RSS FeedRSS FeedLivestreamLivestreamVimeoVimeoTwitterTwitterFacebook GroupFacebook Group
You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/We were orphans: An interview with Enzo Traverso

We were orphans: An interview with Enzo Traverso

Noah Spore

Platypus Review 152 | December 2022-January 2023

On May 18, 2022, Platypus Affiliated Society member Noah Spore interviewed Enzo Traverso, author of Fire and Blood: The European Civil War 1914–1945 (2007), Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory (2017), and Revolution: An Intellectual History (2021). An edited transcript follows.

Noah Spore: Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about joining the Left.

Enzo Traverso: I was born in Italy in 1957, and so joining the Left as an adolescent wasn’t uncommon at all; it was usual for someone belonging to my generation, not only in Italy but also in many other countries during the 70s.

I come from one Left-wing oriented family, my father being a Communist mayor in a small city. I immediately joined the radical Left, so I was to the Left of the Communist Party. The Italian Communist Party (PCI) wasn’t as sectarian as the French Communist Party or even the Communist Party USA at that time, so this didn’t create unbearable tension in my family.

NS: This was in the 70s, so we’re looking at the Historic Compromise, on the one hand, and the Red Brigades on the other.

ET: If I can mention something autobiographical, I discovered politics and became an activist just after the Chilean coup in September 1973, which had a strong impact on a global scale, particularly on the Left because of the enormous expectations and hopes embodied by Unidad Popular in Chile. The strategy the PCI drew from this event was the Historic Compromise, a strategy of conquering power and starting a transition to socialism through an alliance not only with Socialists on the Left, which was a minority current with respect to Communism in Italy, but also with Catholics, i.e., a traditionally conservative party. This was Enrico Berlinguer’s reinterpretation of Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, of a Western path to socialism, of the war of position, and a social-democratic or reformist reinterpretation of what Gramsci called the historical bloc. The radical Left had a totally different interpretation of Pinochet’s coup, and the first political campaign in which I participated was called Armi al MIR (“Arms for the MIR”),[1] the revolutionary Left-wing organization that supported Unidad Popular. In other words, the discrepancy was clear at that moment: the PCI was oriented towards a coalition with Christian Democracy, while the far Left looked for a radical break with the state and the army. For us, the historical meaning of the coup was that socialism could not be achieved without a radical break with the state and the army, which is its core. So, if you like, this was an old debate between reform and revolution that was suddenly put forward on the agenda by a tragic event.

But this lesson of Pinochet’s coup was also related to a different appraisal of the international situation. We thought that we were living a time of revolution, that we had to be prepared for a clash with power, and many events on a global scale legitimated this view: less than two years after Pinochet’s coup, the Vietnamese revolutionaries took power, Francoism fell in Spain in the middle of great social turmoil, in Portugal an authentic revolution overthrew Salazarism, etc. We thought that we had to be prepared for a radical clash, and this clash inevitably meant a military confrontation with power. Therefore, this discussion about the “force,” as it was called at that time, was a true debate; it was the time of guerilla warfare in Latin America — not in Chile but in Argentina and many other countries. It was a time of great expectations, and I think that this state of mind lasted for the entire decade, in Italy certainly until 1980.

This was also the context of the rise of Left-wing terrorism. At the beginning, the Red Brigades were an armed fragment of the radical Left; then, particularly after kidnapping Aldo Moro, one of the leaders of Christian Democracy, they dominated the political stage by conducting a kind of private war against the state that paralyzed and weakened any other social and political movement. The outcome is known: the Red Brigades were dismantled by the police and the radical Left collapsed.

NS: I want to back up a little bit. You mentioned reform and revolution, these classic debates, so I was wondering if we could work out the historiography a bit, not only regarding reform and revolution but the entire related concept of the European Civil War.

ET: The idea of a European Civil War is old, but as a historiographical debate this concept appeared much later, in the 1990s. I wrote a book with this title in 2007.[2] Before that moment, this concept had hardly been discussed, and only in the field of political theory, where it had been introduced by Carl Schmitt. Because of Schmitt’s political orientation and trajectory, this concept was sort of taboo, and couldn’t be discussed. It entered the historiographical debate in the 1990s after Claudio Pavone’s history of the Italian Resistance,[3] which he reinterpreted as a threefold war: a class war, a war of national liberation, and civil war between fascists and antifascists. After this book, which was a major achievement in the historiography of the Second World War, this notion came back, and could be discussed beyond its Schmittian matrix. It was in this context that I started using it.

