The Passing of Domenico Losurdo

On 28 June, 2018, Domenico Losurdo passed away after a brief period of brain cancer. He was only 76 and his death is a shock to many who have come to appreciate his work and his person. An official announcement from the secretary of the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) can be found here (see also here). Indeed, Losurdo enthusiastically joined the re-established the PCI, after it had been dissolved back in 1991.

Many are the dimensions of his contribution to Marxist philosophy and history, with the best outline of his core positions provided in an article by Stefano Azzarà (he has also published a book building upon Losurdo’s work). I do not wish to cover all of these issues here, but rather focus on the significant contribution Losurdo has made to my thoughts. I do this not in terms of a self-serving enterprise, but as a recognition of the insights of which he was capable.

The first book of his I read was Stalin: The History and Critique of a Black Legend. Initially published in Italian in 2008, it has been translated into German, Spanish and French (not English – I will return to this anomaly). I read the French translation and it was a stunning experience. Here was the account of how Stalin’s reception moved from widespread appreciation of the practical and theoretical contribution he had made to the construction of socialism, to one of systematic demonization. Given the framework in which many perceive Stalin today, the book may initially seem like a one-sided effort in praise of Stalin. It is far from such a work, for it is no air-brushed account. Instead, it makes a careful and balanced assessment of not merely mistakes made on the way but more the significant achievements – which are so often just forgotten or dismissed.

But let me come back to the lack of an English translation of the Stalin book. Some works have indeed been translated, on Hegel, Heidegger, liberalism, class struggle, non-violence and war and revolution. They have been well-received, with their careful research and withering criticisms. But when a petition was launched to request one or two of the major left-wing publishers to produce an English version, it was met with the comment that it would ‘tarnish’ Losurdo’s reputation. So a sanitised version of Losurdo is fine, suitable for a curiously imperialist version of ‘Western’ Marxism, but one that actually represents his work is not. Indeed, by the time of his death he had published scores of books in Italian, of which only a handful have made their way into English. The time will come when most of his material is indeed available to a wider audience in what has become – for a time and for specific historical reasons – the lingua franca. Then perhaps his full impact will be felt, shaking up many ‘orthodoxies’.

However, the major insights for me have come from his observations on China. I do not mean the tendency in some quarters to focus on Mao Zedong as the last true Chinese communist (you can find this still today among some ‘Maoists’ or maopai as the Chinese call them, with a distinctly negative tone). No, I mean his deep appreciation and understanding of Deng Xiaoping and the ‘reform and opening up’ – now celebrating forty years. Above all, Deng Xiaoping was deeply Marxist in a Chinese context and there are significant continuities from Mao to Deng. How is the ‘reform and opening up’ Marxist? There are many aspects, but at its core is the shrewd assessment that thus far the means of production had been relatively neglected in China’s effort to construct socialism. Most efforts had been directed at the relations of production, focusing on socialist equality and collective endeavour. This is all very well, but if everyone is equal simply because they are poor, few would see the benefit. So Deng and those working with him began to emphasise another dimension of Marxism: the need to unleash the forces of production. The results have truly been stunning, with a socialist market economy, the lifting of more than 700 million out of poverty (the World Bank puts it at 850 million), and so on. In an interview published in 2013, Domenico mentions the sustained anti-poverty drive as part of the ‘incredible success’ of Deng’s policies: ‘infrastructures worthy of a first world economy, growth in the process of industrialisation from its coast areas to its inland areas, rapid incrementation of salaries for several years and a growing concern for environmental issues’. He goes on: ‘By focusing on the key role of the achievement in the safekeeping of independence and of national sovereignty, and by encouraging the old colonies to pursue their own economic independence, China can today be seen as the centre of the anti-colonial revolution – which began in the 20th Century and is still in process under its different guises to this day. And by reminding ourselves of the pivotal role the public sphere should play in any economy, China constitutes an alternative in opposition to the economic liberalism and to the consensus dictated by Washington’.

