Enzo Traverso: Revolution Is an Idea for the Future, Not Just a Glorious Past

Enzo Traverso

Karl Marx wrote that “revolutions are the locomotives of history.” For Italian historian Enzo Traverso, regaining the idea of revolution is essential if we refuse to accept capitalism as an eternal state of affairs.

A watercolor of the French Revolution of 1848 by Cesare Dell'Acqua. (Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images)

Interview by
Athina Rossoglou
Dimitris Gkioulos

One of Karl Marx’s most famous lines tells us that “revolutions are the locomotives of history.” For Italian historian Enzo Traverso, Marx’s reference to trains was no accident. When he wrote these lines in his 1850 work The Class Struggles in France, the railways were a decisive factor in the rise of industrial capitalism; their spread was transforming landscapes, erasing distance, and changing even the experience of time itself. The era of technological and political revolutions allowed humans to rethink their relationship to the world around them: all that seemed solid melted into air.

This theme provides Traverso’s cue for the first chapter of Revolution: An Intellectual History, a vast study of the idea of revolution in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In an interview with Jacobin, he told Αthina Rossoglou and Dimitris Gkioulos about the spread of the idea of “revolution” and why it remains relevant to left-wing political action today.

Athina Rossoglou and Dimitris Gkioulos

Revolution: An Intellectual History reinterprets the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century revolutions, by composing a “constellation of dialectical images.” Why is it so important to delve into the idea of revolution — and what use does this knowledge have for the new movements in the twenty-first century?

Enzo Traverso

I wrote this book to rehabilitate and reactualize the concept of revolution, which I thought had been quite neglected or dismissed, even blurred.

The word “revolution” is everywhere. It is currently used in the public sphere, not only in political literature, but in the media in general, yet with a lot of contradictory meanings. Revolution is a word widely appropriated and spread by advertising. Every year, a new iPhone is released and depicted as a revolution; a new computer is a revolution. . . . So, revolution becomes a meaningless word. This is not completely new — think of the inflation of the words “technological revolution,” “industrial revolution,” “cultural revolution,” “sexual revolution,” etc. But I believe this is part of a general tendency to hollow out this concept. When everything is revolution, revolution does not mean anything.

So, my purpose was to reinscribe this concept into our political, and not only historiographical, lexicon as a strong analytical category, as a key to interpret the past and particularly modernity. I point out that the twenty-first century has already seen authentic revolutions in the Arab world in particular, now in Iran, and other countries.

It is important to recognize that there have been many social and political movements that shaped the Western world during the last ten years, from Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter in the United States to movements in Europe, particularly Greece in 2015, and in Spain, and repeatedly in France, from Nuit Debout to the movement against the pension reform. These were not ordinary union strikes or ordinary social movements. They were social movements with enormous political potentialities and revolutionary aspirations. They questioned the established economic and political order. So, revolution is not something belonging to the past, but is in front of us.

Athina Rossoglou and Dimitris Gkioulos

Would you say that revolutions, or maybe revolts, could help the Left of the twenty-first century forge a new collective imaginary, a new revolutionary imaginary?

Enzo Traverso

Well, I think of all the social uprisings. It’s very difficult to establish a clear distinction between revolts and revolutions, because this distinction usually becomes clear retrospectively. Only when a revolution takes place or when a rebellion is finished, can we say that this was an ephemeral revolt with limited objectives, without great ambitions, or that this was a true revolution that was able to overthrow the established power. This is a distinction that can be established with hindsight. It seems to me that any deep revolt or true revolution inevitably transforms the way of thinking and creates a new collective imagination. It’s too early to detect some of the changes introduced by the recent movements we mentioned. Maybe later we will be able to do that, but with respect to the history of the twentieth century, this is quite clear.

The quality of a political leader lies in their capacity to grasp novelty, to grasp a new shared feeling, a new mood, a new imaginary. This is not the task of a historian and unfortunately, I don’t have this talent. I make no claim to write guidelines for today’s social and political movements, but nonetheless I think that interpreting the past and keeping the historical profile of past revolutions can be useful for the movements of the present.

Athina Rossoglou and Dimitris Gkioulos

The book analyzes the entanglement between revolution and communism that so deeply shaped twentieth-century history. How do you assess the rise and fall of communist movements and regimes in the twentieth century, and what role did ideology play in these developments?

Enzo Traverso

The revolutionary history of the twentieth century was deeply shaped, basically forged, by October 1917. The Russian Revolution was not only a major historical turn that changed the face of the twentieth century. It also changed the way of thinking about the notion of revolution itself, both theoretically and strategically. A new idea of revolution appeared in 1917, and communism was conceived as an ideology, a theoretical corpus, a doctrine, but also as a globally organized political movement. For communism, since its beginning, was structured as an international movement for a world revolution.

