Melancholia after Fidel

by Sam Kriss

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The world is a poorer place; a sterile promontory. The earth is dried up, its surface drifts away in tiny whirlwinds, and there’s nothing underneath. Every year it shrinks, weaker and worse, stripped away by a thousand chattering stupidities; everywhere the desert is growing and the ice caps melting into the sea, two vast blanknesses gorging themselves on what remains. How could a famished world like this continue to sustain someone like Fidel Castro? All the great national leaders are going. Kwame Nkrumah is dead. Salvador Allende is dead. Thomas Sankara is dead. Hugo Chávez is dead. Fidel Castro is dead. Socialismo o muerte: are the terms becoming indistinguishable? What remains is stunted, compromised, and ruthlessly eradicated: Dilma Rousseff is shunted from office by an authoritarian coup in everything but name; Venezuela is torn apart; and already the sarcophages are burrowing into Cuba, swarming to eat it alive. Something has passed away, most likely for good: perhaps not the future, but something. Where are our Fidels? We’ve fallen from the madness and frenzy of the twentieth century to an age more bureaucratised and banal than anything that preceded it, a vast system identical to its own crisis, a soil utterly incapable of supporting the kind of grand socialism – epic, mythic, heroic – that died with Fidel Castro. Which might be for the best: epic socialism had its excesses; maybe it no longer makes sense to have our movements led by grand cigar-chewers. Wherever there is injustice there will be resistance. But it doesn’t diminish what’s been lost: not one frail nonogenarian in a two-storey house, but the knowledge that we can not only fight but win, that we can not only defeat the reactionaries but build socialism, that we not only have to do something, but that we know how to do it.

We’re not supposed to think like this; revolutionary socialism has faith in the people and hope for the future or it has nothing. But sometimes we do, and there’s no point pretending otherwise.

I first came to Latin American socialism through the music. It was the mid-2000s, a far darker and more terrifying time than anyone will admit; I was a teenager, and it was easy to confuse a genuine political commitment with being a fan. There was a hopelessness to the whole movement, and had been ever since 2003: you line up to protest the latest war, scream until you’re hoarse, raise the anti-fascist salute, be baton-charged by the police, and then it would happen anyway. We were always anti, trying to put the brakes to capitalism and imperialism, trying to fight with thousands of weak bodies against a machinery too enormous to really contemplate, and it wasn’t working. I listened to the Clash, and then the people they namedropped, and then their comrades. That loud, stomping, strident chant of Venceremos was something completely different: the voice of a socialism that knew it could win and had no doubt on its claim to the future, the joyousness of a new and better world coming closer every day. After centuries of rot, the sunshine, cold and bright and devastating, pouring over the Andes. It wasn’t some economic doctrine, it wasn’t an initial in the acronym shouting at us through a loudspeaker in another rainy slog through Westminster, it was alive. Todos juntos haremos la historia, a cumplir, a cumplir, a cumplir! I played it loud in my room and stomped around restless. There was so much to be done. Mil cadenas habrá que romper, la miseria sabremos vencer! But then at the same time I always knew what had happened. I knew that Victor Jara sang Venceremos in the stadium on the day he was murdered. He was herded there with thousands of others for the crime of making music that the people loved; he never left. Pinochet’s soldiers tortured him for days, breaking his ribs, mangling his hands, shattering his teeth, and then threw him out in front of the other prisoners. ‘Sing now if you can, you bastard!’ And he sang: ‘We will triumph, we will triumph.’ Then the soldiers dragged him away again and shot him.

It was impossible to hear those songs without remembering this. All those glorious rousing songs formed the chorus to a tragedy, the singers just didn’t know it.That horror lurking at the end of the story seeped back in time to colour everything, to turn that ever-incoming future into a nostalgic past, to fossilise it in history. It happens everywhere now: socialism is haunted by its own ghost, the failure that is still to come. It’s so much harder now to say that we will triumph – even if Victor could sing it surrounded by the bodies of his comrades, that sense of historical certainty has been lost. You can inveigh against this tendency, but that won’t stop it happening; cheery and voluntaristic false optimism is not what inspires hope. We know that we’re doomed, and we fight anyway, against it all. But not in Cuba. In Cuba we survived. For decades Cuba was a light to Latin America and the world, a sign that it was not all futile, that however many times they tried to kill us we could still carry on living. In Fidel Castro we mourn something else; not our defeat, but our victory.

Communists don’t like melancholia; it’s indulgent, verging on the aristocratic, sedentary, acquiescent, and fatalistic. We’re meant to take the manic posture, to ‘be staunch and active.’ Don’t mourn, organise! Walter Benjamin quotes a unnamed critic of the melancholics; the ‘agents or hacks who make a great display out of their poverty, and a banquet out of yawning emptiness;’ as he notes elsewhere, the melancholic hero of the Trauerspiel is almost always a monarch or a prince. Marxists know that nothing simply vanishes, that negation is determinate, that everything is preserved in the dialectic. This is why we continue to shout Fidel vive, just as we insisted that Lenin lived long after he was embalmed in Red Square: these names don’t refer to a person but to a struggle, the desperate fight against immiseration and despair; they stand for victories that an be overturned but never annihilated. The mistake comes in thinking that this determination is always opposed to melancholia or to the tragic. Melancholia is a dialectical procedure. In Freud’s account, the melancholic subject introjects the lost object; it’s a refusal to abandon the object-cathexes, a refusal to simply mourn, to let all the scars of past struggles simply heal over; melancholia is, as he puts it, ‘like an open wound, drawing to itself cathectic energies from all directions.’ There is a work of mourning, a process by which subject and object gradually and painfully disentangle themselves, and the latter is consigned to the grave. It is, Derrida writes, ‘not one kind of work among others’ but ‘work itself, work in general, the trait by means of which one ought perhaps to reconsider the very concept of production.’ Marxists should recognise this kind of work: it’s alienated labour, the production of an object divorced from us entirely. But melancholia resists any principle of economy; as soon as Freud thinks he’s found one in its complex he is forced into an abzubrechen, a breaking-off of his inquiry, a further loss reproduced within his text. In melancholia object and subject endlessly produce each other; what’s been lost is never alienated from ourselves. We preserve it even as it falls away: socialism has the keen sense of its own defeat because it is a movement of the defeated. Socialismo o muerte: socialism or lethe, the dead object, the void. Benjamin: ‘The past would fully befall only a resurrected humanity.’ There is much that we’ve lost, but until then we will not let it go.

Don’t mourn, melancholise. Hasta la victoria, siempre.