Blog post

"The Left is a history of defeats": an interview with Enzo Traverso

Sonya Faure31 January 2017

Image for blog post entitled "The Left is a history of defeats": an interview with Enzo Traverso

Sonya Faure's interview with Enzo Traverso on post-fascism, left melancholy, and the memory of defeat was first published in Libération. Translated by David Broder.
A new edition of Christopher Hill's classic The Experience of Defeat is out from Verso this week.

Gustave Courbet, Un enterrement à Ornans, 1849–50.

Enzo Traverso has published two books in quick succession, which he himself sees as two parts of a diptych. In Nouveaux visages du fascisme ("Fascism’s New Faces," to be published by Textuel in February) the historian of ideas gives his definition of the concept "post-fascism" as he works to reveal the still-changing nature of the new populist and xenophobic currents from Le Pen to Trump. In Left-Wing Melancholia. Marxism, History and Memory (Columbia University Press, January 2017), he explains why the Left must draw on its inherent melancholia, a force for its own self-reinvention. Born in Italy, Enzo Traverso — a former far-Left militant and formerly an academic in France, today professor at Cornell University in the United States — places French political passions back at the heart of global debates, from the reconstruction of the Left to the populist temptation.

What is your analysis of the primaries for the Left [i.e. primaries to select the Parti Socialiste candidate for French president]

I do not think that the renewal of the French Left will come from the Parti Socialiste. We did indeed see this with the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders: movements external to traditional political organisms simply made use of these parties. In the United States a rising tendency that had notably been incarnated in Occupy Wall Street took over the Democratic primaries, making itself felt on the political stage by voting for Sanders… but not always for Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump a few months later. In Great Britain, Corbyn was able to bring together a mass of youth who joined Labour in order to vote for him as leader… without having any illusions about this party itself. That is one of the characteristics of the new movements on the Left: they no longer believe in parties, but "use" them.

Sanders and Corbyn embodied a dynamic that emerged outside of these parties. I see nothing comparable in the Parti Socialiste’s case.

[Left-wing candidate] Benoît Hamon’s likely victory in the primaries expresses the malaise of what remains of this party; it mirrors a shift in its internal balance, but is not a sign of its renewal. If Hamon is indeed the candidate, he will be pincered between Emmanuel Macron’s avowed neoliberalism and the anti-neoliberalism of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is decidedly more credible in his left-wing opposition to Hollande.

Will that be enough to create an alternative? Should we be expecting something else from the Left?

In Europe as in the United States, the Left is confronted with a historic shift. A cycle that began with the Russian Revolution finished in 1989, and the effects of its exhaustion in that moment are today becoming apparent. The Left is addressing a totally new world with tools it inherited from the twentieth century. The model provided by the Russian Revolution, which dominated the last century, is no longer operational. As for social democracy, it does nothing other than manage the social regression. The collapse of communism has paralysed the process by which the Left transmits its memory, and its culture has entered into crisis. Not only did the new movements like Podemos, Syriza, the Indignados, Occupy Wall Street and Nuit Debout arise in a world without a "horizon of expectation," to adopt the historian Reinhart Koselleck’s expression, and not only are they incapable of projecting themselves into the future, but they are also orphans: they cannot inscribe themselves in a historical continuity.

So 1989 swept away the memory of the Russian Revolution but also that of other possible models: the Paris Commune, the Spanish Civil War…

For a brief moment, the end of actually-existing socialism gave the illusion of a liberation for the Left. We briefly believed that a burden had fallen away and that a different socialism was going to be possible. In reality the shipwreck of Soviet communism engulfed together with it a whole series of other heretical currents: anti-Stalinists, libertarians… The history of communism found itself reduced to its totalitarian dimension.

The "Left’s culture has been emptied out, pure and simple," you write…

The Left was not able to reinvent itself. All the same, we are beginning to get a new perspective on certain elements of the past. You mentioned the Paris Commune. For a century it was made into an icon, as the first stage in a movement that led to the Russian, Chinese, and then Cuban revolutions. Today we are rediscovering it in a different light: the Commune’s history is a history of self-government, which ultimately appears close to what we have with the left-wing movements today. The communards were not workers at the Billancourt Renault factory, but precarious workers, artisans, the subaltern, including many bohemian intellectuals and artists. This was a heterogeneous sociological profile, comparable to the social pulverisation of the young people mobilising today.

But the Commune was also a defeat. Can the Left ever take inspiration from anything other than failures?

But the Left is a history of defeats! And even when revolutionaries did manage to overthrow the established powers-that-be, things almost always went badly… That is why melancholia is a fundamental dimension of left-wing culture. It was long repressed by a dialectical vision of history: however painful defeats were, they never put in question the idea that socialism was the inevitable horizon. History belonged to us. That allowed us to get over defeats. Today these resources are exhausted and left-wing melancholia is coming back out into the light of day. This is a hidden tradition that we find already in the memoirs of Louise Michel, Rosa Luxemburg’s texts on the eve of her murder, or in Gustave Courbet’s Un Enterrement à Ornans, an extraordinary analogy for the 1848 revolution, by way of a funeral. This was a consolatory melancholia, inseparable from hope, which could even strengthen their convictions.

