Mourn, Then Organize Again

Against the Current, No. 190, September/October 2017

Michael Löwy

Left-Wing Melancholia:
Marxism, History, and Memory
By Enzo Traverso
New York: Columbia University Press, 2017, 312 pages, $35 hardback.

THIS BRILLANT BOOK seeks to recover a hidden, discreet tradition: that of “left-wing melancholia.” This melancholia is a state of mind that does not belong to the left’s canonical narrative, which is more inclined to highlight glorious triumphs than tragic defeats. Yet the memory of these defeats — June 1848, May 1871, January 1919, September 1973 — as well as solidarity with the defeated, irrigates revolutionary history like an unseen, subterranean river.

The opposite of resignation, Traverso’s concept of left-wing melancholia is a common thread that winds through revolutionary culture, from Auguste Blanqui to Walter Benjamin, Gustave Courbet to Rosa Luxemburg. He reveals, with vigor and originality, the liberating and subversive task of revolutionary mourning.

For two centuries, the history of socialism has been a constellation of tragic, and often bloody, defeats. However, this has not lead to an acceptance of the established order, in fact, the opposite is true. In her last article, published in January 1919, Rosa Luxemburg wrote: “The whole road of socialism is paved with nothing but thunderous defeats … In them we have drawn from our experience, our knowledge, the strength and idealism that drive us.”

The same spirit stirred in Che Guevara when, in October 1967, he said to his killers: “We have failed, but the revolution is immortal.” Traverso observes, however, that this dialectic of defeat could lead to a sort of secular philosophy, one that is almost religious in its conviction that a final victory will come. It is better to recognize, as Rosa Luxemburg did in 1915, that the future remains uncertain: “socialism or barbarism.”

Unlike the famous defeats of the past — 1848, 1871, 1919 — the restoration of capitalism following the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall is a quiet defeat that engendered disenchantment.

Hence the development thereafter of a more melancholic Marxism, of which our friend Daniel Bensaïd (1946-2010, a philosopher and a leading intellectual of the Fourth International) is one of the most eminent spokesmen. Daniel’s skill, according to Traverso, lies in the way he approaches pessimism (drawing from Walter Benjamin): by absorbing a failure without capitulating before the enemy, knowing that a new beginning could take unprecedented forms.

Chronicles of Struggle

The left’s melancholia is better expressed through imagined revolutionaries than in theoretical debates. The book also explores this sentiment in film through the works of Chris Marker, Gillo Pontecorvo, and Ken Loach. Unlike historiography, cinema does not claim to be accurate, but instead shows a more subjective side to events, which makes it a good barometer for the revolutionary experience.

Pontecorvo, a Marxist anti-colonialist director, is a cinematic chronicler par excellence of some of the famous defeats that look to the future, such as in The Battle of Algiers (1966), or in Queimada (1969), which Edward Said considered “a masterpiece.”

The same is true, to a certain extent, of Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, which has a melancholy perspective “all but resigned” itself to the tragic fate of the Spanish Revolution of 1936-37. His film strives to be a monument to the revolutions of the 20th century, one that is epic, though not dogmatic or lyrical, and driven by mourning.

Another masterpiece, Rua Santa-Fe (2007) by Carmen Castillo, is an epitaph dedicated to the memory of her companion Miguel Enriquez and the Latin American revolutions of the 1970s. Unlike Loach’s film, Rua Santa-Fe is above all a tender record.

Castillo does not question the reasons for defeat but instead explores the emotions it engendered, as well as the reactions of today’s Chilean youth who “appropriate the memory of the vanquished.” The pages that Traverso dedicates to this film are among the most successful of the book.

The work of these three filmmakers, as well as that of Theo Angelopoulos and Patricio Guzman, describe the 20th century as a radical age of broken revolutions and defeated utopias. Their left-wing melancholia expresses the collective mourning of a generation.

After Colonialism

Traverso dedicates a chapter to what he calls “post-colonial melancholia,” which takes two forms: (1) disenchantment with failed decolonization efforts and (2) disillusionment with the missed encounter between Marxism and anti-colonialism. He examines closely Marx’s writings, noting his initial tendency towards Eurocentricity, which by the 1860s developed into a more global perspective.

During the 20th century, Marxism’s history was inseparable from national liberation movements, even if the Western Marxists (Lukacs, the Frankfurt School) ignored colonized people’s struggles. In my opinion, this limitation is undeniable, but I do not think it has engendered a “leftist melancholia” contrary to the “post-colonial melancholia” — of which Traverso speaks very little — which has weighed heavily on a generation of anti-colonialist militants.

The book’s final chapter is dedicated to Daniel Bensaïd. Under the new conditions created during the 1990s (the restoration of capitalism in the USSR and Eastern Europe), Daniel attempts to reexamine history, drawing from Marx and Trotsky, but also from the “melancholic galaxy” of Baudelaire-Blanqui-Peguy-Walter Benjamin.

One can criticize Bensaïd’s reading of Benjamin’s work — especially his theses On the Concept of History — because it dismisses the theological dimension of the text and its connection to the concept of utopia. But this atypical, unconventional reading was one of the first to put forward the political implications of Benjamin’s work.

Rather than a scholarly interpretation of the text, Bensaïd’s essay — Walter Benjamin, sentinelle méssianique (1990) — uses Benjamin as a compass for revolutionaries in the 1989-90 storm. The revolution can no longer be considered “inevitable” but only the goal of a melancholy bet (Pascal’s wager, revised and corrected by Marxist Lucien Goldmann).

Enzo Traverso criticizes today’s mainstream discourse, which makes liberalism and market economy the natural order of the world, thus stigmatizing the utopias of the 20th century. To this perspective, left-wing melancholia is guilty of attaching itself to the subversive commitments of the past.

It is time to discover how rebellious melancholia stands out from both resignation and guilt. Instead it is one of the characteristics of revolutionary action, and remains inscribed in the history of all movements, which for two centuries have tried to change the world: “It is through defeat that revolutionary experience is transmitted from one generation to another.”

I think that the author of Le pari mélancolique (Bensaid, 1997, would agree with that conclusion.

Translated by Amber Taylor

September-October 2017, ATC 190