It is all very well to read such thoughts, but the point came home to me in a conversation we had in Shanghai less than two years ago. In the midst of the bustle, traffic, advertising, shops, and clear economic drive of the place, Domenico said, ‘I am happy with this. This is what socialism can do!’ To my quizzical look, he replied with a smile, ‘I am strongly in favour of the reform and opening up’.

Ultimately, it was the conversations we had in September of 2016 that remain with me. Many others knew him far better than me, but I had invited him to participate in a conference on Chinese Marxism in Beijing, after which we travelled together to another and very different conference in Shanghai. While the first was constructive, with scholars from China and abroad engaging in creative discussions, the second was divisive, with most of the foreigners feeling they could come to China and tell these ‘wayward’ Chinese Marxists how they had it all wrong.

So Domenico and I talked. We did so on trains, buses, walking, a cup of tea (which he prefers because of tea’s inherent slowing down of time, inviting you to sip and talk and pour another). He had noticed my review of his Stalin book, so we discussed the Soviet Union. He told me he had first visited China in 1972, as the leader of a young Italian ‘Friends of China’ group. He liked to come here as often as possible, pleased indeed to see the construction of socialism leaping ahead. As we came to realise how much we had in common, he pointed out, ‘We are of the mainstream, but we must be patient’. Yes indeed, the mainstream, from Marx and Engels, through Lenin and Stalin, to Mao, Deng and indeed Xi Jinping. Part of a living tradition. Which of course means that the myopia of ‘Western’ Marxist efforts to excise many parts of the mainstream smacks a little too much of utopian revisionism (as his final book did indeed argue).

At one point, he asked about my daily patterns, for we both enjoy writing immensely. I spoke of quiet days of writing, at whatever home I happened to be, of ocean swimming, of Chinese study. He said, ‘I usually go for a walk of an hour or two, around the countryside, and perhaps talk with some friends. After I return home, I answer mail and I write’. He smiled, ‘I am a bit of a stakhanovite when it comes to writing’.

But he also said his life feels very ‘provincial’, with all of the European associations. ‘We prefer to speak of the countryside or “the bush”’, I said. ‘I am a country boy, from “the bush,” and I much prefer it to the city’. He said, ‘Yes, that is a much better word, countryside – “the bush”’.

We will miss him, as will ‘the bush’ around Urbino.

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Mao on death

Some more from the fascinating notes made by a youngish Mao on Friedrich Paulsen’s A System of Ethics. Here he reflects on death.

To accept it and die, what is there to regret?

That the living must die is the law of all natural things, that what comes into being must perish … Our death is not death, but simply a dissolution [jeisan]. All natural things are not destroyed; neither are we human beings destroyed. Not only is death not death, life too is not life, but simply a uniting. Since a human being is formed of the uniting of spirit and matter, what is there to dread when the decline of old age leads to their dispersal? Moreover, dispersal is not a single dispersal that is never united again. This dispersal is followed by that uniting. If the world contained only dispersal without reuniting, how could we see then every day with our own eyes phenomena that represent unitings (I do not mean reincarnation)?

The universe does not contain only the world of human life. There are many other kinds of worlds in addition to that of human life. When we have already had all kinds of experience in this world of human life, we should leave this world to experience other kinds of worlds …

Would we then think that dying was painful? Certainly not. Never having experienced death, what makes us think it is painful? Furthermore, pursuing it logically, it would seem that the event of death is not necessarily painful. Life and death are two great worlds, and the passage between these worlds, from life to death, is naturally very gradual, and the distance is by nature barely perceptible. Elderly people peacefully come to the end of their years and enter a natural state, an event that is necessary and proper…

Human beings are born with a sense of curiosity. How can it be different in this case? Are we not delighted with all kinds of rare things that we seldom encounter? Death too is a rare thing that I have never experienced in my entire life. Why should it alone not delight me? … Some may fear the great change, but I think it is profoundly valuable. When can such a marvellous great change be found in the the world of human life? Will it not be truly valuable to encounter in death what cannot be encountered in the world of human life?

