Enzo Traverso: "What we're seeing now around the world is different from classic fascism"

Interview with Enzo Traverso, Modern European History professor at Cornell University, New York. Español

democracia Abierta
20 December 2019, 12.00am

Historian Enzo Traverso (1957, Piedmont) studied at the University of Genoa. He was a professor at the University of Picardy and the School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences in Paris. He teaches modern European history at Cornell University, New York.

He is one of the most important historians of ideas.

Among his works is Siegfried Krakauer. Itinerary of an intellectual nomad [Itinerario de un intelectual nómada] (1994), Ripped History [La historia desgarrada]. Essay on Auschwitz and the intellectuals (2001), Totalitarianism. History of a debate (2001), Nazi violence. A genealogy (2003), Marxists and the Jewish question. History of a debate (2003), Cosmopolis. Figures of the German-Jewish exile [Figuras del exilio judeo-alemán] (2004), Jews and Germany. Essay on Jewish-German symbiosis (2005), The Past. Instructions for use. History, memory, politics (2005), Through blood and fire. European Civil War 1914-1945 (2007), History as a battlefield. Interpreting 20th century violence (2011), Where are the intellectuals? (2013), The End of Jewish modernity: the history of a conservative shift (2013) and Melancolía de la Izquierda [Melancholy of the Left] (2019).

Profiles on the left have become blurred, they have even led many to feel like orphans in the globalized world. It would have been hard for it to happen otherwise after the fall of the only existing socialism, which collapsed in November 9, 1989, after 28 years of geographic and human separation in Germany. The conversion of European social democracy towards liberal policies is a less impressive evolution, but of great significance. It is now indistinguishable even from neoliberal conceptions.

It is true that there are sectors of the left who maintained a critical distance from the totalitarian regime of the former Soviet Union, they condemned the purges, the massacres that eliminated millions of people, the violations of human rights and the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. All of this does not prevent the consequences of the collapse of the USSR from reaching them, as the tyrannies of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela do.

However, Enzo Traverso is not a pessimistic man who writes Melancolía de la Izquierda with a defeated spirit. On the contrary, his assessment of the twentieth century, as the century of the two world wars, is that it was also the time of revolutions. And no one can claim to recover the future if they do not go beyond local self-criticism or draw from what went wrong in history. Going from misconceptions, through the relationships between power, equality and freedom, the relationship with the defeated, to the role of democracy.

You cannot rely on the theoretical and practical tools of the nineteenth century to face the challenges of the twenty-first century, except for the central premise at the origin of socialism: "We must understand the world to change it."

Enzo Traverso, a leftist, above all suspicion, uses the relationship between history and memory, pictorial art, film, philosophy, literature, and the comparison between yesterday-today, to look beyond the grief and transform melancholy into the renewing power of those ideas that, throughout time, men and women defend and fight for, to make the world a better place.

France-Netherlands. September 2019

Here are some of the focal points of his book Melancolía de izquierda.

One. The general attitude of focusing reflection and political action in memory of the victims, inadvertently leads to the neglect and postponement of the ideals for which those victims died. It is not enough with the profound and understandable pain. How do you overcome grief?

ET: It is necessary to first distinguish between victims and losers, because focusing on victims became almost an obsession. In the past decades, a new role for the victims of genocides emerged in the Western world, particularly those of the Holocaust. The memory of the Holocaust became a memorial paradigm, which gradually extended to other forms of violence.

This overlap led to an eclipse of the defeated by the dominant role of the memory of the victims.

This is a strong reality in Latin America, because the memory of the defeated military dictatorships and of recent social and political conflicts were reinterpreted as memories of genocide or violence assimilated to genocides.

All of this supposes a reinterpretation of the past, a revisit and a different reading of these historical experiences.

This important phenomenon must be emphasized. The globalization of memories implies forms of neglect at the same time. The victims against the defeated.


Melancolía de izquierda is a kind of account of what went wrong. As if you would like to create a balance of the things that did not help the libertarian ideals – though painful for many – before proposing any renewal of socialist ideas. There is no future without self-criticism.

