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Mourn, and Organise! A review of Left-Wing Melancholia by Enzo Traverso

By Samuel Earle.

Left-Wing Melancholia review

Enzo Traverso, Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory (Columbia University Press, 2017)

One hundred years on from the Russian Revolution, we can look back and reflect on the strange, sad – some may say even sacrificial – role that the Soviet Union would play in both world history and capitalism’s future.

During the Second World War, the Soviet Union’s war effort ultimately rescued Western civilisation, its chief antagonist, from Nazism, an initial ally. The Soviet Union raised the red flag in Berlin months before Hiroshima, were responsible for three-quarters of the Germans military losses, and suffered an unparalleled ten million military deaths of their own.

But then in the war’s aftermath, having saved liberal capitalism from fascism, the Soviet Union may well have saved liberal capitalism from itself. The Soviet Union awakened Western leaders and economists to the need for economic planning and welfare provision, without which – from Keynesianism to the New Deal – modern capitalism would barely be imaginable. It was an ironic fate for a state that sought to overthrow it.

But the Soviet Union’s lasting legacy would run deeper still. Finally, through its violent descent into despotism and eventual collapse in 1989, the Soviet Union would not only discredit the ideals of revolution and communism on which it was founded, it would also affirm its arch-nemesis, capitalism, as the definitive answer to how societies are organised. The Berlin Wall fell and with it, an entire representation of the world. There were no longer alternatives to capitalism; it was the end of a contradiction, some said of history. 

This symbolic shift wrought by the collapse of the Soviet Union, described by the Italian historian Enzo Traverso in his important new book Left-Wing Melancholia, threw the left into an existential crisis. Once characterised by the strength of its convictions, the left found itself submerged into a state of self-reflection and mourning – a state where, in the eyes of many, it still remains. Robbed of its telos, a clear endpoint, the left’s utopic imagination was emptied, hollowed out, and in its place there lingered only a sense of loss: the loss of a political movement, of an historical moment, of a dream – a dream that had not simply been destroyed but that had also, in light of the Soviet atrocities, become a sin.

Traverso calls this condition “left-wing melancholia”: the overwhelming feeling of a movement still burdened by its past, and without a visible future.

Of course, it was not solely the Soviet Union’s downfall that sullied the Left’s treasured symbols of revolution and communism. Monstrous acts around the world, so often committed in the name of communism – from the Killing Fields of Cambodia, to Mao’s mass graves, to Ethiopia’s Qey Shibir – all played a part. But as the inspiration for so many more, the Russian revolution’s transformation from a spring of socialist hope to a swamp of genocide and fear made it the most powerful anti-Marxist, anti-revolutionary symbol; it was pinned to the left in shame.

Some thirty years on, this symbolic link – between utopia, revolution, communism and barbarism – retains a firm grip on the public imagination. “Communism,” Traverso laments, has been “reduced to its totalitarian dimension”, such that it remains almost impossible to invoke one of these words without invoking all of them. To speak of utopias or revolution is to run the risk of the worst kinds of violence. When, for example, the British comedian Russell Brand made calls for a non-violent revolution in the run up to the 2015 UK General Election, few took him seriously, but those who did dismissed him just as swiftly. Does he know nothing of history? was the general response. “We know,” wrote the actor and writer Robert Webb, in an open-letter to Brand published in New Statesman, “that revolution ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder.” Webb’s answer was to re-join the Labour Party (he would later “re-leave” the Labour Party when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader).

In this linkage between revolution and repression, the status quo, as the opposite of revolution and therefore, symbolically, as the embodiment of peace, becomes sacrosanct. The young are called upon not to change the world – that would be too dangerous – but rather to ensure that utopias and their brutal shadows are not indulged in. Progress becomes defined as incremental adjustments to what already exists, whatever the scale of its injustices may be.

Traverso’s book is a stirring – if also at times straying – call for the left to challenge this narrative and rethink its past. He does not want to deny or downplay the gravity of any historical atrocity. Much less does he want to forget them. On the contrary, Traverso perceives “the tragedies and the lost battles of the past as a burden as a debt” – but also as “a promise of redemption”. He demands an active engagement with “the vanquished” of left movements – recognising their suffering and their commitments – to replace a passive, reductive remembrance of “victims”. The reality of the horrors of revolutions cannot force us to forget the reality – the resonance – of the hopes and aspirations that carried them. 

To make his case, Traverso draws on German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin. Benjamin was a thinker who famously insisted that the past could be transformed, and the future through it. Over the last decade, Benjamin has emerged as Marx’s heir, the master and magician of the melancholic left. A committed revolutionary thinker with little to no faith in the future, an anti-nostalgic who dedicates his time to collecting forgotten fragments of lost pasts – he is a fitting leader.

Benjamin compared his “form of remembrance” to “the method of splitting the atom”: an attempt to “liberate the enormous [or monstrous: ungeheure] energies of history that are bound up in the “once upon a time” of classical historicism”. All those forces, that is, that are lost in the binary narratives of history textbooks, between winners and losers, and executors and their victims. Benjamin never had the chance to complete this revolutionary form of remembrance, committing suicide in 1940 as he  gave up on escaping the Nazi regime alive. He  left his lifelong work, The Arcades Project – in which the atomic ideal is expressed – as an unfinished, and perhaps unfinishable, masterpiece.

