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Eastern Light on Western Marxism* David Broder

Domenico Losurdo, Il marxismo occidentale: Come nacque, come morì, come può rinascere, Editori Laterza: Bari 2017, 220 pp.

The subtitle of Domenico Losurdo’s book promises an investigation into ‘how Western Marxism was born, how it died and how it can be reborn’. [1] Leafing through its pages, however, we would be hard pressed to find any trace of calls for Western Marxism’s ‘rebirth’. Losurdo prefers to assume the stance of a doctor faced with an ailing patient, telling the worried relatives why they may as well turn off the life support. The book’s combative tone will come as no surprise to readers of Losurdo’s work so far available in English. This is a library that extends from a critique of Heidegger and the Ideology of War (2001) through Hegel and the Freedom of the Moderns (2004), to Liberalism: A Counter-History (2011), War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century (2014) and Non-Violence: A History Beyond the Myth (2017), with an intellectual biography of Nietzsche: The Aristocratic Rebel due to appear early next year. These form only a small part of Losurdo’s prodigious output in his native language, which comprises some thirty-five books and numerous co-authored volumes, making him one of the most prolific Italian thinkers of his generation. Holder of a chair in the history of philosophy at Urbino, few have rivalled his combination of energy and erudition. Born in 1941 near Bari, he belongs to the generation radicalized in the sixties, when he was a youthful militant in the small wing of Italian communism that rallied to Chinese positions in the Sino-Soviet dispute and hailed the Cultural Revolution, before splitting into different groups that faded away after the death of Mao in 1976. In the eighties he was a contributor to the pages of the PCI’s daily l’Unità, and became a member of the party. When it abandoned its name in 1991, he threw in his lot with those who left it to create Rifondazione Comunista, in turn reduced to a wraith after its participation in the Prodi government of 2006–08. Since 2016 he has joined the attempt to recreate a second PCI, under the party’s old name, an organization currently claiming some 12,000 members.

Il marxismo occidentale offers, without question, an original construction of its subject. Losurdo’s key move is to contrast ‘Western Marxism’ systematically with an ‘Eastern Marxism’, presented as its productive antithesis. The Western variant, Losurdo agrees with other accounts, was born out of a reaction against the slaughter of the First World War, and the magnetism of the revolution in Russia. The outlook of its earliest thinkers—Bloch, Lukács, Benjamin—was, however, from the outset impregnated with a set of themes that went back to the anarchism of Bakunin’s time: notably a hostility to science, associated with capitalism, and to the state of any kind, associated with tyranny. To these it added a messianic streak of eschatological expectation, inherited from a judeo-christian past, that looked forward to salvation for humanity in communism, conceived as the proximate coming of a classless society in which money and the state would disappear. Such utopian hopes vested in a beleaguered USSR were bound to be disappointed. The Western Marxism they generated, unable to come to terms with the realities of building a state capable of withstanding the pressures of imperialism, was condemned to impotence and involution. The ensuing theoretical and political blindness had its roots in the formative reaction of the generation of 1914 to the catastrophe of the Great War itself, which instilled in them a detestation of nationalism, held responsible for the mutual massacre of the peoples of Europe, an aversion to technology which had enabled killing on an industrial scale, and a simplistic belief that the path to socialism could therefore come from class struggle alone.

The outlook of what crystallized as Eastern Marxism after the October Revolution was altogether distinct. In Europe, the collapse of the masses into chauvinism, Social Democracy’s betrayal on 4 August, and the splintering of the Second International led Western Marxists to see the Russian Revolution as the antidote to this scourge, and to hope for a general overcoming of ‘social patriotism’ with a rapid spread of proletarian revolution across the continent. Even when this failed to materialize, the European Left remained imbued with a strong anti-militarist and—in Losurdo’s term—‘anarchoid’ contempt for the nation. In Asia, on the other hand, World War I was not the unique cataclysm it was in Europe. For Chinese or Vietnamese revolutionaries, as Ho Chi Minh pointed out, colonial blood-letting had long predated 1914; if anything, the Great War had weakened the grip of European empires on the peoples of Asia. For them, the appeal of the Russian Revolution lay not in the image of an ‘anti-war’ or ‘anti-national’ revolt but, on the contrary, in its ‘national’ inspiration for an anti-imperialist struggle. In 1919–21, the Bolshevik-led state had proved able through its own resources to free itself from the imperialist powers who attempted to subdue it. It was this that allowed the Soviet Union and the new Communist International to win not only the allegiance of Ho—who explained that ‘what first drove me to believe in Lenin and the Third International was not communism but patriotism’—but even the favour of non-Marxist yet anti-colonial militants such as Sun Yat-sen. So, too, for Eastern Marxism there could be no question of any hostility to science or to the state. Asian struggles for national liberation urgently required the use of science, to build both a modern economy capable of lifting the masses from misery and a strong state able to defend the independence of the nation from foreign attack. Eastern Marxists had no illusion that a socialist revolution could deliver all this overnight. Far more people had died during the Taiping Rebellion in China than on all sides of the Great War in Europe, inoculating revolutionaries against any such messianism, and preparing them in advance for decades of the harshest struggle first to win power, and then to consolidate it with the creation of a powerful state capable of fending off imperialist counter-revolution.