ET: There was much self-criticism. There were different mourning processes for the losses of the last century in several countries, but we do not have a global balance of a century of revolutions that were generally defeated, which, moreover, are all characterized by attempting to take heaven by force. Such was one of the shared traits across all continents.

The twentieth century, that is recognized today in our historical memory as a century of wars, totalitarianisms, and genocides, was also the century of revolutions. Millions of human beings were transformed into characters of history and tried to change the face of the world. The twentieth century is not only about the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution or the Cuban Revolution, it is also the century of decolonization. It was a century of struggles for emancipation that were lost, and we do not have a clear count of the defeats.

This absence is an element of paralysis, and an obstacle for developing and building new liberation projects. The grieving process of the defeats is still here. The left tried to suppress, avoid or seek other exits such as resignation, and in some cases treason or, if you prefer, surrender.

Melancholy is not a disease of the left. It is the recognition of what happened and of the fact that the revolutionary past mobilized sympathies. This melancholy is not necessarily directed so much to the forms of organization, equipment, ideologies, or what the left constituted in its institutional political dimension; it relates more precisely to the nostalgia of a utopia that existed, a hope and a sense of being able to change the world. It is the nostalgia or melancholy of an era in which the left acted collectively.

This melancholy, for me, is not crippling or negative. It is a feeling that involves a work of intellectual and political reflection of what happened in the past.

You are saying, in other words, that it is possible to change this melancholy into a positive and mobilizing force.

ET: Yes, in the sense that melancholy is not necessarily defeat. It can be a search for revival, if you will, a resource capable of thinking new designs grounded in the present reality, adapted to our current global world. It is not about denying the past but to think about it critically and to save the liberating dimensions of the past, especially those of the twentieth century.

Three. The repair of the decisive absence in leftist thinking about the being at the centre of their concern, the reason for the fight, and not including it in a higher sense - call them people, proletariat or whatever - deserves to be among the central themes of his book.

ET: We must rethink a set of analytical categories, keys to interpret the world, that were created in the nineteenth century. The culture of the Left in the twentieth century was the renewal of a way to approach a range of ideas and values ​​that appeared in the previous century.

Today we need other kinds of thoughts and conceptions of reality. What I want is to recover and value a principle that came with the birth of socialism: "we must interpret the world to change it."

That connection between critical thinking and political action is a fundamental factor. It is what we need. The problem is not an absence or weakness in critical thinking, because it is very vivid, rich, sophisticated. What is missing is the link between these arguments and political action with collective movements that exists everywhere, those who cannot find ways to recover because they lack a bond that unites them to the ideas of the future.

In my book I try to give some examples: why the Arab revolutions failed, why did the alter-globalisation movement did not seek forms of global organization or did not lead to a whole new project. Those are today's problems.

The other angle of my question had to do with the necessary recovery of the complexity of the human being.

ET: It is a question (laughs) and I'm not sure I can answer it. Let's say I abandoned the naive optimism that was a consequence of a teleological view of history that dominated the culture of the Left in the last century, which gave us the illusion of marching in the direction of history.

I think the Left cannot reinvent itself with this kind of illusion. We all know that the future is unknown, no one owns the future. What we do know is that without changing our model of civilization, the future will be full of catastrophes. This is the only certainty. We have no assurance that we will be able to change the situation.

This cultural change occurred. There are no naive fantasies of the future, although this does not imply a pessimistic view or some variation of anthropological pessimism. This is not to question past conclusions that were made based on the emancipatory potential of a sector of humanity, what Marx called the proletariat. Today we would have to redefine the concept. Lets say the most oppressed strata. We must be aware that these potentials must be transformed into concrete actions. It is a challenge, a bet.

Four. The lack of specific answers regarding power and how to promote anti-authoritarian and anti-dictatorial models.

ET: This is an actual problem today. Consider how the world look today with Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, or Xi Jinping with an authoritarian regime in China, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and with the proliferation of the racist and xenophobic far right, assuming government positions in different countries in the European Union.

