A review of Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory by Enzo Traverso
Category Archives: melancholy
“If there’s a single moment that characterises the end of this moment, it’s the tragic Greek betrayal of July 2015. In this deadly summer, the Greek people voted against (“oxi”) the bailout conditions imposed by the EU, the European Central Bank and the IMF. But this victory was transformed by Syriza – the only left-of-social-democracy government in Europe – into a humiliating submission. When then prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, accepted harsher structural reforms to keep Greece’s membership of the eurozone, he proved that democracy could be blackmailed. Capital, not people, has the last say.”
A review of TO BEGIN THE WORLD OVER AGAIN: How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe (2019) by Matthew Lockwood. “He finds it at the root of a long list of ills, including increasing authoritarianism within Britain itself and the wider British Empire, the failure of Irish, Indian and Peruvian movements against imperialism, the Russian conquest of Crimea, the establishment of penal colonies in Australia and the growth of the global opium trade.”
‘One of the implications of “The Edge of Democracy” is that as Lula and the Workers’ Party lost touch with the mass movement that brought them to power and mastered the levers of the political system, they made themselves vulnerable to popular anger on the right. Corruption and back room dealing were longstanding norms of Brazilian governance that the party didn’t do much to challenge.’
“When friends say, for years, that the revolution is no longer an absolute goal, they do not say so much that they do not want to take power or that they want to preserve some aspect of their princely life, they say above all that the great night, as a total upheaval of the conditions of existence, is impossible, among other reasons, because power is everywhere and especially in everyone.”
“Things are happening, anarchically, as is always the case with beginnings. Experiments must be linked to a careful, prolonged and systematic examination of Marxism, but also to the revolutionary attempts of the twentieth century as a whole. What really happened in Petrograd and Shanghai? What is the balance sheet? What formulation allows us to avoid the failures of these undertakings?”
“Several questions remain. How can we make sure that the ways we participate in the yellow vest movement and others like it won’t be simply perceived as an “apolitical” expression of anger, giving nationalists a platform to take credit for our efforts? When we act to create a crisis, how do we prevent far right parties from capitalizing on it by promising a return to normal? How do we confront legalist and reactionary ideas within the movement? How should we prepare for the next round, in which we will either face a stronger repressive and authoritarian state or a massive nationalist and reactionary wave? But also—how can we reinforce our connections with everyone else in the streets and traffic circles?”
“What was once intended as a revolutionary strategy to take down interlocking oppressions has become a nebulous but charged buzzword co-opted across the political spectrum.”
‘If there are to be global goals, goals that cross boundaries to inspire the multitudes, where might they be found? … So should idealists across borders persist in seeking the universalist grail—the moral equivalent of “The Internationale”? Some settle for anti-fascism; others strive to resurrect the lost traditions of anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism; a few scavenge among the ruins of communism. Nearly three decades after the collapse of the communist phantasm, the left has still not recovered its voice, let alone composed a melody you can’t get out of your head.’
Watching the other day Nicholas Hytner’s promenade staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, I heard Cassius say: “Men at some time were masters of their fates./The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars./But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (1.2.140-3).
The reference to fate reminded me of a recently published essay. Since I have been following with special interest the progress during this decade of Simon Critchley’s book on the philosophy of tragedy (read: sophistry) as an alternative to the tragedy of philosophy, I was particularly glad to read “Tragedy’s Philosophy,” a “rough torso” of his project, in Fisher & Katsouraki, eds.: Performing Antagonism: Theatre, Performance & Radical Democracy (2017). Regarding the understanding of tragedy as misfortune the philosopher brings up fate: “Tragedy requires some degree of complicity on our part in the disaster that destroys us. It is not simply a question of the malevolent activity of fate … Tragedy requires our collusion with that fate. In other words, it requires no small measure of freedom. … Our moral of tragedy, then, is that we conspire with our fate. That is, fate requires our freedom in order to bring our destiny down upon us” (31). Therefore he suggests that we see “the bloody events of the contemporary world in a tragic light,” and reiterates: “To see political events tragically is always to accept our complicity in the disaster that is unfolding” (36). The question of tragedy today should not be limited to a particular dramatic genre. “A tragic sensibility obliges us to see our implication within the struggles of the present and our responsibility for them. If the present is defined by disaster, then tragedy shows us our complicity with it” (40-1).
This ethical argument reminds me of Critchley’s political point in an interview where he recalls that Raymond Williams in his book Modern Tragedy (1966) “makes a link between tragedy and revolution and it’s a kind of melancholic link. He says, for example, something like: ‘We need to understand revolution tragically’. If we see revolution as a throwing off of repression and the experience of liberation that’s all very nice but we see just half of the picture. Revolution is always a dialectical process where revolution undergoes inversion in counter-revolution. So a tragic understanding of revolution would show the experience of liberation as always risking flipping over into a new experience of oppression and terror and the two things are intrinsically linked. Liberation and terror are intricated, are dialectically interdependent and that’s what a properly tragic understanding would lead us to. If we want to maintain something like revolution or rebellion then we have to see it tragically in terms of the inversions to which it is subject.”
A tragic understanding admits that revolution is subject to counter-revolution, that liberation is risking oppression. Drawing on Williams, Critchley makes the melancholic point that, when terror destroys revolution, instead of blaming destiny, we must accept the complicity of liberation, keeping in mind that freedom conspires with fate.
May 12, 2018