Losurdo 02a

Domenico Losurdo well-reasoned and elaborately researched book, Stalin: The History and Critique of a Black Legend, has not as yet been translated into English. Originally published in Italian in 2008, it has been translated into French, Spanish and German.[1] Since I am most comfortable with French, I set out to read the 500+ page book – as bed-time reading.

But first, let me set the context for Losurdo’s philosophical project, which has been admirably outlined in a translation of a piece by Stefano Azzará.[2] This project has a few main features. First, he has developed a systematic criticism of liberalism’s bloody, particularist, racist and supremacist origins.[3] In this ‘counter-history’, he argues that bourgeois democracy is by no means a natural outcome of liberalism, but rather the result of a continued struggle of the excluded from the limited realm of liberalism. Further, and as part of his wider project, he has also explored the dialectical tension between universal claims and the limited particularisms from which they arise. In this light, he has explored the tensions and qualitative leaps in the German tradition of idealist philosophy, with a particular focus on Kant and Hegel. Third, he applies this criticism to the Marxist tradition, which ran into significant trouble through its wildly universalist and utopian claims and the unexpected limitations that emerged during the constructions of socialism after the revolution. Although he draws on Gramsci to argue for Marxism as a patient and pragmatic project in which everything will not be achieved in rush, he tellingly sees the example of China as an excellent example of what he means. Putting aside any pre-established blueprints for socialism, or indeed the ‘utopia-state of exception spiral’, it realises the gradual nature of project. Not afraid to face the power of capitalism, as well as its many problems, it simultaneously – in a massive and sustained ‘New Economic Project’ that defies all orthodoxies – proceeds to construct a socialist constitutional state that is working towards a socialist market for the production and redistribution of wealth. Here is, then, Italy’s leading philosopher in the Marxist tradition vouching for a China that may well reconfigure and refound the Marxist tradition.

By now, Losurdo’s controversial and provoking theses should begin to be a little clearer. The Stalin book is yet another instance of his ability to take on unexpected and supposedly ‘dangerous’ topics and thoroughly recast one’s understanding. Is not Stalin, after all, the epitome of the paranoid dictator ruling by his personal whim and destroying millions of lives in the process? Is he not the mirror-image of Hitler and thereby a travesty of the Marxist tradition, as so many Marxists would have us believe? For Losurdo, this is an extraordinary caricature, so he sets out to explore how and why it developed and then to demolish it. This entails a complete reset of the mindset that unthinkingly condemns Stalin before any sustained analysis.

The book has eight chapters that are simultaneously philosophical and historical. Given the fact that it is not available in English, I outline the arguments of each chapter.

Introduction: The Turning Point in the History of Stalin.

This covers the period from the worldwide admiration and appreciation of Stalin’s pivotal role in the defeat of Hitler to the moment when Khrushchev’s ‘secret report’ was delivered. For the rest of the book, he juxtaposes these two images in constantly changing formats. One appreciates Stalin for what he actually did; the other condemns him for what he supposedly did.

  1. How to Send a God to Hell: The Khrushchev Report.

This chapter is a detailed criticism of the ‘secret report’, given by Khrushchev after Stalin’s death. This is a useful complement to Grover Furr’s Khrushchev Lied,[4] with a focus on the politically motivated distortions by Khrushchev, who depicted Stalin as a ‘capricious and degenerate human monster’, and created the myths of Stalin’s abject reactions to Hitler’s attack, his anti-semitism, the cultivation of his own personality cult and much more.

  1. Bolshevik Ideological Conflict in Relation to the Civil War.

This is a more philosophical chapter, dealing with what Losurdo calls the ‘dialectic of Saturn’. By this he means the pattern of conflict and struggle in which the way the Bolsheviks came to power continued to influence their dealings in power: ‘the history of Bolshevism turns itself against soviet power’. This revolutionary struggle continued, in relation to external and especially internal opponents. And so the means for resolving such a struggle became – internally – both purges and plots to overthrow the government. The Trotsky-Bukharin-Kamenev plot was therefore part of the internal logic of revolutionary power and very real. In this way may we understand the Red Terror, which is one aspect of what Losurdo calls three civil wars: the one against the international counterrevolution via the White armies; the second against the rich peasants (kulaks) during the collectivisation drive; the third against the internal plot of Trotsky and others.

