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Enzo Traverso: The Memory of the Twentieth Century Left

Enzo Traverso 6 January 2016

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In this essay originally delivered as a lecture at the Nicos Poulantzas insitute in Athens on the eve of Syriza's historic victory in the Greek general elections, Enzo Traverso, author of the recently published Fire and Blood: The European Civil War 1914-1945 and one of Europe's premier historians of the twentieth century, reflects on the legacy of the historic left. In it, Traverso reflects on the legacy of the twentieth century and it's "memorial landscape". 

There is something paradoxical in delivering a lecture on left memory, in Athens, in this particular moment. But I am very happy for this paradox, or this dialectical contrast. We are on the edge of a possible victory of Syriza at the next elections, an event that would represent a historical turn in this country and also, because of its inevitable consequences, in Europe. This could start a process of rebuilding the European left and open new perspectives for the future of the continent. After decades of defeats and regressions, a left alternative to neoliberalism and the domination of financial capitalism finally becomes visible, and this change is beginning here, in Greece (at the margins of Europe, if we think in geopolitical terms; at its heart, if we think in terms of civilization).                          

My lecture, nevertheless, will not be devoted to the future, rather to the past. I will describe the memorial landscape—at the same time political, cultural and even mental—that has prevailed within the left over the last decades, and which we could call a culture of defeat. What is happening today in Greece (to a less extent in Spain) is the first serious, consistent attempt to find an exit to such a culture of defeat and mourning, which has been a necessary step but now risks to turn into a one-way street, not to say a labyrinth. In order to know where we are going, it is important to know where we come, and where we still are. This is precisely the task of the historian committed to the history of the left. 

The year 1989 stresses a break, a momentum that closes an epoch and opens a new one. For its unexpected and disruptive character, the fall of the Berlin Wall immediately took the dimension of an event, an epochal turn exceeding its causes, opening new scenarios, suddenly projecting the world into an unpredictable constellation. As every great political event, it modified the perception of the past and engendered a new historical imagination. The collapse of State Socialism aroused a wave of enthusiasm and, for a short moment, great expectations of a possible democratic socialism. Very quickly, however, people realized that it was an entire representation of the twentieth century that had fallen apart. People on the Left—a multitude of currents including many anti-Stalinist tendencies—quickly felt uncomfortable. Christa Wolf, the most famous dissident writer of the former GDR, described this strange feeling in her autobiographical account City of Angels: she had become spiritually homeless, an exile from a country that no longer existed. Instead of liberating new revolutionary energies, the downfall of State Socialism seemed to have exhausted the historical trajectory of socialism itself. The entire history of communism was reduced to its totalitarian dimension, which appeared as a collective, transmissible memory. Of course, this narrative was not invented in 1989; it had existed since decades, but now it became a shared historical consciousness, a dominant representation of the past. In fact, it was much more than a simple revival of the old anticommunist rhetoric. During the last thirty years, concepts like market and competition—the cornerstones of the neoliberal lexicon—became the “natural” foundations of post-totalitarian societies. They colonized the Western imagination and shaped a new anthropological habitus, as the dominant values of a new “life conduct” (Lebensführung) in front of which the old Protestant asceticism of a bourgeois class ethically oriented—according to Max Weber classical portrait—appears the archeological vestige of a submerged continent. The extremities of such Sattelzeit, of this transition age, are utopia and memory. This is the political and epistemic framework of the new century opened by the end of Cold War. 

In 1989, the “velvet revolutions” seemed to go back to 1789, short-circuiting two centuries of struggle for socialism. Freedom and political representation appeared as their only horizon, according to a model of classical liberalism: 1789 opposed to 1917, or even the American Revolution opposed to the French Revolution (freedom against equality). Historically, revolutions have been factories of utopias; they have forged new imaginaries, new ideas, and have aroused expectancies and hopes. But that did not occur with the so-called “velvet revolutions.” On the contrary, they frustrated any previous dream and paralyzed cultural production. A brilliant essayist and playwright like Vaclav Havel became a pale, sad copy of a Western statesman once elected President of the Czech Republic. The literature of Eastern Germany was extraordinarily fruitful and imaginative when, submitted to the suffocating control of the STASI, created allegorical novels stimulating the art of reading between the lines. Nothing comparable appeared after the Wende. Instead of projecting themselves into the future, these revolutions created societies obsessed by the past. Museums and patrimonial institutions devoted to recovering national pasts kidnapped by Soviet communism simultaneously appeared all over the countries of Central Europe. 