In Russia the Bolsheviks were initially infused with still greater political expectancy than Marxists in the West, believing that they were merely erecting a bridgehead for revolution in the advanced industrial societies of Europe, and even briefly experimenting with a barter economy under War Communism. But sobriety soon prevailed, as the hard task of building socialism in one country, with maximum use of scientific knowledge and modern technology, to develop the economy and arm the state against invasion, took over. This was a fundamental alteration. But if the needle of the compass could swing as it did, it was because Lenin had insisted throughout his career, and never more sharply than during the First World War, that revolutions of national liberation in colonized countries were inseparable from those against capital in colonial states—as early as 1913, he was writing of ‘Backward Europe and Advanced Asia’. When the Second World War began, and Operation Barbarossa launched Hitler’s bid to enslave the peoples of the USSR, the battles to defeat the Wehrmacht in Russia and the Imperial Army in China resulted in victory for the Red Army and the PLA over the colonizing assaults of Germany and Japan.

With this epochal development Western Marxism, a left-wing sensibility born of the failure of revolution to spread across Europe after 1917, never came to terms. Defeats in Germany, Italy, Hungary and Austria impacted not ‘socialism in one country’, which continued to build up its strength, but European currents now detached from any real process of construction. The Soviet experience initiated a worldwide anti-colonial revolution, while Eurocentric tendencies became marginalized. Where the Eastern Marxists took seriously the problems of building socialist states and defending them militarily, their counterparts in the West could at most appreciate revolutionary experiences in a messianic mood, supporting Eastern revolutions at their initial moment of seizing power, then finding distasteful the decisions necessary to protect them from internal subversion and foreign attack. Judging the real achievements of the Soviet Union by an unfair standard that lay beyond the material possibilities of the time, they then failed to see that, rather than being an embodiment of their own visions of a grand resolution of all differences, the Soviet Union was bedeviled by poverty, the masses’ low cultural level and the difficult tasks of stabilizing itself in the face of foreign encirclement.

Utopian hopes nowhere realized soon collapsed into claims of dystopia, charges of ‘totalitarianism’—epitomizing the divorce of Western Marxists from ongoing historical processes—and complacent basking in assurance of the cultural superiority of their own societies. What they could never grasp was that the objective developments of world history had perforce given priority to anti-imperialist over anti-capitalist struggles, national over class contradictions, even if these fused wherever communist parties gained leadership of the cause. In Europe, one outstanding figure alone understood the significance of the anti-colonial revolutions. That was Palmiro Togliatti in Italy. By contrast, the record of Western Marxism became one of continuing ignorance, indifference or dismissal of the momentous transformations of the world outside Europe, culminating in the twenty-first century in outright approval of imperialist interventions to set the clock back in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

In this Manichean narrative, there is an obvious initial weakness to Losurdo’s framework. The gap between aspiration and reality for which he blames the emergence of Western Marxism emanated directly from Bolshevik conceptions of the October Revolution. Their seizure of power was followed by an outpouring of grand designs for a new society. Bolshevik leaders married the rationalizing imaginary of Looking Backward with the more libertarian aspirations of a democratic, cultural and sexual revolution. Telling was Lenin’s vision of the new state’s tasks through the prism of the Paris Commune, rushing out progressive social legislation to lay down a ‘marker’ even if the revolution might fail in months. This impetus was governed by Lenin’s own European perspective, the intention to ignite revolutionary upheavals in the West that would save the young Soviet republic from isolation. When these did not come, Bolshevik ambitions were adjusted. But if state-building and industrial development became the immediate priority, that in no way meant nation therefore came before class, an idea unthinkable for Lenin. Where after his death such a conception did come to pass, it famously led to disaster when Stalin forced the Chinese Communists to subordinate themselves to the Nationalists in 1926–27, only to be crushed with the massacre in Shanghai, after which the CCP had to be rebuilt by Mao on a different basis in Jiangsi. Serving essentially as a foil with which to condemn Western Marxism, in Losurdo’s construction Eastern Marxism becomes an undifferentiated bloc where such contradictions are inevitably flattened out.

