1 January 2017

The Great Federation of Sorrows. Mourning and militancy in the age of Trump.

Richard Seymour on Enzo Traverso and Daniel Bensaïd

Richard Seymour is an author, broadcaster and a founding editor of Salvage. Most recently he is the author ofCorbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (Verso, 2016). This review was originally posted on hisblog Lenin’s Tomb on 28 December 2016, and is a helpful introduction to Historical Materialism’s symposium on Daniel Bensaïd in our journal’s issue24.4.

This began as a review of Enzo Traverso’s Left-Wing Melancholy: Marxism, History and Memory. But a review is usually a conclusion, the verdict on a closed book. This is, in fact, the beginning of something else.


Our defeat is their redemption. The most raging, downwardly mobile, insecure, isolated, almost eclipsed social forces turn out to have a trump, after all.

The axis of global reaction encompasses Modi, Erdogan, Putin, and now the president-elect of the United States. The Brexit Right is victorious in Britain, and Marine Le Pen’s fascists are on the brink of another breakthrough in France. The revanchists of ‘white nationalism’ are energised, already racking up a body count, acutely aware that they have only a few years to “make America,” or its nearest equivalent, “great again”. Meanwhile, the Left is momentarily stunned, feeling almost a physical annihilation.

However, defeat should not be disabling. The history of the Left is a history of defeats. It is the history of the vanquished, necessarily. Marxism, Enzo Traverso reminds us, is a science of defeat. “The whole road of socialism,” said Rosa Luxemburg, “is paved with nothing but thunderous defeats”. In the traditions of the left, defeat is recognised as a vital pedagogical process, even as its tragic dimension overwhelms us.

The novelist Jules Valles dedicated The Insurrectionist, on the Paris Commune, “to the dead of 1871” and all who “formed, under the flag of the Commune, the great federation of sorrows”. But from the crushing of the Paris Commune came, thirty years later, an age of mass socialist parties all over Europe. From the demolition of the internationalist left in 1914, came the electrifying revolution of 1917.

Even the brutal murder of left leaders from Che Guevara to Victor Jara summon mass funerals, not as a symbol of “the end of a communist hope” but as “one of its expressions”. Defeat formed part of a texture of collective memory, a strategic factor in struggle.

Robert Motherwell – Plato’s Cave.


But to fight is also to mourn, since the Left “cannot refurbish its intellectual armoury without identifying empathetically with the vanquished of history”. And there is a work of mourning that has yet to be done. The sudden outbreaks of collective grief over dead celebrities are not in this sense fraudulent or mawkish. These deaths remind us of something that we’re already feeling. A mourning that is thwarted.

For what collapsed with the disintegration of the USSR was not just an appalling dictatorship, but an “entire representation of the twentieth century” filled with revolutionary hopes. The Velvet Revolutions, unlike their forebears, did not arouse new utopias, but confirmed a regression to minimal liberal ideas of freedom and representation, already underway since the late Seventies.

Given the drastic contraction of historical possibilities disclosed by this process, the momentous defeat of left-wing struggles and working class movements unveiled, the absence of mourning is striking. Former communist parties, instead of working through their loss, chose to repress their past, opting to rename themselves ‘Democratic Left’ or similar substitutions. If Trotskyist currents did not collapse in the same way, they were left similarly adrift, where they did not simply enter into denial. The spectre of communism, Traverso argues, no longer haunts the bourgeoisie, announcing a “presence to come” – it haunts and taunts its former adherents, pricking their bad conscience.

For some reason, this was not a sinless defeat. A sin can, in secular terms, be seen as a special kind of defeat, a capitulation which attracts guilt. And the internalised stigma and guilt arising from the reduction of communism to its “totalitarian dimension” became, even in dissident, anti-Stalinist strains of socialism which had never invested their hopes in the Kafka’s Castle of the East, a resistance to working through this defeat. This “impossible mourning” is one way to understand the pervasiveness of left melancholia. Even the spurious ‘optimism’ of some of the remaining shards of the Left after 1989 was a result of disavowed melancholia, the refusal to mourn, the refusal to accept a loss.

Traverso’s work is therefore, firstly, a work of mourning. It aims to come to terms with left-wing melancholy, as a necessary condition for redemption. It offers us the image of what the psychoanalyst Jean Allouch calls a “dry loss”. According to Freud, mourning ends when we finally alight upon a new object, a new love. Allouch rejects this metonymy of objects. We don’t substitute one for the other, gaining something to compensate our loss. We have to make do with a loss with no compensation whatsoever. We have to go on having a relationship with someone who is no longer there. This is the working through that Traverso doesn’t so much propose as perform.

John Donne, melancholic fashion.


Unexpectedly, Traverso’s book is a counterhistory of the Left from the point of view of today’s melancholia. This was, he insists, “always a hidden dimension of the left, even if it came to the surface only at the end of the twentieth century, with the failure of communism”.

This repressed substratum is painfully evident even at moments of exhortation. Marx’s greatest works, The Eighteenth Brumaire, and The Civil War in France, are formed by a “dialectic of defeat”. And yet Marx, as a leap of faith rather than reason, insists that socialism “cannot be stamped out by any amount of carnage”. Such declarations cannot but be achingly poignant in the nuclear age.