Before 1917 were several revolutionary experiences, particularly in France — the French Revolution, the European revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune — but the Russian Revolution introduced a new paradigm. This paradigm was a product of the Great War, which created a new symbiotic relationship between war and revolution, a kind of militarization of revolutionary strategy.

The practices and languages of war made an extraordinary eruption into politics. So, from 1917, revolution was conceived as a military rise to power, a military conquest of power, and that meant an organized revolutionary movement comparable to an army. A revolutionary army means hierarchies, means discipline, means a division of tasks, and also means a gender hierarchy, and that had enormous consequences in the history of communism.

This new revolutionary model shaped the entire history of the twentieth century. It was the ruling paradigm of revolution until the revolution in Nicaragua in 1979. The Spanish Civil War was also a revolutionary war; the Chinese Revolution and the Vietnamese Revolution were armed conquests of power; the Cuban Revolution was a guerrilla movement conquering power. This was the model that I believe shaped the mental world of my generation, of several generations up until mine.

The twenty-first century is looking for a different revolutionary paradigm. The old one was forged by the experience of communism. Speaking of communism means speaking not only of ideas, theories, and movements but also of political regimes, which became at a certain time not only very authoritarian regimes but totalitarian systems of power. This is a very heavy legacy, and this paradigm, which appeared so powerful and so effective in the twentieth century, has become much more than a kind of political memory; today, it risks becoming a strategic and an epistemological obstacle to elaborating a new project. Burdened by this model, we have some difficulties in thinking about a twenty-first-century revolution.

Athina Rossoglou and Dimitris Gkioulos

Your research has explored the intellectual history of the Left and its interaction with the cultural domain, especially cinema and the arts. What is the role of such genres in the formation of left-wing views?

Enzo Traverso

In my book, I devote particular attention to movies and images.

The book is built on the concept of “dialectical images” borrowed from Walter Benjamin. Images are of course historical sources. We can work on these images, by investigating and studying a huge revolutionary iconography left by historical experiences of the past. From this point of view, images as well as literary texts are sources that we can contextualize and analyze.

According to Walter Benjamin, images can also become “dialectical images” or “thought images” (Denkbilder) — that is, not only images in the sense of photos or paintings or movies, but images that are also literary forms, aesthetic forms in the broadest meaning of the word. Dialectical images are images which help us to interpret the past: images, texts, paintings, or movies that encapsulate or crystallize a past experience, a historical event, as well as the ideas and the culture that belonged to these experiences and events. In this respect, dialectical images helped me to write an unconventional book. Usually, historical books analyze any revolution separately, following a chronological sequence and so on. There is a huge historical literature based on this methodology; my approach is different.

Dialectical images are important because they also help scholars to grasp what changed in collective imagination. Revolutions transform the way of socializing, the interaction of human beings, the relationship between human beings, between men and women, between white people and people of color. Revolutions change the perception of reality. Revolutions, I wrote, are this kind of exceptional, in most cases ephemeral, but magical moment in which the routine is broken, in which the historical continuity is destroyed, in which a new temporality suddenly erupts, breaking the everyday life, and in which the ruled, the oppressed, the subaltern classes and people suddenly discover their energies and their enormous strength. They suddenly start acting as collective subjects and this allows them to change the course of history. And, of course, this is a moment of extraordinary excitement, of enthusiasm. We are able to change the world, and certainly this completely changes our worldview.

The photography of revolutions conveys this human excitement. Paintings, arts, literature, and novels mirror these changes. To say that novels simply mirror these changes may be a reductive perception of literature. Nonetheless, I think this is deeply true. Of course, any novel can and has to be interpreted as a creation of a single writer and is the creation of a subjective universe but, nonetheless, revolutions create the premises for these new creations. From this point of view, without being an orthodox Lukácsian literary critic, I think that the arts and literature are in a certain way shaped and transformed by revolutions.

Athina Rossoglou and Dimitris Gkioulos

Would you say that left-wing melancholia could be an interpretive tool to explore the literary trends of the twenty-first century?

Enzo Traverso

I’m not a literary critic. I may work with literary sources as well as visual sources, but I do so by inscribing them in a broader perspective, the perspective of cultural history. My purpose was to write a cultural history of revolutions, and in this respect in my book I quote a lot of novelists, artists, and authors, without, however pretending to give a satisfactory interpretation of their work. Rather, I’m trying to explain in what way their works can participate in this global cataclysm that can be depicted as a revolution.