More recently, the Arab revolutions of 2011 have quickly reached a similar deadlock. Before being stopped by bloody civil wars in Libya and Syria, they destroyed two hated dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt but did not know how to replace them. Their memory was made of defeats: socialism, pan-Arabism, Third-Worldism and also Islamic fundamentalism (which did not inspire the revolutionary youth). Admirably self-organized, these revolutions and mass movements showed an astonishing lack of leadership and appeared strategically disoriented, but their limits did not lie in their leaders or in their social forces: they are the limits of our epoch. Such revolutions and mass movements are burdened with the defeats of the revolutions of the twentieth century, which are an overwhelming heaviness paralyzing the utopic imagination.

Thus, the twentieth-first century is born as a time shaped by a general eclipse of utopias. This is a major difference that distinguishes it from the two previous centuries. Opening the nineteenth century, the French Revolution defined the horizon of a new age. 1789 created a new concept of revolution—no more a rotation, according to its original astronomical meaning, but a rupture and a radical innovation—and laid the basis for the birth of socialism, which developed with the growth of industrial society. Demolishing the European dynastic order, the Great War birthed the twentieth century, but this cataclysm also engendered the Russian Revolution. And October 1917 created both an authoritarian regime and a hope of emancipation that mobilized millions of men and women throughout the world. The twenty-first century, on the contrary, opens with the collapse of this utopia.

At the end of The Passing of an Illusion (1995), a conservative historian like François Furet drew this conclusion: “The idea of another society has become almost impossible to conceive of, and no one in the world today is offering any advice on the subject or even trying to formulate a new concept. Here we are, condemned to live in the world as it is.” Without sharing the enthusiasm of the French historian, a Marxist philosopher like Frederic Jameson formulated a similar diagnostic, observing that the end of the world is easier to imagine nowadays than the end of capitalism. The utopia of a new, different model of society appears as a dangerous, potentially totalitarian desire. In short, the turn of the twenty-first century coincided with the transition from the “principle of hope” to the “principle of responsibility”. The “principle of hope” inspired the battles of the passed century, the “principle of responsibility” appeared when the future darkened, when we discovered that revolutions had generated totalitarian monsters, when ecology made us aware of the dangers menacing the planet and we began to think about the kind of world we will give to future generations. Using the famous conceptual couple elaborated by Reinhart Koselleck, we could formulate this diagnostic in the following way: communism is no more a point of intersection between a “space of experience” (Erfahrungsfeld) and a “horizon of expectation” (Erwartunghorizon). The expectation disappeared, whereas experience has taken the form of a field of ruins. According to Koselleck, past and future interact, related by a symbiotic link. Instead of being two rigorously separated continents, they are connected by a dynamic, creative relationship. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, nevertheless, this dialectic of historical time seems exhausted.

The German philosopher Ernst Bloch distinguished between the chimeric, Promethean dreams haunting the imagination of a society historically unable to realize them (the abstract, naïve utopias, such as the aircrafts imagined in the technologically primitive societies), and the “concrete” utopias inspiring a possible revolutionary transformation of the present (like socialism in the twentieth century). Today, we could observe the vanishing of the Promethean dreams and the metamorphosis of the emancipatory hopes. On the one hand, taking varied forms, the dystopias of a future nightmare made of ecological and social catastrophes replaced the dream of a liberated humanity and confined the social imagination into the narrow boundaries of the present. On the other hand, the concrete utopias of collective emancipation turned into individualized drives for the inexhaustible consumption of commodities. Dismissing the “warm stream” of collective emancipation, neoliberalism introduced the “cold stream” of economic reason. Thus, utopias are destroyed by their privatization into a reified world of commodities.