Basically, the idea is that the decades going from the First to the Second World War were shaped in Europe by a deep political crisis, and, since the end of the 1920s, an economic crisis. The old European order had collapsed, and a new institutional order couldn’t appear. The transition from a continent of dynastic empires to a viable architecture of nation-states had failed, and Europe fell into a permanent crisis shaped by deep social and political conflicts, notably the confrontation between Communism and Fascism. This was the alternative that appeared to replace the failed liberal order of the 19th century. In other words, the European Civil War was a crisis that resulted in an ideological clash, in a Weltanschauungskrieg, a conflict opposing revolution and counterrevolution, democracy and Fascism, capitalism and socialism, with their antipodal worldviews. Therefore, the most interesting thinkers of these three decades are either fascist thinkers like Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, Ernst Jünger, or Giovanni Gentile, on the one hand, or Marxist thinkers, like V. I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Antonio Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg, or this marginal current of critical theory, whose importance will appear much later. This is the historical meaning of the European Civil War. Some scholars extend this concept beyond the boundaries of Europe, and suggest we should speak of an International Civil War, because this confrontation between revolution and counterrevolution finally shaped the entire 20th century. Europe was the heart of international relations in 1914, but it lost this central position after 1945, when the conflict between Fascism and Communism was replaced by that between real socialism and capitalism, between the USSR and the so-called “free world.”

NS: In the introduction to your book on the European Civil War, you connect this with your childhood. Do you see the European Civil war as something immanent to the crisis of politics in the 1970s?

ET: Yes, I do: our political, historical, theoretical, and even symbolic references had their matrix in the years between the two World Wars. For us, being revolutionaries meant building a Bolshevik party, following the Bolshevik model or one of its variants, such as those experienced in China, Vietnam, or Cuba. This was a military paradigm of revolution. For us, being anti-fascist didn’t just mean establishing democratic institutions; it meant changing the socio-economic basis of Western Europe, i.e., accomplishing the revolutionary and socialist potentialities of resistance. This was our mental landscape, which sometimes became a caricature of Bolshevism.

NS: In the 70s and early 80s, what was the influence of Trotsky in Italy, as the PCI was moving away from the Moscow center? I ask because what you are talking about, that you fight anti-fascism through armed resistance in the name of socialism, sounds like Trotsky’s writings from the 1930s.

ET: Trotskyism was extremely important in the emergence of what is usually called the New Left on a global scale. In France, Spain, the UK, and the U.S., Trotskyism was the hegemonic tendency on the radical Left since the 1930s. That is for some historical reasons. In Italy, Trotskyism had been active and significantly influential in the 1960s, when its advocates practiced entryism into the PCI and led its youth federations almost everywhere. They had created a weekly, La Sinistra, which was a mix of Trotskyism and Castroism, we could say.

Paradoxically, the tragedy of Italian Trotskyism was that it faced a very soft, already social-democratic Communist Party. In France, the Communist Party expelled the Trotskyists in the early 1960s, and in 1968 they participated in May 68 with their own organization. In Italy, in the 1960s, the PCI did not expel them, because it was a more tolerant organization, and what happened is that most young activists left the Communist Party, and created new organizations, which were mostly Maoist, because the Trotskyists were unable to break with the Communist Party. Because of two decades of fascism, Trotsky’s ideas came relatively late in Italy.

This point should be explained by mentioning a second paradox. Italian fascism was relatively “pluralist” and tolerant compared to German National Socialism. Mussolini never organized something like an auto-da-fé of forbidden books. Under Mussolini, History of the Russian Revolution (1930), Trotsky’s masterpiece, was translated and published, as well as Trotsky’s autobiography. So Marxist literature wasn’t completely forbidden; it was published because Trotsky was an internationally prominent political figure. But because of fascism, Italian Marxism was repressed and had a purely underground life. Gramsci wrote his notebooks in prison. Another important figure of Italian Marxism was Amadeo Bordiga, an extremely sectarian and dogmatic thinker, but he too was completely isolated. Therefore, Trotskyism in Italy never achieved an influence comparable to that in other countries like France or the U.S. The symbiosis of Trotskyism and Surrealism that took place in France in the 30s, or the influence Trotskyism had on the so-called New York intellectuals, never happened in Italy.

