Rehabilitating the Principle of Hope in Modern History. Enzo Traverso on Revolutions

In conversation with Una Blagojević and Iker Itoiz Ciaurriz, Enzo Traverso discusses key themes in his newest book Revolution: An Intellectual History (Verso, 2021). The conversation explores Traverso’s agenda of rehabilitating revolutions as crucial moments of historical change; his conception of the role of the historian and approach to writing intellectual history; his understanding of the different types of revolutionary intellectuals in modern times, and much more.

Enzo Traverso is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe, and his research focuses on the intellectual history and the political ideas of the 20th century. Before coming to Cornell University as the Susan and Barton Winokur Professor in the Humanities, he taught political sciences for many years in France. He has investigated political and mass violence in European culture, Marxism, memory, the Holocaust, and totalitarianism, among other topics. His work has been translated to many languages, for example, Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and MemoryLe Totalitarisme: Le XXe siècle en débatFire and Blood: The European Civil War, 1914–1945

Una Blagojević is a doctoral candidate of the History Department at Central European University.

Iker Itoiz Ciaurriz is an early-career historian who has recently obtained his PhD in History from the University of Edinburgh.

Una Blagojević: In your new book, Revolution: An Intellectual History, you explore various ideas that were triggered by revolutions: theories, symbols, artistic depictions, hopes, and controversies. You write that “Rehabilitating revolutions as landmarks of modernity and quintessential moments of historical change does not mean romanticizing them.” Would you like to expand on this claim and on the importance of rehabilitating revolutions as important moments of historical change?

Enzo Traverso: I would say a main purpose of my book is to avoid both the romanticization and the stigmatization of revolutions – I wished to neither celebrate nor disparage them. However, it seems to me that the most common approach nowadays is not romanticization or celebration but rather a form of stigmatization. Revolutions are simply ascribed to the dark age of violence, war, genocides, and totalitarianism. They are depicted as a kind of nightmare from which we have woken up now that we finally live in the best possible world of market economy, individualism, liberalism, and human rights. The revolution is declared over.

My objective is a critical understanding of revolution. As you pointed out, I think it’s important to rehabilitate this concept as an interpretative key for analyzing the history of both the 19th and 20th centuries and for understanding political modernity on a global scale. 

From this point of view, interpreting revolutions today requires clarifying some points. 

I explain in the first pages of my book that the concept of revolution was substantially blurred in the last three decades. Revolution today is a meaningless word; it is something like the last model of the iPhone. Five years ago, Emmanuel Macron, the perfect embodiment of neoliberalism, was elected as the president of the French Republic after publishing a book titled Revolution

I think we could say that emblematically, or symbolically, this change occurred more than thirty years ago. The year 1989 was not only the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Cold War, but it was also the bicentenary of the French Revolution. In the moment of celebrating this anniversary, the word revolution was completely abused.

Everything became a revolution, and thus ‘revolution’ lost its meaning as a historical and as a political concept. This blurring, in my view, also shapes the historiography and the academic field, where the concept of revolution has lost its epistemological strength. 

Many events that in the past were usually and consensually depicted as revolutions are today analyzed through different analytical categories. European revolutions that happened at the end of the First World War are no longer depicted as revolutions. Except for the Russian Revolution, what happened in Central Europe is described as a process of nation-building, by marginalizing some crucial events such as the Spartacist Revolution in Berlin, the revolution of workers’ councils in Munich, Budapest, etc. When I was twenty years old, it was evident that the Spanish Civil War constituted a revolution or a violent confrontation between revolution and counterrevolution. Today, the concept of genocide is more frequently applied to the study of the Spanish Civil War. Similarly, the revolutionary dimension of the Resistance movements in Europe during the Second World War has almost disappeared. Even the memory of Yugoslav revolution, I think, has been significantly blurred by the overlapping image of civil war. 

When I was a university student, Eric Hobsbawm’s work on the history of the 19th century was compelling. For Hobsbawm, revolution was the basic criteria for periodizing history: revolution was a landmark defining political modernity. It seems to me that this criterion disappeared. In their important histories of the 19th century, historians like Jürgen Osterhammel or Christopher Bayly do not use the concept of revolution as central to their analyses. Thus, one of the purposes of my book was to rehabilitate the concept of revolution as a key analytical tool – even if not the only one – to interpreting the history of the modern world. 