When a storm rolls over the ocean, with waves criss-crossing in all directions, those aboard ship are drawn to marvel at its significance. Why should the great waves of life and death alone not evoke a sense of their magnificence!

(Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, pp. 245-47)

Matching the picture to the headline

Berørt dronning fik besked om Mærsks død kort før balkonhyldest

(A Touched Queen Was Told About Mærsk’s Death Shortly Before Her Birthday Appearance on the Balcony)

Published in Politiken today. Some context, since most people wouldn’t have a clue as to what has happened in the navel of the globe. Today A.P. Møller Mc-Kinney Mærsk, the real ‘king’ of Denmark, died at 98. He was responsible for taking a small shipping company and turning it into one of the largest freighter companies in the world, along with oil drilling, supermarket chains and so on. How did he make such a killing? He made a handsome profit indeed during the Second World War selling arms to the Nazis. All for a good cause. And today happens to be Queen Margrethe of Denmark’s birthday; she is 72. Just as she was about to go out on the balcony to greet her adoring subjects on this occasion, she was told of Mr Mærsk’s death. Some editor astutely decided that this was the best photo to line up with the headline. Almost restores your faith in journalists.

Not a good career move: the death of Max Stirner

Every now and then, an early death is a good career move. Take Kurt Cobain, for instance, or Lenin in 1922 (at the age of 52), or indeed Jesus himself.

But not always. Max Stirner (aka Johann Caspar Schmidt), author of the influential The Ego and Its Own (1845) came to his end as follows: while caring for his mad mother, and skipping from address to address to avoid creditors, he was stung in the neck by a winged insect (what a wimp: we get stung by winged insects every day over here). It was May 1856 and he was 49. He fell into a fever, went into remission and then keeled over on 25 June. No one noticed, not even his mother.

Cave Droppings: Nick Cave and Religion

As I sink into my two main projects for 2011 – Lenin and Theology and The Sacred Economy – a brief intro to the book I have just completed on Nick Cave, with a preface written on the Trans-Mongolian train, somewhere in Siberia …

Over 2010 I wanted to engage in some other material that has interested me for a while – the Fleshly Readings book, which has managed to piss off a goodly number of people, and the one on Nick Cave. The latter is called Cave Droppings, looking at things like his engagement with the Bible, the novels and total depravity, death, apocalypse, love, Jesus and a big chapter on the philosophy of music and musical form, via Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno. The best bits were listening again and again to all of the music (back to 1977 and the Boys Next Door), engaging deeply with Bloch and Adorno on music, and reading through some 300 or more interviews, unpicking the narratives he spins about himself. And that’s where you find some pretty good turns of phrase, like:

I’ve got to stop quoting from the Bible because it’s irritating.

A chilly thing. The Bible. Sometimes.

All they wanted was the usual holiday snap of hell.

To eat at the same ball of vomit year after year.

When the big bomb goes off, all that’s going to survive are goths and cockroaches.

Two abiding passions – crime and theology.

Death looms large because it should.

And the decomposing lover says …

Jesus only loves a man who loses.

When those two things get together, love and violence, it makes for some nasty song-writing.

But he [Blixa Bargeld] was always more concerned with making his guitar sound like a dying horse, more than anything else.

Sometimes it [Cave’s voice] sounds like the moaning of a dying insect

And the TOC:

Introduction.

Chapter One: Searching the Holy Books.

Synopsis: Nick Cave and the Bible.

The Life of Nick.

The ‘Word’ of Cave.

Conclusion, or, Strategies of Containment.

Chapter Two: The Total Depravity of Cave’s Literary World.

Cave World.

That House on the Edge of Town.

A Slug of White Jesus.

Rain in the Valley.

Bible.

Lamentations of Woe.

The Calling of Eschatological Madness.

Conclusion: The Dialectic of Redemptive Depravity.

Chapter Three: Some Routine Atrocity, or, Apocalyptic.