  1. Between the Twentieth Century and the Longue Durée, Between the History of Marxism and the History of Russia: The Origins of ‘Stalinism’.

Again philosophical, this chapter argues for two main points. The first is that Russia was undergoing a long ‘time of troubles’ from the late nineteenth century. The state was gradually collapsing, social institutions were disintegrating and the economy was in free-fall. Continuous warfare played a role, from the Russo-Japanese War to the First World War. In this light, the major achievement of the communists was to reconstruct the state. Not just any state, but a strong socialist state. Needless to say, this required immense energy and not a little brilliance. At the centre was Stalin. Second, Losurdo develops his argument for the problematic nature of the communist universal. Bred out of the particularities of the Russian revolution and its situation, it developed an ‘ideal socialism’ that is still to come and to which one strives. This in turn produced the perpetual state of exception under which the Soviet Union found itself. For Losurdo, Stalin may have at times been subject to this universal ideal, but less so that others like Trotsky and Kautsky, who criticised Stalin for not living up to the ideal. Instead, Stalin’s various strategies, such as continuing the New Economic Project for a while, the collectivisation project, the restoration of the soviets, and the efforts to foster socialist democracy indicate a significant degree of practical concerns.

  1. The Complex and Contradictory Course of the Stalin Era.

As the title suggests, Losurdo continues his philosophical analysis of contradictions, now focusing on: socialist democracy and the Red Terror; bureaucracy and the ‘furious faith’ of the new socialist order; planned economy and the extraordinary flexibility of worker initiatives (so much so that the workers would have been regarded as unruly and undisciplined in capitalist industries); and the role of a ‘developmental dictatorship’ in contrast to totalitarianism. Of particular interest in this chapter is the systematic refutation of the alignment between Soviet Gulags and the Nazi ‘concentration camps’, in which the former sought to produce restored citizens, while the latter simply sought to destroy ‘sub-humans’. Here Losurdo begins a theme that become stronger as the book progresses, namely, that fascism is much closer to the liberal powers such as the United States and the United Kingdom. Much more is said on this connection.

  1. Repression of History and Construction of Mythology: Stalin and Hitler as Twin Monsters.

A long chapter, where Losurdo now begins to show how the ‘black legend’ of Stalin developed. A central feature, thanks to Hannah Arendt, is what Losurdo calls the reductio ad Hitlerum. Two key items are supposed to show the ‘elective affinity’ between Stalin and Hitler: the so-called ‘Holodomor’, the Ukrainian holocaust that is supposed to be similar to the Nazi holocaust, and Stalin’s anti-semitism. Here he shows that the Holodomor is a piece of historical fiction (developed above all by the old Cold War warrior, Robert Conquest) and that the famine was the result of the United Kingdom’s Russian Goods (Import Prohibition) Act 1933. On anti-semitism he spends a good deal of time, after which it is perfectly clear that Stalin was anything but. Stalin repeatedly condemned anti-semitism in no uncertain terms, to the point of being – one of the few in the world at the time – an enthusiastic supporter of the state of Israel. Even more, the establishment of the ‘affirmative action empire’ in the Soviet Union ensured that Jews, among many other ethnic groups, were protected and fostered under the law, so much so that a significant number held posts in the government apparatus. Also in this chapter is a further development of the close connections between Hitler and ‘Western liberalism’, especially in terms of anti-semitism. Churchill in particular was a bigoted racist and white supremacist, and Roosevelt was also sympathetic. Indeed, they and others contrived to turn, through ‘appeasement’, Hitler’s attention eastward, with the aim of using Hitler to destroy the USSR.