The concept of left-wing melancholia doesn’t claim to grasp the current state of left culture or of left-wing politics. My book on left-wing melancholia is a history book which tries to explain that melancholia is a feeling that belongs to the history of left-wing culture since the beginning, since the early nineteenth century. I offer many examples of that, and my book was written as a kind of plea for recognizing melancholia as legitimate and as an authentic and relevant feeling belonging to the culture of the Left.

The history of the Left is a history of revolutions, a history of defeats, a history of massacres, and this has inevitably engendered a melancholic feeling. Melancholia is the historical consciousness of what we lost in the past, the historical consciousness that our emancipatory struggles are shaped by defeats, by the loss of comrades, of our beloved friends, and that we are also struggling for them: that their legacy is not neglected or ignored or forgotten, but that this legacy can become a source of energy for our struggles. I believe that this left-wing melancholia was in many cases repressed or removed by the Left because recognizing this melancholic feeling was supposed to reveal a kind of weakness, of vulnerability. A revolutionary fighter has to be strong, has to be courageous, doesn’t know fear or melancholia.

We have to overcome these prejudices and these naive conceptions, inherited from a militaristic conception of revolution. We fight for changing the world and life and for establishing new, more humane, and more pleasant relationships between human beings. I think that melancholia has its place in this struggle. Besides enthusiasm, besides utopias, besides a feeling of strength and of action.

Left-wing melancholia is not a pathology; it’s not a disease which should be cured, or a therapy. I don’t prescribe melancholia to change the mental world of the young generations. Young people who enthusiastically participate in anti-racist, feminist, or ecologist movements are perfectly aware of the difficulties of their fight. They are not melancholic; their life is ahead of them. So, I don’t prescribe melancholia as a therapy. I simply claim the recognition of melancholia as a legitimate feeling belonging to the culture of the Left.

Athina Rossoglou and Dimitris Gkioulos

Was it easier for left-wing melancholia to grow in Italy, for example, where the Left had a different approach with Eurocommunism? And through the tragedy of Eurocommunism, was it easier to depict a communist and a revolutionary that was not a soldier, to think about loss and melancholy? We might remember Giorgio Gaber’s emblematic monologue Qualcuno era comunista, where he describes a man whose dreams and aspirations were crushed with the defeat of the revolution.

Enzo Traverso

Yes, I think that [this monologue] depicts the feeling of melancholia quite well. We could actually consider it as a kind of dialectical image of left-wing melancholia.

A few years ago, I presented my book on Left-Wing Melancholia in Berlin, and I remember that somebody in the audience told me, “so you wrote this book because you are Italian.” I was a little bit surprised, because I had not spoken of Italy in my talk, but I said, well, maybe. I’m Italian and I discovered politics in Italy in the 1970s. And I’m sure that the metamorphosis experienced by the Italian left affected my unconscious, as well as my intellectual and political trajectory, even though I left Italy several decades ago.

I come from a country that in the postwar years hosted the most powerful Communist Party in the Western world. And where, suddenly, in a very short span of time, communism completely disappeared because of a kind of collective suicide. What happened in Italy wasn’t a fascist coup that destroyed the organized workers’ movement. It was a kind of self-dissolution. This left an enormous vacuum. The Left disappeared not due to the transformation of the Communist Party into a modern social democratic or left-wing party after an ideological or strategic revision, but due to the dissolution of history, of a memory, and of a project. This inevitably puts into question the traditional interpretation of the history of communism, of Italian Communism, and also the history of Eurocommunism.

In the 1970s, Eurocommunism appeared to many observers globally as an attempt at overcoming the limits of Stalinism, of renewing the Left as the subject of a political transformation. Communism abandoned the concept of the dictatorship of the proletarian, but still defended the project of a socialist transformation of the world, a kind of long march through the institutions. Retrospectively, however, we must recognize that Eurocommunism was the first step of this process of self-dissolution.

Italian Communism didn’t survive the turn of the century. And the Italian Communist Party was absorbed by this transformation of social democracy into a form of social liberalism, into a political force whose objective is no longer transforming society within the framework of capitalism, but rather managing neoliberal capitalism. So, the Italian case is maybe the most emblematic case of this transformation, which in my view was a terrible historical defeat for the Left. This inevitably engendered a melancholic feeling — and the Italian Left cannot be but melancholic because this is its trajectory, its history. This kind of left-wing melancholia is the framework in which we can rethink these trajectories historically. We cannot elaborate a memory of the past without starting from the recognition of these peculiar yet historical defeats.

