it is an organization exercised solely in the interests of a minority.”

Thus, the essence of Lukacs’s criticism of Halbwachs’s ‘collective memory’ theory is that, “the capitalist system is not seen as it essentially is,” or put less elliptically: true reconstruction of the past is impossible for the groups which comprise capitalist society, as they are unaware of their ability, in the present as well as in the past, to bring about change.
Despite Lukacs’s intriguing conclusions, his interpretation contains an insuperable ambiguity which renders it a damp squib, namely its underestimation of capitalism. As Connerton makes clear, organizing a society along purely economic lines creates “a struggle between two parties – between those who want to uncover, and those who want to camouflage.”

Thus, “clarity is now possible with regard to one’s economic class interests, and a specifically class consciousness can come into existence.” As a consequence, Halbwachs’s conception of collective memory is still valid as every individual belongs to several groups, each of which possessing distinct “collective self-images and memories.” Therefore, an individual may be a member of a religious community with a distinct collective memory of certain past events, but will still be able to frame these in terms of class struggle if that person is one of “those who want to uncover.”

Although Lukacs’s criticism is insubstantial, it raises an interesting point by implying the value of truth to Halbwachs’s conception of collective memory. The crux of Lukacs’s argument is that groups cannot truly reconstruct the past as they are operating in an economic system designed to distort their perception of the past and present. Nietzsche, on the other hand, dismisses the concept of truth as purely fictional and criticises the “unmeasured and indiscriminate knowledge drive,” as the cause of the fragmentation of modern society. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche goes even further, stating, “Without mystery culture loses the healthy natural power of its creativity: only a horizon defined by myths completes and unifies a whole cultural movement.” This raises a problem for the use of ‘collective memory’ as an analytical tool, as the reconstruction of the past by individual groups may be sui generis, based on myths, legends and fantasies unavailable to outsiders.

This point concerning subjectivity is particularly relevant to memory studies of the 20th and 21st centuries, due to the re-examination of the concept of trauma in the wake of the unequivocal horror of the Holocaust. Cathy Caruth for instance has found that survivors’ memories and experiences remain “painfully irreconcilable with subsequent experiences.” Furthermore, she deduces from this an ambiguity about the “nature of historical experience and our representation of it,” which, in this post-modern context, leaves the question of truth about any historical event, open to doubt. This, if found to be correct, would sap the concept of collective memory of any authority, as it would have to be conceded that it is not only constructed by factors outside of human agency, but also completely incomprehensible to those who did not experience the trauma directly. Put differently, Caruth has stated that such a:

“crisis of truth extends beyond the question off individual cure and asks how we in this era can have access to our own historical experience, to a history that is in its immediacy a crisis to whose truth there is no simple access.”

Despite the validity of Caruth’s propositions, LaCapra and Sherman offer potent counter-arguments to this criticism of collective memory. LaCapra has shown effectively that the strength of the concept of trauma has become exaggerated, overextending the context of “victim and survivor,” and thus diluting the anguish experienced by those who suffered through catastrophe, as well as giving an inaccurate picture of the state of contemporary collective memory. This argument receives particular fortitude from A. Assmann’s study of two Holocaust survivors, Jean Amery and Martin Walser, in which Assmann convincingly shows the individuality of each survivors trauma. Although LaCapra does well to dampen Caruth’s hyperbolic claims concerning the importance of collective trauma, he does not de-legitimize Nietzsche’s dismissal of objective truth or the embrace of myth in regard to collective memory. This is achieved somewhat by Sherpman, who points to the ability of images to “bridge the gap between those who hold a memory rooted in bodily experience and those who, lacking such experience, nonetheless seek to share the memory.” Thus, Sherpman elucidates the power of the visual to “obliterate the gap between first-hand experience an secondary witnessing.”

The criticism that Halbwachs’s idea is ineffectual as an analytic instrument is made particularly eloquently by Nicolas Russell, who traces the origins of Halbwachs’s model of collective memory to the intellectual atmosphere of early twentieth-century France. Furthermore, Russell puts into question whether this episodic model of collective memory can be useful in understanding pre-twentieth-century France, at which point, there was no “general use [of] episodic memory as a model for conceptualizing group memory.” Russell goes on to say , that particular attention should be paid to the conceptual framework “within which these societies were operating when describing the collective memory they produced.” Wulf Kansteiner undertakes a ‘Copernican Revolution’ in this regard, shifting the focus from the representation of collective memory produced by those experiencing it, to those groups outside of these experiences who are merely perceiving it.