Traverso seeks to revive and advance this ideal. Far from an activist chant to “Don’t mourn, organise!”, this is almost the opposite: Traverso insists that only by looking back to and dwelling on the historical horrors and defeats of the past do we take the strength to move forward. It is a “strategic” and “future-oriented” memory, as he calls it, a revolutionary melancholia with one of Benjamin’s sharpest sayings at its heart: people are energised not by the image of liberated grandchildren, but by the image of enslaved ancestors. Perhaps one could say, then, on this premise, that Traverso’s rallying cry is to “Mourn, and Organise!” For Traverso, neither can be done effectively without the other.

As the Queen said to Alice, and as Benjamin would surely agree, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”

Enzo Traverso

Left-Wing Melancholia has its flaws. A reader suffers all the frustrations of a collection of essays masquerading as something more. Two of the middle chapters in particular, offering a historical account of Bohemia and an overview of the relationship between Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, feel out of place. Both were originally published in 2002, and there seems to have been little attempt to bring them into their new context.  

Where Traverso remains focused to his theme, however, it is a brilliant piece of historical study and his insistence on the left’s “culture of defeat” is strangely uplifting. When the left feels so exceptionally defeated and deflated today, he reminds us that, in a sense, it has forever been thus.

He traces a transformation in the left from militants to melancholics, but suggests the left’s history has remained largely the same: false-dawns, unfulfilled promises and, as Rosa Luxemburg put it, “thunderous defeats”. He draws on film, art, philosophy and Marxist movements around the world – anti-colonial uprisings included – to paint a picture of a movement always premised on the twin peaks of struggle and equality, and that remains defiant, forever pessimistic and hopeful. “Defeat,” he says, never resulted “in defeatism or depression, because it was supported by a world vision that had its core in revolutionary utopia”.

Traverso does not seek to reclaim the lost symbol of communism, but he does defend the need for utopia. He suggests that the current rise of nostalgic nationalism in politics the world over – found, for example, in the successes of Donald Trump and Brexit – is partly a consequence of utopia’s absence. “The obsession with the past that is shaping our time,” he argues, “results from this eclipse of utopias: a world without utopias inevitably looks back.” As such passages show, although he does not delve into party-politics, his argument is explicitly strategic.

Despite its determination to be “future-oriented”, however, one cannot help but sense a nostalgia of its own creeping into Traverso’s study – reader and writer alike. One knows the nostalgia to be naïve – as Traverso makes clear, the past was not a pretty place – but, such is nostalgia’s way, it is there no less. It is a unique kind of nostalgia – a left-wing nostalgia, one could say – not so much for the past as for the future. It is the longing for a time when the future was a friendly place, when a telos – communism, socialism, a fairer system than this – waited beyond the struggle, one only needed to get there. In this respect, without a clear endpoint for today’s movement, the left feels not so much haunted by its past, as Traverso insists – it is happier there.

Happier for a time when, as Traverso tells us, “there were no final defeats; defeats were only lost battles”. One looked forward to the future with certainty, conviction and faith – emotions that are now so lacking in left-wing movements around the world, but which were once there in abundance, expressed in every medium. It was always a question of when, not if, capitalism would collapse. History was on our side, and the future was bright, whatever challenges lay before it.

The chapter that looks at film and art in the left – one of the book’s best – leaves a vivid impression. In Konstantin Yuon’s famous allegoric painting, The New Planet (1921), we see the October Revolution depicted as the dawn of a new world, born out of a cosmic clash and the collapse of an old one. Hope emanates from each beam of light, shining from somewhere over the horizon and illuminating the victorious discoverers. Some fifty years on, in a very different time and place, that same belief – almost arrogance – can be seen in the Marxist revolutionaries of Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers. In one memorable scene, Ben M’Hidi, the leader of the Front de Libération Nationale, is being interviewed during a press conference at the police station in Algiers. He is handcuffed and, outside, the FLN is struggling to match the military might of the French army. One journalist asks, “Mr. Ben M’Hidi … in your opinion, has the FLN any chance to beat the French army?” Unfazed, unflinching, Ben M’Hidi coolly replies: “In my opinion the FLN has more chances of beating the French army than the French have to stop history.”

What Traverso fails to appreciate, however, is that while the history of the left may well be a history of defeats, the nature of the defeat that we witness now is different. Where past defeats looked like yet more stones on the path to revolution, this defeat lacks sufficient weight to offer any kind of footing. (It would struggle to be the subject of a film, for instance.) It is a defeat characterised by silence rather than violence – an absence of ideas and leadership, a not-knowing-what-to-do. It is a defeat without “dignity”; more like a dead-end from which we will have to turn around or, what would be far worse, a dissolution of the collective will to keep walking. “The end is not an apocalyptic explosion,” Milan Kundera once said. “There may be nothing so quiet as the end.”

At the heart of this silence, Traverso understands, is the left’s loss of telos. History is not the ally it was thought to be. Telos is the opiate of revolutionaries; without it hope is hollow and defeats have a different ring. Even Traverso, who diagnoses this problem so well, cannot resist prescribing it too. “We can always take comfort,” he tells us, “that revolutions are never ‘on time’, that they come when nobody expects them.” This is false comfort: sometimes revolutions never come at all.

The fight to curb and contain – if not overthrow – capitalism will continue. Not because it can happen but because it must. In the oft-quoted words of Benjamin, “It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.” There can be no certainty for the future or conviction on what the conclusion will be. As Antonio Gramsci wrote in his Prison notebooks, the only “scientific” prediction that can be made is “struggle”. The fight must be carried on, even if that means carrying on losing. At the very least, Traverso’s Left-Wing Melancholia reminds us of that.


Samuel Earle

Samuel Earle is a freelance writer living in Paris. Twitter: @swajcmanearle.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 9th, 2017.