Politics in a Tragic Key

RP 180 () / Article

In memory of Joel Olson (1967-2012)

In the quarter-century or so since the obscure disaster of the Soviet bloc’s collapse, two words have been pinned to that of ‘communism’ with liberal abandon: ‘tragedy’ and ‘transition’. Tragedy, to signify the magnitude of suffering, but not the greatness of the enterprise; the depth of the fall, but not the rationality of the ambition. Transition, to capitalism, shadowed by the enumeration of crimes, through a ‘transitional justice’ that is both an exorcism and a prevention of any attempt to repeat that doomed exploit.1 On pain of anachronism, I wish to explore a contrary meaning to the pair tragedy and transition, one closely tied to the rifts and articulations between actuality and the idea. To the extent that the problem of actuality and the idea is that of dialectics and politics today, we should note that the origin of Hegel’s dialectic is constituted by a certain thinking of tragedy. Tragedy can thus be seen as both the prelude to the modern dialectic and a possible obstacle in its path. Second, one of the principal ways to declare closed – even or especially from the left – the very question of transition, of directed root-and-branch change, of emancipation as something other than resistance or apocalypse, is to call for an acceptance of our tragic predicament, generally coded in terms of the lessons of defeat and the invariable fact of finitude. My tactic in what follows is not to reject the tragic, but to assume it as the element within which to recast our thinking of politics and communism, and to show that thinking through tragedy as an experiential, narrative and political form can allow us to break with a defeatist and deflationary reading of our baleful present, as well as to avert the curse of shallow optimism.

In the present conjuncture of theory, tragedy is either dismissed (along with all structures of feeling anchored in the negative) for its denial of an insurgent social creativity, or, obversely, affirmed as an antidote to Utopian aspirations. Leftist thought for the most part treats the tragic – the discord between will and capacity, subject and system – as extrinsic, accidental, or it slips into a narrative about finitude and limitation, which is anti-political to the extent that it reifies and renders transcendent the moment of the ethical. Despite its protestations to the contrary, it is to this second strand that belongs T.J. Clark’s recent screed, published in New Left Review as ‘For a Left with No Future’. There Clark turns to the archive of conservative and reactionary thought for the resources to think what form politics could acquire once we take leave of all modernisms of progress, redemption, Utopia and emancipated futures. In particular, he tarries with A.C Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy, and its proposition that what pervades the tragic form is the sense of great actions careening, through implacable patterns of counter-finality, towards ‘the impression of waste’.2

Anti-communist adolescence, postcolonial melancholy

Clark’s question is the same one that governs these reflections: ‘could left politics be transposed into a tragic key’?3 However, his answer is vitiated, not just by a confused and misdirected polemic – which encompasses Stalinist nostalgia and ultra-left infantilism, all the while harmonizing with the perduring chorus of anti-communist condemnations of the ‘god that failed’ – but also by a narrow and static conception of tragedy, which ignores its persistence within the very futural leftism he is so pressed to terminate. Much hinges on whether we accept the seemingly unimpeachable connection between tragedy and pessimism. Clark writes:

Tragedy, we know, is pessimistic about the human condition. Its subject is suffering and calamity, the constant presence of violence in human affairs, the extraordinary difficulty of reconciling that violence with a rule of law or a pattern of social sanction. It turns on failure and self-misunderstanding, and above all on a fall from a great height – a fall that frightens and awes those who witness it because it seems to speak to a powerlessness in man, and a general subjection to a Force or Totality derived from the very character of things.4

But this powerlessness that derives from the exercise of great power, this violence that …