Saturday, August 11, 2018

Book review: Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory by Enzo Traverso (2016).

Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory by Enzo Traverso (2016).


In Left-Wing Melancholia a certain eclectic and academic version of Eurocommunism has gone off its rocker.

Traverso and his petty bourgeois intellectual cohort have been crushed under the Cyclopean weight of capitalist ruling class public opinion.  They bought the "end of history" thesis that U.S. imperialism won the cold war. Their old ideological loyalty to Stalinist "actually existing socialism" dissolved overnight.

....After the shock of November 1989, however, this narrative vanished, buried under the debris of the Berlin Wall. The dialectic of the twentieth century was broken. Instead of liberating new revolutionary energies, the downfall of State Socialism seemed to have exhausted the historical trajectory of socialism itself.

What, one may ask, did their loyalty and confidence ever really amount to pre-1989? It did not amount to confidence in the international proletariat or independent working class political action. Nor to proletarian internationalism. The eyes of Traverso and his global middle class academic social layer were always on the Stalinist misleaderships of workers states, labor organizations and Stalinist parties in capitalist countries. When in 1989 the rank and file of the Eastern European workers states tore down those police regimes and established democratic space to fight for their rights, this layer tasted not victory but ashes.

And what is left for this layer today? What imp of the perverse animates their quietist anti-communist politics? Real victories and powerful struggles of the last three decades do not appear in Left-Wing Melancholia. The drawbridge has been pulled up: these academic leftists are safe within an Axel's castle of memory and symbolic connoisseurship, content to salute the bust of Walter Benjamin over their chamber door.


....Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung was systematically purged of any word with a radical connotation. In the revised version of Benjamin's article on the German socialist collector Eduard Fuchs, fascism became "totalitarian doctrine" and "human constructive forces" replaced the word "communism." The purpose of such semantic euphemisms was—as Horkheimer explained in 1938—to not pronounce a single word "that could be interpreted politically."

This comment by Traverso on the smothering of political discussion by Frankfurters Adorno and Horkheimer can easily be used as a comment on Left-Wing Melancholia itself.

Traverso wants to talk not about the dictatorship of the proletarian but utopia. In this he echoes yearnings for a safe, uncontroversial, and purely retrospective pre-Marxist socialism embraced by - among others - former Maoist Alain Badiou. (Strange are the final political resting places of Stalinists...)

Traverso writes of the post-1989 period:

....class memory vanished in a context where laboring men and women had lost any public visibility; it became a kind of "Marrano" memory, that is, a hidden memory (exactly as Holocaust memory was just after the war) and the European left lost both its social bases and its culture.

The supposed "invisibility" of the working class says more about the social layer for whom and about whom Traverso writes than it does about the proletariat itself. From South Africa to Asia and the Americas, militant defensive struggles have been omnipresent in the last three decades. Closer to home, Traverso might also investigate the long fight by French workers to defend their social wage.

These humdrum examples of the lawful persistence of class struggle may not achieve the sexy heights of utopian aspiration that Traverso thinks are due him and his friends. But they are the everyday reality for billions of workers, and will not cease because they do not "measure-up."


The reader of Left-Wing Melancholia's chapters on left memories, movies, books, and dismissals of scientific socialism as positivist teleology have a right to ask of Traverso: What is to be done?

Amidst much habitual messy rhetorical muddling and occultation, Traverso eventually bequeaths to the workers and oppressed peoples of the world:

....the rediscovery of a messianic thought excavating the memory of the century could be more profitable than the conventional schemes positing the conflict between forces and relations of production and more insightful than the "long view" of structural history, with its superposed layers and its tectonic movements reducing events to a pure superficial agitation. The twentieth
century was an age of sudden, unexpected, and shocking ruptures that escaped any deterministic causality; it created many "now-times" ( Jetzt-zeit ) in which the present met the past and reactivated it. Its end took the form of a condensation of memories in which its wounds reopened and history met its lived experience.

Melancholic memories of failed utopias are thus combined with "rejection of a unilateral conception of universal history." Quoting new and renewed avatars Walter Benjamin and Daniel Bensaid, a world of "not progress but actualization."

In place of The Communist Manifesto and the Second Declaration of Havana, Traverso promotes Bensaid's 1990 book Walter Benjamin: sentinelle messianique.

In the last pages of Left-Wing Melancholia, comes the braiding of messianism with the anti-Marxism of Adorno and Horkheimer:

....Technical, industrial, and scientific progress could transform itself into a source of human and social regression. The development of productive forces could reinforce domination and its means of destruction, as the Great War had clearly proved. Fascism was neither a reaction against modernity nor a new fall of civilization into barbarism; it was rather a peculiar synthesis of the counter-Enlightenment—the rejection of a universal idea of humankind—and a blind cult of modern technology. We could not fight against this form of reactionary modernism in the name of a progress "conceived as a historical norm."

At his book's termination and nadir, Traverso's jargon unreels a vision of passivity for his petty bourgeois social layer, who know better and are thus unmotivated and uninspired:

....a politics based on the alliance between history and memory would have been different from the politics we have known.

....In 1990, the historical dialectic between the experience of the past and the utopic projection toward the future was broken. The horizon was removed from sight and the past became a saturated memory of wars, totalitarianism, and genocides. The angel of history reappeared with his frightened sight contemplating a new defeat. In this context, Bensaïd recognized that "today the alliance between the utopic legacy and the revolutionary project has fallen apart."

It's all very negative.


Left-Wing Melancholia is one more acknowledgement (if that were needed) that the left academics today talking about the "idea of communism" and the "rebirth of socialism" are peddling, at best, old pre-1848 obscurantism in new bottles (dusted by Menshevism). At worst, they are deliberately establishing roadblocks to thwart independent working class political action developing a new mass communist vanguard leadership.

In 2002 U.S. communist Mary-Alice Waters wrote:

....growing numbers of workers become conscious of themselves as a social class that can be an independent political force - this class will have the capacity to unite the toilers in the struggle to establish a workers and farmers government capable of leading humanity out of the profound social crisis that is the product of the lawful, inevitable workings of capitalism in its decline.

The greatest obstacle we face to the realization of this liberating and revolutionary perspective is that working people who are fighting underestimate what we are actually accomplishing and what we are capable of. We don't yet recognize ourselves as the true bearers of culture into the new millennium. But these are things we will learn, together, in the course of battles that are coming.

Left-Wing Melancholia's politics run directly counter to this perspective. The only saving grace of Traverso's book is that it is nearly impossible to read; and if read, to comprehend.

11 August 2018

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