Some historians, such as François Hartog, characterize the regime of historicity that emerged in the 1990s as “presentism:” a diluted and expanded present absorbing and dissolving in itself both past and future. “Presentism” has a double dimension. On the one hand, it is the past reified by culture industry, which destroys all transmitted experience; on the other hand, it is the future abolished by the time of neo-liberalism: the time of a permanent acceleration without a “prognostic structure.” On the one hand, the fall of State socialism paralyzed and prohibited the utopian imagination; on the other hand, the past appears as a traumatic, catastrophic landscape made of wars, totalitarianism and genocide. Thus, “presentism” becomes a suspended time between an unmasterable past and a denied future, between a “past that won’t go away” and a future that cannot be invented or predicted (except in terms of catastrophe).

The twenty-first century engendered a new kind of “disenchantment of the world.” After the Entzeuberung der Welt announced by Max Weber one century ago, when he defined modernity as the dehumanized age of instrumental rationality, we have experienced a second disenchantment brought by the failure of its alternatives. Of course, the failure of real socialism is not the only source of this historical change. Socialist utopia was deeply linked to a workers’ memory that almost disappeared during the last decades. The fall of communism coincided with the end of Fordism, i.e. the model of industrial capitalism that had dominated the twentieth century. The introduction of flexible, mobile and precarious work as well as the penetration of individualist models of competition among laboring classes eroded traditional forms of sociability and solidarity. The advent of new forms of production and the dislocation of the old system of big factories with enormous concentration of labor forces disarticulated the social frameworks of the left’s memory, whose continuity was irremediably broken. The European workers movement lost both its social basis and its material culture.

Simultaneously, the decade of the 1990s was marked by the crisis of the traditional “party model.” Mass political parties—which had been the dominant form of political life in the twentieth century and whose paradigm were the left parties (both communist and social-democratic)—disappeared or declined. Composed of hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of members, and deeply rooted in civil societies, they had been a major vector of the formation and transmission of a collective political memory. The new “catch all” parties that replaced them are electoral apparatus without strong social and political identities. They do not believe in self-emancipation, neither encourage civic participation. In Italy, Matteo Renzi is proud of his demolition of the Democratic Party as a mass party, which he perceives as an archaism, an obstacle to his conception of politics: he only needs an electoral machine. Socially decomposed, class memory remains without political representation in a context where laboring men and women have lost any visibility in public space. Today, class memory is become a “Marrano” memory, i.e. a hidden memory and the European left has lost both its social bases and its shared culture. 

The reactivation of the past that is shaping our time is probably the result of this eclipse of utopias: a world without utopias inevitably looks towards the past. The emergence of memory in the public space of Western societies is a consequence of this change. We entered the twenty-first century without revolutions, without Bastilles or Winter Palace assaults, but we got a shocking, hideous ersatz on September Eleventh with the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, which spread terror instead of hope. Deprived of its horizon of expectation, the twentieth century appears to our retrospective gaze as an age of wars and genocides. A previously discreet and modest figure installs itself on the center of the stage: the victim. Mostly anonymous and silent, victims invade the podium and dominate our vision of history. Capturing this Zeitgeist, Tony Judt concludes his fresco of postwar Europe with a chapter devoted to the memory of the continent emblematically titled: “From the house of the dead.”

This sensibility with respect to the victim illuminates the twentieth century with a new light, introducing in history a figure that, in spite of his omnipresence, always remained in the shadow. At the same time, the emergence of the victims corresponds with the eclipse of the vanquished, the actors of the lost battles of the twentieth century. Humanitarianism seems incompatible with the class struggle. The memory of the Gulag erased that of revolution, the memory of the Holocaust replaced that of antifascism, and the memory of slavery eclipsed that of anti-colonialism. 