Italian Marxism was recreated after WWII under the hegemony of the PCI, and in this context some creative figures appeared, but were quite marginal, e.g., philosophers like Lucio Colletti or Galvano Della Volpe. An important current in Italian Marxism appeared in the early 1960s with operaismo (workerism), which was created by Mario Tronti, the young Antonio Negri, and Raniero Panzieri in particular, who created the journal Quaderni Rossi. This current had several links in France, Germany, and the U.S. Operaismo was really a theoretically creative and original current of thought. It emerged from the gigantic social change that was transforming Italy from a rural, poor, backward country into a highly modern, industrialized country. This tearing metamorphosis meant the birth of a completely new working class, which didn’t correspond with the image of the proletariat defended either by the PCI (traditional skilled workers), or by Gramsci in his writings on the factory councils or even his Prison Notebooks. The tenants of operaismo were interested in analyzing the new forms of organization and political action of a young working class of unskilled, immigrant workers (coming from rural Southern Italy), who didn’t recognize themselves in the old political parties. Trotskyism was unable to understand these social changes, defending an old, mostly political concept of the working class. Trotskyism was influential as a component of the Communist Party, but intellectually speaking it was less creative than operaismo and never produced anything comparable to the New Left Review. The history of Italian Trotskyism is the history of many missed encounters.

If your question is why I joined Trotskyism at that time, the reason is simple: differently from operaismo or Maoism, Trotskyism was the political current in the New Left that expressed the most accomplished historical consciousness. It was Trotskyism that embodied the memory not only of the Russian Revolution, but also of the struggle against fascism and Stalinism. This was one of its distinguishing features, with other currents being much more attracted by the novelty of the Cuban Revolution, guerilla warfare in Latin America, or the Cultural Revolution in China, and never seriously scrutinizing the nature of fascism or Stalinism. Reading Trotsky or Ernest Mandel, I found this missing historical dimension. Isaac Deutscher’s works also played a crucial role in my decision to become a Trotskyist.

NS: This is a good transition to the question of the 20th century. In an important document for Platypus, the panel discussion, “The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century,” Richard Rubin raised the possibility of Walter Benjamin and Trotsky being the “hidden,” “esoteric” history of the 20th century as opposed to the “real” history made of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Hitler.[4] In Platypus, we contend, in Hegelian terms, that “the history of the Left is the history of the present in its ‘actuality,’” that it is only from the standpoint of the Left that the “key” to what appears to be a Benjaminian “empty time” might be “filled.” I was not surprised, given the focus of your work, to see these same two figures appear prominently. How might the history of the 20th century appear primarily as the defeat, the collapse, even the regression of the Left?

ET: Approaching this complex matter with Benjamin’s lens, we shouldn’t view the process in cumulative or linear terms: progress or regression. The history of the 20th century is the history of a permanent clash between revolution and counterrevolution. If we consider, following Eric Hobsbawm, the “short” 20th century as a time span going from WWI to the end of the 1980s, this permanent confrontation between revolution and counterrevolution is made of sudden jumps forward, and equally unpredictable throwbacks. The Russian Revolution was unexpected at the end of the Great War, and it radically changed the force relations between the Left and the Right on a global scale, but was followed by fascism in Italy, by National Socialism in Germany, by Francoism in Spain after the end of the Civil War. When Benjamin wrote his “On the Concept of History” in 1940, things seemed absolutely desperate, but a few years later we had not only the fall of fascism and National Socialism, but a structural transformation in Central Europe, a revolution in China, etc. The history of the 20th century is made of such discontinuities and leaps, without fixing a clear linear movement.

