Left-wing melancholia aptly sums up the psychology of many socialists of a certain age, beaten down by decades of defeat and sanguine about the resources of hope in the present. Enzo Traverso brings this issue to the foreground in his recent book, Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory (2017). Traverso is a professor at Cornell University and politically close to the Fourth International of Mandel, Bensaid and Löwy. Yet this new book – as befitting the subject matter – is a bitter disappointment.
Traverso’s ambition is to rethink the history of the left through the prism of melancholy. This is a laudable aim with a genuine Marxist pedigree. In January 1919, Rosa Luxemburg wrote in her last article, “The road to socialism is paved with defeats… from which we draw historical experience, understanding, power and idealism”. But Traverso has not done the subject matter or the tradition much justice was this disjointed book.
The central problem with Traverso’s account is the axis of defeat, which he locates in 1989 with the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe. He refers to 1989 as the “end of real socialism” and laments that the “memory of the GDR” (East German Stalinism) has been erased. He regards 1989 as qualitatively different from earlier defeats because it came to represent the failure of all attempts at revolutionary transformation, a process he says runs through revolutions in China, Cuba and Vietnam. Although he condemns nostalgia for Stalinism and describes the former Stalinist states as “bureaucratic socialism”, the mistaken assessment of 1989 clouds the whole argument. The Stalinist states were no sort of socialism at all.
Traverso’s reading of the twentieth century is utterly distorted. He seems to believe that the “process” of world revolution was upwards until at least the late 1970s. He confounds the very real defeats associated with the rise of neoliberalism, with the emancipatory significance of the demise of Stalinism. The Stalinist states atomised working class organisations, stripped away basic liberties to organise, publish and assemble, substituting labour fronts for real trade unions and imposed bureaucratic collectivist rule. The real epoch-making defeat was much earlier – in 1928, with the triumph of Stalinism in Russia – which set the parameters for everything else that followed.
A different understanding of the epoch is necessary. The first decades of the twentieth century were years of working class upsurge: general strikes across Europe, burgeoning social democratic parties and growing trade unions. Despite the betrayal of many leaders at the outset of the First World War in backing their own governments and sanctioning the slaughter, further working class upsurges resulted in the Russian revolution in 1917, mass strikes, factory occupations, workers’ councils and shop stewards movements in Germany, Italy, Britain and elsewhere. Revolutions toppled monarchs and widened bourgeois democracy, while fighting for so much more.
The Communist International between 1919 and 1922 was the high point of international revolutionary working class strategy and organisation. Thereafter the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy killed off workers’ rule in Russia and the communist parties as vehicles of working class socialism internationally. The working class continued to fight, in some cases to the cusp of revolution, with epic mobilisations in China (1925-27), Spain 1936, Hungary (1956), France (1968), Chile (1973), Portugal (1974-75), Iran (1979) and Poland (1980). But workers lacked the seasoned Marxist leadership necessary to take power.
After the Second World War, Stalinism expanded. First, under the aegis of the Russian army, bureaucratic rule spread across Eastern Europe, wiping out independent labour movements. Elsewhere, notably in China, Vietnam, Cuba, Stalinist party-armies swept to power, but they also destroyed any semblance of working class independent organisation. The Stalinist states defaced and obliterated the socialist alternative, confounding the bulk of workers both East and West.
Militancy was not enough on the economic front of the class struggle even during the upsurge from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Workers needed political and crucially ideological leadership. In recent decades tremendous new working classes, encompassing millions of proletarians, have been created in places like China, Indonesia and India. In certain cases, such as South Africa, Brazil and South Korea, vibrant labour movements were able to grow, to fight for democracy and improve workers’ living standards. But in the absence of authentic Marxist parties, the result was further defeat across the globe, in the form of neoliberalism.
At one point Traverso appears to locate the fault within the Marxism itself. He makes far too many concessions to the view that Marxism is inherently Eurocentric and marked by visions of Western domination. We should criticise Marx and Engels for some of their language and conceptions, including the mistaken “non-historic peoples” formulation on the national question. Subsequent Marxists have done that, based on the historical materialist method of analysis. Capital and labour are now global universals. Marxism can explain these tendencies better than other theories.
Traverso expends a great deal of time on Theodore Adorno, despite describing him as an “aristocratic Marxist mandarin”. It is fine to discuss the merits or otherwise of the Frankfurt school, but their approach was characterised by a complete retreat from working class self-emancipation. Without the working class as the essential social agent, the descent into pessimism is inevitable.
Traverso also seems to believe that Bohemianism is the place to look for renewal. He stretches matters too far in lumping revolutionaries such as Marx and Trotsky into this category, on the grounds that they lived in many countries, often in poor conditions and wrote extensively on matters beyond political economy. Yet Marx also identified the reactionary tendencies that could also be found among Bohemians. Either way, a narrow intellectual social layer is no substitute for the billion’s strong working class.
Traverso draws on Walter Benjamin’s conception of the organisation of pessimism, which means coming to terms with failure without capitulating to the enemy, as well as being open to new forms.
This is a reasonable stance, although one detects the typical Fourth International formula of tailism, jumping on the bandwagon of “movements” in the hope of kick-starting renewal. Surely the unravelling of Chavista “Bolivarian socialism” is only the latest proof of why this method of politics is a dead end: there are no substitutes for independent working class organisation.
Traverso asserts that Daniel Bensaid has “liberated Trotskyism”, but never explains how. Bensaid certainly did rethink aspects of post-Trotsky Trotskyism, questioning elements such as the “degenerated workers’ state” theory of Stalinism, which misunderstood the expansion of these states and soiled the authentic socialist project by association. But it is not clear whether Traverso accepts this reckoning; in fact he seems like a prisoner of its contradictions.
Wendy Brown is right that left-wing melancholia is ultimately a conservative tendency. While there is a working class, there is hope. The job of socialists is to assess the situation, tell the truth to the labour movement, while providing strategies and tactics to win existing battles. Gramsci was right that the only scientific prediction is struggle. Down with melancholy. As Joe Hill instructed us: “don’t mourn; organise!”