In this context, we can distinguish between three different memorial spaces. In Western Europe, the memory of the Holocaust plays the role of a unifying narrative. It is a relatively recent phenomenon—we could date it at the beginning of the 1980s—concluding a process of remembering that passed through different steps. At first, there was the silence of the postwar years, then the anamnesis of the 1960s and 1970s—provoked by the awakening of Jewish memory and a generational change—and finally the memory obsession of the last twenty years. After a long period of oblivion, the Holocaust returned to the surface in a European culture finally liberated from anti-Semitism (one of its major elements until the 1940s). In a rather paradoxical way, the place of the Holocaust in our representations of the history of twentieth century seems to be growing as the event becomes more and more remote. In Europe and the United States, the memory of the Holocaust has become a kind of “civil religion” (i.e. a secular belief, according to Rousseau, useful for unifying a community). Covered and ritualized by the media and the official institutions, its commemoration sacralizes the foundational values of liberal democracies: pluralism and Rights of Man. The defense and the transmission of such values take the form of a secular liturgy of remembering. 

It would be wrong to confuse collective memory and the civil religion of the Holocaust: the first is the presence of the past in today’s world; the second is a politics of representation, education and commemoration. The civil religion of the Holocaust has virtues but also ambiguities. As the commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz’s camp, on January 2005, clearly reveals, it is an attempt to create a consensual memory of compassion. The presence of the architects of the war against Iraq (Dick Cheney, Jack Straw, Silvio Berlusconi, Fig. 1) at the heart of this celebration roughly showed its apologetic aim: remembering the victims in order to justify a new imperial war. Within the European Union, the civil religion of the Holocaust tries to show a supranational, ethical community. And this virtuous appearance conveniently conceals the enormous democratic vacuum of a European construction founded on an oligarchic power and, according to the rhetoric of its leaders, on a “highly competitive” market economy.

Like every civil religion, I said, the memory of the Holocaust has its virtues and ambiguities. In Germany, the creation of a Memorial devoted to the murdered Jews (Holocaust Mahnmal, Fig. 2) in the heart of Berlin fulfilled an identity change of historical dimension. The crimes of Nazism definitely belong to the German identity in the same way as the Reformation or Aufklärung. Germany ceased considering itself as an ethnical community and became a political community where the myth of blood and soil was replaced by a modern vision of citizenship. At the same time, the “duty to remember” the Holocaust was followed by a systematic destruction of the traces of the German Democratic Republic. Germany’s efforts for recovering the memory of Nazism and the Holocaust are only matched by its efforts for erasing the memory of the GDR and antifascism. A solitary statue of Marx and Engels remains in Berlin, between the museum island and the Nikolaiviertel, exhibiting an ironic graffiti on its base: Wir sind unschuldig (“we are innocent”, Fig. 3).

In the age of the victims, the Holocaust becomes the paradigm of Western memory, the foundation upon which the remembrance of other ancient or recent forms of violence and crimes was built, from slavery to colonial massacres, from the Gulag to Latin American desaparecidos, from the Armenian to Rwanda’s genocides. Historiography itself was deeply shaped by this tendency, with the consequence of transforming the analytical categories elaborated by the Holocaust Studies into a kind of normative framework. The propensity emerges, in the public debates, to reduce history to a binary confrontation between executors and victims. This temptation does not concern exclusively the remembrance of genocides but also that of other historical experiences as, for instance, the Spanish Civil War. According to this approach, the conflict between democracy and fascism—the way the Spanish Civil War was perceived in Europe during the 1930s—becomes a sequence of crimes against humanity. Some historians consider this historical event to be “genocide”, in other words, an eruption of violence in which there were only persecutors and victims.