This context of democratic crisis is highly troubling and raises the issue of the defence of democracy.

I'm not sure you can answer this matter by saying: fascism is back, because what we see is something different compared to classical fascism. In any case, the desirable response is a political one that, somehow, can be compared to the growing awareness and anti-fascist mobilization that took place in the interwar years.

A parenthesis. You have dedicated many works to the topic of fascism. You just said that what happens today is somewhat different. In other words, we are not facing an imminent return of fascism?

ET: I do not think we can speak of a return of fascism, because all these movements are heterogeneous. There are differences between the racist and xenophobic European neo-nationalists, and what is happening in Latin America for example, or in Asia. I do not see similarities like in historical fascism that had certain shared characteristics despite its disparities. There were different ideas among Franco’s Spain and Nazism in Germany.

Today, for example: the driver of the radical ideals in Europe is its critique of neoliberalism. It is reactionary, authoritarian, inspired by the so-called sovereigntist populism. This is different from the fascism that had other characteristics like, among other things, a militaristic, expansionist, imperialist dimension which is not present in the current radical right.

The enemies of the new right are different compared to the scapegoats identified by the fascism in the thirties. The radical right today is much more Islamophobic than antisemitic.

There is no militarized far right.

The violence of fascism was the result of the Great War and the brutalization of the European culture between 1914 and 1918. In the end, there is a set of different elements. Forms of mobilizations are not the same. We do not live in the context of mass culture and grassroots mobilization anymore. We live in a real expansion of these movements through the digital media of the twenty-first century.

One must think that the fascism of the XXI century will be different than what fascism in the twentieth century was. I talk about post fascism; these are movements that come after fascism and at the same time is different in nature. I call them post fascism because they cannot be interpreted without comparing them with classical fascism.

Now, in certain cases there is continuity, but from a genealogical point of view, Donald Trump does not come from a fascist tradition. Mateo Salvini and Victor Orban also do not come from classical fascism. They are a new phenomenon.

I will continue to the second part of our conversation. Different leftist movements have been characterized by their fight for equality. Isn’t it precisely this its most noble aspiration and its biggest limitation? To fight for equality and forget freedom that has caused the worst totalitarian drift?

ET: Yes, it is a diagnosis a bit oversimplified...

I know. I exaggerate.

ET: It is also the approach of a great leftist liberal philosopher like the Italian Norberto Bobbio. It is also the approach of French philosopher and Marxist critic, Etiene Balibar, who developed the concept of “equaliberty” equality-freedom.

To renew the Left, it must think about freedom and equality as inseparable. Indeed, this could be the starting point, the basic condition for a renewal of the left. To get out of this quagmire of a world dominated by neoliberalism, which develops inequalities, without ensuring freedom in any way, although classical liberalism was able to think of freedom against equality.

The history of socialism in the twentieth century is the search for societies much more egalitarian than those of capitalism, despite the inequalities that also existed in real socialism, but were not comparable to those of capitalism, but without freedom and even with forms of authoritarianism, totalitarianism. Two close examples are the Soviet totalitarianism or that of Cuba.

I share your diagnosis. Thinking about equality-freedom is the condition for a reinvention that allows the left to have a future in the twenty-first century.

It is true that the left has an inescapable association with all the losers of history. With all those who have even lost their lives for their ideals. But there are other losers, those who instead of giving greater freedom and well-being to their peoples, they have silenced and have subdued them. Efforts that began as emancipatory acts of humanity ended in the worst tyrannies. I am not referring only to the former Soviet Union. I am also referring to Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba.

ET: Sure, but from this observation, which is objective, different conclusions can be drawn. It can be said that this is proof of the impossibility of emancipation because all revolutions lead to authoritarian regimes and, consequently, the revolution itself and the struggles for emancipation are a privileged vehicle for authoritarianism or totalitarianism. This is the conclusion of conservative thought. From Alexis de Tocqueville in the nineteenth century, to Max Weber, who stated that trying to change the world is the fastest way to turn it into a nightmare. That is not my approach.