What happened at the end of the 1980s is the sudden consciousness of a political defeat as the conclusion of this entire cycle. 1989 is the moment when the Left understood that an entire sequence of revolutionary upheavals was exhausted, that this historical experience had finished. That’s the point. The strategic models that had been created in 1917 in Russia, and in different ways had been adapted in non-European countries, from Asia to Latin America, had finally been defeated, and were no longer useful. We realized that the age of wars and revolutions was over. This titanic confrontation between capitalism and socialism, between revolution and counterrevolution, had been won by capitalism, i.e., by counterrevolution. This wasn’t so easy to accept, to “metabolize.” I belong to the last generation that lived both the hopes and the fall of this revolutionary age. We had to change our projects, categories of thinking, and interpretive tools, and we had to rethink the potential subjects of political change. Rethinking revolution in the 21st century means rethinking the social subjects of this revolutionary process. Changing the world now means different strategies, different actors. E.g., how do we rethink the concept of the proletariat, in a historical context in which the social and economic weight of the industrial working class is no longer the same, as in the age of Fordism? This was a huge task, and I am not sure that my generation was able to satisfactorily answer this challenge. The end of the 80s is a historical turn, in which all must be rethought. I found in Daniel Bensaid’s works the best expression of this self-consciousness.

NS: The thing that comes to mind when you say that is the contrary view, that whatever collapsed in 1989 wasn’t the Left, or was a Left already in deep decay. This isn’t a Trotskyist view of course, but Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics (1966) comes to mind:

The liquidation of [Marxist] theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice; the recovery of theory’s independence lies in the interest of practice itself . . . Today, with theory paralyzed and disparaged by the all-governing bustle, its mere existence, however impotent, bears witness against the bustle. This is why theory is legitimate and why it is hated; without it, there would be no changing the practice that constantly calls for change. Those who chide theory anachronistic obey the topos of dismissing, as obsolete, what remains painful as thwarted. They thus endorse the world’s course—defying which is the idea of theory alone—and the target is theoretically missed even if they succeeded in abolishing it, positivistically or by fiat.[5]

What is the palpable difference with regard to 1989 and all past failures for the Left? What might this have to do with Adorno’s related view, that the Left itself had become incapable of practice and must return to theory in a changed form?

ET: There is a qualitative difference between 1989 and many previous defeats. Before 89, we faced defeated battles in a confrontation which was still open. After the throwback of the Spartacist uprising in 1919 in Germany, the Communist Party started thinking of how to be prepared for a new revolutionary break, with a more well-equipped party. This was the debate about the “Bolshevization” of Western Communist Parties between 1921 and 1924. At the “midnight in the century,” after the German-Soviet treaty of 1939, the Left was shaken but did not collapse, and even the Chilean coup of 1973 pushed the Left to organize an armed resistance.

1989 is completely different. At the beginning we were euphoric: “the Berlin Wall is falling down, and this means a German Revolution is coming.” This was the view of Ernest Mandel, for instance: after many decades of passivity and exclusion, the German proletariat would suddenly return in the heart of Europe to accomplish a socialist revolution, which would be the convergence between an anti-capitalist revolution in the West and an anti-bureaucratic, anti-Stalinist revolution in Eastern Europe. Germany was considered the place where these revolutions could merge. Everybody was extremely enthusiastic. Trotskyists, who had always been anti-Stalinist, couldn't help but support this movement.

However, very quickly, in one year, we understood that the collapse of actually existing socialism meant the end of the Cold War and the victory of capitalism on a world scale. All our categories suddenly became obsolete. After 1989 the notion of Trotskyism itself had become obsolete. Trotskyism after 1989 is a realm of memory. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Trotsky should be forgotten, or that his writings shouldn’t be read or would be useless, but Trotskyism’s raison d’être was anti-Stalinism, and after the end of Stalinism, it’s impossible to build a Left around the assumptions of Trotskyism. Trotskyism could survive only by transcending itself into something new. Today, Trotskyism means that a Left for the 21st century cannot forget the lessons of the struggles against Stalinism, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism, and it cannot forget the idea of socialist democracy. But today, speaking of a Trotskyist Left doesn’t mean very much. At least, for people of your generation.

