‘The situation is not desperate’

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Interview by Joseph Confavreux. Originally published by Mediapart, 3 May 2022. Translated by David Fernbach.

Enzo Traverso teaches intellectual history at Cornell University in the United States. He examines in this interview the French presidential election; the possibility or not of drawing on a ‘left-wing melancholy’ to overcome defeats, as per the title of his previous book; and what we can retain, in a rereading of history, of this term ‘revolution’ that is both overwhelming and seductive.

In his latest book, Revolution: An Intellectual History, Enzo Traverso uses texts, moments in history, and numerous images to develop a historical narrative that can account for the fact that, as he quotes the philosopher Daniel Bensaïd at the start of his book, ‘revolution, without a capital letter or image, remains necessary as an indeterminate idea of change and a compass of will. Not as a model, a prefabricated scheme, but as a strategic hypothesis and a regulatory horizon.’

Against a conservative historiography that reduces the revolutionary moment to simply an outburst of violence, but also against a widespread tendency, even among some scholars committed to the left such as the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, to ‘describe the failure of revolutions as an inescapable outcome’, Enzo Traverso refuses to operate a ‘selection between good and bad revolutions, a distinction as difficult as it is sterile, since revolutions do not require to be idealised or demonised’.

This rereading of the history of revolutions could, according to him, shed light on the ‘great dilemma of our time’, namely ‘the conflict between resignation and hope, between capitulation and renaissance, between tragic impotence in the face of extensive defeat and the desperate effort to resist.’

Indeed, for Traverso, ‘if the revolutions of our time must invent their own models, they cannot do so from a clean slate; without embodying, that is to say, endorsing the memory of past struggles, whether these are victories or, more frequently, defeats. This is undoubtedly a work of mourning, but also of training for future battles. “Elaborating” the past is necessary, not only because there are too many corpses in the closet, but also because we cannot ignore the hold the past has on us.

This elaboration presupposes first of all that the rupture and power of revolutions, which Walter Benjamin compared to nuclear fission, be felt and understood again: an explosion capable of releasing and increasing tenfold the energies buried in the past.

What is your reading of the French presidential campaign and its outcome, and in particular of the state of the left?

Enzo Traverso: Even though I am on the other side of the Atlantic, I followed the election closely and, like many people, I was very affected by the results. The first feeling is that of frustration, because for the second time in a row, France was faced with an alternative between a fascist far right and a neoliberal right, an alternative that is all the more depressing because this time everyone knew that it had been consciously maintained and desired by the powers that be.

The second dominant feeling is concern, because this second round was a distorting mirror that revealed the deep hiatus between the institutions of the Fifth Republic and the reality of the country, raising questions about the democratic nature of its institutions. However, almost nobody discusses this major problem, except Mélenchon who proposes a Sixth Republic.

The result of these elections has at least the merit of clarifying the political field. We had become accustomed to a continuity between a right and a left that were pursuing more or less the same policy. Macron then arrived saying in essence: I embody both the left and the right conducting this identical policy.

Contrary to what we hear a lot, it seems to me that today we don’t have three blocs – far right, right and left – so much as two blocs, themselves fractured. On the one hand, a bloc of the right and the radical right, where despite undeniable differences – they were opposed in the second round – there is no irremediable incompatibility, because these elements basically share a neoliberal economic and social vision, and because the present government has incorporated a number of favourite themes of the far right, such as authoritarianism, violence towards social movements, xenophobia or even a neo-conservative lexicon: the fight against ‘wokism’, ‘Islamo-leftism’, ‘indigenism’, ‘separatism’, etc.

The debate between Macron and Le Pen, in between the two rounds of the election, never revealed incompatibilities of visions or values, only occasional cleavages over economic policy measures to fight inflation or unemployment. Macron never addressed Marine Le Pen by saying: you are racist, you are xenophobic, and my vision of society is not yours. He presented himself as a more competent technocrat.