Central Europe is a different realm of memory. There, the end of the Second World War coincided with the beginning of the long night of Soviet hibernation. In the wake of Milan Kundera, many intellectuals denounced a “kidnapping” through which Central Europe had been separated from the West. The true “Liberation”, for Eastern Europeans, did not come until 1989. This explains the violent confrontations in Tallinn in the summer of 2007, in which Estonians came to grips with Russians around a monument devoted to the memory of the soldiers of the Red Army [Fig. 4]. For the Russians, this statue celebrates the Great Patriotic War; for the majority of Estonians, on the contrary, it is the symbol of many decades of Soviet oppression. Today, in Eastern Europe, the past is revisited almost exclusively through the prism of nationalism and the new members of the European Union are shaped by a deep re-nationalization of collective memories. Postulating a substantial continuity between Nazi occupation and Soviet domination, they outline the history of twentieth century as a long national martyrdom and totalitarian night. Inevitably, this approach leaves a marginal place to the memory of the Holocaust, which is reduced to an object of diplomatic mourning, the price to pay for getting respectability. This is paradoxical because the extermination of the Jews did take place in Eastern Europe: it was there that the great majority of the victims lived and the Nazis created ghettos and death camps.

Finally, there is a third European memorial space, which is both transnational and postcolonial. In Northern Africa, the anniversary of 8 May 1945—the end of the Second World War—evokes the massacre of Setif: between 15,000 and 45,000 victims, according to French or Algerian sources [Fig. 5-6]. Setif was the starting point for a wave of violence and military repression in French colonies, notably in Madagascar, where an insurrection was bloodily sedated in 1947. In Europe, the crimes of colonialism never achieved wide public recognition, only discreet, diplomatic apologies. In February 2005, the French Parliament welcomed the “positive role” of colonialism in Northern Africa and the Antilles. In Western Europe, the denial of the crimes of colonialism coexists with the rejection of immigrants and postcolonial minorities that are the privileged targets of xenophobia, racism and islamophobia (carried on by the governments themselves). The universal, pedagogical and paradigmatic character of the Holocaust becomes very debatable when it is claimed by a political power that, at the same time, rehabilitates colonialism. In this context, postcolonial memory puts into question old inherited identities and claims a redefinition of citizenship, recognizing cultural, ethnic and religious pluralism that exists inside every EU national segment.

But let me return to the memory of the left. I would like to synthetize it starting from Marx. As the famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach (1844) indicates, Marxism was born and developed as both an interpretation and a project of the revolutionary transformation of the world. The collapse of communism annihilated its utopic hopes and, consequently, erased its memory. In other words, it ceased to transmit the memory of the struggles for a better world. According to Marx, the modern revolutions directed against capitalism “cannot take their poetry from the past but only from the future.” Without a future, however, communist remembrance vanishes. Communism was postulated as a telos, as an end of history and, consequently, the cleavages of historical periodization were fixed by revolutions. A straight line linked 1789 to 1917, passing through the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune. From October onward, the process became global and the ascending curve split in different lines crossing Europe (1968 in France, 1974 in Portugal), Latin America (1958 in Cuba) and Asia (1949 in China, 1975 in Vietnam). Revolutions seemed to sketch an ascending line. Eric Hobsbawm vividly summarized this vision of historical memory quoting a British union activist who, in the 1930s, used to speak to the Tories in the following terms: “your class represents the past, my class represents the future.” In other words, memory was a memory for the future, insofar as it announced the battles to come. The remembrance of the past revolutions was not circumscribed to the exciting moment of emancipation experienced as a collective action; actually, it bore the tragedies of their defeats, but they were glorious defeats—the Paris Commune, the Spartakist uprising, the Spanish Civil War, the Greek Resistance—that prepared new struggles, hopefully victorious.

For a century, socialist communist iconography has illustrated this teleological vision of history. Its images “etched” themselves in the memory of several generations of activists—from workers to intellectuals—and shaped their imagination. The interpretation of these “subliminal points of reference” can be as interesting as textual exegesis. 

The Fourth State by Pellizza da Volpedo (1900, Fig. 7), one of the most famous paintings inspired by the socialist idea before the Great War, describes the advance of the laboring classes from a dark background toward the light: their march is a metaphor of history as a path from oppression to emancipation, from a somber past to an enlightened, resplendent future. 

