What Revolution?

What Revolution?

Enzo Traverso’s new book offers us a guide to the left that the 20th century left behind.


Can a symptom explain itself? Enzo Traverso’s Left-Wing Melancholia is both an example and an explication of a particular condition, namely the post-1989 red blues. An Italian-born historian whose previous work has focused on Europe’s bloody violence in the first half of the 20th century, Traverso sets out in his new book to diagnose the mourning that he claims was produced by the collapse of what was known by its defenders as “really existing socialism.”

Like many other historians and scholars, Traverso identifies 1989—the year that the Berlin Wall fell—as the unexpected and disruptive end of a particular historical epoch. “After 1989,” Traverso writes, “we became ‘spiritually rootless.’” All that was solid melted into air. The East German writer Christa Wolf had the uncanny sensation of being exiled from a country that no longer existed. More drastically, an entire culture of communist dissidence—which took much of its shape from what it opposed—was now stripped of its meaning. Artifacts like Milan Kundera’s early novels, Komar and Melamid’s parodies of Socialist Realist paintings, and scores of movies had become footnotes written in hieroglyphics.

The collapse of communism did also occasion a brief period of euphoria: The left would now be released from the excesses of its past. Some expected a new form of democratic socialism to arise. Others took solace in declarations that the “end of history” was at hand and that liberal democracy might now prove universal. But by the mid-1990s, almost all of these hopes proved to be illusory. Nationalist regimes came to power in newly liberated Eastern Europe; civil war ravaged the former Yugoslavia; the promise of even limited political democracy in China was liquidated in Tiananmen Square. Things were hardly rosier in the West, as the presidency of Bill Clinton effectively pushed American liberalism to the right of Richard Nixon and Tony Blair brought the Labour Party to the verge of Thatcherism. As Traverso observes, “market and competition—the cornerstones of the neoliberal lexicon—became the ‘natural’ foundations of post-totalitarian societies.”

Whatever else it may have been, communism—as the French philosopher Jacques Derrida pointed out—was an unprecedented worldwide social philosophy as well as a political movement, and its failure left a monumental void. Simultaneously, much of the culture that emerged around communism and socialism evaporated. With “the downfall of State Socialism,” Traverso writes, “the entire history of communism was reduced to its totalitarian dimension.” The hegemony of global capitalism that filled the vacuum may no longer seem as eternal as it did even two years ago, but the communist dream of a classless society feels more distant than ever.

If the short 20th century that Eric Hobsbawm once called the “age of extremes” was bracketed by the messy birth and inglorious death of the Soviet project, the 21st century that began in the early 1990s may be characterized by a general pessimism regarding things to come. The demise of communism in the East more or less coincided with the decline of a socioeconomic system in the West that had empowered workers and led to a relative compression of income inequality. The failure of really existing socialism tainted the objectives of noncommunist socialism; capitalist democracies lost their utopian promise of shared prosperity on their own.

For Traverso, the Soviet implosion represented “the shipwreck of the hopes of a century of emancipatory struggles.” But it did not obliterate history’s dialectic. Even as utopian imagination was buried beneath the rubble of the Berlin Wall, a hidden leftist tradition was revealed: “a melancholic vision of history as remembrance of the vanquished.”

Traverso is hardly the first writer to address this malaise. The dust had barely settled in Berlin before Derrida eulogized the passing of communism in his 1993 Specters of Marx. A cottage industry of academic books soon followed, notably Susan Buck-Morss’s Dreamworld and Catastrophe (2000) and Charity Scribner’s Requiem for Communism (2003). But though he closely identifies with the mourning occasioned by the left’s defeats, Traverso also finds in it a kind of redemptive power.

Left-Wing Melancholia takes its title from a 1931 essay by Walter Benjamin, in which he excoriated a fashionable group of Weimar writers for a left-liberalism that he believed was pitifully devoid of any corresponding action. Traverso, however, essentially stands Benjamin’s critique on its head. Rather than attacking what Benjamin called “the decayed bourgeoisie’s mimicry of the proletariat,” he seeks to commemorate and dignify the vanquished. Traverso’s left-wing melancholics (Benjamin among them) are akin to Leonard Cohen’s “beautiful losers.” For them, the tragedies of the past—the crushing of the Paris Commune, the Kronstadt uprising, the Stalinist terror, the civil war within the Spanish Civil War, the liquidation of the Prague Spring—are “a burden and a debt.”