Athina Rossoglou and Dimitris Gkioulos

You mentioned earlier that you would never prescribe melancholy. There was a great revival of political poetry in Greece during the twenty-first century, showing many aspects of left-wing melancholia: despair, defeat, but also a search for an alternative route, for insurrectionary causes. And at the same time, we could consider Pier Paolo Pasolini and his emblematic The Ashes of Gramsci, or Cesare Pavese who committed suicide out of despair. Would you say that left-wing melancholia shaped literary trends in twentieth-century Italy?

Enzo Traverso

Yes, I think that these examples are very significant, adding perhaps that Pasolini wrote The Ashes of Gramsci at a time when the Left still considered that the future belonged to it. This feeling of left-wing melancholia is usually and mainly related to the consciousness of defeat, but at the same time as something that belongs to the history of the Left and its culture. So, it can also appear when the Left is deeply convinced of its strength and of its chances of changing the world. We could certainly offer many other examples.

There are some important books that don’t wish to interpret the past but rather to elaborate the feeling, the unconscious, related to certain historical trends. I’m thinking of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which is a book on revolution, on defeat and on the contradictions of revolutions themselves. I am thinking of the autobiography of Victor Serge, a great novelist, which is titled Memoirs of a Revolutionary. This autobiography is not only an extraordinary literary work, but it is indispensable to grasp the meaning of communism in the twentieth century.

I’m also thinking of works written by novelists who betrayed their ideals and their aspirations, like the Nobel Prize–winner Mario Vargas Llosa, a reactionary thinker today. His The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta is an extraordinary book of Latin-American revolution. Many of these novels are powerful mirrors of the postwar left-wing imagination. We could cite a lot of cases, but in my book I give two major ones: Theo Angelopoylos, Ulysses’ Gaze, and Carmen Castillo, Calle Santa Fe.

Athina Rossoglou and Dimitris Gkioulos

What about this lack of connection between the social movements and the new critical theories that you mentioned in a recent interview? Could culture help bridge this gap?

Enzo Traverso

Filling this gap certainly cannot be done without cultural inventions and creations. When I speak of a gap between critical theory and social-political movements, I think of a historical change. We already mentioned the Russian Revolution as the matrix of a new revolutionary paradigm in the twentieth century. Between the end of the nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth century, there was an organic link between critical theory and revolutionary movements. Representatives of critical theory, thinkers, theoreticians of Marxism, for instance, were political leaders.

Think of classical Marxism: Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg. They were sophisticated thinkers writing historical books, books of political theory, political economy, and so on, and at the same time political leaders able to lead a mass movement. This was also particularly true for many revolutionary intellectuals in the south. Think of C. L. R. James, think of Franz Fanon, think of Mao Tse-Tung, of Ho Chi Minh. All of them were political leaders, sometimes military leaders, and thinkers. Back then the Frankfurt School was an exception, precisely because it was shaped by a separation between thinking and action.

After World War II, this organic link was progressively weakened and finally broken. Of course, there are exceptions. Ernest Mandel, for instance, leader of the Fourth International, was a recognized and brilliant economist. But roughly speaking, we could say that this link was broken. On the one hand, today we have many brilliant intellectuals and a vibrant, sophisticated, qualitatively remarkable critical theory, in Europe, in the United States, in Latin America, on a global scale. On the other hand, we have powerful social and political movements (often desynchronized, with many discrepancies between continents and countries) that are usually don‘t trust charismatic leaders.

This gap dramatically appeared in some crucial events. Think of the decades of decolonization and of colonial revolutions. Franz Fanon was read everywhere, but he was also deeply involved in the Algerian War and in Algeria’s National Liberation Front. Think of C. L. R. James, think of Mao, think of Che Guevara, who was internationally read but also one of the actors in the Revolution in Cuba and in Latin America. And now think of the Arab Revolutions, which took place a little bit more than a decade ago, in a moment in which postcolonial studies were hegemonic in the universities of the Western world.

The major representatives of postcolonialism didn’t play any role in these revolutions. Important and brilliant thinkers such as Homi K. Bhabha, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Enrique Dussel, etc., did not mean anything for the young insurgent people of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Libya. This is not because of the limits of these thinkers or because of the limits of these movements, but because something happened that created this gap.

I think that overcoming this separation, this gap, this contradiction, is vital to create a new perspective. A new utopia will not be created by brilliant writers or by skillful intellectuals, but from the body of society and the social movements. The role of intellectuals consists precisely in giving words and a form to these feelings, these utopias, these new visions, these new horizons. This has to be depicted, to be systematized; intellectuals can give a shape and a political profile to this new horizon of expectation. This is the role of thinkers, writers, intellectuals, and artists. I’m sure that will happen. But we are still waiting for that.

