Domenico Losurdo
Original publication:
Translation: Charles Reitz (Philosophy Department, Kansas City Community College)

Flight from History? The Communist Movement between Self-Criticism and Self-Contempt (1999)

The original edition of this essay appeard in March 1999, in Italian, under the title Fuga dalla storia? Il movimento comunista tra autocritica e autofobia, published in Naples by Edizioni La Città del Sole.

Herman Kopp then produced a German translation, which was published in 2000 in Marxistische Blätter Pamphlet 01 by Neue Impulse Verlag, Essen.

This German edition was translated to English by Charles Reitz, and published in the now-defunct Marxist journal Nature, society, and thought: a journal of dialectical and historical materialism (Volume 13, Number 4). This edition is reproduced here with minimal edits.



In 1818, in the middle of the Restoration and just at that time when the collapse of the French Revolution seemed obvious to all, some of those who had initially welcomed the events of 1789 now placed them at arms length; for them it had become a colossal misunderstanding or, even worse, a despicable betrayal of noble ideals. It was in this sense that Byron sang: “Yet France was drunken with blood and spat out crimes. Its Saturnalia were deadly for the cause of freedom in every epoch in every country.” Must we make these grave doubts our own today, if we were to substitute 1917 for 1789 and the cause of socialism for the “cause of freedom”? Must Communists be ashamed of their history?

In the history of persecuted ethnic and religious groups, we find something quite remarkable. At a certain point even the victims tend to assimilate the worldview of the oppressor, and on this account begin to loathe and hate themselves. This self-contempt has been studied above all with regard to the Jews, who for millennia have been subjected to systematic campaigns of discrimination and defamation. Something similar and equally tragic occurred in the history of blacks, who were robbed of their identity as they were deported from their homelands, enslaved, and oppressed. At a certain point, African American women, even those of extraordinary beauty, began to dream and yearn to be white, or at least to lighten the darkness of their skin. Such is the extent to which victims may be subjugated to the values of their oppressors.

This phenomenon of self-contempt does not affect only ethnic and religious groups. It can also arise among social classes and political parties that have suffered a particularly profound defeat, especially when the victors, standing in the background or setting aside their usual weapons, intensify their attacks, today utilizing the profound firepower of the multiple media. Among the many problems with which the Communist movement must struggle, that of self-contempt is certainly not the least important. Let us not even talk about the former leaders and spokespersons for the Communist Party of Italy (PCI), who as it turns out now assert that they may have been Party members in the past without ever really being Communists. It is no accident that these people today look at a figure like Clinton who could say at his re-election that he thanked God that he was allowed to come into the world as an American with wonder and perhaps even envy. An admittedly very subtle form of self-contempt may ensnare anyone who has not had the good fortune to belong to an elect or a privileged people, especially to that people which considers itself predestined to carry to every corner of the world and by every means available ideas and goods “Made in USA.”

Thus, as I have said, let us set aside those ex-Communists who today bewail the misfortune that they were not born Anglo-Saxons and liberals and lived so far from the sacred heart of the true culture. Sadly this self-contempt has also taken hold within the ranks of those who continue to identify themselves as Communists, yet who resist any notion that they had anything to do with the past that both they and their political opponents regard as synonymous with ruination. The inflated narcissism of the victors, who religiously transfigure their own history, has its counterpart in the conquered who are holding themselves hostage.

To me it is clear that the battle against this onerous self-contempt will be just that much more effective the more our critical analysis of the momentous and fascinating period beginning with the October Revolution becomes really radical and free from preconceptions. Despite any seeming parallel, self-critique and self-contempt are contradictory attitudes. Self-criticism, with all of its sharpness and particularly its radicalism, expresses a consciousness of the necessity to examine one’s own history; self-contempt represents a cowardly running away from this history and away from the ideological and cultural struggle that is expressed in this history. If the foundation of self-criticism is the revival of Communist identity, then self-contempt is another word for capitulation and the denial of an autonomous identity.

Such is the general outline of the analysis I have published in a series of articles in Ernesto: Mensile comunista. I present here revised versions of these texts, and I would like to thank the journal for its consent to do so.

At a fork in the road: Religion or politics?

An analysis of the ideas, attitudes, and moods of the contemporary Left today requires that we delve deeply into the past.

An enlightening event, almost 2000 years ago

In the year 70 A.D. the Jewish national revolution against Roman imperialism was forced to capitulate. The capitulation was preceded by an unforgiving siege that not only sentenced Jerusalem to starvation, but also destroyed all social relationships: “Sons ripped bread from their father’s mouths, and, what was the very worst, the mothers were taken from the children.” If the siege itself was horrendous, so too were the measures taken to contend with it. Traitors and deserters, real or imagined, were killed without exception. Suspicion had become pathologically widespread, and often rested on false accusations that were brought forth by individuals having private and vicious motives. Even the elderly and the young were suspected of hiding food and were tortured. Yet none of this occurred without reason: the triumph of the Romans not only brought death to the national revolution’s leaders and fighters, it brought exile and dispersion to an entire people.