But whatever the faults of its framing device, these pale beside the deficiencies, to put it no stronger, of the substance of Il marxismo occidentale: its account of Western Marxism itself. Here, after opening with a description of Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism as a celebration of the excellence of its subject, promising ‘a new and brilliant life’ to it, Losurdo passes in review Lukács, Bloch, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Sartre, Althusser, Della Volpe, Colletti, Badiou, Žižek, Hardt–Negri, not to speak of Foucault and Agamben. The initial move is an index of the accuracy of what follows. Considerations delivered an admiring, but ‘limiting judgement’ of its subject, concluding that ‘Western Marxism was less than Marxism to the extent that it was Western’, and calling for a break beyond it, with recovery of the ways and concerns of a Marxism of more classical stamp. Unlike its predecessor, Il marxismo occidentale does not examine in detail the work of any of the thinkers it deals with, or attempt to trace the thematic commonalities linking them as a canon. It proceeds instead by brief, decontextualized use of single phrases or sentences, at most a paragraph or so, extracted to press home a generic indictment of utopian idealism and oblivious Eurocentrism. The result is so loose that its evidence is book-ended at the story’s outset by thinkers who were not Marxists at the time of writing—Bloch and Lukács before the October Revolution—and at the end by thinkers who never considered themselves Marxists—Arendt and Agamben—or were even, like Foucault, vehemently hostile to Marxism. All are grist to the same mill. None are considered in their own right, but simply as illustrations of Losurdo’s strained construction.

In this, Bloch has pride of place, earning more references than any other figure. But since these come overwhelmingly from the first edition of his Spirit of Utopia, published in 1918 before his conversion to Marxism—three times as many as from the second, issued after it in 1923—they have little bearing on Losurdo’s nominal subject. That Bloch always conceived of himself as a utopian thinker, if subsequently a materialist one, is no secret. But after 1923 he was in no way anti-Soviet, indeed the very opposite, so supportive of the construction of a socialist state in the thirties that he defended the Moscow Trials and after 1945 chose to return from exile to East rather than West Germany. Lukács, from whom Losurdo selects a text from 1914 to demonstrate his Fichtean belief that he was living in an ‘age of absolute sinfulness’, and another from 1915 to show that he considered any state to be an ‘organized tuberculosis’, became so convinced a revolutionary Marxist that as early as 1924—as Losurdo grudgingly admits later on—he was the first anywhere to produce a lucid synthesis of Lenin’s thought, giving its orientation to anti-colonial revolutions in Asia full emphasis, and for the rest of his life remained a loyal Communist, first in Moscow and then in Budapest. Benjamin, presented too largely via pre-Marxist fragments, was a fascinated visitor to Moscow in the twenties, attracted by the modern urban-industrial experimentation of the first decade after the revolution, and an interlocutor and friend of Brecht, who like Bloch attached such value to socialist construction that he returned to East Germany after the war. Another friend of Brecht’s in the thirties, Karl Korsch—usually considered a key figure in the emergence of a distinctive Western Marxism—fits Losurdo’s identikit so poorly that he is omitted from Il marxismo occidentale altogether.

The Frankfurt School, with no links to the Communist movement, offers more promising material for Losurdo’s case. Horkheimer in particular, on returning to West Germany after the war, often expressed just the contempt and fear of anti-colonial revolutions, and Cold War aversion to the Soviet Union, that Losurdo ascribes to Western Marxism as a whole. But in a typical move, ignoring the trajectory of any of his thinkers over time, he links a Horkheimer text of 1942 noting the obvious fact that the state had not withered away in Russia with one of 1967 complaining that Marxism was being used as an ideology in Eastern countries to overcome the industrial advantages of the West—treating the first as a regret the Führer would have shared (‘Hitler would, in his own way, have felt the same anger and frustration’), and the second as complicit with a war on Vietnam that Horkheimer all but supported. A decade earlier, however, the two were discussing the production of what Adorno called ‘a strictly Leninist manifesto’, envisaging the prospect that ‘under the banner of Marxism, the East might overtake Western civilization’, marking ‘a shift in the entire dynamics of world history’ and adding: ‘We cannot call for the defence of the West.’ As for Marcuse, far from dismissing Soviet Marxism, he wrote a respectful book about it, and still further from scorning anti-colonial revolutions, celebrated them, supporting in particular the struggle of the Vietnamese against American imperial attack. Losurdo is reduced to complaining that he nevertheless doubted whether the kind of society they could build would offer a plausible alternative to the rich countries of the West, and that neither Bloch nor the Frankfurt School condemned the Israeli blitzkrieg of 1967—at one point equating Adorno’s outlook in the fifties with Eden of the Suez expedition.