Athina Rossoglou and Dimitris Gkioulos

We tend to perceive writers as far removed from society or above it. It seems as if when you are a writer, you can’t be a political being as well. Certainly, new writers, new brilliant minds, new revolutionaries will come from the movement. But nowadays, it’s something that faces hostility.

Enzo Traverso

I think that one of neoliberalism’s major achievements was its capacity to create a new anthropological paradigm. Of course, neoliberalism is the ruling form of capitalism on a global scale. But neoliberalism is also hugely criticized and contested. We cannot say that neoliberalism won because everybody is convinced that it is the best way of living. Yet it was able to create a new anthropological paradigm in the Weberian sense of Lebensführung, a conduct of life, a way of living. And this new anthropological model is deeply individualistic, which has deeply affected the structure of new forms of socializing, of organizing, of participating in collective movements. It also had deep consequences in aesthetic and literary creation. So, I devoted a book on that new interaction and this osmotic link between history and literature (Singular Pasts).

Today, historians write like novelists and novelists build their novels working on archives and trying to respect historical evidence. This is new and extremely interesting, but at the same time, all these new forms of historical and literary writing are deeply subjectivist. Historians write beautiful books on the past, on the Holocaust, on the Spanish Civil War, through the lens of an individual experience. Individuals who are, in most cases, fathers or grandfathers of the authors. Novelists do the same thing. So, their question is not: What happened and why, who were the actors, what was at stake in these crucial experiences of the past? Their question is rather: How does the past interrogate my identity, who I am, where I come from? This is a very subjectivist approach to reality, to society, to history, to the past, and to politics.

This is not a claim against historians or novelists. I don’t say they should write differently. My point is, if historians and novelists write this way, it’s because something changed in our culture. I think that this was an anthropological change introduced by neoliberalism. Individualism dominates. But to create new utopias, we have to think collectively. We must inscribe our subjectivity — which is not only legitimate, but unavoidable — into a collective project and practice. I think that this hasn’t appeared till now. This is something that has to be rethought and reformulated also in terms of a new relationship between intellectuals and activists, between the creation of a critical theory, of new aesthetic forms, and of collective action.

Athina Rossoglou and Dimitris Gkioulos

If we asked you to make a prediction, what would it be? About the Left, about social movements, about the prospects of a new utopia.

Enzo Traverso

Well, maybe because I’m a historian, I don’t make predictions. In most cases predictions are bad or are contradicted by events. Also, because I think that anything is possible. If I had to, I’d make it in two parts. The worst of outcomes is possible — and the worst is inevitable. That is, if we don’t act in order to stop the foreseeable catastrophe, the worst is perfectly possible. When I say “the worst,” I’m thinking of explosions related to unbearable social and economic inequalities. I’m thinking of ecological catastrophes with all the consequences in terms of destruction of nature, mass migration from one continent to another because of climatic change, and so on. This is perfectly possible. This is Gramsci’s pessimism of the intellect.

Still, I could very well make an opposite prediction, that the worst will not happen without resistance. And I’m sure that powerful movements will appear — indeed, they already do exist — on a global scale. Probably Europe will not be the core of this resistance. And this is a big change with respect to what happened one century ago. There are many reasons for that — first of all, because of demographic and economic trends. The position of Europe in the global world is no longer that of one or two centuries ago. But resistance movements will happen. And I’m sure that Europe will participate in these movements.

So, I’m neither pessimistic nor optimistic. I try to be lucid. “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” is a conventional formula which, ultimately, simply depicts the dialectic of history. The dialectic of history means that there is a dialectical relationship between domination and emancipation. And the path of emancipation is harder, more difficult than a century ago.

Why is it so difficult to build a new utopia today? Because one century ago, our ancestor, Rosa Luxemburg, launched the slogan “socialism or barbarism,” which was a dialectical image. It was a slogan that synthesized the dilemma that humanity faced at that moment, during World War I. Then, socialism won, socialist revolutions took place in many countries, and socialism finally became a face of barbarism. We are still facing this dilemma, socialism or barbarism, with the historical consciousness that socialism itself can become a face of barbarism. So, the path of emancipation is not a triumphal march; it is a very difficult path. Nonetheless, history shows that human beings possess energies strong enough to do that. So, we have to be prepared for difficult but possible struggles.

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Enzo Traverso teaches at Cornell University. His most recent book is Revolution: An Intellectual History.

Αthina Rossoglou is a translator and a public historian. Her PhD focuses on the relation between politics and Greek poetry in the postrevolutionary era. She runs the Reading Greece project.

Dimitris Gkioulos is a poet and translator. He is pursuing his master’s degree in public history. His poems have been published in magazines and collections in Greece and abroad.

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