  1. Psychopathology, Morality and History in Reading the Stalin Era.

This chapter carries on the arguments of the previous chapter, especially in relation to the reductio ad Hitlerum, where Arendt once again comes in for some sustained criticism. It also deals with the common portrayal of Stalin’s paranoia, showing that the continued threats to the USSR – such as systemic sabotage and bombing of key industrial sites, spying, fostering coups, and simple economic sanctions – were hardly the products of a suspicious mind.

  1. The Image of Stalin Between History and Mythology.

This brief chapter continues to trace the way the myth of a brutal dictator developed. Not only is he interested in the polarisation of Stalin, but also in the contradictions of the myth as it has been perpetrated and repeated since the initial work of Trotsky, Khrushchev and Arendt. But this is not the first time such diabolisation had happened in relation to revolutions. Losurdo closes the chapter by showing how it also took place in relation to the French Revolution – especially The Terror and in relation to Robespierre – of the late eighteenth century.

  1. Diabolisation and Hagiography in Reading the Contemporary World.

Losurdo closes by showing how the process of diabolisation continues in relation to more recent communist revolutions: China, Cambodia, Haiti. Here the ideological warfare is coupled with brutal repressions, especially in Haiti, which was not large enough to resist the invasion of counterrevolutionary forces. China, however, was able to withstand the consistent raids and bombings that the United States undertook through its air bases on Taiwan, although it did suffer through what may be called an ‘economic atom bomb’. The economic blockade of China was specifically designed to leave China – already with a destroyed economy from the Japanese invasion and a long revolutionary civil war – far behind economically. The cost was in millions of lives from starvation. Not without satisfactions does Losurdo note that China is overcoming the strenuous effects of the United States and its allies. In the end, however, the main purpose of this chapter is to focus on a favoured theme: the continued bloodthirstiness of ‘Western liberal’ powers.

What are we to make of Losurdo’s argument?

I was less taken with his efforts to show how close Nazism is to Western liberalism. This is a theme he has developed elsewhere, and while the points are often well made, they at times tended to dominate his argument. The counter a false image of Stalin by pointing out that the accusers were really the guilty ones is not always the best move to make. However, Losurdo does offer some real strengths in his work, relating to Stalin at War (although others have already this argument for Stalin’s vital role), the reality of plots and threats to the government (in relation to purges and the Red Terror), the rebuilding of a strong state, Stalin’s consistent opposition to anti-semitism, and the ridiculousness of the image of Stalin of as a paranoid dictator ruling by means of his capricious bloodlust. The complex task of unpicking the contradictions and fabrications of the ‘black legend’ is very well done, particularly via close analysis of Trotsky, Khrushchev, Arendt and Robert Conquest’s dreadful works. And I found his analysis of the dangers of an ideal, romanticised and universal communism very insightful.

However, I would have liked to see a more sustained analysis of the veneration of Stalin, apart from showing a longer history of such veneration in Russian history (Kerensky is offered as one of the more extreme examples of self-propelled adulation). Here the veneration of Lenin was more important, since Lenin’s heritage was the focus of struggles between Stalin and his opponents. I missed an examination of the social and economic role of such veneration, particularly in relation to economic and extra-economic compulsion. Further, while I would have liked to see more of an exploration of Stalin’s faults along with his virtues, this is perhaps not the place for such an analysis. Instead, Losurdo’s brave book has another task: to counter a strong and long tradition of the diabolisation of Stalin on the Left. Perhaps a careful analysis of Stalin’s real (and not mythical) faults and virtues is a task for the future.

[1] Italian: Stalin. Storia e critica di una leggenda nera (2008); French: Staline: Histoire et critique d’une légende noire (2009); Spanish: Stalin: historia y crítica de una leyenda negra (2011); German: Stalin: Geschichte und Kritik einer schwarzen Legende (2013).

[2] It may be found in a solitary blog post:

[3] This book has been translated into English as Liberalism: A Counter-History (Verso 2011).