Una Blagojević: Your book reinterprets the history of 19th and 20th century revolutions from the perspective of intellectual history. How do you view the importance of writing an intellectual history of revolutions? What can an intellectual history of revolutions reveal about this history that other approaches, for example, that of political history, might not?

Iker Itoiz Ciaurriz: I had the impression when I was reading your book that you were contesting François Furet and Ernst Nolte who in the ‘70s and ‘80s changed our understanding of revolution.

Your questions require some clarifying remarks. It is interesting that at the time the concept of revolution loses its hermeneutical strength, a new concept of revolution emerges, like that of fascist revolution. Fascist revolution is a concept that originally belonged to fascist rhetoric. In Italy and Germany, fascists came to power after failed socialist revolutions in 1919-1920. In Spain, Francoism came to power by defeating a socialist revolution. It could not depict itself as a revolutionary movement, simply because it was a struggle against an authentic Spanish revolution. 

Of course, we cannot reduce the fascist ideology to simple propaganda, since we must take seriously into account what fascists thought and spoke. But we should also recognize that the scholarly use of the concept of fascist revolution establishes a kind of equivalence between communism and fascism. This historiographical approach tends to legitimate a certain idea of totalitarianism, and also a certain idea of liberal democracy as the only possible alternative to the age of totalitarianism. In sum, it means to encapsulate all kinds of revolutionary experiences into this iron cage of totalitarianism and violence. 

I think that intellectual history is a reputed, living, and vibrant discipline. In order to be fruitful, intellectual history requires an interdisciplinary approach to the past. In other words, intellectual history is different from what was traditionally called the history of ideas, as codified by Arthur Lovejoy one century ago. Intellectual history is not reducible to the history of ideas insofar as it means a social and cultural history of ideas. 

Authentic and productive intellectual history implies a permanent connection between ideas, particularly political ideas in their historical contexts, with their autonomy and with their genealogies, and the history of the social subjects who created, elaborated, and embodied these ideas. To be productive, intellectual history should also be connected with the history of political imagination. 

I will give you an example: a purely ideological or intellectual history of Marxism shows that a teleological view of history was put into question after the First World War, when many philosophers and critical thinkers radically rejected the idea of progress, an idea of deterministic causality and historical teleology. This is important and the analysis of this ideological or philosophical change is precisely the task of intellectual history, which focuses on the actors of such a debate. But we should not ignore that this intellectual debate takes place in a historical context in which the culture of the left was deeply shaped by the idea of progress and historical teleology: the view of socialism as the ineluctable outcome of history was deeply rooted in the collective imagination. The thought of Walter Benjamin does not correspond at all with the mental universe of the communist movement. The dialectic between the history of ideas and the history of political cultures is made of collisions and diverging lines. We have a very contrasted landscape in front of us. 

Today at our universities, scholars, professors, and graduates are accustomed to reading texts from the Frankfurt School. However, we should be aware that in the ‘30s, in the years between the two world wars, nobody knew about the existence of Walter Benjamin or Theodor Adorno. Instead, millions of people read Lenin first, then Joseph Stalin. It could lead to a completely deformed perspective on the past if we forgot this simple evidence. 

Iker Itoiz Ciaurriz: In your book, you historize and contextualize the figure of the revolutionary intellectual from 1848 to the Second World War in the West, and from the Russian Revolution to the Cuban Revolution in the colonial world. Could you explain who were these revolutionary intellectuals, what constitutes such an intellectual in your view?

I devote a larger chapter to this topic because it is a crucial issue indeed. Understanding the role played by intellectuals in revolutionary history requires a mental displacement, a kind of dialectic jump in a completely different historical landscape, before the advent of mass university, computers, internet, social networks and, broadly speaking, what is currently called the “video-sphere,” a world still dominated by the “grapho-sphere,” a written culture. This was the world of the intellectuals between 1848 and the Second World War.

Today, we live in world where not only in the Western countries but on a global scale there are mass universities. We live in a world in which writing is no longer a privilege reserved for a small social elite. When the concept of “intellectual” appeared – in France at the time of the Dreyfus affair at the end of the 19th century, or even earlier in Russia at the time of the emergence of populism – it meant an exceedingly small social category of people that was monopolizing the practice of writing. This is no longer the case. Today, an intellectual means somebody working in the media or scholars, university scholars. 