Determined to find fault even where candidates for it by no stretch of the imagination match his picture of Western Marxism, how does Losurdo deal with two thinkers who shared his own attachment to the Chinese revolution and the Eastern Marxism of Mao Zedong? Althusser, he concedes, may have looked to the Cultural Revolution for inspiration, but in criticizing humanism he undermined the values of universality on which the revolt of the colonial peoples against their oppression and discrimination by a racist West depended. Badiou too, though he rightly denounced the events of 1989–91 as a Second Restoration, fell into the error of accepting a division between the values of freedom and of justice, and in scanting the first at the expense of the second, simply inverted the order given them by Isaiah Berlin. Timpanaro and Sartre might be unimpeachable on the score of support for anti-colonial revolutions, but the former had no understanding of the nation, or of the need for tactical adjustments in building a post-capitalist economy, while the latter—notwithstanding his passionate presentation of Fanon—conceived struggles for national liberation in subjective-idealist style in terms of political action only, sidelining the necessary economic action of building an independent state—a task that could not be accomplished by the insurrectionary ‘fused groups’ of his Critique of Dialectical Reason. David Harvey, on the other hand, saw only inter-imperialist conflicts in the first half of the twentieth century and a revival of them in the beginning of the twenty-first, without any sense of the revolts against imperialism that were the more significant mark of each.

Italian thinkers fare no better. Della Volpe, and following him Colletti during his days in the PCI, wrongly counterposed the libertas maior of the socio-economic freedoms brought by socialism to the libertas minor of the civic freedoms proclaimed by liberalism—as if these were truly such, rather than contaminated by a long history of slavery and colonial oppression (about the revolt against which neither had anything to say), instead of insisting, as Togliatti had done, that formal political freedoms, denied to most of humanity by a barbarous discrimination against them, were integral to socialism itself. As for native traditions of operaismo, Tronti boasted of his vaccination against any Third Worldism and exalted the suppression of work, while Negri and his fellow-thinker Hardt condemned the emergence of any independent nation-state as the poisoned fruit of anti-colonial struggle, denied the existence of any latter-day imperialism, and presented such an idyllic image of the American Revolution that even a Huntington was more realistic about it. To the oppressed they offered, instead of a hard, sober battle for emancipation, a modern apocatastasis in the form of a future world of ‘love and innocence’. There could be no more graphic exposure of the basic malaise of the contemporary left, its inability to grapple with the question of power. Seeing power everywhere à la Foucault, ‘transforming power into love’ or ‘changing the world without taking power’ (Holloway) were all so much idle phrasemongering: symptoms of Western Marxism’s eschatology of the future rather than engagement with the present in front of it.

Il marxismo occidentale, presenting Western Marxism as a surfeit of utopianism over constructive efforts to build socialism, assembles a catalogue of arrogant, colour-blind Eurocentrism incapable of acknowledging the world-historical achievements of Eastern Marxism. Historically, few if any of the figures lined up for identification—the later Negri might be considered an exception—fit the police description (even if on other grounds a fashion-plate like Foucault might warrant intellectual arrest). Two of the most striking examples of why they do not, bear precisely on Losurdo’s concerns. In the European left that was radicalized by it, the First World War inspired a belief that there were no more intermediate stages on the path to a new society beyond capital, and Lenin too considered that the war heralded the end of imperialism as the ‘highest stage’ of capitalism. Yet during the war, prompted not least by the Easter Rising in Ireland, Lenin came increasingly to emphasize the specifically anti-colonial fronts of world-wide struggle against the Western bourgeoisie, arguing for the impossibility of a ‘pure social revolution’ opposing two unmediated representations of revolution and counter-revolution against each other. Any real revolution would inevitably be more mixed in its causes and components than that. Losurdo rightly draws attention to this change in his outlook, which after October took programmatic form at the Congress of the Peoples of the East, with ‘increased headway for the understanding that the class struggle is not only the struggle of proletarians in the capitalist metropolis, but also that conducted by the oppressed peoples in the colonies and semi-colonies’. The call, ‘workers and oppressed peoples of the world, unite!’ embodied the Soviet state’s recognition of the colonial question and the new alliances that had to be formed around it. What Losurdo ignores, however, is that it was one of his polemical targets who first grasped the full effect of Lenin’s insight, and rendered it into a theoretical principle of general political application, East and West—Althusser in his famous essay on ‘Contradiction and Over-Determination’, which among other things drew directly on Mao’s writing too.

An equally, perhaps even more, conspicuous case is the thinker of whom Althusser came to figure as the antithesis, Jean-Paul Sartre. Losurdo, conceding his anti-colonial credentials, minimizes them by confining his treatment of these to Sartre’s preface to Fanon, and contending that he was interested only in the overthrow of colonial rule, not the construction of a post-colonial order. In reality, Sartre’s record of theoretical and practical solidarity with anti-imperialist struggles was unmatched in the ranks of Western Marxism, extending far beyond his preface to Fanon, with texts on Indochina, Algeria, the Congo and Cuba, and in no way confined just to the moment of overthrow, as a glance at his writing on Cuba would show. Nor was his concern with Losurdo’s problematic restricted to the Third World. From his 1956 essay on ‘The Ghost of Stalin’ to the second volume of his Critique of Dialectical Reason, the tasks and tensions of building ‘socialism in one country’ in an environment of scarcity were a central preoccupation of his thought as a Marxist. To suggest that Togliatti was his superior in anti-colonial insight, or understanding of the sociological bases of the ‘cult of personality’, is the height of absurdity. It is enough to compare Togliatti’s lame reflections on the latter in his Nuovi Argomenti interview of 1956 with Sartre’s diagnosis of the same year to see the difference between the two. As for anti-colonialism, the sum total of Losurdo’s claims for Togliatti consists in a single phrase in an exchange with Bobbio of 1954, which he has to repeat three times across the book for want of anything more substantial than this scrap. As it happens, Togliatti’s record in this area was by no means unstained. In 1935, under his leadership, the PCI journal in exile had explained that Mussolini’s war in Abyssinia was a mistake because Italy’s ‘legitimate territorial interests’ lay in the Balkans rather than Africa. That Italy was deprived of its colonies after 1945 saved the party from the performance of the PCF. But it would be difficult to argue that struggles against imperialism in the Mediterranean or elsewhere ever ranked very high on its agenda. Togliatti’s dicta bear no comparison with Sartre’s writing on the subject.

