Two images appear first, those of a raft and a locomotive. One could not find more contradictory to engage, in an allegorical way, the reflection on the history of the revolutionary phenomenon. Yet these are the two vehicles of the imagination and of thought that the Italian historian and essayist Enzo Traverso, in Revolution. A cultural history, invites us to borrow to understand the meaning of the revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Following a modern paradigm set by the 1789 model, revolution is for the author “a sudden – almost always violent – ​​interruption of the historical continuum” that produces “a rupture in the social and political order”. But the meaning of this rupture appears to his eyes exploded. On the one hand, therefore, The Raft of The Medusa, a famous painting by Géricault which the author, in the introduction, contemplates through the prism of the Haitian revolution of 1804 in particular. On the other, a metaphor present in Marx, in the after the revolutions of 1848, and which opens its first chapter: “Revolutions are the locomotives of history. This is what revolution is: the story of a shipwreck that leaves hope clinging to a few fragments of assembled promises in the ocean of the impossible, at the same time as the story of an acceleration which propels, on the rails of certainty, the project of a radical social transformation based on faith in progress.

Inspired by Walter Benjamin

Much has been written on the history of revolutions, in particular since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which symbolically ended the political adventure begun by the Russian Revolution of October 1917. The historiographical field has since been largely crossed by the questions of political and human assessment of this adventure, opposing the defenders of the revolutionary ideal to the accountants of the facts of destruction and terror. The author, who was a member of the Revolutionary Communist League and who participated in this debate in History as a battlefield. Interpreting the violence of the 20th century (La Découverte, 2012), however, refuses to embrace controversy here. “The subject of this book is revolution, for better or for worse,” he wrote. For, he argues, “rather than moral judgment, naïve idealization, or uncompromising condemnation,” revolutions “deserve critical understanding.”

To this end, the professor at Cornell University (State of New York), adopts a method inspired by the philosopher who witnessed the cataclysms of modernity Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). The latter developed in 1927 the concept of “dialectical image” to question the meaning of history through fragments where the contradictions of time are condensed, showing in an apparently insignificant object or a marginal character “the crystal of the whole event”. Enzo Traverso, in an assumed eclecticism, is thus not a stripper of dates but an editor of images, in order to project from them the interpretation of the history which they carry, beyond their own time.

This urgency that makes sense

Hence this raft painted during the Restoration, which tells us about the revolutionary shipwreck of the end of the 20th century, with this red rag waved by a black sailor towards a glimmer of hope. And this metaphor of the locomotive, which Walter Benjamin re-reads in contrast to Marx, writing: “Revolutions may be the act by which mankind traveling in the train pulls the emergency brake. At a time of ecological crisis and the economic development model that feeds it, shows Enzo Traverso, is it not this urgency that suddenly makes sense today at the heart of new mobilizations? Very beautiful pages lead us to such transhistorical projections, about revolutionary bodies (the embalmed body of Lenin, the liberated body of Alexandra Kollontai, the ventriloquist body of the crowd from which Trotsky speaks…), metamorphoses of the figure of the revolutionary intellectual, or even of a barricade, a flag, a portrait, a poster… The multiplicity of the elements assembled here cannot be summed up. Except to condense it in an image, that of the “raft-book” evoked by Enzo Traverso in connection with these works which save ideas from shipwrecks, and which one would be tempted to oppose to the locomotive-books that were once launched so quickly on the attack of history.

Read an excerpt on the website of La Découverte editions.