Socialism has always laboured in the shadow of catastrophe. Luxemburg, even at her most defiant, did not exclude the outright “triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery”. Trotsky saw in Nazi victory the potential “grave of civilisation”. No wonder that, for Walter Benjamin – the archetypal left-wing melancholic for Traverso – revolution is not so much a locomotion as the application of the brakes.  

One of the Traverso’s ambiguities, however, is that it is never entirely clear in what sense he is invoking melancholia. Rather than deciding on a single, unambiguous sense, he layers meaning upon meaning. Classically, melancholia was a form of madness, a ‘black humour’, which also afforded privileged insight to the melancholic. During the Renaissance, melancholia was linked to prophetic ecstasy, the downward cast of expression merely the outward sign of a rapt soul. Early moderns such as Donne and Milton made a cultural fetish of melancholia, a stance bespeaking both profound sadness and an ironising, aesthetic attitude to one’s sadness. With a slight shift of emphasis, this could also become bitterly sardonic: ‘black humour’ in a different sense. Freud analysed melancholia as a pathology, the melancholic unable to separate from a lost object of love – and thus turning all the rage and bitterness that might be felt toward the deceased upon himself.

For Traverso, German renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer’s engraving, Melencolia I, provides a startling thought-image which arguably condenses all of these aspects of contemporary left-wing melancholia. The condition of the renaissance intellectual, amid a generalised crisis of faith, necessitated a resigned acceptance of the limits of human knowledge, and a withdrawal from the world. The refutation of the socialist telos, a determinism often strenuously disavowed while symptomatically shadowing its materialism, places the melancholic leftist in a similar situation.

Perhaps the most surprising – and, to some, alarming – aspect of left-wing melancholia is its prophetic dimension. Traverso argues for a “permanence, in the communist tradition, of a religious impulsion,” but why should materialism need a theological ally, as Benjamin claimed it did? In one sense, it might be a self-cure for melancholia. Luxemburg’s final words before she was executed is in this sense both a recognition of a dire situation and a declaration of faith: “history marches inexorably, step by step, toward final victory!” Allende’s final words before committing suicide invoked history in the same way: “History is ours, and people make history.” What reality declines to verify is nonetheless promised by history, a history made by people, the proletariat, our Messiah.

In another sense, however, the evocation of a “millennial tomorrow,” as Primo Levi described it, while giving meaning to the sacrifices made by left-wing activists, could also be an admission of the limits of ‘scientific’ socialism. For any discourse, Marxist or otherwise, to grasp the totality of reality within its terms is impossible. There is always a remainder, something left over that evades signification, and subverts predictability. The only ‘scientific prediction, said Gramsci, is struggle. When Lacan argued that Marxism is less of a worldview than a gospel which the announces the coming of a new dimension of discourse, he may have had this in mind. At its best, it is not a totalising philosophy, but an antiphilosophy.

The left-wing melancholic therefore has this in common with the religious ecstatic: both withdraw from the world and language to commune with another dimension of experience which is affective, and apophatically unsayable. The prophesy, in this sense, is not an historical guarantee: it is a wishing, a longing, a yearning.

Bernini’s prophesy.


Memory is linked to yearning in traditions of Freudian Marxism. Marcuse argues that the function of memory is “to preserve promises and potentialities which are betrayed and even outlawed by the mature, civilised individual”. This implies that, far from being a lucid archive of the past, it is a trace of the structure of desire, strategically oriented toward its fulfilment.

Traverso argues that the Left today has lost this register of memory. Modern discourses of memory have a monumentalising character. In the reflux of 1968’s revolutionary hopes, with a reheated Cold War ‘antitotalitarianism’ signalling an exit from the Left for many intellectuals, the ‘duty to remember’ the century’s catastrophes became the basis of a cautionary tale aimed against utopian hopes. In Germany, the radical Left was compared to the Hitlerjugend while, on the Parisian Left Bank, reaction took the form of a ferocious campaign against the Union of the Left. The emergence of Holocaust memory as a civic religion took the place of antifascism.

Whereas the Left had evoked memory in a strategic sense, projecting the past into a desired future, there emerged instead the apolitical, administered commemorations of the ‘past’ in an endless present. A past in which there are only perpetrators and victims, in which history is a sequence of crimes against humanity only remembered to be avoided, and the vanquished only appear as bare-forked figures stripped of commitment and meaning in their struggles. Commemoration, argued Baudrillard in a famous essay on the ideology of the End of History, is a means of forgetting, a form of “necrophagous cannibalism … the work of heirs, whose ressentiment toward the deceased is boundless”. This is the necessary supplement to an historical identification with the victors, positioning the historian as – in the words of Daniel Bensaïd – a “notary of the accomplished fact”.

Against this logic, Traverso advocates the more politicised practice of ‘remembrance’. He attempts, through an exploration of the images, art and lifeworlds of the Left, not to reconstruct revolutionary traditions but to rescue lost scenes for the present. Needing to break out of the “homogenous,” “empty” time of the present, he reaches for Walter Benjamin, for whom the past becomes historical only when it forms a constellation with some part of the present.