The history of intellectuals is as complex as it is problematic, and historicizing intellectuals means situating them in different cultural contexts. What is interesting when speaking of revolutions is that the intellectuals created, or systematized, formalized, gave a shape and a profile to the revolutionary imagination that emerged from social movements. 

Thus, the history of revolutions cannot be understood without considering the production of revolutionary ideas. The history of revolutions is inseparable from the history of the intellectuals as a very peculiar social layer, which defined itself against the established elites.

Historically speaking, revolutionary intellectuals were located outside of academia. Between 1848 and the Second World War, the communist philosophers, historians, or political thinkers belonging to academic institutions were almost non-existent. Still in the 1930s and 1940s, socialist or communist university professors were absolute exceptions. The overwhelming majority of revolutionary intellectuals were pariahs, to borrow a concept from Hannah Arendt: very often they were stateless people without a clear and stable social status, pariahs as a cosmopolitan layer of people traveling and emigrating because of political persecutions, economic crises, political defeats, or just because they were attracted by revolutionary waves. Intellectuals were operating outside of all established centers of ideological production. Sometimes they were literally pariahs, in the most trivial meaning of the word: people without stable material resources who are socially and economically uprooted.    

They were writing for marginal magazines and journals. Some were very sophisticated and interesting thinkers, but never established a dialogue with the academic, political, and economic elites of their times. They were marginal or – according to a widespread image – they were “bohemians.” Revolutionary intellectuals were people living a precarious life. 

Things relatively changed with the Russian Revolution because it created a revolutionary power and this power not only attracted rebel intellectuals from all over the world, but it also had powerful means to give them certain social stability and social status. They became “professional” revolutionaries, literally paid by this revolutionary power, and this had many implications in terms of social and economic dependence and constraints. Of course, this is completely different from radical scholars of the 1960s and 1970s, who were university professors. As members of an academic institution, they enjoyed an incredibly intellectual freedom with respect to their ancestors of the 1920s or 1930s. We cannot think of the history of revolutionary intellectuals by projecting retrospectively onto the past the status of the contemporary left-wing scholars.

Iker Itoiz Ciaurriz: One of the insights of your book is that there are different types of revolutionary intellectuals. You discuss the West from 1848 to 1945, then the impact of the Russian Revolution and also the revolutionary intellectuals from anti-colonial movements, like José Carlos Mariategui, Frantz Fanon, and C.L.R James who were thinking about the revolution at the same historical time, but from a different angle.

There is a continuity in the history of intellectuals in the Gramscian sense of the word. Gramsci defined intellectuals as the creators of worldviews, in other words as the producers of class ideologies, by distinguishing between traditional and organic intellectuals. There is a continuity in the history of intellectuals as organizers of the ruling class cultural hegemony, from the end of the 19th century until today’s public intellectuals: they defend a certain established order, the worldviews, and policies of the dominant classes. We have to observe that many of those which Gramsci called organic intellectuals, a category through which he referred to technicians and managers, but also to philosophers, humanistic intellectuals, and public intellectuals, at the time rejected this label and would not have depicted themselves as intellectuals. In France, at the time of the Dreyfus affair, intellectuals were democratic, left-wing, and “Republican” intellectuals as opposed to nationalist, conservative, anti-Republican ideologists. In Germany, the word “intellectual,” Intellektueller, was a kind of Schimpfwort. It was an insult for a conservative. At the turn of the 20th century, a university professor never would have depicted himself as an intellectual. Intellektueller was opposed to Gelehrter [scholar]Gelehrter embodied knowledge, science, and belonged to the intellectual elite of the established order. “Intellectuals” were journalists, writers, essayists, mostly Jewish, who did not belong to the established institutions. 

Even after the Second World War for a long time, the paradigm of the intellectual was Jean-Paul Sartre, who refused the Noble Prize in Literature and did not belong to any academic institution but wrote books and defended his ideas through his journal Les Temps Modernes. The “intellectuals” in France were opposed to the Algerian War. Things changed in the 1960s and 1970s. In the United States, public intellectual had a status significantly different from that of the German Gelehrter of the pre-war decades. Scholars and university professors, not only “Bohemians,” journalists, and public intellectuals, were opposed to the Vietnam War. In the Global South, intellectuals were involved in anti-imperialist movements and colonial revolutions. The concept of the “intellectual” has thus passed through many semantic metamorphoses.