Losurdo’s cavalier handling of the record of so many Western Marxists on colonial revolt and post-colonial state-building in the East is the most visible weakness of his case. Behind it, however, lies a larger one. At no point in Il marxismo occidentale is there any acknowledgment of the extent to which Western Marxism embodied an attempt to think through the political and cultural mediations of bourgeois democracy and how to confront them, one that continues to be of immediate relevance. Yet manifestly the idea that socialist strategy must take different forms in capitalist democracies than in autocratic feudal or semi-colonial states like Russia in 1917 or China in 1949 involved no rejection of political practice. The absence from the book’s pages of Gramsci—who sought systematically to reflect on these differences, and the closeness of whose political and intellectual starting-points to Lukács or Korsch during and after the First World War is well attested—is thus glaring. The shadow of the issues he raised does, however fall across the book, if in a way that points up the contradictions in Losurdo’s own outlook.

Contrasted with Western Marxism throughout is the iconic figure of Togliatti, a Communist leader at once staunchly loyal to the construction of socialism in the Soviet Union, and strategist of a national road to socialism, whom Losurdo implies was a beacon of Eastern Marxism within advanced capitalism itself. The keystone of this construction is the ‘Salerno Turn’ of March–April 1944. In ordering Togliatti to bring the PCI into the Badoglio government, formed after the flight of the King and his ministers from Rome to refuge with Anglo-American forces in the Mezzogiorno, Stalin emphasized the anti-imperialist intentions behind this move. With the country falling into the Western sphere of influence, a ‘strong Italy with a strong army’ would be a thorn in the Americans’ side. Within Party ranks, the move was in part justified on this basis. The unity of Italians was not a concession to the Right, nor was it just a move to strengthen the fight against Nazi Germany. It was also a bid to free Italy of the emerging Western Bloc.

This was a strategy that fits nicely into Losurdo’s framework, given his extremely expansive conception of what ‘colonialism’ could mean. Drawing on a remark of Lenin’s in 1916 that the Great War could result in a ‘Napoleonic-style subjugation’ of Europe by Germany, he argues that even the most industrialized countries could become (semi) colonies, and that this was in effect what happened to France in 1940 and in Italy after 1943—nations in which the lessons of the anti-colonial struggle in the East could now be applied. Nazi Germany had drawn on Europe’s long history of colonization and turned it back onto the continent itself; the Resistance movements in these countries were thus, in their own way, part of the anti-colonial struggle so central to any understanding of the twentieth century. After expelling the German occupation of North-Central Italy, the task of the PCI was to keep an Anglo-American take-over of the country at bay. This view of the period raises to the PCI’s guiding principle a focus on bloc confrontation little associated with more familiar sympathetic treatments of its tradition. There is no doubt, however, that the Salerno Turn was in good part governed by the looming Cold War divide of Europe, and that this consideration helped ease its path through Party ranks.

More than just compatible with Soviet foreign policy, Togliatti’s strategy was thus heavily shaped by it. Always considering the USSR and later People’s Democracies to be socialist societies, from his adherence to the Third Period class-against-class line to the Popular Frontism of the Salerno Turn, he never clashed with Stalin during his lifetime, nor developed his ‘Italian road to socialism’ in angular counterposition to the ‘Soviet model’, or as a critique of it. Yet his political approach clearly internalized a certain critical conception of the Soviet experience and its non-applicability in Italy. The initial turn may have been Stalin-directed, but the PCI’s ‘national’ policy also expanded into a much wider conception of how an Italian socialism could come about. Indeed, this was Togliatti’s specific contribution to Marxism, and the heart of his political practice. He insisted that the Italian party would not follow the model of 1917, proposing instead a gradual advance of ‘progressive democracy’, relying on broad alliances with other social classes, and—in order for that even to be possible—the weakening of bloc dynamics in Italy.