After the October Revolution, utopia ceased to be the abstract representation and became the unchained imagination of a world to be built in the present. In 1919, in the middle of the Russian Civil War and the revolutionary upheavals of many countries of Central Europe, Vladimir Tatlin created his Monument to the Third International (Fig.8). Drawing inspiration from the myth of the Tower of Babel, he conceived this work of art in a constructivist style, as a building that had to be not only admired but also used, proving that art was a tool for constructing socialism. Much more than becoming a symbol, its ambition was to give material evidence to the construction of a new world as a fusion between aesthetics and politics. The spiral of the monument meant the “assault on the heavens” announced by Marx and launched by the Bolshevik revolution.

Other works of art were created in a similar spirit. In 1921, Lenin suggested to transform the Obelisk of Moscow, inaugurated by the Tsarist regime at the edge of the war in order to celebrate the Romanov dynasty, into a Memorial for the Great Socialist Thinkers, including utopian visionaries like Campanella, Thomas More, Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier (Fig. 9). In the same year, Kosntantin Yuon painted The New Planet, which interpreted the October Revolution like the discovery or the birth of a new planet (Fig. 10). The advent of socialism was much more than a simple historical turn; it was a sort of Copernican Revolution that modified our vision of the world, or even a new big bang that changed the cosmos itself. During the 1920s, the Soviet propaganda showed Lenin with his arm stretched toward the future, like an assured guide in the middle of a world made of industries, chemistries and machines, where a multitude of workers feverishly acted to build a new society (Fig. 11-12). 

In 1933, the architect Boris Iofan won the competition for the Soviet Palace of Moscow (Fig. 13). His project will never be realized, but it was immediately publicized and shaped the soviet imagination of the time. A skyscraper—the communist response to the Empire State Building inaugurated in New York two years before—culminates in a gigantic statue of Lenin, once again his arm stretched toward the future, surrounded by clouds and planes.

These posters and statues of Lenin are the secular version of an older Biblical iconography showing Moses going down from the Mount Sinai, bringing the tables of the Law and stretching his finger toward the skies (Fig. 14). After the Second World War, the Soviet imagination remained projected into a future made of factories and space crafts, whose supersonic speed replaced the feverish, compressed time of revolutionary upheaval: the march toward socialism was measured by the tons of steel, tractors, aircrafts and missiles produced by the Soviet industry instead of the millions of votes won by the German social democracy at the elections, but history had not lost its telos.

Even in Latin America, where socialist utopias very often merged with the cyclical time of the indigenous communities, visual representations of history could not avoid the mythology of an ascending path toward the future: the conquest of the sky (el cielo por asalto). In a diachronic, sumptuous perspective, the linear movement describing the advance of the laboring classes from a past of oppression toward a liberated future is shown by the murals of Diego Rivera decorating the Palace of Government’s staircases and the court of the Department of Education in Mexico City (Fig. 15). The remembrance of both anticolonial struggles and peasant revolution naturally leads to the organization of the modern, multiracial and multinational workers movement, which is put under the sight of the tutelary figures of Marx.

These visual and textual documents prove that Marxist teleology implied remembrance as a key element of its utopian imagination. It was not a form of left futurism, i.e. an avant-garde movement that, fascinated by velocity, technology and modernity, pretended to conquer the future “abolishing history.” In the first years of soviet power, Leon Trotsky criticized the mnemonic nihilism exhibited by the Russian futurists and stressed the part of remembrance incorporated into revolutionary action. Revolution was not a tabula rasa; it had its own vision of the past, as a kind of counter-memory opposed to the official interpretations of history. At the end of the twentieth century, nevertheless, this counter-memory fell apart. It was no longer transmissible, insofar as it became a remembrance of lost battles without a future. This does not mean that memory is useless, but we have to learn to build a memory of resistance, not a memory for the conquest of the heavens. If we do not operate this memory change, the past we have inherited will become mythical.


