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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Petition for Verso to publish English translation of Losurdo’s Stalin book

Verso Books has initially refused to publish an English translation of Domenico Losurdo’s book on Stalin, even though they have published other works by him. Those who know the press will not be surprised by this. However, a petition is underway to get Verso to change its opinion. You can find the petition here.

Please sign the petition!

 

Losurdo’s new book on Western Marxism

Recently published is a new book by the stakhanovite, Domenico Losurdo, called: Western Marxism: How It Was Born, How It Died and How It Can Rise Again.

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The brief description (found here) reads:

Western Marxism was afflicted by a sort of myopia: it didn’t realize that the wind of the revolution was blowing  from Russia to China and the Third World, joining with the national revolutions against Western imperialism.

There was a time when Marxism was an obligatory point of reference for any philosophical and political debate: those years saw the biggest victories for ‘Western Marxism’, which presented itself in stark contrast to its Eastern counterpart, accused of being a state ideology that propped up ‘Socialist’ regimes in Eastern Europe and Asia. Although at first the October revolution was viewed with hope, 20th century Communism contributed to the disintegration of the global colonial complex rather than creating a radically new social system. An extraordinary result that Western Marxism failed adequately to understand or appreciate. Hence its crisis and collapse. If it is to be revived, it must examine the anticolonial revolution and answer three key questions: What has the global anticolonial uprising meant in terms of freedom and emancipation? How is the clash between colonialism and anticolonialism played out today? What relationship was there between the anticolonial and anticapitalist struggles?

Losurdo puts these questions to the great authors of the 20th century – Bloch, Lukács, Adorno and Foucault – and of today – Agamben, Badiou and Žižek – in a heated debate that combines historical reconstruction and philosophical enquiry.

Exactly! For it was the Soviet Union that developed a thoroughly anti-colonial policy (arising from its ‘affirmation action’ nationalities policy). This policy enabled arms, personnel and know-how to support most of the anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century as part of the global undermining of imperialist capitalism. Indeed, what is now called ‘post-colonialism’ could not have arisen – temporally and theoretically – without the anti-colonial theory and practice developed in the Soviet Union (especially by you-know-who).

Trending in China today: International Conference on Chinese Marxism

I continue to be impressed by the efficiency of Chinese ways of doing things. There is a long history of managing to get things done in the country with the largest population in the world. Today was no exception. By lunchtime, news was already doing the rounds about our conference on ‘The International Horizon of Chinese Marxist Discourse’, a project funded by the wise people at the Centre for Studies of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.

A detailed report can be found on The Chinese Social Sciences Net, as well as other locations and propaganda for the conference. We had representatives from the Academy of Marxism present (where I also have close connections, as you can see here), the Centre for the Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, and – obviously – the press. The conference room was filled to capacity, with many having to stand until extra chairs were found.

A few photos from the all-important opening ceremony:

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But I must admit that in the midst of all the papers and discussion – really the first step in a longer project – I am thrilled to meet and engage with Italy’s leading Marxist philosopher, Domenico Losurdo, whom I invited to the conference:

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Losurdo on Stalin: A Review

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Domenico Losurdo’s 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 the 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 than 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 becomes 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 satisfaction 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. To 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: http://domenicolosurdopresentazazing.blogspot.com.au.

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

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

Lenin for today: on liberty, bourgeois democracy and colonialism

I have come across a magnificent piece by Domenico Losurdo, called ‘Lenin and Herrenvolk Democracy’. Here Losurdo deploys Lenin’s critique of colonialism and Western’ democracy’ to devastating effect. Let me pick out some of the more salient points.

To begin with, in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, we find that ‘despotism is a legitimate mode of dealing with barbarians’, for liberty is only for ‘those in the maturity of their faculties’. As for the rest, they are little superior to the animals. (This is precisely the sentiment of Aristotle in relation to ethics and democracy.) In other words, liberal ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are inseparable from oppression and dispossession; one relies on the other to function.

Losurdo moves on to consider a paradox in the heart of today’s beacon of ‘democracy’ and ‘liberty’: liberal democracy developed in the white community in direct relation to the enslaving of blacks and deportation of indigenous peoples. ‘For thirty-two of the first thirty-six years of the United States’ life, slave-owners held the presidency, and they were the ones who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution’. Indeed, one cannot understand ‘American liberty’ without slavery and dispossession, for they grew together, one sustaining the other. As a further example, during the so-called ‘Progressive Age’, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, numerous ‘democratic’ reforms took place: direct election to the Senate, secret vote, primaries, referenda etc. They all took place during a rise in ferocity of the Ku Klux Klan terrorist squads and a push to deprive indigenous people of their residual lands and assimilate them. So also with the treatment of ‘rogues’ or ‘pariahs’ outside the USA (‘rogue’ was originally a term used for slaves, and when one had white semi-slaves, they were branded with an ‘R’ to signify their status): once declared a ‘rogue’ or ‘pariah’ state, the ‘world’s oldest democracy’ (Clinton) and ‘model for the world’ (Bush) can crush these ‘barbarians’ (Mill) in order to bolster ‘freedom and democracy’.

One might also compare Israel, suggests Losurdo, supposedly the only ‘true democracy’ in the Middle East, where ‘freedom of expression and association’ exist. But that can be maintained only by ignoring a macroscopic detail: ‘government by law and democratic guarantees are valid only for the master race, while Palestinians can have their lands expropriated, be arrested and imprisoned without process, tortured, killed, and, in any case under a regime of military occupation, have their human dignity downtrodden and humiliated daily’.

And then in a new twist, when fading colonial powers are losing their grip, they suddenly happen upon self-determination for valuable sections of the former colony (which have themselves been ethnically, culturally and religiously engineered). Thus, when England finally had to give Hong Kong back to China, the last governer, Chris Patten, ‘had a species of illumination and improvised conversion: he appealed to the inhabitants of Hong Kong to claim their right to “self-determination” against the motherland, thereby remaining within the orbit of the British Empire’. One might say the same about claims for Tibet’s independence.

Finally, to what do the oft-repeated and much-vaunted claims for ‘human rights’, ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ amount? Losurdo deploys Cecil Rhodes’s formula for the British Empire, which is still perfectly valid today: ‘philanthropy + 5 per cent’, where ‘philanthropy’ is synomous with ‘human rights’ and 5 per cent the profits to be made by waving the flag of ‘human rights’.

Many of these details are reasonably well-known, but the argument is usually one of hypocrisy: they don’t live up to their ideals. But Losurdo, developing Lenin, has a much sharper point. The very possibility of bourgeois ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ is directly dependent upon, and thereby unthinkable and unworkable without, systemic dispossession of the majority – and vice versa.