The history of socialism is a constellation of defeats that nourished it for almost two centuries. Instead of destroying its ideas and aspirations, these traumatic, tragic, often bloody defeats consolidated and legitimated them. Falling after a well-fought struggle gives dignity to the vanquished and can become a source of pride. Exiled and banished revolutionaries often knew misery and privations, certainly the sufferings of loss, but rarely isolation among the people surrounding them. They always occupied a place of honor within the left and socialist movements, from Heine, Marx, and Herzen in nineteenth-century Paris to the anti fascist émigrés in twentieth-century New York. The defeat suffered by the left in 1989, however, was a different one: it did not occur after a battle and did not engender any pride; it ended a century and summarized in itself a cumulative sequence of downfalls that, suddenly gathered and condensed in a symbolic historical turn, appeared as overwhelming and unbearable. Such a defeat was so heavy that many of us preferred to escape rather than face it. It struck us like a boomerang whose strength
was as great as the energy with which it had been launched one century earlier from Petrograd, Berlin, and Budapest and that had passed over the planet like a lightening bolt, from Beijing to Havana and Lisbon. What remains of this century of “storming heavens” is a mountain of ruins and we do not know how to start to rebuild, or if it is even worth doing. The melancholy that came out from such a historical defeat—it has lasted an entire generation—is probably the necessary premise for reacting, mourning, and preparing a new beginning. At first, the most widespread reaction was avoidance, showing an “inability to mourn” (Unfahigkeit zu trauern
) like that described by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich in their famous essay from the 1960s devoted to postwar Western Germany.1
Similarly to that search for pretexts to evade the legacy of National Socialism, communism has been suppressed in different ways: either changing names or “forgetting” it, building new mimetic identities or choosing between the innumerable outlets offered by the universal commodification of neoliberal capitalism. As in Germany, nevertheless, such a past will not pass and will inevitably come back, compelling us to face it.
Inherited from a century and resulting from a historical cycle in which revolution had taken the form of communism, this crepuscular melancholy could be compared to others that preceded it and composed a huge gallery of sorrow. The Mesoamerican civilizations destroyed by the horses, guns, and microbes that came with the ships of Cortés expressed themselves through a multitude of languages that no longer exist or remain today without speakers, like that evoked by Mario Vargas Llosa in his novel The Storyteller
in a similar way, after the Holocaust, the Yiddish poets wrote with the language of a disappeared world: there is no doubt that melancholy has inspired a noble intellectual tradition. As many historians have highlighted, in the Renaissance it was held to be a Jewish sickness.3
According to Fernando Cardoso, studied by Josef Hayim Yerushalmi as one of the most outstanding representatives of the Marrano culture that flourished in the seventeenth century between Inquisitorial Spain and the Italian ghettos, melancholy expressed first of all “the sadness and the fear born from the wounds of oppression and exile.”4
This was also the source that, three centuries later, pushed Erwin Panofsky, Raymond Klibansky, and Fritz Saxl, three scholars of the Warburg Institute who emigrated to America in the 1930s, to devote to Saturn and melancholy one of their most famous essays.5
this crepuscular melancholy of a lost past took a nostalgic taste, from the celebration of the Habsburg myth in the autobiographies and novels of Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth to the grief for the British empire in the prose of Sir V. S. Naipaul. The paradigm of this conservative melancholy is doubtlessly Chateaubriand, the resigned and sublime narrator of the fall of the Old Regime. In 1802, he devoted a chapter of his Genius of Christianity
to the migration of birds, comparing it to that of human beings. Exile prescribed by nature, observed the French writer, is highly different from that ordered by man. The bird does not leave alone but in a flock, bringing with it all the objects of its affection and knowing it will come back: “It returns, at last, to die on the spot which gave it birth. There it finds again the river, the tree, the nest, and the sun, of its forefathers.” The exile, on the contrary, does not know whether one day he will see his home again or not, because “the proscription which has banished him from his country seems to have expelled him from the world.”6
A distinguished representative of the aristocratic emigration from which he had fought against the French Revolution, Chateaubriand wrote these words when he came to Paris after eight years of exile. He had understood, some decades before Tocqueville, that the revolutionary break was irreversible and the age of absolutism definitively over. But differently from Tocqueville, who was educated under the Restoration, he had lived the fall of the Old Regime as an actor, not as a distant spectator or a late commentator.
Chateaubriand very well deserves the metaphor of the shipwreck sharply analyzed by Hans Blumenberg in a famous essay,7
whose starting point is the description of a sinking ship in the second book of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura
: “Tis is sweet, when, down the mighty main, the winds roll up its waste of waters, from the land to watch another’s laboring anguish far. Not that we joyously delight that man should thus been smitten, but because ’tis sweet to mark what evils we ourselves be spared.”8
Whereas Lucretius described the reaction of the spectator of a natural catastrophe, Blumenberg transfers his metaphor to history, giving the example of Goethe, who, in 1806, visited the devastated battlefield of Jena one day after Napoleon’s victory. At the same time, he changes the metaphor itself through a quotation of Pascal’s Thoughts
, which announces the spirit of modern times: we are no longer spectators, we are “embarked” (embarqués
and can neither escape nor contemplate from a distant, secure observatory, the calamities that surround us; we
belong to and participate in them. The relief of those who escaped catastrophe and watched it from afar is a privilege unknown to us; we are shipwrecked ourselves; we have to avoid drowning and to rebuild our sunken ship. In other words, we cannot escape our defeat, or describe or analyze it from outside. Left-wing melancholy is what remains after the shipwreck; its spirit shapes the writings of many of its “survivors,” drafted from their lifeboats after the storm.
