Left Wing Melancholia

by Enzo Traverso, pub. Columbia University Press, 2017.

It was the title that appealed.

Three years ago we were part of an explosive upsurge, when a stale party, historically social democratic but which had been totally invaded and reconstructed by the body snatchers in the Blair/Mandelson years, was shaken to its core by the victory for Labour leadership by Jeremy Corbyn.  The new leader came out of nowhere.  He was a man known to, and respected by, many on the left and was an outsider, a man with no leadership ambitions.  His election had been aided by the widening of the franchise and he had appealed to many of the young who had never been even vaguely attracted to any of Labour’s stale established positions but who had been galvanised by his politics.  His election campaign also reactivated many socialists who over the years had skirted round or totally abandoned the Labour Party and who were necessarily constantly engaged in fighting against New Labour policies – the greatest anger of all being directed to Blair’s allegiance to Bush’s war.  

On the contrary Corbyn had a record of working with many of us in opposing all Labour’s imperialist adventures and wars, had always stood as the expression of sanity against nuclear weapons and against NATO and had a known record for a determined solidarity with the Palestinians. He appealed to this huge new intake as an anticapitalist having always worked to expose the inequalities produced by this social and economic system.  He also appealed as he was “an ordinary man”, displaying none of the glibness and arrogance of the dominant political class. Today in Britain it is with some disappointment, and yet with a certain inevitability, that we have witnessed the decline from that excitement of a sudden election three years ago. 

But why was the election a shot in the arm?

As part of the generation, growing up in a left wing household in 40s Britain, I was brought up to think  “Progress” would be the hallmark of our future. The forces of reaction and oppression would be steadily conquered by increased public expenditure on social goods, by education and by science.   Such certainties began to fray throughout the 70s and 80s with the emergence and dominance of neoliberal capital, “with its persuasive global hegemony”.  The world, framed by wars, genocides, with rampant and uncontested oppressions, saw the market becoming the determinant of everything. 

In Enzo Traverso’s “Left wing Melancholia”, the way any such socialist utopias and such certainty of expectation were replaced with no such horizons of hope is explored.  And he writes with the contesting guides to his analysis of the thinkers and activists such as Walter Benjamin and Daniel Bensaid.  

Composed as it is of discrete essays previously published, but which address the similar trajectory, this is an immensely fertile book.   In his introduction he says that he wanted to approach left wing culture as a combination of theories and experiences, ideas and feelings, passions and utopias, and he encompasses film and paintings as well as the writings of Marxists and critical thinkers. The chapter on visual representation considers images from Tatlin, Diego Rivera writings by Lenin, Bloch, Fanon and films by Angelopoulos, Visconti, Portecovo and Chris Marker embracing an anti-colonialist perspective. 

It is in the initial chapter The Culture of Defeat, that he unpicks how the certainties traditionally rooted in socialist thought were undermined. “The history of socialism is a constellation of defeats that nourished it for almost two centuries. Instead of destroying its ideas and aspirations these traumatic, tragic and often bloody defeats consolidated and legitimised them”.  The conflicts between the traditions of progress and reaction had throughout been constant, with communism representing the radical traditions from the enlightenment. References are rooted in Marx’s writings on the Commune, Rosa Luxemburg’s last message and Schmuel Zygielbojm whose suicide on 12thMay 43, was an indictment of the silence of others on the extermination of Poland’s Jews . Despite the fact that Zygielbojm’s suicide was an act of desperation, his note ended, “I wish that the remaining handful of the original several millions of Polish Jews could live to see the liberation of a new world of freedom and the justice  of true socialism. I believe such a Poland will arise and that such a world will come.” 

For Traverso, as for many of us, the certainties of a socialist project have in the last 40 years has been crucially weakened. With defeats piling on defeats there is almost an inevitability with which the victors impose their retrospective certainties. But it is in this last period since 1989 that many of those who were formed within the traditions of revolutionary socialism have died and the collective forms of organisation they grew up with whether as parties or mass organisations or supporting insurrections are now deemed unsupportable, irrelevant and replaceable.  These developments, however, were not unannounced. 

He justifies the usage of the word melancholia arguing that it does not carry some quaint nostalgic message for “real socialism” but  instead “melancholy means memory  and awareness of the potentialities of the past ; a fidelity to the  emancipatory promises  of  revolution, not to its consequences”.  It should be a way to acknowledge real defeats and yet develop in Wendy Brown’s words “ a critical and visionary spirit”.

 The rich debates around utopias and remembrances or Bohemia are analysed in  Marxism and Memory and Between Melancholy and Revolution where he moves from defeats into memory and reflections on the melancholic itself.  For him, it was 1989 which represented the defeat and he argues that it marks a shift whereby the remembrance of victims is replaced by the remembrances of the vanquished, citing the example of Germany where the remembrance, and celebration of the antifascists was replaced by the memory of the Holocaust.  He appears to maintain the views underpinning Benjamin’s “Theses on History”, who had written there is a necessity to act on behalf of those who had fighting and who were defeated, arguing    “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins and this enemy has not ceased to be victorious”.  And what he does not say is that the enemy continues to be victorious. 

In one of the later chapters Traverso contrasts through their correspondence the positions of Adorno and Benjamin, both “deeply shaped by the presentiment of an impending catastrophe”. For Benjamin his life became that of an exile leaving Berlin for Paris where he belonged to the “homeless” left – having no party affiliation – and he wrote to his close friend Scholem,  “Life amongst the émigrés is unbearable, life alone is no more bearable and a life amongst the French cannot be brought about so only work remains , but nothing endangers it more  than the recognition  that it is so obviously the final inner resource”. Adorno had no such anguish having money and able to live both in the US and in Britain and having a place in the Institute of Social Research with Horkheimer. But their differences are deeper still with Benjamin always believing that “any critique of capitalism limited to the aesthetic sphere to be sterile and worthless”. 

In his final chapter Synchronic Times, Traverso places Benjamin and Bensaid in almost a virtual discussion and this is an immensely riveting chapter, recognising that Bensaid was a key thinker, and activist, much of whose development through the later part of his life was in dialogue with Benjamin.  

Whilst confronted today by the defeats and set backs, by the realisation that capital in all its creativity has a constantly changing focus and forms in a global context, we recognise that socialism is not the inevitable and necessarily positivist outcome. It needs therefore to be viewed as, in Gramsci’s words, “a hypothesis based in the emancipatory potential of human beings for which the only scientific prediction was struggle”.

It is a good time to read this book as new forms of radical actions suddenly erupt. Black Lives Matter and Me Too in the US. Through Europe, actions of the Gilets Jaunes with the confusions of interpretation but their clear determination of confronting the French state, the climate change strikes of the school students and the actions of Extinction Rebellion, expressions of layers of people being prepared to stand and oppose the status quo. 

Another world is possible is the slogan which for many may have reinvigorated utopian visions but it is a different world from the one in which the ambitions to establish social justice and egalitarian principles were palpable and current or were guides being actively pursued. Today the slogan is waved above our heads but often with no bold strategic basis, theory or debates about how to accomplish the other world. And this is not an easy matter when the enormity of the task is clear, and in the face of a world where neoliberalism is global and blankets out and eradicates the seeds being sown to foster the alternatives. For the early generations who were engaged in forming a communist future, history was not closed.  Hard as it may be we must ensure that for the future, history is still to be written.  

Jane Shallice 

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