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.