These melancholics do not suffer from the identity crisis that one West German sociologist characterized in 1990 as “leftist mourning.” Nor are they dazed and confused in the manner described by the blunt, not altogether sarcastic title of Richard Foreman’s 2001 production, Now That Communism Is Dead My Life Feels Empty! For Traverso, their unhappy condition carries the seeds of hope. Identifying melancholia with an awareness of human limitation, he cites Slavoj Žižek’s observation that the melancholic is not mourning a loss so much as recognizing a lack. It is not communism as it was realized that is being mourned by so many left-wing melancholics, but rather communism as it was imagined and as it never existed.

Melancholia is Traverso’s heritage. He was born in 1957 in Gavi, the son of the north-Italian town’s communist mayor. Traverso came of age just as the New Left expired, and matured during a decade that brought the exhaustion of postwar anti-imperialism, the horror of the Khmer Rouge killing fields, the Iranian Revolution, the rise of Thatcherism, and the presidency of Ronald Reagan. All in all, it wasn’t a great time to be on the left.

It was during the Big Chill of the 1980s, Traverso argues, that utopian aspiration began to fade. Historical victims supplanted historical victories. The memory of the October Revolution was eclipsed by that of the gulag; World War II was defined less by the defeat of fascism than by the Holocaust; and centuries of anticolonial struggle were overshadowed by the recollection of slavery. The radiant future was overwhelmed not only by the dismal present but by the ruinous past. It was, Traverso writes, as if the commemoration of victims, isolated in their victimhood, could not “coexist with the recollection of their hopes, of their struggles, of their conquests and their defeats.”

In an interview with Alain Finkielkraut, conducted in the early 1980s, former communist true believer Kundera characterized Marxism as an ideology that, having failed “to explain the world in terms of total rationality,” had become a form of poetry: “It picked up a lyre and descended into the irrational.” While Traverso may not view Marxism exclusively in aesthetic terms, Left-Wing Melancholia is nevertheless dedicated to resurrecting those theories, memoirs, yearnings, and epigrammatic “thought-images” that help elaborate Marxism as a culture—or even a mythology—of left-wing defeat.

For guidance in this allegorical terrain, Traverso turns to the giants of 20th-century critical thinking. His Virgils include German Jewish exiles like Siegfried Kracauer, for whom melancholia was a form of post-traumatic healing, and Benjamin, who asserted that revolutionary movements were “nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.” He also cites Sigmund Freud, whose essay “Mourning and Melancholia” surfaces several times in the book, and the contemporary German historian Reinhart Koselleck, who argued that, while history may be written (at least in the short run) by the victors, “historical gains in knowledge stem in the long run from the vanquished.”

Beginning with a chapter on “Melancholy Images,” Traverso spends a considerable portion of his book on what might be called the cinema of left-wing defeat. His key example is the Italian director Luchino Visconti’s 1948 La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles). A nearly three-hour epic, the film—inspired in part by Visconti’s reading of Gramsci—methodically chronicles the failure of a Sicilian fisherman to establish a cooperative in his impoverished village. Albeit made by a communist, La Terra Trema is the opposite of a Soviet drama. The hero does not inspire revolt; rather, as Traverso notes, he loses everything.

Essentially digressive in structure—more a set of linked essays than a straightforward argument—Left-Wing Melancholia does not lack for fascinating asides. The chapter “Bohemia: Between Melancholy and Revolution,” for example, seems to be the précis for a book treating the artistic counterculture as a political laboratory. Traverso here would seem to revisit Benjamin’s essay “Paris: Capital of the 19th Century” to examine the French metropolis as the meeting ground of art and politics—reactionary as well as revolutionary—before going on to discuss the relationship between déclassé intellectuals like Marx, Trotsky, and Victor Serge and the marginal milieus through which they passed.