In some respects, these constellations formed by past scenes with the present are personal. As an historian of the 20th century, Traverso remarks that historians are necessarily exiles, caught between two worlds, the one in which they live and the one they explore. Exile is a key term that repeats itself and acquires new resonances throughout the text. Trotsky’s long periods of exile leave him dependent on Bohemian communities of whom, as a Bolshevik, he would evince haughty disdain. Benjamin’s exile leaves him precarious, miserable, and at the mercy of friends and intellectual arbiters. “Every intellectual in emigration is, without exception, mutilated,” says Adorno. This casting adrift is a melancholic vocation, and one senses Traverso feels this acutely as a left intellectual, strategically unmoored, separated from a familiar language.

In this sense, the logical thing to do with Traverso’s book would be to read it backward, from end to beginning. In that way, one finds a Marxist historian in mourning for his late comrade, Daniel Bensaïd, and pursuing the threads of his answer to post-Cold War melancholia, in his encounter with Walter Benjamin. Then, at each chapter, he broadens the optic, to take into view Benjamin’s relationship with another melancholic, Theodor Adorno; the Bohemian milieux in which melancholics and left-wing intellectuals found ambivalent refuge; the imaginary landscapes of socialism in art and cinema, and the melancholic turn between Queimada to Land and Freedom; the wider theoretical questions about memory and history; finally alighting on a general panoptic view of left-wing melancholia.

Reading it like this, one sees that the encounter between Benjamin and Bensaïd, the constellation the two very different moments of 1939 and 1989, have a strategic purpose. What Bensaïd sought from Benjamin, writing shortly after the collapse of communism, was a “principle of intelligibility”. For Benjamin, confronting the midnight of the century, “thinking emancipation and revolution” had become “a wager, an act of faith”. Bensaïd, confronting a far less cataclysmic but nonetheless existential crisis of the left and the workers’ movement, reproved the “frantic optimism” of the revolutionary left which could no longer be sustained, seeking in its place to conjoin the “sharp ax of messianic reason” to the “hammer of critical materialism”.

For Traverso, registering the Left’s defeat in a serious, rigorous way, necessitates a similar overcoming of “frantic optimism”. The art of memory, today, “lies in organising pessimism”. The task is to lucidly “recognise a defeat without capitulating in front of the enemy”.

Saturn devours his young.


For all that Traverso’s book is a work of mourning, it may also be a warning: a fire alarm. One cannot help but wonder if part of the point of remembrance here is to, as he quotes Benjamin, “seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger”. Traverso has spent most of his recent works examining the questions posed by fascism, Nazi genocide, and world war. As an assayist of Jewish modernity, he has also been attentive to the rise of Islamophobic racism, the mulch on which the new far right is feeding.

In the context of capitalism’s gravest crisis since the Great Depression, the loss of a system alternative to capitalism has been keenly felt, and the consequences dire. “A world without utopias inevitably looks back,” says Traverso. The regressive cultural nostalgia that has accompanied the rise of Trump betokens the absence of utopia in an age in which ‘progress’ is identified with gradual refinements of the status quo.

Recently, in Radical Philosophy, Etienne Balibar acknowledged the increasing “eschatological” dimension of critique. He might as well have been speaking of left-wing discourse everywhere, for there is a ubiquitous sense of impending disaster, End Times heralded by a glow of orange. In this book, one is struck by the recurrent appearance of Benjamin’s “melancholy gaze,” his horrified warning of the coming fascist Antichrist, and his appalled reproach to “the self-satisfied optimism of our left-wing leaders”.

There is nonetheless an erotics of resistance buried in left-wing melancholia. The prospect of annihilation is, whatever else it might be, powerfully animating. There is nothing more alluring than a gallant struggle against the odds, especially if against all odds: think of the Communards, or the French Resistance. The mouth-watering Sehnsucht accompanying today’s melancholic disposition means that it is in no way equivalent to Olympian resignation.

Certainly, the melancholic may, as Milton puts it, “be seen in some high lonely tower”. Trotsky’s biographer, Isaac Deutscher, suggested that disillusioned ex-communists could withdraw to a watch-tower, and “watch with detachment and alertness this heaving chaos of a world”. Detachment, however, would be out of place in today’s melancholia, a dereliction in a world menaced by clickbait-fascists led by a reality television Duce.

The multiple mournings of this book – for lost worlds of communism, rebellion, Bohemia, radical art, revolutionary theory, as much as for Bensaïd and the broken dialectic of revolution – are thus rendered more poignant by its note of warning. The documents of communism, its ancient texts and photographs, have the feel of letters from a lost love, one not properly mourned – letters, which it is wrenching even to look at. But which it is no longer possible to avoid.

Almost in passing, Traverso quotes a luminous essay on gay liberation by Douglas Crimp, ‘Mourning and Militancy’. Amid defeats, oppression, murder in the streets and the cataclysm of AIDS, LGBT activists mourned, elegised, learned, and rebuilt their arsenals. But mourning was a vital, unmissable step in this process. “Militancy, of course, but mourning too: mourning and militancy.”