[4] Grover Furr, Khrushchev Lied (Erythros, 2011).

Stalin on Time Magazine 1939 and 1942

The first was in 1939, although the reason was ambivalent: ‘Whether Europe’s new era will end in nationalist chaos, good or bad internationalism, or what not, the era will be new—and the end of the old era will have been finally precipitated by a man whose domain lies mostly outside Europe. This Joseph Stalin did by dramatically switching the power balance of Europe one August night. It made Joseph Stalin man of 1939. History may not like him but history cannot forget him.’

By the end of 1942, the magazine was echoing the growing world-wide acclaim of Stalin, especially as the victory at Stalingrad and turning point of the Second World War was becoming clear: ‘The year 1942 was a year of blood and strength. The man whose name means steel in Russian, whose few words of English include the American expression ‘tough guy’ was the man of 1942. Only Joseph Stalin fully knew how close Russia stood to defeat in 1942, and only Joseph Stalin fully knew how he brought Russia through. But the whole world knew what the alternative would have been. The man who knew it best of all was Adolf Hitler, who found his past accomplishments turning into dust.’

No less iconic than Joseph Stalin’s moustache was his pipe. But what did he put in it? Once he settled on his favoured cherry root pipe, his tobacco of choice was ‘Herzegovina Flor.’ So close did the connection become that the tobacco was also known as ‘Stalin’s Choice’. But this was no ordinary tobacco, for it appeared only in cigarettes. Stalin would take two cigarettes out of a box and shred them into his pipe. Why? Pipe tobacco at the time was cheap and rough and he had become rather fond of the flavour of the cigarettes when he was a young trainee priest and revolutionary.

So what was ‘Herzogovina Flor’? The smokes were produced at the Moscow ‘Java’ factory, which was originally established by Samuel Gabai, from Kharkov, in the 19th century. Gabai’s idea was to produce a tobacco like no other, so he found a tobacco plant in Java, grew it in Herzegovina and then shipped it to Moscow. The products initially became favoured by the elite nobility and fledgling bourgeoisie. So Stalin, as the leader of the first worker’s state was in a quandary. If he smoked the cigarettes, he would give the wrong impression. So he opted for the common man’s pipe, but since he couldn’t tear himself away from the flavour of the tobacco, he decided to use it to fill his pipe. Eventually, the elite origins of the tobacco were forgotten and it became indelibly associated with the man himself. Many others followed suit, among them the famous soviet composer, Mayakovsky.

Of course, with the propagation of the ‘black legend’ of Stalin, Herzegovina Flor sadly fell out of favour. Now it is produced in small amounts, although it is still notable for its rich aroma and high tar content.

Stalin's Tobacco 01


Stalin's Tobacco 02a

In a forthcoming work, I propose to investigate Stalin through an unexpected approach: his intimate relation with religion. Hopefully, it will play a small role in the reassessments of Stalin under way by Losurdo, Roberts et al.

Chapter One: At the Spiritual Seminary

Stalin is unique among world communist leaders in at least one respect: he studied theology for five years at the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary, the training college for priests in the Russian Orthodox Church. He did so during a deeply formative time of his life, from the age of 15 to the verge of his 20th birthday (1894-1899). One of the best students, he was known for his intellect and phenomenal memory. And he was notably devout, attending all worship services and even leading the choir. Yet, despite the importance of this theological study in forming Stalin’s mind and life, few if any take the time to analyse what Stalin studied and how he did so. Thus, this chapter investigates closely Stalin’s studies, especially the theological content of his study with an eye on the themes that would emerge later in his thought. The training was thorough. In the earlier years, he studied both secular and theological subjects, such as Russian literature, secular history, mathematics, church singing and biblical studies. By the later years, the focus was more intensely theological, with ecclesiastical history, liturgy, homiletics, dogma, comparative theology, moral theology, practical pastoral work, didactics, and the two staples: church singing and biblical studies. Years later, Stalin annotated the religious works in his library, and memorised long passages from the Bible. He also refused to include anti-religious works, calling them ‘antireligious waste-paper’. But I am particularly interested in the continuity (rather than the discontinuity) between his theological knowledge and the activism in which he increasingly engaged. Stalin left the college just before the final examinations in 1899, of his own will. But the experience had formed him deeply. In revolutionary circles he was for many years known as ‘The Priest’.

