New history of revolution offers hope for “our troubled present”

A revolution is not just a violent break with an established order, but also a social and political change rising from the people. And revolution does not belong exclusively to the past, says Romance studies scholar Enzo Traverso.

In “Revolution: An Intellectual History,” published in October 2021 by Verso, Traverso, the Susan and Barton Winokur Professor in the Humanities, College of Arts and Sciences, reinterprets the history of nineteenth and twentieth century revolutions through a constellation of images: Marx’s ‘locomotives of history’ to Lenin’s mummified body to the Paris Commune’s demolition of the Vendome Column, and more, offering for the troubled present a new intellectual history of the revolutionary past.

The book has been published in French (La Découverte) and Italian (Feltrinelli), with translations to follow in German, Spanish, Portuguese and other languages.

Traverso spoke with the Chronicle about the book.

Question: What inspired this line of research for you?

Answer: This book extends and deepens the historical reflection of my previous book, “Left-Wing Melancholia” (2016). After investigating the history of modern violence – total wars, fascism, totalitarianism, genocides, and intellectual exile – for a couple of decades, I realized this was an incomplete, mutilated landscape, since a fruitful hermeneutic of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries should also include their emancipatory struggles and revolutions.

Revolutions failed almost everywhere, and very often their shipwreck joined the dark side of the picture: they became part of despotism, tyranny, and authoritarian power. Nonetheless, their potentialities were not negligeable at all and their legacy remains significant.

The history of the USSR is constituted by unfreedom, dictatorship, and violence, and we are accustomed to identifying its entire trajectory with totalitarianism and the gulag. But the dialectic of history is complex: the advent of democracy, universal suffrage, women’s rights, and decolonization, just to mention a few fundamental features of modernity, are inseparable from the history of revolution, from the French and Haitian revolutions to the Russian and Chinese revolutions.

Q: Would you please give a brief definition of revolution?

A: In juridical and political terms, revolution means a violent break of the established order, sometimes including the transformation of the economic and social structures of a country. But revolutions are social and political earthquakes rising from below; they transform the ruled and subaltern layers of society – those commonly defined as “the people” – into historical subjects.

During a revolution, life takes a new, unexpected, and extraordinary intensity. Suddenly, people become aware of their strength and feel able to change the world. Many witnesses depicted revolutions as a feeling of lightness, like the characters of Chagall’s paintings who, overcoming the law of gravity, enjoy flying over villages and hills.

Q: Does this book describe only political revolutions, or is the scope broader?

A: The subtitle of my book mentions “an intellectual history.” Revolutions are much more than political changes; sometimes they involve anthropological changes. They deeply transform the ways of living and thinking, the ways of perceiving and representing society. They go well beyond political changes since they profoundly affect social relations and cultures and unsettle the realms of aesthetics and literature.

In my book, I pay attention to both ideas and images, investigating their connections. Thus, I look at revolutions as “dialectical images” which condense theories, ideologies, utopian projects, and collective emotions. We know a very large iconography that deals with revolutionary symbols like flags and barricades, but I think we should not neglect allegories. Images of revolutions as “locomotives of history” or the “storming of the heavens,” just to give two examples, are allegories and metaphors that reveal a philosophy of history and a general view of human beings.

Revolutions are factories of utopias. The French Revolution aimed at “regenerating” humanity and the entire nineteenth century was inhabited by utopian projects of building an ideal social order: this spans from the most generous fantasies of complete freedom and perfect harmony between humans and nature (Fourier) to the most frightening views of a rationalized disciplinary system (Cabet). The French Revolution fueled the idea of progress all throughout the nineteenth century and the Haitian Revolution announced a new era of self-emancipation of slaves and colonized peoples. With the Russian Revolution, utopias became both “necessary and possible,” spreading the feeling that changing the world had become the task of the day. In Russia, during the 1920s, dreams of complete freedom, universal fraternity and equality merged with crazy ideas of “immortality,” dangerous projects of creating a “New Man” and reshaping the planet through science and technology. This strange and fascinating entanglement asks neither to be idealized nor stigmatized; it requires to be critically understood

Q: Among the revolutions you present and analyze in this book, are there chains of causality? How do instigators of revolutions call upon the past?

A: One of the purposes of my book is to show that revolutions cannot be explained through any deterministic causality. Of course, like all historical events, they have many premises, a plurality of “causes” that become clear when the revolutionary process is exhausted and accomplished. This is the task of historians, but they should be aware that detecting causes means illuminating a complex and diverse landscape, not explaining it. Revolutions transcend their premises and invent the future; they are unpredictable, they are usually unexpected, and they don’t know their outcome in advance. Thinking that their dynamic and conclusion would be contained in their “causes” is a naïve and simplistic historical teleology.

Q: What hope does “Revolution: An Intellectual History” have to offer what the publisher describes as “our troubled present?”

A: My field is intellectual history, and my book does not pretend to offer recipes for the future. This is not my task. As a citizen and a committed historian, however, I cannot be indifferent to “our troubled present” and my book – this is true for all history books – participates in the effort to understand not only the past but also the world we live in.

I would like to reintroduce revolution as a key-category of historical interpretation, which implies a certain approach to the present. Revolution does not belong exclusively to the past; the twenty-first century has already experienced revolutions, notably in the Arab countries, and movements for global changes are appearing in almost all continents. Revolutions failed or were defeated, and historians should investigate the reasons of their tragic conclusions, but historians should also investigate their potentialities, their crossroads, their dramatic debates, and the dilemmas which tore their actors. Revolutions run through the hidden sides of collective memory, behind the façade of mainstream representations: shouldn’t scholars interrogate the historical unconscious of their time?

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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Book cover: Revolution, An Intellectual History