A bit of counterfactual speculation appears at the end of another chapter, “Marxism and the West.” Traverso puts the German refugee Theodor Adorno and the Trinidadian Trotskyist C.L.R. James in conversation, imagining these two close readers of Marx and Hegel meeting for lunch in New York sometime in the 1940s, under the auspices of their mutual friend, Herbert Marcuse. Given that Adorno failed to grasp the significance of European colonialism, Traverso acknowledges the likelihood that he and James may have gotten together “only to acknowledge their mutual dislike and incomprehension.”

Traverso has his reasons for seizing upon this missed opportunity. As in the Soviet bloc, if in a totally different fashion, the Marxism that remained prominent in the West during the last quarter of the 20th century was less a political form than a cultural one. For Traverso, “Western Marxism and Postcolonial studies merged under the sign of defeat,” and “their common field became the academy, where critical thought found a haven, far from the sound and the fury of the past century.” By reintroducing Adorno’s and James’s ideas in tandem, Traverso suggests the possibility of a vital, newly relevant synthesis.

Traverso’s efforts to recuperate left-wing losses are not entirely successful, yet he does offer us another way to look through the lens of melancholy: Bluntly put, the struggle is its own reward. Traverso twice invokes Gramsci’s assertion that continued struggle is the left’s only surety—and he believes that this more pragmatic approach to the left means retaining much of our memory of the past.

These days, Traverso’s gloomy assertion of liberalism’s triumph—“never, since the Reformation, had a single ideology established such a persuasive, global hegemony”—might seem a bit dated. There are signs of a newly invigorated socialist left emerging—though it is perhaps also worth pointing out that Jeremy Corbyn, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and Bernie Sanders are themselves beautiful losers—but the most potent current alternatives to post–Cold War consensus, at least for now, appear to be populist xenophobia, authoritarian kleptocracy, illiberal democracy, and varying degrees of theocratic fanaticism.

Traverso further notes that the absence of communism facilitated the rise of another kind of nostalgia, namely that of the ethno-nationalist right. “The past,” he laments, “is revisited almost exclusively through the prism of nationalism.” This nationalism—here, there, and everywhere—is not simply the rejection of Soviet communism; it is also the near antithesis of the post–Cold War era’s liberal cosmopolitanism. In a remarkable reversal of the future-oriented traditions that dominated much of the 20th century, the 21st century seems to be marching forward into a utopian past: Rather than project themselves into a neoliberal paradise to come, the liberated nations of Central and Eastern Europe are obsessed with their purloined history—museums that enshrine their suffering at the hands of their red and Russian oppressors have sprouted throughout the former Soviet bloc—and visions of a glorious national heritage are central to right-wing politics in Western Europe as well as the United States.

Traverso has no concrete answers, but Left-Wing Melancholia does offer solace, even some sites of possibility. A melancholic film like La Terra Trema may have appeared at more or less the moment when the Cold War effectively stymied the aspirations of the anti-fascist Italian Communist Party—and though today it’s regarded as arguably the greatest of the neorealist films made in this period, it was initially greeted at the 1948 Venice Film Festival with boos, catcalls, and other expressions of disapproval. Nevertheless, it embodied radical utopian hope. Visconti’s nonprofessional cast more or less played versions of themselves, speaking in their own dialect, and were thus empowered to experience themselves collectively as historical actors. Thanks to Visconti’s mise-en-scène, these impoverished villagers appear as almost mythological heroes—as figures who might transcend the constraints of their moment, despite being left with nothing, save the struggle, at the movie’s end.

To dramatize or even conceive such a scenario is, in some way, to live it. La Terra Trema used a catastrophic setback as a way to demonstrate the possibility of change. Likewise, Traverso invokes the mourning of the previous century as a way for us to illuminate our own path. Just because communism failed in the 20th century, Traverso argues, doesn’t mean that it—or some other form of egalitarian society—cannot be accomplished in the 21st. The yearning for utopian hope springs eternal.

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