On the other side, there is a second bloc, that of a left that we can have certain reservations about, that we can criticise, but that is a left worthy of the name and constitutes an alternative to the bloc currently in power. From this point of view, once the anger around the first round has passed, towards those harmful candidacies of the PCF, the Greens, the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, whose only effect was to prevent Mélenchon from reaching the second round – which would have changed the whole political landscape – we can recognise that the situation is not desperate.

What is the project of this book entitled ‘Revolution’? In other words, what can we say that is new about a theme and histories about which so many pages have been written?

There certainly is an immense historiography on revolutions, and my book does not claim to bring new elements of knowledge on this or that revolution. The singular noun of the title suggests the nature of the book: an attempt to take a new look at the history of revolutions, a look driven neither by a nostalgic spirit aiming to exhume an outdated and obsolete model, nor in thrall to a doxa that stigmatises revolutions as an inescapable source of totalitarianism, whatever the aspirations and utopias they carry.

It is therefore a question of rehabilitating the concept of revolution as a key to interpreting modernity, when this concept is currently blurred in a thousand different ways. On the one hand, everything new is abusively qualified as a revolution, from the new iPhone to Macron himself: just remember the title of his book.

On the other hand, many events that were once referred to as revolutions are now read differently. We need only think of the Spanish Civil War, which is now analysed through the prism of the concept of genocide, more in tune with the times. In 1919, it was no longer the German or Hungarian revolution but a process of ‘nation building’ in Central Europe after the dissolution of the central empires. May ‘68 would be the festive moment of a liberal modernisation of France. This blurring has also been accentuated by the misleading concept of ‘fascist revolution’, now widely used in historiographical discourse.

The very concept of revolution has thus become blurred, elusive, abused, and finally exorcised. My work arises from a concern to rehabilitate this concept for interpreting the past.

About the major recent movements, from Occupy Wall Street to Nuit Debout, from Gezi Park to the ‘gilets jaunes’, and all the way to Black Lives Matter, you write: ‘None of these movements has revived the strategic discussions of the past.’ How do you explain this?

For at least the last ten years, we have been witnessing a great social and political ferment on a global scale: a protest against the dominant order, inaugurated in particular by the Arab revolutions of the early 2010s. But this great upheaval has reached an impasse, paralysed by its difficulty in projecting itself into the future.

The anti-capitalist movements of recent years do not belong to any of the traditions of the communist or socialist left. They have no conscious and assumed genealogy. Probably less on the doctrinal level than on the cultural or symbolic level they show far more affinity with anarchism: they are egalitarian, anti-authoritarian, anti-racist, interested in building new practices of direct democracy.

Because they are orphans – they are not part of a historical continuity with the twentieth-century left – they have to reinvent themselves. This is both their strength – they are not prisoners of past models – and their weakness, because they have no memory. Although they are creative, they are also fragile because they do not have the strength of those movements which, concerned with inscribing their action in a historical continuity, embodied a political tradition.

The paradox is that these new movements have produced an abundance of ideas, theories, and critiques that are out of proportion to all past debates. Today, discussion is incomparably richer and broader, and takes place on all continents. But this intellectual abundance has not been translated into the emergence of a powerful political movement. Rethinking and reappropriating the history of revolutions can therefore be a way of reintroducing the idea that a radical break with the dominant order is possible, and of rethinking the means by which this break can take place.

Why has the left, to quote your words, ‘completely abandoned the terrain on which, in the last century, it had accumulated considerable experience and recorded countless successes: armed revolution’?

Violence is consubstantial with revolutions, and I think it is necessary to recognise this. However, the revolutions of the twentieth century were based on a military paradigm born in the aftermath of the Great War, at a time when the political sphere had been reshaped by the military, undergoing a major anthropological and cultural transformation quite perceptible in both languages and practices. That era is over, and today’s revolutions cannot take up this military paradigm, even if they cannot forget the violence that constituted past revolutions.