Three Modes.

God’s Anger: The Flood.

Murder, Mayhem and Atrocity.

Glimpses of Redemption.

Conclusion.

Chapter Four: Death.

From Form to Content: The Sinister Song.

Death Inflicted.

Death Suffered.

Individual Annihilation.

Collective Destruction.

Death Overcome.

Conclusion: Death Is Not the End?

Chapter Five: God, Pain and the Love Song.

Secular Soppy Songs: No Pain, No God.

Painlessly Divine: No Pain, With God.

Painfully Secular: With Pain, No God.

Brutally Divine: With Pain, With God.

Chapter Six: Jesus of the Moon, or, Christology.

Volume and Noise.

Sex and Seduction.

Heresy.

Conclusion.

Chapter Seven: Hearing Round Corners: Nick Cave Meets Ernst Bloch.

Hearing around corners.

Concerning the Wandering Path of the Note, or, Forms of the Song.

Anarchy …

… and Discordancy.

Transition.

Hymn (and Lament)

Sinister Song.

Dialectical Song.

Voice.

Conclusion: The Dialectics of Theo-Utopian Hearing.

Conclusion: Gates to the Garden: The Search for Redemption.

What I am writing now: Nick Cave and death

Almost done with the final chapter of my book on Nick Cave – an alternative interest apart from the usual stuff on Marxism, the Bible and theology. It’s on the uplifting topic of death, in which I draw upon Adorno, Horkheimer and Bloch for some theoretical perspective in dealing with death both inflicted and suffered. Concerning the latter:

The immediate impression is that death suffered – of a solitary individual, usually the singer – is a theme that dominates the earlier material from The Bad Seeds, especially From Her to Eternity, The First Born Is Dead, Kicking Against the Pricks, Your Funeral … My Trial and Tender Prey. A number of themes emerge from this material, such as execution for a crime, the depravity of a life that ends in a sordid death, relief and the escape offered by a death that is better than life, but above all the struggle against being forgotten after death, the struggle for memory and the threat of complete annihilation. In other words, we find a concern for the process of dying, how one approaches death and the ontological status of death itself, with a distinct emphasis on that last category.

Concerning the process of dying, often the victim is or is about to be executed for a crime that may or may not have been committed,[1] or less often he is the victim of a murder.[2] No peaceful passing here, for the end comes as a result of violence, at times in the context of what can only be called total depravity or a sickness unto death. For example, in the early ‘Blundertown’ from Junkyard (Cave 1982) in The Birthday Party days, we find the sordid reality of life characteristic of the drug-fueled punk albums. This was a time when the bassist, Tracy Pew, died of an epileptic fit brought on by the cocktail of drugs and alcohol (Hattenstone 2008).[3] Tied in closely is an apocalyptic dimension to this sense of utter corruption, in which the world is on course to destruction as the subject of the song slips away. For instance, in ‘Saint Huck’ in From Her to Eternity (Cave 1984), Huck’s death takes place as ‘‘The mo-o-o-on, its huge cycloptic eye / watches the city streets contract / twist and cripple and crack’.[4]

How do these individuals face death? Some do so with an anticipation of release from a dreadful life, looking forward to the peace of not being pursued or persecuted any longer. Thus, in ‘Swampland’ from Mutiny – The Bad Seed (Cave 1989b), a song that may well have come from the novel And the Ass Saw the Angel (Cave 1989a), the subject of the song is caught in quicksand, desperately hoping, albeit not without some terror, that it will suck him down before his pursuers appear with bloodlust in their eyes. Or in ‘Knockin’ on Joe’ from The First Born is Dead (Cave 1985), the singer awaits execution on death row in a mixture of protest at the life lived and relief, since after death ‘You cain’t hurt me anymore’. And in ‘Wanted Man’ from the same album, he mentions the place where he is not wanted any more, namely ‘the place that I call home’.