In the design of Il marxismo occidentale, this element in Togliatti’s thinking is elided. Although Losurdo credits Togliatti with attention to libertas minor in general, overall veneration for him rests on Togliatti’s emphasis on the national question, detached from any focus on democracy or Italian ‘diversity’. What explains the discrepancy? In all probability the answer lies in the difficulty that Togliatti’s inheritance poses for Losurdo and those around him. For what became of the PCI and its strategy in the years after his death? Under Berlinguer, the party rallied to NATO—which Togliatti had fought to keep Italy out of—saying it felt safer within it, and declared the legacy of the October Revolution exhausted, to be replaced by the fresher principles of Eurocommunism. How does Losurdo treat these? He begins his fourth chapter on the ‘triumph and death’ of Western Marxism by presenting Eurocommunism as its end point, the ‘maturation’ of a long process that had begun with the rejection by reformists like Turati of the Russian Revolution. The culmination of Western Marxism, Eurocommunism was now a simple affirmation of the ‘religion of the West: ex Occidente lux et salus!’ After this summary dismissal, a verdict apparently delivering the coup de grâce to the entire canon of Western Marxism, Losurdo abruptly changes the subject. Briefly noting that a long history of constitutionalism distinguished Western European countries from Tsarist Russia or semi-colonies in Asia, he quickly pivots to further reminders of the Orientalist essentialism of Horkheimer, Kautsky, Žižek et al., without a single further reference to Eurocommunism in the rest of the book.


The silence is the sign of an understandable embarrassment. For the ‘second’ PCI of today to which Losurdo belongs harks back explicitly to both Togliatti and Berlinguer—lamenting the dissolution of the former’s Communist party into a brazenly neoliberal organization of enthusiasts for the United States, yet unable to repudiate the latter, regarded as the last great leader of the party, yet whose efforts to distance it from the USSR pushed it towards its ultimate collapse. For Losurdo, Eurocommunism is the epitome of Eurocentrism. But how was it to be cleanly separated from the ‘Italian road to socialism’ of Togliatti’s making, which its exponents regularly invoked as its ancestry? After all, was not Berlinguer’s Historic Compromise with Christian Democracy consistent with Togliatti’s consecration of the Lateran Pact with the Vatican? Perhaps most pointedly of all, what is to be made of the blistering Chinese attack on Togliatti, pilloried for ‘replacing class struggle with class collaboration’ in the CCP’s Open Letter of 1963—the authoritative voice of Eastern Marxism treating him as no better than Losurdo’s portrait of Western Marxism? Questions like these are too close for comfort. It is better to hurry past them.

In side-stepping the issues posed for Marxists by a strategy in the West, in favour of berating them for indifference to the problems of the East, Losurdo also avoids the question of how the Communist Parties in European countries could themselves relate to these problems. In his own terms, the divide between ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ Marxism was a struggle for recognition between two subjects that each challenged capitalism-imperialism: the working class, or entire nations in battle against colonialism. Their unity was possible, but could never be taken as given. In the twentieth century, how was it to be realized? It is one thing to suggest that critics in the West had no standing with which to dismiss the vast and difficult efforts at social transformation in the East. But if Marxists in Europe or the United States did recognize the anti-colonial revolt as the greatest event of the twentieth century, how would this affect their own conception of socialism? Were these states models for their own activity? Today, not only Cubans and Palestinians are orphans of the Soviet experience. The attempt to define a communist politics was always easier when the USSR was there: Marxists could either identify with it, define themselves against its failure, or recognize its achievements, while also understanding that it was not simply a model to be reproduced. After its collapse, this third option seems the most likely way to learn from its history. This was what Togliatti at least attempted, however the outcome of his endeavour is judged.

That Losurdo is more sensitive to these issues than might be thought from a reading of Il marxismo occidentale can be seen from the body of his writing as a whole. Two striking texts stand out from the nineties, which give a more powerful and rounded account of his vision of the time. In early 1992, after the PCI had dissolved itself and those who exited to its left had created Rifondazione Comunista, Losurdo and two colleagues at Urbino organized a colloquium on ‘Gramsci and Italy’. At this he argued that Gramsci had been a leader and a thinker who lived through a tragic defeat of the workers’ movement, dying when fascism was still triumphant over it. Forced to abandon any hope of a rapid revolutionary palingenesis, in prison he applied himself to a deeper historical analysis of social and political transformations under way over the longue durée. Though he shared the revolt against positivism that marked the revolutionary generation of 1914–18, he was free from any trace of a hostility to science or messianic outlook, having internalized far better than Lukács, Bloch or anyone else of his cohort Marx’s dialectical grasp of modernity—capitalism as indivisibly an engine of progress and exploitation, the bourgeoisie at once bearer of enlightenment and agent of destruction. From the outset, as Marx and Engels had seen, modernity thus required a balance between recognition of its legitimacy and necessity of its critique. The First World War had put that understanding to a far more cruel test than anything the founders of Marxism had witnessed. Reacting against it, horrified critique became overwhelming in Lukács and Bloch, in a trend that was especially marked in Germany, where the Great War could take on the aspect of a repeat of the catastrophe of the Thirty Years’ War. For them, it was only when salvation came with the October Revolution that modernity was redeemed. Twenty years later, in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, modernity stood more radically condemned—the Soviet Union too becoming one of the exhibits of the catastrophe it brought, along with reason itself. Nor was loss of balance confined to Western intellectuals like these. The Bolsheviks suffered their own variant of it, transmitted to the later Lukács. With them it took the form of a conviction that capitalism as an economic system, along with bourgeois culture at large, had run its course by 1918, when Lenin pronounced it incapable of any further growth in the forces of production. This was a view still replicated by Stalin in the fifties, and scarcely modified by the notion of ‘late’ capitalism propagated in the DDR and elsewhere. The two keywords of this tradition were ‘decadence’ and ‘decay’—a system rotting from within, its culture in irreversible decline, charted by Lukács right back to 1848.