Armed struggle was a major feature of the history of the left in the 20th century – from October 1917 to Nicaragua in 1979 – but it is no longer on the agenda. It has been effective and arguably necessary in certain historical circumstances, but we cannot ignore its inherently authoritarian and hierarchical character, which is hard to reconcile with the intersectionality of today’s social and political movements. In an army, there is no horizontal democracy, and the place of women is always subordinate.

However, evacuating the very idea of armed struggle and violent rupture also evacuates a discussion that has to take place. As an Italian, I can see that the experience of armed struggle has traumatised and intellectually paralysed the left. In the Italian debate on the war in Ukraine today, the left is lined up behind the Pope in defence of a principled pacifism that does not, however, historically belong to its culture.

The idea is certainly not to reintroduce a strategic model of military struggle, but to be aware that the electoral route is not enough to transform society. The question of violence cannot be relegated to the dustbin of history, especially as there are still countries where armed struggle remains legitimate today. We need only think of Kurdistan or, more recently, Ukraine. History reminds us, from Vietnam yesterday to Afghanistan today, that there is no invincible power.

In the age of climate change, does the situation prove Walter Benjamin right when he challenged Marx’s famous formula that ‘revolutions are the locomotives of history’ and claimed that revolutions might be the act by which humanity travelling in the train pulls the emergency brake?

The metaphor of the ‘locomotives of history’, suggested by Marx in 1850 and then becoming a popular formula, captures a collective imagination rooted in the idea of progress. It is based on a teleological vision, because the train runs on well-defined rails, its destination is known, and it is only a matter of speeding up its course. In this imaginary, the revolutionaries knew the future, which they believed was theirs.

When you look at the intellectual history of Marxism and critical thought, you can easily spot challenges to this teleology. But if we focus on the culture and imaginaries of the left, we can see that this idea was structuring, even dominant.

If the future belongs to us, the defeats we may suffer, even the worst ones – whether the coup d’état in Chile, fascism, Nazism, the Spanish Civil War – remain accidents along the way, lost battles that do not call into question the certainty of final victory.

Walter Benjamin, in the particular historical circumstances of the Second World War and the German-Soviet pact, at a time when all seemed lost, suggested a completely different idea of revolution, likened it to a warning signal, an emergency brake.

This idea was unacceptable when it was formulated, but today it resonates deeply with our sensibilities, with political ecology and contemporary anti-capitalist movements. The latter are aware that the world is not moving towards progress but towards monstrous inequalities, that an ecological catastrophe is looming, that an alternative is necessary but that it is not inevitable; it is a bet on the capacity of human beings to transform the world.

Not only are we still faced with the alternative between socialism or barbarism formulated at the beginning of the 20th century by Rosa Luxemburg, but we are faced with this alternative while being aware that socialism can itself become a face of this barbarism.

This lucid observation is necessary, but it must not lead to a complacent view of our predecessors, who were undoubtedly fooled by naïve illusions but who did make real revolutions.

These illusions were in fact the bearers of an extraordinary force, because every one of their militants had the feeling of belonging to a movement that went beyond their individual destiny. If we no longer believe in the future our commitments become precarious, fragile, dubious, and we remain paralysed in thought and action. It therefore seems to me necessary to reintroduce a telos in the form of a wager: not an inescapable future, but a project to be built.

Your previous book was devoted to the ‘melancholy of the left’ and the strength of this ‘hidden tradition’. Haven’t the defeats of the left been too numerous in recent decades for melancholy to be anything other than impotent despair?

That book pointed out that melancholy has always been repressed or suppressed within the left, which saw it only as a sign of weakness. After the defeat of revolutions, this melancholy, which was undeniable, became visible.

Now, I think there is a productive melancholy that, far from being a form of nostalgia or resignation, is not incompatible with action. A performative melancholy such as that analysed by Georges Didi-Huberman in his book Peuples en larmes, peuples en armes. This productive melancholy has been present throughout the 20th century and up to the present day, for example with the Black Lives Matter movement, which was born out of mourning for the victims of police violence and was transformed into a movement of revolt.