The epistemic value of Blumenberg’s metaphor nevertheless allows the shipwrecked, even the most “embarked” one, to adopt for a moment—ephemeral but crucial—a distant view of the downfall he has experienced. Like Proust in The Guermantes Way
, who comes back to the house of his grandmother after a long absence and suddenly, in front of her portrait, feels that he sees an old woman as unknown to him as she had been to the photographer who framed her image, the melancholic vanquished can contemplate his defeat from an external observatory. Just for a moment, he can neutralize his emotional commitment to an exhausted experience and scrutinize it as the viewer of a photograph. Of course, an image cut from its familiar world is emotionally mutilated and “unredeemed” but it deserves an iconological approach, relieved of any subjective involvement or identification, and such an estrangement can be epistemologically fruitful. According to Siegfried Kracauer, “melancholy as an inner disposition not only makes elegiac objects seem attractive but carries still another, more important implication: it favors self-estrangement,” which is a premise of critical understanding.10
Instead of deepening a pathological attachment to a dead, engulfed past, this melancholic vision enables one to overcome a suffered trauma.
Reinhart Koselleck, the founder of conceptual history, posited the epistemological superiority of the vanquished in interpreting the past: “If history is made in the short run by the victors,” he wrote, “historical gains in knowledge stem in the long run from the vanquished.”11
The victors inevitably fall into an apologetic vision of the past based on a providential scheme. Two eloquent examples of this self-satisfied historical reconstruction, he suggested, were Johann Gustav Droysen, the author of a monumental history of Prussia written between 1855 and
1884, the decades of the rise of Germany to the rank of Weltmacht
, and François Guizot, who published his history of French civilization in 1830, the year in which the advent of the July Monarchy consecrated the triumph of his conservative liberalism. The vanquished, on the contrary, rethink the past with a sharp and critical regard: “The experience of being vanquished contains an epistemological potential that transcends its cause.”12
According to Koselleck, the most striking example of this second posture was Karl Marx, who extensively wrote on the revolutions of the nineteenth century through the point of view of the defeated proletarian classes. His empathy with the vanquished was all the more deep and strong in that he felt himself an exiled socialist and a marginal intellectual.13
Quite astonishingly, in his article Koselleck did not quote Walter Benjamin, for whom the empathetic gaze toward the victors—epitomized by the positivistic French historian Fustel de Coulanges—was precisely “the method which historical materialism has broken with.”14
A large current of Marxist historiography—from British “history from below” to Indian “subaltern studies”—has adopted this fruitful methodological approach. Edward P. Thompson described the Industrial Revolution from the point of view of the English laboring classes; Ranajit Guha reinterpreted the history of colonial India looking for the “small voices” of the oppressed peasants, moving away from both the British colonizers and the Indian assimilated elites.15
Koselleck borrowed this dichotomy between victors and vanquished from Carl Schmitt, one of his mentors. In a small text written at the end of the war, when he was imprisoned by the Soviet and American armies occupying Germany, Schmitt depicted Tocqueville as vanquished, emphasizing an essential link between this status and his vision of the past.16
The experience of defeat forged the sharpness of his critical insight and transformed him into the most important historian of the nineteenth century. Contrary to the liberal canonization of Tocqueville as the harbinger of modern democracy, Schmitt regarded him as a lucid conservative, aware of belonging to a defeated class. Tocqueville wrote his works on the French Revolution as a representative of aristocracy, a social group eclipsed by the ineluctable advent of democracy.17
He had extensively analyzed this historical change in his books on America and all his texts were inspired by a deep, complete resignation to the irreversible process of democratic transformation. Tocqueville, Schmitt suggested, was a vanquished conservative who had renounced the Katechon
Meaning “resistance”—a force that withholds, retains, or brakes—this theological concept appears in Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians as the most powerful obstacle to the advent of the Antichrist, that is, an era of impiety and decadence.19
Until the Second World War, Schmitt’s political theology remained attached to the idea of Katechon
. In the tradition of Joseph de Maistre and Donoso Cortés, he depicted Hitler as a kind of secular Katechon
opposed to Bolshevism (the modern embodiment of the Antichrist). In 1946, however, Schmitt himself felt vanquished. A resigned vanquished, insofar as he had lost any illusion toward fascism.
Overturning Schmitt’s perspective, Koselleck applied it to Marx. In his wake, we could easily establish a parallel between Schmitt (or Tocqueville) and several Marxist thinkers, particularly many members of the Frankfurt School. Walter Benjamin himself suggested such a reversal in his theses “On the Concept of History,” where, adopting the point of view of “a historian schooled in Marx,” he wrote the following cryptic passage: “The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer; he comes as the victor over the Antichrist.”20
Differently from Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno no longer believed in revolution and, like Tocqueville, wrote as a vanquished without a Katechon
. Similarly to the French historian, an aristocrat who had never lived under the Old Regime, Adorno wasn’t a Bolshevik; the former had not believed in Maistre’s Restoration, and the latter had no confidence in Lenin and Trotsky. Adorno was not attracted by revolution and was stoically resigned to the ineluctable advent of totalitarianism (that is, in his vision, universal reification, whatever its political form would be). In his writings, the negative dialectic of history only deserves contemplative criticism, without redemption. There is no social or political alternative to domination and even aesthetic creation can only testify to the wounds inflicted upon humanity by the eclipse of civilization.21
Progress was illusion; instrumental reason had exhausted all the emancipatory potenti...