Gramsci rejected all of this. His objective situation differed, in that Italy was not at the centre of the First World War as were Germany and Russia, and the country had a tradition of liberal thought that actively engaged with the work of Marx, which they did not. For him modernity was a fundamental achievement of capitalism, of which communism would be not the liquidation but the consummation. Its greatest intellectual expression had been the philosophy of Hegel, which the task of historical materialism was to reform and develop. That meant integrating and superseding, rather than discarding, the most advanced bequests of the bourgeoisie, making the full agenda of liberalism the minimum programme of socialism. The Great War and the victory of fascism were terrible setbacks for humanity. But they did not warrant conclusions of any irremediable decadence or decay of the established order. In France, bourgeois political power had remained stable for sixty years after the Commune; in America the economic and social dynamic of Fordism was far from exhausted; in Italy the philosophy of Croce was no dead dog. Marxists had to measure themselves against these, not bury their heads in the sand in hope that the Slump would swiftly put an end to the civilization of capital, whose supersession could take centuries. As Losurdo memorably puts it, Gramsci refused to ‘read modern history as a treatise in teratology’. It had produced monsters, but could not be reduced to them. The real was rational, as Hegel had argued. The task of inheritance remained. Such was the way Marxists today, confronting a new and disastrous defeat with the extinction of the USSR, should view the experience of ‘actually existing socialism’, notwithstanding ‘the errors, the colossal mystifications and horrors’ that ran through it. Gramsci had insisted on the need to preserve and develop the high points of the French Revolution. The legacy of the October Revolution was to be taken in the same spirit.

On the threshold of the new century, Losurdo set out his balance-sheet of it in a short book pointedly entitled Fuga dalla storia? Il movimento comunista tra autocritica e autophobia (1999)—‘Flight from History? The Communist Movement Between Self-Criticism and Self-Hatred’. By this time strident renegacies were common in Italy, former leaders and intellectuals of the PCI declaring their utmost admiration for Clinton and all that was made in the USA. Even among those who still called themselves communists, in Rifondazione and out of it, not a few were rending their clothes and repudiating the whole of a past to which they had once belonged. ‘To the triumphant narcissism of the victors’ there now corresponded a ‘self-flagellation of the vanquished’. But self-hatred, which could only lead to capitulation across the board, was the antithesis of self-criticism, and the fight against it would be all the more effective, the more radically and uninhibitedly critical the balance-sheet was drawn of the historical experience set in motion by the October Revolution. That would not be helped by calls for a ‘return to Marx’, increasingly heard on the left, which Marx himself would have mocked, scorning those who in his life-time called for returns to Kant or to Aristotle. For historical materialism, significant theory emerges from the material processes of history. ‘Marx himself did not hesitate to acknowledge his theoretical debt to the brief experience of the Paris Commune. But today, decade after decade of an extraordinarily intense period of history, stretching from the Russian to the Chinese and the Cuban Revolutions, are being declared empty of meaning or relevance compared with the “true” message of salvation set down once and for all in sacred texts which only need to be rediscovered for religious re-meditation!’ In the same spirit, reverence was due Gramsci or Guevara, not as fighters and thinkers who never quailed at overturning assumptions of Marx, but as victims in a cult of martyrs.

Reflection on the experience of the Soviet Union should have no truck with such pieties. The term now conventionally used to explain its fall was the bland euphemism ‘implosion’, locating all the causes of it within the society created after 1917. This was, of course, a myth—it might as well be claimed that the Sandinistas in Nicaragua fell by internal implosion, as if the Contras had never existed. Military, economic and—multi-medial—ideological pressure on the USSR by Western imperialism had always been unremitting. But that did not mean the Soviet party bore no responsibility for the collapse of the USSR. On the contrary, the principal cause of its downfall was the fantastical theory proclaimed by Khrushchev that the country was about to overtake the US and enter communism as Marx and Engels had understood it in The German Ideology, a society of such abundance that the state had withered away and the division of labour no longer held—a valhalla requiring a prodigious development of the forces of production, from which the post-war USSR was light years away. The blatant emptiness of this claim deprived ‘actually existing socialism’ of any legitimacy, under a nomenklatura that became ever more autocratic and corrupt, its rule stripped of any pretension to democracy and popular sovereignty, the universal legitimation of the time. Beneath it, the world of labour camps had become ever more intolerable to a civil society that had grown out of mass education, cultural diffusion and a minimum of social security, while rationalization of the economy to restore falling rates of growth was refused as a restoration of capitalism. In the absence of any revolutionary theory of how to construct a socialist society after the overthrow of capitalism, the Soviet experience was doomed.