Una Blagojević: Your book wonderfully incorporates the visual aspects into the narrative of revolutions. You include various examples where revolutionary crowds, as you write, have their own symbols—Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, or Sergei Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World. In your book, you also analyze a fascinating project by August Sander where you argue that his “physiognomic portraits caught both the subjectivity of individuals and the social features of their historical time”. Would you like to tell us more about the importance of the visual aspects and symbols in your analyses of revolution?

In my view, intellectual history is deeply related to the history of the collective imagination. Images can capture collective mentalities as shaped by and identifying with certain ideas. Ideas have their own history and are produced by intellectuals, but ideas become a political force once appropriated by the masses in movement, through collective action. When this junction occurs, sometimes it is captured and represented by certain images which become, speaking with Walter Benjamin, Denkbilderor ‘thought-images’. 

Images condense these transformations of ideas into political energy, into political projects embodied by collective movements. 

Eisenstein’s October, for example, is the universally known image of the masses storming the Winter Palace – which is historically speaking a completely wrong image, because we know that the Winter Palace was taken by Soviet militia, not by a spontaneous mass uprising. Nevertheless, this image penetrated the collective imagination as the representation of revolution. Revolution is the moment in which the masses – and not simply crowds, but the masses as political subjects and as historical subjects – are conquering power and changing the world. This image created by Eisenstein captured this idea and became very popular and internationally widespread. This image also very well captures, and from this point of view is a true “image of thought,” the military paradigm of revolution, which appeared after the First World War with the Russian Revolution, and which dominated the entire history of the 20th century.

We could give many other examples; we could compare Eisenstein’s image with Delacroix’s one. I also mention Pellizza da Volpedo’s Fourth Estate, which presents a completely different view of the advent of socialism, the idea that socialism is almost unelectable. History is going towards socialism and the strength of these marching people, these masses advancing towards the future, is irresistible. These masses do not need to be armed and do not need to be militarily organized. But after the First World War, revolution became an organized, military conquest of power.

I give the example of the Russian revolutionaries living in exile before the First World War, who appear as bohemians, sometimes dandies, or “intellectuals.” However, after the First World War and the Russian Revolution, they appear as military leaders. Compare, for example, Trotsky in Vienna in 1907 and Trotsky in Petrograd in 1920, when he has become the chief of the Red Army, or Mao in China before the Long March and in 1949, at the moment of the conquest of power, or Tito in Yugoslavia, or Che Guevara.

To be seriously considered as revolutionary leaders, they all had to wear uniforms and appear as military leaders. Images, I think, can help us capture these changes in collective imagination. 

Iker Itoiz Ciaurriz: One of the points you made in your book is that the October Revolution became the matrix of the revolutionary imagination in the 20th century. 

In my view, the Russian Revolution was a landmark, a turning point. It introduced the idea of communism as a kind of utopian horizon of the 20th century, and the French Revolution had created a modern idea of revolution and opened a new “horizon of expectation” of modernity, speaking with Reinhart Koselleck. It seems to me that the history of all revolutionary movements – anarchist, socialist, communist, Third World anti-imperialist movements, and national liberation movements – were inhabited by an idea of futurity that had been created by the Atlantic Revolutions and reshaped by the Russian Revolution. 

In other words, revolution was the principle of hope of both the 19th and the 20th centuries. This is the substantial difference with respect to our current age, a time without utopias. This difference makes it difficult for us to understand the revolutionary imagination of the past. 

There is no longer a continuity; the dialectic between past and present is broken. The present has become a time incapsulating both past and future; it is a kind of eternal, timeless present. Capitalism has become a kind of “naturalized” environment. It has become very difficult for us to think of a non-capitalist environment and a non-capitalist society, a world in which relations between human beings and relations between human beings and nature would not be property relations or commodified relations.

Until a few decades ago, things were completely different. Think of the Soviet Union and real socialism. 1968 was the moment of an exceptional revolutionary synchronization on a global scale: in the South (Vietnam), in the West (Paris), and in the East (Prague). The Prague Spring was clearly opposed to real socialism, but it claimed a “socialism with a human face,” not the restoration of capitalism. The existence itself of the Soviet Union meant that a non-capitalist world was possible, that capitalism was a transitional social formation, a step in the history of humankind, and could be replaced by something different. Today, this is much more difficult to think. This is one of the main obstacles faced by a lot of movements like Los Indignados in Spain, Occupy Wall Street in the United States, gilets jaunes in France, or even the Arab Revolutions in 2011. Latin America is a relative exception because this historical continuity wasn’t completely broken there. We can see that now in Chile and in Colombia, just as previously in other countries, for instance in Bolivia. In these countries some political changes occurred that did not abandon the reference to socialism. In the West, the social and political movements I just mentioned were radical in rejecting capitalism and neoliberalism, but they did not claim the legacy of socialism or communism. No doubt, these movements are not intellectually poor since they express a significant capacity of intellectual elaboration. Think of political ecology, for example. Critical theory is certainly not less sophisticated or interesting than 20th century Marxism.