Kantsteiner emphasizes this point by considering “a moment of ‘failed’ collective memory,” such as the memory of the Korean War in the U.S, in order to highlight these methodological problems. Interestingly, unlike the Second World War or the conflict in Vietnam, the Korean War, in Kantsteiner’s opinion, never received the academic study or the media attention required in order for it to make the impression on the collective memory of the American people it deserved. This interpretation signifies the importance of interest groups in historical representations. More specifically, groups such as Veterans, in the case of the Korean War for example, represent a “few initiated,” who vie for a place in history by propounding their stories and memories into “the field of cultural negotiation.” Additionally, the attention these groups receive is conditional upon dates and rites perceived as important by the collective memory, exemplified by the increased yet underwhelming attention paid to the veterans on the fiftieth anniversary of the Korean war.

A further criticism levelled at ‘collective memory’ is its unsatisfactory exegesis of the transformation of ‘memory’ to ‘history’ within societies. Assmann and Czaplicka go a step further by denying Halbwachs even attempted to do so, saying he “stopped at this juncture, without taking it into account systematically.” Although Les Cadres Sociaux de la Memoire does not contain an explicit explanation of this transformation, the argument of ‘collective memory’ comprises the assumption that “once living communication crystallized in the forms of objectivized culture […] the group relationship and and the contemporary reference are lost and therefore the character of this knowledge as a memoire collective disappears.” Assmann and Czaplicka contradict this assumption, suggesting instead that the structure of knowledge within society is synonymous with the “concretion of identity.”

This is an attempt to highlight the importance of knowledge in creating not only a group consciousness but also “formative and normative impulses,” within society, while identifying Halbwachs’s intertwining of collective memory and identity. These impulses help to create a coherent group consciousness and therefore delineate between those individuals part of the group and those who are not. More specifically, Assmann and Czaplicka find that the shift from ‘memory’ to ‘history’ is determined by the inclusion of collective culture into organized or objectivized commemoration such as “texts, images, rites, buildings, monuments.” An example of this is offered by Coser, who underlines the importance of Independence Day in the U.S.A., or Bastille Day in France as having “crucial historical weight.”

Interestingly, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the ‘habitus’ frames days of national commemoration or official rites of office for example, as part of an objective social structure which is designed to instil in the individual a sense of “amor fati’ wherein they automatically fulfil the appropriate role for their objective situation.” This understanding stands in opposition to that of Assmann, Czaplicka and Coser, who perceive the creation of collective memory to be a synthesis of human agency, group dynamics and class consciousness. Thus, Bourdieu’s critique of collective memory can be surmised by his theory of the habitus, explaining human interaction, as individuals or in groups, as merely a collection of automatisms, inculcated through socially imposed ‘schemata’, bereft of any potent individual human agency to account for. Bourdieu himself put it most eloquently: “Every group entrusts to bodily automatisms those principles most basic to it and most indispensable to its conservation.”

“Memory studies offers an opportunity to acknowledge that historical representations are negotiated, selective, present-oriented, and relative, while insisting that the experiences they reflect cannot be manipulated at will.”

At its best, collective memory study takes into account both the cultural and personal narratives as well as the impersonal dynamics of objective social pressures. Lukacs for example, lucidly argues for the strength of class consciousness in the creation of class consciousness. His conclusion – that a distortion of reality, created by the elite in the line of production, makes it impossible for groups within society to remember accurately – fails to credit the highly individual nature of trauma and other concepts however. The specificity of trauma and the importance of remembrance is highlighted by Caruth and A. Assmann, yet both neglect appropriate importance to actual happenings, occurences or events in history. Thus, contemporary study has the proclivity to overestimate the importance of the post-modern context it finds itself in, disregarding the actuality of past events. Wertsch’s observations regarding “the dynamics of collective remembering are examined by analysing what happens when a “blank spot” in history is filled with information that had previously not been available or publicly acknowledged,” is of significance here.


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