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Book: Melancolía de izquierda. Después de las utopías.

TRAVERSO, Enzo (2019) Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg, pp. 415 [original title. Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory. Columbia University Press, 2016]

Ricard Conesa, Historian, project officer at the EUROM

Enzo Traverso (Gavi, Italia, 1957) is a well-known figure to scholars of historical memory and readers of this journal. The most recent issue of Observing Memories contains a brief and thought-provoking interview in which the Cornell University professor speaks on a variety of current issues: the effects of the victim/aggressor dichotomy, post-fascisms, the complex legacy of dictatorships and European policies on historical memory. Traverso’s internationally renowned body of work is wide and varied, covering topics such as the Holocaust, intellectuals, policies on historical memory, and historiographical debates on violence and revolution. As a historian, Traverso has never sought to hide his political commitment to the left, and his latest volume, in the words of the philosopher Josep Ramoneda in the Spanish edition, is a “libro militante”—a militant, activist book.

The contents of Left-Wing Melancholia include a foreword, an introduction and seven chapters (some of which have been published earlier in different formats) that set out to rethink the history of socialism and Marxism through the lens of melancholia, connecting the intellectual debates to their cultural forms. Following this approach, the book shifts constantly back and forth between concepts and images, drawing its source material from paintings, photographs and films, that is, from what Walter Benjamin called Denkbilder (in English “thought-images” or “thinking images”). Traverso examines the emotional universe and cultural footprints of the melancholia of missed opportunities, lost struggles and battles for emancipation, and future utopias that were never realised yet remained in the memory of the left, providing a self-critical knowledge of its past and keeping alive a “horizon of expectation” that vanished with the end of communism. It was a forward-looking memory that disappeared at the end of the twentieth century with the eclipse of utopias, when the idea of the “vanquished” faded away and the paradigm of the “victim” took hold: “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: the remembrance of the victims seems unable to coexist with the recollection of their struggles, of their conquests and their defeats”. 

Not only does Traverso pursue the melancholy universe of the left with the aid of a robust body of theoretical works (Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, Reinhart Koselleck…), but he also reconstructs an entire genealogy of Marxist thought, delving into the (few) relations that the Marxist school has retained with studies focusing on historical memory. Traverso also goes on to examine a wide range of films (movies directed by L. Visconti, G. Pontercorvo, T. Angelopoulos, K. Loach and others), using them as a barometer of left-wing consciousness to reveal the left’s dilemmas and changes over time. Employing the concept of “sites of memory”, Traverso distances himself from Pierre Nora, instead highlighting the films’ storylines that pertain to the private, intimate, emotional and sensitive realm in which collective experiences intersect with individual fates and which Traverso describes as hidden, secret, “Marrano memories” with which everybody can identify in spite of their irreducible uniqueness.

In his investigation of the left, Traverso continues with a thought-provoking analysis of the figure of the bohemian—from the artiste maudit, or accursed artist, to the scheming or conniving intellectual—and trains his eye on K. Marx, Gustave Courbet, W. Benjamin, and L. Trotsky and the role that bohemians have played in revolutionary movements. Traverso also analyses Marx’s ethnocentrism within the context of the epistemic framework of the German’s times and how it affected his view of colonialism, an influence that would persist in later Marxist schools, such as the Frankfurt School, and that Traverso has dissected here in the form of a “missed dialogue” between Theodor Adorno and the historian Cyril L.R. James. Traverso stays with the figure of Adorno and delves into his complex relationship with Benjamin, their theoretical commonalities and their differences, especially in their respective views of history and the conception of fascism. Lastly, Traverso sets out Daniel Bensaïd’s rereading of Marx and the influence of Benjamin in order to confront “the end of history”. 

This work of Traverso stands at a distance from his earlier books. His investigation into the memory of the left, incited to action by the explosive tension between past and future, together with his genealogy of Marxism, serve as a theoretical recharge or reloading for the left, placing value on a left-wing melancholia that “does not mean to abandon the idea of socialism or the hope for a better future; it means to rethink socialism in a time in which its memory is lost, hidden, and forgotten and needs to be redeemed. This melancholia does not mean lamenting a lost utopia, but rather rethinking a revolutionary project in a non revolutionary age”.

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