At a time of the breaking of nations, when the horizon is darker than it has been for nearly 60 years, this mournful lament comes on its cue. Enzo Traverso, writing, one would guess, in his second language, colours his tale in the dark opulence of Jewish eschatology. He assembles a mighty cast, dominated by his great original, Marx himself, and conceiving of the inheritance of the Left as a sumptuous record of strictly cultural achievement – memoirs, novels, movies, paintings, letters, journals – each summarised and criticised in almost choking accents, but each done sympathetic justice and with an accurate pedagogy.
Traverso compiles a lengthy succession of glorious defeats – of revolutions roused up and mobilised with the lofty rhetoric of Saint Just, the Communards, 1905, the Finland Station, due homage to Catalonia, and in a concluding diminuendo, the Black Jacobins, the betrayal of Salvador Allende and Danny the Red painting the town during les événements de mai 1968: all of them tableaux of doomed heroism and hope.
Defeats are not failures, says the old Left. But Traverso’s epic roll call theorises the accumulations of sadness, here richly documented, which frame and suffuse two and a half centuries so completely that they might as well be counted out as historically deleted.
Some such conclusion would sort well with Traverso’s saturation in a Jewish historiography for which Walter Benjamin is first prophet. Benjamin was no doubt a mighty mind and gave us his incomparable reflections on the meaning of the modern, commodified city. But his writing matches his wretched end: he committed suicide within yards and minutes of safety. Traverso makes clear, in his accompanying commentary on Theodor Adorno, his distaste for Adorno’s aristocratic hauteur, but Adorno took the Frankfurt Institute successfully to New York and fetched it home again to post-war Germany.
Adorno’s administrative example takes the measure of something too bookish about Traverso’s book. Don’t mistake me: Left-Wing Melancholia is a fine thing, but it is a history of sentiment, and sentimental about it. When he celebrates his heroes, nothing is said about their practical biographies: Trotsky is the eloquent author of Literature and Revolution, not the callous murderer of the Kronstadt mutineers. Che Guevara (pictured above) lies in state as a simple pietà and not, as Eric Hobsbawm tells us, a hard-nosed Leninist.
Above all, Traverso allows the sweetness and seductiveness of melancholy to screen out the hideous cruelty done in the name of the party by Stalin and Mao. Stalin is here a mere “counter-revolutionary” and Mao (amazingly) not mentioned at all. Together, they do everything to explain defeat, failure and pervasive melancholy: a sentiment, as is well known, which conduces to the satisfactions of self-pity.
In his always interesting analyses of films made in praise of socialism, Traverso includes an excellent account of Ken Loach’s 1995 film recovering the meaning of the Spanish Civil War, Land and Freedom. But, indicatively, he doesn’t mention Loach’s very recent The Spirit of ’45, an album of reminiscence about the social reforms brought to a bankrupt country by the 1945 Labour government. Nationalisation of the utilities, the creation of the NHS and the welfare state, and, a bit later, comprehensive education. All these terrific changes, couched in Lord Beveridge’s plain prose, made history and filled memory, and, carefully defended (as they need to be), they are still a cure for melancholy.
Fred Inglis is honorary professor of cultural history, University of Warwick.
Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory
By Enzo Traverso
Columbia University Press, 312pp, £30.00
ISBN 9780231179423 and 9780231543019 (e-book)
Published 10 January 2017