The past can inhabit the present as a myth or as a hot, blasting memory waking up and acting upon today’s reality. Fascism is probably the most emblematic example of a modernity conceived and experienced as a timeless myth. The secret of the Conservative Revolution was precisely the fusion of technical and mechanical modernity with an ancestral, romantically idealized past made of traditional values and mythological heroes. It merged old and new, transforming the charismatic leaders into everlasting figures belonging to both the past and the future. The “Thousand Year Reich” celebrated its liturgies in the medieval city of Nuremberg and the fascist regime’s ambition was to transform Rome into a città eterna where the futurist cult of the machines incorporated the vestiges of Antiquity creating a single, harmonic unity. In 1936, after the colonization of Ethiopia, Mussolini presented himself as a Roman emperor (Fig. 16). The following year, the Mostra Augustea della Romanità was inaugurated in the Italian capital, celebrating the 2000th anniversary of the birth of emperor Augustus. Rather than a historical reconstruction of the Roman Empire, this exhibition was conceived as a “rebirth” of the past in the present, according to the vision of romanità defended by Mussolini, for whom Rome was “a symbol and a myth.” Mussolini’s profile dissolved into Augustus. The same year of the Roman exhibition, the Nazi painter Hubert Lanziger created a famous portrait of the Führer as a medieval knight in armor (Fig. 17). According to Johann Chapoutot, the Nazis had replaced “the realm of history with the realm of myth”; they had abolished historical time replacing it by the “eternity of the race, of its gesture and its combat.” 

Just as the fascist historical imagination is a mythical construction, the revolutionary perception of time—its antipodal one—is shaped by memory, even if it is a “memory of the future,” charged with eschatological expectations. Walter Benjamin had grasped this feature when he wrote that revolutionary movements were “nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.” This might explain the relationship with the past established in the last decades by the revolutions in Latin America, waking up the shadows of Cesar Augusto Sandino, Farabundo Marti, Emiliano Zapata, and, more recently, Simon Bolivar. In January 2006, at Tiwanaku, near Lake Titicaca, among the ruins of an old, pre-Inca town, Evo Morales was proclaimed President of Bolivia, a few days before his official investiture in La Paz. This Indian ceremony held in Aymara inscribed his victory into a cyclical time intertwined but distinct from the historical time of the state and of secular institutions (Fig. 18). The indigenous peoples desire to be actors of history but they will not submit their own past of “peoples without history,” according to the classical Hegelian (and Engelsian) formula, to the codes of Western History (state, writing, archives, etc.). For them, the entrance into history means the beginning of a long cycle of oppression and resistance; consequently, they define themselves against the state and history. Evo Morales and Álvaro García Linera are not folkloric figures; they act politically in a secular world, but they know that their historical role is also intertwined with a temporality that does not belong to Western history. In other words, they wish to build their future saving their past. As the Mexican Zapatistas say, they walk “putting one foot in the past and the other in the future” (poniendo un pié en el pasado y otro en el futuro). This is an interesting attempt to preserve—through memory—a hope in the future without falling into the fatal illusions of teleology.


Several vanguard artists anticipated the end of communism and depicted it as a memory break. In 1983, the exiled Russian painter Aleksandr Kosolapov painted a canvas presenting a Lenin’s head put on the soil, beside the base of its broken statue, in front of which there are three putti leaning over a journal titled The Manifesto, and trying painfully to decipher its content (Fig. 19). The utopia is fallen and what had been announced as a radiant future lies as a field of ruins. Communism has become an incomprehensible text demanding to be rediscovered and reinterpreted. Lenin is fallen from his base, but his head is still entire and his sight somber; we do not know whether he directs his reproach against those who destroyed his statue or those who decided to build it, compelling him to play a role he had not chosen.