In China, Mao sought to avoid the impasse into which the USSR had fallen by mobilizing the masses to break out of the corset of bureaucratic rule, first with the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution. Both were failures, generating democratic regression, ethnic chauvinism and a political order reduced to the relationship between a charismatic leader and fanaticized masses. Permanent self-sacrifice and enthusiasm were impossible, ignoring the inevitability of popular secularization. Before he died, Mao probably realized that change was needed, and Deng enacted it without demonizing his predecessor as Khrushchev had done, but situating him in the historical process that had produced him and so preserving the legitimacy of revolutionary power where Khrushchev had undermined it. What the Reform Era he launched would become was a gigantic, unprecedented NEP—the only possible way forward, once the USSR was gone. The PRC had to integrate itself into the world market, if China was not to remain poor and weak. But this was an NEP determined to maintain the political independence and achieve the technological autonomy of the country, to enable China to advance towards a socialist society and alter the balance of world power. Hundreds of millions had been lifted out of poverty by it. Inequalities had also been created, as they were under the NEP, and these required attention if they were not to lead to social polarization and political instability. Vigilance was also needed against attempts by the new rich to convert their wealth into power. But of the overall upshot there could be no doubt. On a planetary scale, the epoch inaugurated by Columbus in which the West clamped a ruthless dominion on the rest of the world, creating a huge disparity between its prosperity and the misery of those it subjugated, had come to an end, as Adam Smith had foreseen it must. This was the commanding fact of the age, besides which all others paled in importance.

Here, laid out more clearly than in Il marxismo occidentale, is Losurdo’s overarching vision—that struggle between nations had for a century been, in Mao’s terms, the principal contradiction of the world capitalist system, struggle between classes a secondary contradiction. This is a coherent position, for which research on global inequality in the neoliberal epoch by Göran Therborn and Branko Milanovic´ provides statistical evidence: inequality between nations has decreased, with the lion’s share of the fall coming from the rise of China, while inequality within nations has increased. World-historically, Losurdo is on strong ground in insisting on the structural dominance of this change. That case does not require caricatures of Western Marxism that mar rather than strengthen it. Had he been more careful, he might have noticed that there were leading Western Marxists, by his classification, who not only shared his view of the time, but presented an empirically and theoretically more developed version of it, his compatriot Giovanni Arrighi foremost among them—ignored in Il marxismo occidentale along with such other obvious rebuttals of his argument as Immanuel Wallerstein or Fredric Jameson. Even at its strongest, of course, without its unnecessary trimmings, Losurdo’s stance can be questioned on its own terms. How far can a comparison of Deng’s Reform Era with the NEP be sustained? Could its staggering levels of debt-fuelled real-estate speculation, crooked billionaire accumulation, and pitiless exploitation of migrant labour be imagined under Lenin? Has corruption at all levels of the state and party not by now exceeded that of the CPSU under Brezhnev, and if so, what is to prevent a similar dénouement?

Behind these questions lies the most fundamental of all. Consistent throughout Losurdo’s work is his rejection of any talk of the disappearance of the state, whether of its immediate abolition as in the anarchist tradition descending from Bakunin, or of its ultimate withering-away, as in Marx. In the Marxist tradition, he argues most clearly and eloquently in Fuga, this idea led to a disregard of the legal norms that are essential to regulate the conflicts inevitable in any society. In a class society, the state is not just an instrument for the domination of the ruling class: it is also a form of ‘reciprocal guarantee’ of fair treatment for individuals within the ruling class. Why then, in a society where struggle between classes has disappeared, should reciprocal guarantees between the individuals of a unified community become superfluous? Formal, juridically codified freedoms were the foundation of the modern state for Hegel, to be complemented but not replaced by the need for material freedoms to which Hegel was also alive. The argument is trenchantly made. But where are the first in the PRC today? Losurdo can only fall back on lame reference to village-level elections, much as Hegel contented himself with the Prussian estate system. If politically Losurdo has always been an uncompromising militant of the left, intellectually he is a philosopher of the Hegelian right. The state must remain, as the institutional integument of human liberty, and the real course of history, whatever its apparent disasters and divagations, is rational.

*Reseña originalmente publicada en New Left Review 107, septiembre-octubre de 2017.

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