The same could be said of the ‘Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo’ in Argentina, whose processions were moments of mourning but gave a powerful voice to the struggle against the dictatorship. So we must hold on to this melancholy that engenders action. But there is also a reflective melancholy, which stimulates a critical elaboration of the past, a political recollection, a work of mourning connected to a strategic reflection on the present.

How can we escape from a history that also shows how revolutionary thinkers found it hard to escape the fantasy of progress, even if this meant falling into forms of eugenics and anti-ecologism, like Trotsky?

Revolutionary experiences – including the most important of them, the Russian revolution – carry powerful utopias. The history of the Russian revolution is the history of a country battered by a devastating civil war, but pervaded by an absolutely extraordinary utopian impulse. In this revolution, the project to radically change social relations, the desire to liberate minds and bodies, coexisted with the biopolitical demand to improve public health and discipline bodies assigned to production, with the unavoidable task of rebuilding the country; on the one hand, sexual liberation – Alexandra Kollontai’s ‘winged eros’; on the other, Taylorism.

This utopia had no limits. It was even possible to think of socialism as the conquest of immortality through scientific progress. The myth of the new socialist man then appeared, sometimes defined with eugenicist features: a superior human being, the product of planned selection.

Admittedly, unlike the Nietzschean Übermensch, who emerges from a world of slaves, the Übermensch conceived by Trotsky and the Bolsheviks was to be the result of a society of equals, but the project is nonetheless delusional. At the same time, the new socialist man was seen as absolute master of nature, capable of shaping it and submitting it to his will thanks to his mastery of technology. Reread today, these texts are indeed quite frightening.

You will remember Claude Lefort’s statement that democracy transforms power into an ‘empty space’, a space that those who exercise public authority can invest but not possess or appropriate. Are contemporary revolutions not compromised by the fact that there are places of power, notably economic, that escape this vision of power as a place that the sovereign people might occupy?

If we define democracy, as Claude Lefort does, as a disembodied ‘empty space’ which cannot be occupied by a sovereign, we must recognise that, by virtue of its institutions, the Fifth Republic is the antithesis of this. Since de Gaulle, we have heard a lot of talk about ‘Bonapartism’, in the sense of an executive power that is autonomous from the legislature and establishes a kind of permanent state of exception.

However, it must be understood that today this state of exception does not express the autonomy of political power. The executive does not become autonomous; on the contrary, it becomes the executor of powers outside the state. What characterises the era of global capitalism is the subordination of politics to economics.

Macron is an embodiment of this capitalism, but this tendency is clearly visible on a European scale. In Italy, we have had, at ten-year intervals, so-called national unity governments led by bankers: first Mario Monti, then Mario Draghi. Politics has admitted its subalternity to external powers.

This development has strategic implications. It is not enough to win political power through elections, because once in power, the left risks being paralysed by external powers such as the ECB, the IMF or the World Bank.

These external powers are the source of an impressive corpus of norms that are imposed on national executives. This means that a process of profound social and political transformation cannot be achieved within existing democratic institutions; new forms of democratic deliberation and supranational sovereignty will have to be invented.

Can revolutions also break down norms?

There are no revolutions that respect norms. From Marx and Bakunin to Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Fanon, revolutionary theory is a theory of rupture and subversion. Revolutionary thinkers have always been much more interested in the work of Antonio Gramsci or Carl Schmitt than that of Hans Kelsen, the theorist of legal positivism. When the Bolsheviks arrived at Brest-Litovsk in 1918 to negotiate a separate peace with Germany and Austria, they decided to abolish secret diplomacy and publish all confidential agreements, which was a way of dynamiting norms.

A real transformation of society has to break through a normative cage – including European norms – designed precisely to prevent this change. It seems to me that the Greek crisis of 2015 illustrated this dilemma very well. If we want to change the world, we have to challenge the normative shackles.

Revolutions set society as a whole in motion; they transform the dominated into political subjects who decide their own fate. Consequently, they cannot take place without dynamiting the institutions that were designed to subjugate them. History teaches us that the construction of a new society is a path strewn with pitfalls, but nothing can be done without this original, founding caesura.