At the same time, all these movements are paralyzed by their incapacity to project themselves into the future. They are very clear in rejecting capitalism, but depicting a possible alternative society is extremely difficult. This is not the limitation of a leadership or of some thinkers. I think this is the limitation of our age, a boundary of our cultural, intellectual, and political context. We must break the walls that paralyze our capacity to sketch again a horizon of expectation. 

We need to think the future beyond the paralyzing dilemma between eternal consumption society, eternal neoliberal capitalism on the one hand and, on the other, ecological catastrophe produced by climate changes. We need to re-rebuild a dialectic of history in which the future will be thinkable again. 

Una Blagojević: My last question was exactly about “what is to be done.” At the end of your book, you write “In 1989 the fall of communism closed the curtain on a play as epic as it was tragic, as exciting as it was terrifying, of the human ‘gigantic adventure to change the world’”. In your book, you seem to suggest not a nostalgic or romanticizing return to this history and this gigantic adventure, but something else. Would you like to tell us more about your argument that the 21st century ought to distance itself from the pre-existing patterns, and instead develop “new models, new ideas, and a new utopian imagination”?

I am not able to answer this question, but I think I have some ideas about the reasons we are paralyzed today. 

Our presentism is the product of the historical defeat of the revolutions of the 20th century. 

The 20th century was certainly the age of wars, violence, totalitarianism, and genocides, but it was also the age of revolutions. It was the age of the first attempt at changing in the world and this lasted for several decades. It completely changed the force relations on a global scale, and the legacy of this change is extremely significant even today. But this age of revolutions came to a defeat. 

At the end of the 20th century, everybody was compelled to recognize that history wasn’t going towards socialism and that socialism wasn’t the only alternative to barbarism; socialism itself could become a face of barbarism. Stalinism has clearly shown us that the paths of liberation are much more twisted and traumatic than we had foreseen. The sudden, widespread, and universal consciousness of that burden has paralyzed for decades all alternative movements. 

All movements embodied by new generations who didn’t experience the history of the 20th century revolutions or of real socialism, of 68’, had to invent a new model, a new project, knowing consciously or unconsciously that all previous models had been defeated and had become useless. And I think that this is at the root of the incredible arrogance of the dominant elite. 

The entire history of the 20th century from the end of the First World War until the 1970s is the history of capitalism struggling for its survival. Capitalism was aware that it was facing a gigantic challenge from socialism and that it wasn’t invincible. Capitalism had been defeated in many parts of the world. This is the main reason why neoliberalism was marginal and not reliable till the 1980s. Friedrich Hayek wasn’t taken seriously by the governments and political regimes for many years because his project simply didn’t work in an age of revolutions. Hayek was a kind of “heretical” conservative thinker preaching in the desert. Things changed after 1989. After the collapse of real socialism, the neoliberals appeared as assured, deeply believing in their strength and in the fact that there is no alternative to capitalism, that capitalism is the natural order of the world and all the attempts at destroying capitalism were attacks to civilization. We must challenge this mental habitus. 

However, I do not think that we can simply reconnect historical continuity which has been broken. We cannot exhume or restore some archaic paradigms. We must invent new models for the future, starting from the assessment that all previous models – either social-democracy or communism – failed.

I am not a pessimist, despite certain misunderstandings related to the reception of my book titled Left-wing Melancholia, but I think that new ideas, new utopias, and new perspectives cannot be artificially invented or elaborated. They will surge from society, from social movements. Intellectuals can give them a form, shaping these imaginations, expectations, and embryonic utopias. But thinking the future is a dialectical task: we cannot elaborate a project for the future without working through the past. I also think this is something historians can help with, by transmitting experiences that risk being forgotten, by providing memory, by overcoming a feeling of fragility and vulnerability that derives from a break with historical continuity. This is not a useless task.

In collaboration with Ferenc Laczo and Hannah Vos

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