That’s the first part of my answer. The second part is what to do with Adorno’s legacy. From this point of view, Adorno doesn’t offer us any useful idea of rebuilding the Left. If we adopted the political conclusions of Adorno’s thought, we would have abandoned our struggle much earlier than 1989. Adorno was a powerful thinker, no doubt. He wrote masterpieces like Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) with Horkheimer or Negative Dialectics, and he was able to understand this peculiar feature of 20th century capitalism, this new negative dialectic producing totalitarianism, producing an authoritarian rule: the clash between productive forces and property relations is not necessarily sublated by superior social relations, by socialism, but this clash can result in fascism or totalitarian forms of power. Adorno perfectly understood this tendency, but his political conclusion was that totalitarianism was a sort of ineluctable outcome of modernity. When you read Dialectic of Enlightenment and Negative Dialectics, what remains is criticism — our capacity for looking at civilization, history, with a critical gaze — without any emancipatory hope. The world cannot be changed. Emancipation is an illusion. The world is doomed to domination. The entire trajectory of civilization from antiquity to Auschwitz is a coherent logic of domination. But ultimately domination has no alternative: we can adopt a critical, but purely contemplative and politically impotent, gaze. This is a kind of negative Hegelianism, in which the Weltgeist (World Spirit) is replaced by totalitarianism. This is the reason for which someone like Herbert Marcuse eventually broke with the Frankfurt School, and why a true dialogue between Trotskyism and critical theory never could be established. Finally, Adorno’s thought is the reason why, as I suggest in my book Left-Wing Melancholia, critical theory was blind to decolonization, to this wave of emancipatory struggles whose subjects were non-white and non-Western.[6] We can use Adorno fruitfully, but we cannot rebuild the Left with Adornian premises.

NS: He’s not a positive thinker.

ET: He’s not a revolutionary thinker. He’s a melancholic thinker — he depicted his thought as a traurige Wissenschaft (melancholy science) — but he represents a resigned and purely contemplative melancholic Left. When in 1968, his students rediscovered the most radical texts of the Frankfurt School and decided to transform critical theory into a program of struggle, Adorno’s answer was calling the police to evacuate the Institute for Social Research that they had occupied. Habermas, his disciple, depicted the student movement as a new form of fascism. At that moment, Marcuse broke with Adorno, writing him a letter in which he explained why he supported the German students. So, critical theory offers us many useful critical tools, but not a project for an effective 21st century Left.

NS: Let’s talk about Benjamin, then, because that seems like that’s where we’re going. What about Jetztzeit (now time)? My first question is historical: is Jetztzeit a category of thought that still applies today as it might have when Benjamin wrote his “On the Concept of History”? In Left-Wing Melancholia, you refer to 1940 as the “Midnight of the Century.” Is it possible to apply Benjamin’s prosecution of history, this method of “nihilism” that he speaks of in the “Theologico-Political Fragment,” in a way that goes beyond the purely negative dialectic of Adorno, or does it share that limitation?

ET: I don’t share this enthusiasm that so many friends, colleagues, and students express, regarding Benjamin’s “Theologico-Political Fragment,” a text he wrote in 1921.[7] No doubt, this text is radical, but it was written when Benjamin had yet to discover Marxism, and before he had identified a social subject for social change. The revolutionary break evoked in this “theological-political” meditation is the eruption of God in history. It is an embryonic step in Benjamin’s take on revolutionary messianism, which will find a clearer shape in his “On the Concept of History” as a symbiotic entanglement between Jewish theology and profane Marxism. This revolutionary political theology, which is indistinguishable from profane Marxism, results in political action, and the subject of revolutionary transformation is the proletariat. The proletariat — the vanquished of history — is the subject of a messianic redemption that corresponds with a profane political action in the present. The idea of class struggle, clearly defined in his “On the Concept of History” of 1940, does not exist in his fragment of 1921. Benjamin, we shouldn’t forget, was completely indifferent to the Spartacist Revolution (1918–19). He discovered Marxism later, in the mid-1920s, not in the early 1920s.

That means Jetztzeit is not permanently available. Jetztzeit is exceptional; it is a clash between past and future, in which the past can suddenly reemerge and shape the present. This idea of a past that is unaccomplished, that is never definitely closed, that can be reactivated, is a fruitful idea. But this reactivation is not always possible; it requires some circumstances. We must be aware of this chance, and grasp it when this constellation appears. In 1940, there was no Jetztzeit; Benjamin was waiting for it. For a moment in 1989, we thought we were living a kind of Jetztzeit. But this didn’t occur.

NS: Would you say 1989 was the central date for “the tragedy of your generation”?