Indeed, returning to your previous question, I do not have a pessimistic and anthropologically negative view of humanity. I think we should think of an alternative, not only for society, as it happened in the past, in which socialism was conceived as a change in the organization of the political system in the same societal framework. From a technological and industrial culture, whose axis was the development of the means of production.

Today we must find a way to change civilization. This is the dilemma: it must be done conscious of the past failed attempts. You cannot think of a struggle for emancipation without considering the past experiences and without being aware that if these movements succeed, the problem is not yet resolved, because many successful revolutions ended in authoritarian systems of oppression.

The task is much more difficult and complicated than our ancestors thought. But I see no other option. The alternative is resignation to a world with a dangerous certainty, rapidly heading to a catastrophe.

Let me see if I understood you correctly. Once a victory is achieved, it is not the end of the road, it is rather the beginning, because the real task is not repeating the same mistakes of the past.

ET: Of course. There has been aphorism since ancient times, "historia magistra vitae". Drawing lessons from the past is necessary, indispensable, but it does not immunize us, it does not solve the problem.

We know that countries like mine, Italy, which was known for half a century as a nation of migrants, is now a xenophobic country against immigrants. We know that Latin American countries that had military dictatorships are now falling back into undemocratic and authoritarian regimes as in Brazil.

Each time new generations are faced with unprecedented problems and living in a world that has a very long history is no guarantee of its capacity to solve problems.

There are, you are correct, a wide variety of expressions of the left. I would even guess that all of them can be divided into two large sections, those who believe in democracy, i.e. the harmonization of equality with liberty and fraternity, and those who consider democracy as an inseparable element of capitalism and therefore, a system that cannot be trusted.

ET: Let's say that in the second half of the twentieth century, there was a part of the world that was controlled and dominated by what was called real socialism which was a very authoritarian and anti-democratic system, and at that time, the social democrats proposed a project for a social transformation of capitalism into a system more relatable to all people, limiting inequalities and establishing forms of social progress in a democratic environment. There you have the welfare state as a historical exception, largely as a consequence of the progressive social democracy at the end of the Second World War.

After the Cold War social democracy transformed into social liberalism, in a political current that was hard to distinguish from classical liberalism. All social democratic parties promoted the idea that democracy was organically connected to capitalism and established at all latitudes, from the United States to Western Europe and through Latin America (if we think of the most developed countries of the region) neoliberal forms of implementation of social inequalities.

So, the dilemma you raised, of how to connect freedom and equality which appears as a basic and logical principle, so far, no political force has been able to do it.

I know it's not easy to mobilize emotions, suffering, consider the defeats to redeem the future, to reject the idea that wants us to believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds.

ET: First, we must recognize that these affections and passions as suffering, pain, grief, are legitimate feeling that should not to be repressed or hidden. For a long time, the left had a rather authoritarian culture with connotations of virility, gender and sexism, it had to present a facade of strength. This made it hide and conceal its emotions.

Since you are Chilean, we know that this case is the story of a radical left, the MIR, that had time to recognize a defeat and say, we were the party of the fighters, therefore we are stronger, we cannot give in to emotions and feelings that weaken us. We know the consequences of that.

The legitimacy of the sentiments that belongs to the culture of the left are part of the belief that you cannot change the world only with ideologies, projects, organizations and formulas. You must mobilize desires, hopes, fraternity, and the enjoyment of collective action to achieve change. However, this cannot be a substitute for programmatic failures, lack of critical thinking, or interpretation of reality. You must combine both.

You have to think of very different forms of mobilization than those of the past, one where sentiments can be expressed, because the culture of the Left and the radical Left in the twentieth century was shaped by a military paradigm of revolution, which emerged with the Russian revolution and was strengthened by the revolutions in Asia, China and the guerrillas in Latin America. All these militarized organizations were movements that were, by their very nature, authoritarian and sexist. Therefore, you have to rethink everything.

We must get rid of a vision that no one today can pursue or suggest that it was not elaborated critically, in order to know what to save from those experiences and what to reject radically.

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