How can this melancholia be inspiring and not only a source of resignation?

There is a Freudian vision of melancholia that we tend to simplify. Melancholia is considered a pathological bereavement, as an incapacity to separate oneself from the loved and lost object, and as an obstacle to moving forward. On the contrary, I think that melancholia can be a form of resistance, fed by a reflexive sensibility. For Koselleck, the history written by the conquered is a critical history, as against the apologetic history of the victors. Melancholia is a resource for knowledge, understanding and intervening in the present. On the Left there is sometimes a tendency to say "We have to start everything from scratch again." This lack of memory weakens us. It was one thing to invent socialism in the nineteenth century, but it is quite another thing to reinvent it at the beginning of the twenty-first, as if nothing had happened.

And the new left-wing movements do not manage to converge

The junction used to come by way of political mechanisms. In 1968 there was an objective convergence between the barricades in Paris, the Prague Spring and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, even when the actors in these movements had no experience of dialogue with one another. Today activists in Cairo, Istanbul and New York can have exchanges among themselves, and moreover they do so spontaneously. But there is such a cultural difference [compared to 1968]… in the 1960s a common critical thought nourished social struggles. What Sartre wrote was read in Asia and Africa. Today, the names of postcolonialism’s great critical figures mean nothing to the actors in the Arab Spring. Reinventing the fabric that weaves together a worldwide alternative culture is no simple matter.

The parties of the far Right do know how to win. You group them under the name "post-fascism." Why is that?

The concept of "post-fascism" seeks to grasp a transition process. It helps us to analyse these new contemporary forces on the Right, which are a moving, heterogeneous phenomenon, in the middle of their mutation.  Some of them are cases of neo-fascism, like Jobbik in Hungary or Golden Dawn in Greece; others like the Front National have begun a metamorphosis. Most of these parties have a historical fascist matrix. That is true of the original Front National, in my view. Yet the current Front National can no longer be accused of fascism; its leader’s rhetoric has become republican. As for Trump, he is a post-fascist leader without fascism. He is the ideal-type picture of the authoritarian personality, such as Adorno defined it in 1950. Many of his public statements do also recall fascist anti-semitism: the virtues of a people rooted in a territory, as against the deracinated, intellectual, cosmopolitan and Jewish élites (Wall Street finance, the New York media, the corrupt Washington politicians). But his programme stands far from the statism and expansionism of the far Right parties of the 1930s. Most importantly, there is no fascist movement behind him.

Why not speak of populist movements?

I am very wary of the notion of "populism" — which would mean a form of anti-politics — since the common usage of this term brings together opposite political ideologies as one. For most commentators, populism is both Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement and the Lega Nord, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Trump, and Sanders.  

The Podemos movement identifies with the word "populism"…

In Spanish-speaking countries "populism," borrowed from the history of the Latin American Left, takes on a different meaning: namely, that of re-integrating the popular social classes into a political system that excludes them. In Podemos’s view, populism will allow it to overcome an out-of-date Left-Right divide. This word cannot be used in the same way anywhere else in Europe. The populism of the post-fascist movements does indeed seek to bring the masses together against the élites, but on the basis of exclusion: the exclusion of the minorities with immigrant backgrounds. This means rallying the people by excluding part of it. 

Does the word "populism" say more about who is using it than who it designates?

This is a trick that seeks to avoid any questioning as to the causes of populism. Why are movements that use demagogy and lies rising so quickly? They occupy the vacuum created by those in power. The rejection of politics took off at the end of the twentieth century, when politics had its ideological substance emptied out, instead becoming a pure and simple management of power. This is the reduction of politics to the "impolitic." Over these last few years all countries in Western Europe have seen changes of government, but without it being possible clearly to make out the differences, for instance with regard to economic policy. This conception of politics can only arouse opposition, and in the absence of "horizons of expectation" and left-wing utopias, it has been post-fascist parties who have occupied this space. And they have a long experience of rejecting institutions!

You write that in post-fascist discourse, "national identity" has replaced the "nation"

The nation is a historically dated form: everyone can today experience the global world. In the period of fascism, nationalism was aggressive and proceeded by way of military expansionism and territorial and colonial conquests. Radical Right forces today implicitly recognise how archaic this discourse is. Their xenophobia targets post-colonial-origin minorities, not other nations. All of them also accept that we cannot return to the nation-state such as it used to exist. On the rhetorical plane the nation is now reformulated as "national identity."

One of the particularities of post-fascism, you tell us, is that we do not know the way out of it…

Post-fascism has a fluctuating, unstable, and sometimes contradictory ideological content… It has not yet crystallised. The Front National today seeks to present itself as a "normal" political change, an alternative government, rather than as a subversive force. But if the European Union were to collapse tomorrow, and if economic crisis followed across the continent, in a climate of deep political instability, post-fascist parties like the Front National could radicalise, or even take on the features of neo-fascism…

Filed under: fascism, france, history, populism, trump