ET: I would put quotation marks around this word: a “tragedy” in the sense that a generation suddenly realized that an entire historical sequence was over, engulfing its hopes and utopias. Reproducing our own paradigms of anti-Stalinism, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, such as they had been formulated and lived in a previous time, had become meaningless. A historical continuity was broken. The Left had to rethink its identity. This was the change.

NS: “Entire generations passing into discard,” is what Trotsky wrote in 1933 with the triumph of Hitler.[8]

ET: 1933 was different; it was an enormous, tragic setback, but once again a lost battle. In 1933 no one could say “we lost; this is the final loss, and we can abandon the struggle.” In 1933, the German Left — both Communist and Social Democratic — faced its gigantic and tragic mistakes: its incapacity to create a united front against fascism. The Left had to be rebuilt. One year later, the answer was the Popular Front. In 1933 Fascism won in Germany because the Left was divided. 1933 was a terrible defeat, but the struggle against fascism continued.

In 1989 we exited this historical turn with the feeling that capitalism had won, and that the struggle against capitalism must be rethought in conditions that were comparable to those existing at the origins of socialism, of the workers’ movement. We came back to the age of industrial revolution; two centuries of struggles were erased. The workers’ movement as it had been conceived of, had been structured, with its ideological references, with its transmitted culture, with its practices — all of that appeared as obsolete. After 1989, Communism disappeared, and Social Democracy became a pillar of the neoliberal order (Blairism has become the symbol of the destruction of the Left in the UK). In this sense, we were orphans.

Trotskyism too had been defeated, because 1989 was neither an anti-capitalist revolution in the West nor an anti-Stalinist revolution in the East. Trotskyism was affected by this historical defeat, as well as Stalinism. We had to rethink the Left, and three decades later, we are still facing the same challenge, despite revolutions, important movements that happened, new experiences, and important advances in criticism and critical theory. This problem of building a new Left capable of answering the challenges of the 21st century is still open. We don’t have anything comparable to what socialism was in the 19th century, or what communism was in the 20th century.

NS: Do you feel like the potentials and defeats of 1989 are reposed every time we have a crisis in society, a crisis in the administered world?

ET: Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri could answer your question with a certain optimism, that finally, the potential premises for a liberated world, in terms of what they called the general intellect, the capacity of human beings to create a liberated society, are much greater today than a century ago. I agree with that. If we adopt this perspective, we could be optimistic that conditions for socialism are stronger today than a century ago, not to speak of Marx’s time.

On the other hand, we should recognize — and this is not negligible in terms of building a political project for social change — that neoliberal capitalism was able to change the human condition itself. This victory of capitalism cannot be measured in terms of political repression. The victory of capitalism does not mean that capitalism consolidated its strongholds, conquered new markets, and expanded its influence. Capitalism has more deeply penetrated our forms of life, our mental world. This is the change. In the 20th century, the existence of the Soviet Union itself was proof, for ordinary people, that a different, non-capitalist world was possible. Today we live in a world in which capitalism doesn’t have any alternative, and what is tragic is that we are increasingly aware that capitalist civilization is pushing our planet towards a catastrophic outcome. Neoliberalism transformed capitalism into a kind of “conduct of life” (Lebensführung), an anthropological model. I.e., we internalize individualism and competition.

We should be able to reintroduce utopia, the hope for a different world, and embody this utopia with a new political movement, which should be plural, open, not framed by powerful ideological boundaries. We should invent new forms of action that inscribe the memory of the Left into our new projects. This is not a simple task. There are interesting experiences, in many countries, something that could be compared to Charles Fourier’s phalansteries, the 19th century communities in which people made new experiences and tried to organize different forms of life based on equality, non-commodified relations, etc. This is interesting, but not enough to challenge capitalism.

NS: Doesn’t capitalism already do that? Before the interview, we were discussing Massimo Cacciari’s book on Adolf Loos.[9] With someone like Loos, recreation of experience does happen in society, in the Metropolis, even if it points to utopia.

ET: You are speaking of the 1920s?

NS: Yes. So was that related to the political and social upheaval of the 1920s and 30s, and are those conditions that we can’t perceive anymore, as a socio-political impetus that undergirded their thought?

