On Super Tuesday, Bernie Sanders had a bad night. His moderate rival, Joe Biden, riding the strength of his dominating win in South Carolina and boosted by endorsements from Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, swept the South, and beat out Sanders in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Texas. Sanders won California, Colorado, Utah, and his home state of Vermont, but finished the night trailing Biden by sixty-five delegates. Sanders and his supporters had hoped to rack up a formidable delegate lead, forcing the recalcitrant Democratic establishment to acknowledge him as a palatable nominee and cementing his viability in the minds of primary voters. That didn’t happen.
I watched these results come in—on a pirated MSNBC stream—with a few friends and my roommate, Dan, who is unemployed and spends most of his waking hours calling and texting for Bernie. A pall fell over our living room as state after state went for Biden, a familiar sense of dread and inevitability. Preternaturally upbeat and optimistic in most circumstances, Dan did not conceal his growing despair, pacing the apartment, darkly muttering to himself. A rolling tide of gloom, resignation, and recrimination overtook my Twitter feed. It was over. “The establishment” had conspired against Sanders. Elizabeth Warren had “kneecapped” the progressive movement. Our enemies were too powerful, too nefarious, too corrupt. The forces of capital had won. Again.
The following morning, light crept back through our windows. Plans were made for trips to canvass in Michigan. Dan returned to the auto-dialer. But I couldn’t get the evening’s pre-post-mortems out of my head. It all felt familiar. The left, of which I am doomed to remain a perpetual partisan, has an intimate relationship with defeat. Defeat is our mother: our sustainer and our burden. “The history of socialism,” writes historian Enzo Traverso, “is a constellation of defeats nourished for almost two centuries.” The affective life of the left is defined by nostalgia, belatedness, memory, and mourning. We cherish a serial history of might-have-beens: if the Communards had stormed Versailles, if the work of Radical Reconstruction had been completed, if the Soviet Union had exorcised its totalitarian demons, if the Spanish Republic had survived the civil war, if the Prague Spring had been allowed to flourish, if Allende had survived the coup, if Mitterand had resisted the call of rigueur, if workers had seized power during this or that general strike, if Bernie had won the primary in 2016, if if if…
This mood, I suspect, is familiar to many leftists. It feeds a bitterly hopeful disposition, which Traverso calls “left-wing melancholy.” For Marxists, every generation of militants is doomed to fail, save the last one. We derive strength and purpose, not despair, from the memory of the vanquished and the worlds they envisioned. In January 1919, in the final days of a failed uprising by German communists, Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “The whole road of socialism is paved with nothing but thunderous defeats” from which socialists, nonetheless, must “draw historical experience, understanding, power and idealism.” The final victory, Luxemburg wrote, would be built on a foundation of every preceding failure. The next day, Luxemburg was murdered by the Freikorps, her body tossed into the Landwehr Canal.
In his final speech, delivered inside the besieged Moneda Palace amid a CIA-backed coup, the socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, prefigured his own martyrdom: “These are my last words, and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain,” he said, broadcasting the message over Radio Magallanes, “Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again where free men will walk to build a better society.” Moments later, Allende put an AK-47 between his legs and shot himself under the chin.