Chapter Two: Affirmative Action: Religions and the Church

In the early years of the Second World War, Stalin made a historic compact with the Russian Orthodox Church. In return for support of the war effort that eventually defeated Hitler, Stalin allowed the reopening of tens of thousands of churches and the re-establishment of the church’s leadership hierarchy. (These developments are far more complex than the common argument that a morally bankrupt government sought to harness the church’s influence to counter the Nazis.) However, one condition applied: the church was to respect the ‘affirmative action’ that already applied to ethnic minorities. Stalin was the architect of the policy of fostering the languages, cultures, education, and self-government of the many ‘nations’ or ethnic groups in the USSR. This policy included religion: the Muslim sharia in the south was permitted, Buddhism in the east was fostered, and anti-Semitism was vigorously opposed, with many Jews in the government apparatus and heavy penalties for anti-Semitism. The old imperialism of the Russian church was to be a thing of past.

It is not for nothing that from this period the religious iconography of Stalin began, fuelled by rumours of a ‘mysterious retreat’ in 1941.

Chapter Three: Writing Like a Poet

This chapter digs deeper into Stalin’s writing, beginning with his habitual pattern of biblical and religious allusions. Above all, I am interested in his poetic style, especially in light of his early publications of widely-appreciated poetry. His later texts reveal subtle variations in the balanced sentences, his rhetorical if not homiletical ability, his evocation of imagery, and the ability to tell a story – most notably in the creation of the ‘political myth’ of the communist party and the victory of the October Revolution.

Chapter Four: Modalities of Dialectics

Multiple modulations of dialectics appear in Stalin’s works. These include the staples of subject-object and form-content, but also an early articulation of what would later be called ‘constitutive resistance’ (Negri). In this case, the resistance of the workers becomes the determining feature of the constantly changing tactics of the capitalists and the bourgeoisie – initially on a national level but later in a world-historical form. The two major developments in dialectics are in terms transcendence and immanence, and in a dialectic of crisis. The former refers to the relations between workers and the communist party, between theory and action, and between the party and the multi-ethnic state. The latter – dialectics of crisis – emerges in a complex pattern, particularly in light of the civil war, sustained international opposition, and the dictatorship of the proletariat. The key to this dialectic is that the closer’s one’s gaol becomes, the more ferocious become internal and external opponents. This is at heart a theological dialectics. The more grace is apparent, the more active do the forces of evil become.

Chapter Five: Towards a Materialist Doctrine of Evil

Crisis dialectics then leads to what I call a materialist doctrine of evil. This doctrine, worked out more in practice than theory – profoundly challenges the Enlightenment-inspired assumption of inherent human goodness so characteristic of many socialist movements. It entails a recalibration of the crucial opposition of good and evil, now in terms of socialism and capitalism, of workers and bosses, and of international politics. Above all, the Red Terror is the practical manifestation of this doctrine, in which good and evil are internal, with the one generating more of the other.

Chapter Six: Veneration and Demonisation

No other political leader has been – and continues to be – as venerated and as reviled as Stalin. This is so in Russia, where he is reviled by some but revered by many others (even to the point of religious observances in his native Georgia), and internationally, where he functions either in terms of the reductio ad Hitlerum or as the architect of a stunning victory in WWII and in the construction of socialism. This chapter argues that such polarisation has a religious dynamic as well as a political one, in Cold War and post-Cold War contexts. In order to understand that polarisation, I trace the path from his near universal appreciation at the close of WWII to the growth of a ‘black legend’ after his death (thanks to Khrushchev’s politically motivated ‘secret report’). I also focus on the dynamics of this polarisation by relating it to theological issues, Lenin’s veneration, the crucial role in extra-economic compulsion in the construction of socialism, the relation with Stalin’s dialectics of intensified crisis, and particularly the central role of Stalin in assessing the continued validity of socialism.