The end of communism as the end of a utopia and an act of remembrance, as a ceremony of mourning both solemn and tragic, found its most poignant expression in Theo Angelopoulos’ Ulysses’ Gaze (1995), a movie devoted to the war in former Yugoslavia (Fig. 20-21). The erasing of the past, the rescue of its legacy and the preservation of its memory are its connecting thread. The journey of its hero in the middle of a country devastated by the war, looking for a lost fragment of film—the first Greek movie whose last copy is conserved at Sarajevo’s film-archive, in a besieged city—is the metaphor of a collapsed world whose fall has swept away its hopes and utopias. A famous traveling shows a broken statute of Lenin that traverses the Danube lying on a boat, his sight and his index finger directed toward the sky. Suddenly people appear, ranging in a crowded shore, in order to follow its passage. They are silent; many among them kneel down and cross themselves. A sad melody accompanies this funeral of Lenin, a broken and fallen statue leaving the stage of history. By an astonishing reverse of Eisenstein’s October (1927, Fig. 22), where the destruction of the Tsar’s statue symbolized the revolution, Angelopoulos depicts the remembrance of communism as a work of mourning.

A Left corresponding to our regime of historicity—a temporality withdrawn into the present, deprived of a prognostic structure—inevitably takes a melancholic tonality. Amputated from its principle of hope—at least in the concrete form it had taken in the twentieth century, when the utopia of a liberated society was embodied by communism—it internalizes a historical downfall. Today, we cannot organize the overthrown of capitalism, but we can organize a successful resistance and overcome the trauma of a suffered collapse. We should learn to organize pessimism: to draw lessons from the past; to recognize a defeat without capitulating in front of the enemy, with the awareness that a new start unescapably will take new forms, unknown paths. The sight of the vanquished is always critical.


In 1955, Lucien Goldmann published The Hidden God, a brilliant study devoted to the tragic world vision of Pascal and Racine, the representatives of French Jansenism. Facing the rise of rationalism (Descartes) and a new individualistic moral, Pascal affirmed the existence of God as an act of faith: a wager (pari). In twentieth century, Goldmann analogously defended the hope of a communist future as a secular wager, neither mystical nor religious, but rather rooted in an idea of human community. Socialism is not ineluctable, it is a hypothesis based on the emancipatory potentialities of human beings. In other words, he conceived of socialism as an anthropological act of faith. “The Marxist faith—we read in The Hidden God—is a faith in the historical future that men make themselves, or more exactly that we must make by our activity; it’s a ‘wager’ staked on the success of our actions. The transcendence that constitutes the object of this faith is no longer either supernatural or trans-historical; it is trans-individual, no more but also no less.” This wager, he added, necessarily implies “the risk, the danger of failure and the hope of success”. The risk means that nothing is assured in advance; the danger of failure cannot be removed, because the defeat permanently threatens us; but the hope of success remains.

It seems to me that this definition of a socialist wager depicts the present situation of Syriza: the intrinsic, terrible dangers of power; the risks of making mistakes, when an oppositional force takes the power; and the hope of success, because Syriza has a historical chance: to indicate a different path for Greece and Europe, to indicate the way to rebuild the European left, offering a concrete alternative to neoliberalism. And this is a new hope.

At the beginning of the 1990s, when the end of communism was celebrated as the final defeat of revolution, the French Marxist philosopher Daniel Bensaïd wrote a disenchanted balance sheet: “In the century-long struggle between socialism and barbarism, the latter is a length ahead of the former. We enter the twenty-first century with less hope than our ancestors at the edge of the twentieth.” The historical frame turned upside down. For decades, communism had mass support, in spite of its authoritarian and bureaucratic features, because it represented the future and announced a new civilization. Today, left movements are compelled to avoid any reference to communism in order to achieve mass support. For almost twenty-five years, socialism has been a work of mourning (Trauerarbeit) and we have learnt to live without a future, without certitudes, with a precarious and often invisible telos. We became more realistic, more pragmatic than we had been, or than our ancestors had been. We learnt that a new utopia—a new visible horizon for a global age—has to be built passing through a succession of resistance struggles, reweaving a frame of solidarities, alliances and hopes. Syriza and Podemos do not announce a future of happiness—“les lendemains qui chantent,” according to the French left lexicon, or “le magnifiche sorti e progressive,” according to Giacomo Leopardi’s criticism of the illusions of progress—but have proved that a coherent battle for dignity and justice could be successful. They indicate that something is changing in our old continent, and that hope is reemerging.

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