However, the dominant theme of these songs is death simply leads to total annihilation as a person, with a struggle against the odds simply to be remembered. So, in ‘A Box for Black Paul’ (Cave 1984), the singer searches in vain for some means to remember the executed Black Paul. Everything that he wrote becomes scrap on the street, the ‘whole fucken lot’ going ‘right up in smoke’. Or it may be one anonymous and veiled lover who visits the grave in the dead of night, as in ‘Long Black Veil’ from Kicking Against the Pricks (Cave 1986a).[5] Even the crows eventually forget a corpse strung up on a pole once they have finished feasting on its rotting flesh (‘Black Crow King’ from The First Born is Dead (Cave 1985)). Yet memory is a fickle beast, just as likely to throw up gruesome and unwelcome reminders, such as the carny’s horse in ‘The Carny’ (Cave 1986b), the corpse of which floats out of its shallow grave during an apocalyptic storm as the carnival grimly attempts to leave the scene. Ultimately, one cannot control those memories, as people dig about for dirt and gossip – so in ‘Lay Me Low’ from Let Love In (Cave 1994).

That fickle memory and the ever-present threat of its loss comprise but one element of the annihilation of death. Saint Huck’s river in From Her to Eternity (Cave 1984) becomes a metaphor for the sucking obliteration of identity brought about by the ontological status of death.[6] Alternatively, the devil may take one down, down, down into hell and oblivion (‘Up Jumped the Devil’ in Tender Prey (Cave 1988). Or a rock star may find that he or she suddenly undergoes what is known in the fame business as ‘irrelevance syndrome’, as we find in ‘The Singer’ from Kicking Against the Pricks (Cave 1986a), who fears that suddenly ‘nobody knows me’. Yesterday, the multitude may have screamed out his or her name and cried out for a song, but now he is gone, like the ‘pages of a book’ used to light a fire. All of which is summed up best in the penultimate line from ‘Jangling Jack’ (in Let Love In (Cave 1994): having been shot by the barman, Jack dies slowly in a pool of blood, until at last ‘he vomits and dies’.


[1] As in ‘A Box for Black Paul’ in From Her to Eternity (Cave 1984), ‘Black Crow King’ and ‘Knockin’ onj Joe’ in The First Born is Dead (Cave 1985), ‘Long Black Veil’ from Kicking Against the Pricks (Cave 1986a), ‘Mercy Seat’, ‘Up Jumped the Devil’ and ‘Mercy’ in Tender Prey (Cave 1988).

[2] ‘Stranger Than Kindness’ from Your Funeral … My Trial (Cave 1986b), ‘Jangling Jack’ and ‘Lay Me Low’ from Let Love In (Cave 1994).

[3] We also find this tone in ‘Saint Huck’ in From Her to Eternity (Cave 1984).

[4] So also in ‘Jangling Jack’ from Let Love In (Cave 1994), apocalyptic creeps in as Jack is killed by the barman as he goes for a drink: ‘He sees the berserk city / Sees the dead stacked in piles / Sees the screaming crowd.’

[5] See also ‘Stranger Than Kindness’ in Your Funeral … My Trial, in which memory is held by one, the survivor of a toxic love affair.

[6] As does the quicksand in ‘Swampland’ from Mutiny – The Bad Seed (Cave 1989b).

Looking forward to the deaths of Marx and Engels – again

The first time it was a little sad and poignant – reading through the 50 volumes of the Collected Works (I got them cheaply via a dodgy deal in California). When Marx died from pure exhaustion and, some years later, the ever-exuberant and priapic Engels finally succumbed to throat cancer at 75 from a lifetime of fine tobacco and good beer and wine, I was in a melancholy mood. The second time was when I finished the long manuscript of Criticism of Earth, the third when I completed a thorough revision of this 450 page tome. By this time I had a distinct feeling of deja vu.

But now, running through 58 years of writings by Engels and 50 years by Marx, in both English and German (and all the other fucking languages in which they wrote – Engels seemed to spout them off with no trouble), I wish they would fucking hurry up and fucking die.