One of curious features of the self-described leaders of the renewal of communism is a type of non-party communism. It appears in the collection of contributions called The Idea of Communism, published by Verso in 2010 and arising from a conference in London. Alain Badiou and Bruno Bosteels, among others, seem drawn to this curious idea, even suggesting that a ‘communist party’ or a ‘communist state’ are oxymorons. As might be expected, Stalin’s piece called ‘Non-Party Simpletons’ comes to mind:

Non-party progressivism has become the fashion. Such is the nature of the [European] intellectual—he must have a fashion.

What is non-partyism?

Non-partyism glosses over the antagonism of interests, it shuts its eyes to their struggle.

Every class has its own party, with a special programme and a special complexion. Parties direct the struggle of classes. Without parties there would be not a struggle but chaos, absence of clarity and confusion of interests. But non-partyism abhors clarity and definiteness, it prefers nebulousness and absence of programme.

Glossing over of class antagonisms, hushing up of the class struggle, absence of a definite complexion, hostility to all programme, gravitation towards chaos and the confusion of interests—such is non-partyism.

What is the aim of non-partyism?

To unite the ununitable, to bring about the impossible.

To unite bourgeois and proletarians in an alliance, to erect a bridge between the landlords and the peasants, to haul a wagon with the aid of a swan, a crab and a pike—this is what non-partyism aims at.

Non-partyism realises that it is incapable of uniting the ununitable and therefore says with a sigh:

“If ‘ifs’ and ‘ans’

Were pots and pans. . . .”

But “ifs” and “ans” are not pots and pans and so non-partyism is always left in the cart, always remains the simpleton.

Non-partyism is like a man without a head on his shoulders, or—rather—like a man with a turnip instead of a head.

(Collected Works, volume 2, pp. 235-36)

Stalin tended to make long friendships, especially with those he could trust. One of those was Molotov (the ‘hammer’), or Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Skryabin, later to take up many senior posts including that of Foreign Minister.

In his memoirs, Molotov notes that the young Stalin was ‘handsome’ to women. Thin, scruffy, energetic, and with the ability to charm with poetry and song, few could resist Stalin’s charms. ‘Women must have been enamoured with him,’ writes Molotov, ‘because he was successful with them. He had honey-coloured eyes. They were beautiful.’ Indeed, many who describe Stalin speak of his ‘shining eyes.’

It seems that men too were attracted to Stalin, including Molotov. They first met in 1912 in Petrograd. Molotov was told to meet in a courtyard, behind a dentist’s apartment. Moments after Molotov arrived, Stalin emerged suddenly from behind a woodpile. Molotov was overwhelmed. ‘I didn’t see how he appeared, but he wore the uniform of a pyschoneurology student. We introduced ourselves.’ Stalin’s pockmarks and Georgian accent were noticeable. ‘He discussed only the most important issues without wasting a second on anything unnecessary. He delivered some Pravda materials. No superfluous gestures. The he vanished just as suddenly as he had appeared. He climbed over the fence and this was done with classic simplicity and grace’.

The next day, a smitten Molotov told a friend: ‘He’s astonishing. He possesses internal revolutionary beauty, a Bolshevik to the marrow, clever, cunning as a conspirator …’ At their second meeting, they talked all night. They would work together for the next 41 years.

Molotov took his love of Stalin to the grave. He died in 1986 at the age of 96, lamenting Gorbachev’s reforms.

Molotov 09a


Molotov 07


Molotov 08



Another travel story at Voyages on the Left, called ‘Stalin, the Priest and the Donkeys‘. Meanwhile, I am writing a longer piece on Stalin and anti-Semitism (from Losurdo).

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