ET: Yes. In the 1960s and 70s, similar experiences took place in several Italian cities ruled by the PCI. They explicitly adopted the model of Red Vienna (Rotes Wien), the new workers’ neighborhoods created by Loos. But in both cases, these were experiences of social reformation supported by public powers that did not wish to overthrow capitalism. This regularly happens in history. Today in France, we have theZAD (zones à defendre): “islands” in which young people organize their common life on different bases, by putting into question private property and commodified social relations. These experiences are interesting, but they don’t participate in a broader movement to change the world. In the 1920s, the situation was different because it was possible to connect the avant-garde in different fields — aesthetics, art, architecture — to political struggles. Today it is more difficult.

NS: In Left-Wing Melancholia, you work through the concept of memory with relation to Marxism. On the one hand, there is Lenin in The State and Revolution (1917), for which you note, “the word ‘memory’ does not appear, but several chapters are devoted to the revolutionary ‘experiences’ of the nineteenth century, notably 1848 and the Paris Commune.”[10] However, with regards to Trotsky in Literature in Revolution (1924) you write, “revolution was not a tabula rasa; it had its own vision of the past, as a kind of counter-memory opposed to the official interpretations of history. Revolution was the moment in which this vision ‘raised from the deeps of memory’ and pushed its actors to ‘break a road into the future.’”[11]  How might the Left, as a political object, mediate memory with the struggle for the future, to avoid what Adorno wrote, that “the leap into the future, clean over the conditions of the present, lands in the past”?[12]

ET: That’s a beautiful sentence, although I’m not sure that Adorno gave useful advice to avoid this “landing in the past.” To answer your question: memory is never literal. It is not something frozen, monolithic, immutable, and unchangeable. Memory is a process of selection, and memory is permanently changing our view of the past, because we put different questions to the past, and our gaze towards the past changes. This means that memory is the outcome of a process of selection of events, recollections, experiences, made in the past, which are useful, and become meaningful, according to our needs in the present and to our projects for the future. If we build a new utopia or, following Reinhart Koselleck, a new horizon of expectation for the 21st century, if the Left were able to build a new idea of futurity, it would engender a new memory of the past. The past is an enormous reservoir of experiences that can be remobilized and reactivated. Since 1989, history no longer appears as a sequence of revolutions: 1789, 1848, the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, etc. Hobsbawm periodized history this way because, there was one idea of the future, an idea of socialism, and this idea was normative.[13] Without this idea of futurity, it doesn’t make sense to view the past as a sequence of revolutionary breaks. Building a memory of past revolutions, the workers’ movement, or the Left is neither merely a historiographical task, nor a pure work of erudition. Creating archives, in which this experience could be preserved and protected, is not enough. We need to create a new idea of futurity that will orient our vision of the past. I am convinced that revolutions are the breath of history. IP


[1] Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Left Movement).

[2] À feu et à sang. De la guerre civile européenne 1914–1945 (Paris: Editions Stock, 2007). In English: Fire and Blood: The European Civil War 1914–1945, trans. David Fernbach (London: Verso, 2017).

[3] Claudio Pavone, Una guerra civile. Saggio storico sulla moralità nella Resistenza (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1991). In English: A Civil War: A History of the Italian Resistance, ed. Stanislao Pugliese, trans. Peter Levy and David Broder (London: Verso, 2013).

[4] Richard Rubin, “1933,” in “The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century,” in Platypus Review 17 (November 2009), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2009/11/18/the-decline-of-the-left-in-the-20th-century-1933/>.

[5] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1997), 143.

[6] Enzo Traverso, Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 166–77.

[7] Adorno attributed this text to late 1937 or early 1938 and claimed to have suggested its title, while Gershom Scholem attributed it to the early 1920s. See Walter Benjamin “Theological-Political Fragment,” in Selected Writings: Volume 3: 1935–1938, eds. Michael W. Jennings, et al., trans. Edmund Jephcott, et al. (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2002), 305–06.

[8] Leon Trotsky, “To Build Communist Parties and an International Anew,” available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/germany/1933/330715.htm>.

[9] Massimo Cacciari, Architecture and Nihilism: On the Philosophy of Modern Architecture, trans. Stephen Sartarelli (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

[10] Traverso, Left-Wing Melancholia, 58.

[11] Ibid, 71.

[12] Theodor Adorno, “Messages in a Bottle,” New Left Review 1, no. 200 (July/Aug 1993).

[13] See Enzo Traverso, Revolution: An Intellectual History (London: Verso, 2021).