These events are described by a Jewish author who was himself a resistance fighter there for a period of time, but who changed sides and praised the profound courage and invincibility of the victors. Out of Joseph, as he was called, emerged Josephus Flavius; he assimilated this name from that breed of soldier that had destroyed Jerusalem. More important than this shifting of camps was what he knew and could disclose about the Christians. Originally an integral part of the Jewish community, they nonetheless felt the need to declare that they had nothing to do with the uprising that had just been suppressed. They continued to rely on the Holy Book, sacred also to the defeated revolutionaries, but this latter group was then accused of falsifying and betraying the sacred scripture.

This dialectic can be traced especially clearly in the Gospel according to Mark, which was written immediately preceding the destruction of Jerusalem. This was a catastrophe that Jesus had foreseen: “Not one stone will remain upon another.” And the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, had already been prophesied by Isaiah. According to this, the tragedy that had just befallen the Jews was not ultimately attributable to Roman imperialism: it was, on the one hand, an original component of the divine plan of redemption, and on the other, a result of the progressive deterioration of the Jewish community. The revolutionaries had improperly interpreted the messianic prophecy in a worldly and political way, instead of in an inwardly spiritual manner: horror and catastrophe were the inevitable outcomes of this falsification and betrayal. Determined to distance themselves from the Jewish national revolution, the Christians also resolutely distanced themselves from all historical and political action.

A history of subaltern classes and religious movements

Gramsci has made it clear that, in the contemporary world, various more or less explicitly religious perspectives may also appear in the context of liberation movements. Just look at the dialectic that developed in the wake of the collapse of “real, existing socialism.” [1] Set aside those individuals who hurriedly swung aboard the victors’ train. Let us concentrate instead on the destruction, the intellectual and political devastation, that followed this collapse within segments of the Communist movement. Just as with the Christians in the Gospel according to Mark, who turned to the Roman conquerors and proclaimed, as the situation seemed to require, that they had absolutely nothing to do with the national uprising, so too in our own time not a few Communists are doing likewise. They passionately deny the accusation that they are in any way connected to the history of “real, existing socialism.” At the same time they reduce this history to a simple series of horrors in the hope that this will lend them credibility, especially in the eyes of the liberal bourgeoisie.

Marx summed up the idea and method of historical materialism with the statement about human beings making our own history, yet not under conditions of our own choosing. When someone today modestly attempts to direct attention to the permanently exceptional situation that characterized developments since the October Revolution, when someone wants to research concretely the objective “conditions” within which the project of building a postcapitalist society occurred, just bet that the “Communist” imitators of the early Christian assembly will cry out that this is but a scandalous, indecent attempt at rationalization. To understand this attitude look to the Gospel of Mark rather than to the German Ideology or the Manifesto of the Communist Party. In the eyes of these “Communists,” the imperialist encirclement of “real, existing socialism” and the socialist revolution are simply as irrelevant as the Roman siege of Jerusalem and the Jewish national revolution were for the assembly of Jewish early Christians. From this perspective every effort to analyze the concrete historical conditions is a distraction and immoral; the only thing that really matters is the authenticity and the purity of the gospel of salvation. Distanced too far away to perceive the conquest by the Romans as painful, the fall and destruction of Jerusalem actually seemed to please the Jewish-Christian believers; this had been foreseen by Jesus, and in any case from now on it was possible to proclaim the Gospel without the falsifications and deviations that politics was said to require. In like manner there are not a few Communists who declare that they have a sense of relief and “liberation” since the collapse of “real, existing socialism.” Now it is possible to return to the “authentic” Marx and to the idea of Communism and to proclaim these without the nasty encrustations that history and politics have deposited upon them.

“Back to Marx” and the formalistic cult of martyrs

In this way the slogan “Back to Marx” has come to pass. Yet it can be rather easily shown that Marx is the most resolute critic of all “back to” philosophies. In his own time he made fun of those who, in their disputes with Hegel, wanted to go back to Kant and even back to Aristotle. One of the fundamentals of historical materialism is the conclusion that theory develops along with history and the concrete process of change. This great revolutionary thinker did not hesitate to acknowledge that he stood in debt even to the short-lived experience of the Paris Commune. Nowadays, however, decade upon decade of incredibly rich historical experience (from the October Revolution to the Chinese and Cuban revolutions) is declared to be meaningless and unimportant in comparison to the “authentic” Gospel announced once and for all in the sacred texts. These need simply to be rediscovered and religiously rethought.

At the same time, those who proclaim the slogan “Back to Marx” do not take it seriously themselves. If they did, they would not hold Gramsci and Che Guevara in such high esteem. The thoughts and actions of these individuals are predicated upon the Bolshevik Revolution and the development of the international Communist movement. They understood the importance of studying the decades of world history that have passed since Marx’s death — history that took place under conditions that Marx did not foresee, nor could have foreseen. Marx did not predict socialism on a small island like Cuba, nor guerrillas in Bolivia fighting for a socialist revolution. And as for Gramsci, we know he greeted the October Revolution as The Revolution against “Das Kapital,” directly refuting the Mensheviks who, at the time, used the phrase “Back to Marx” in a mechanistic way. Gramsci’s greatness lies precisely in his opposition to this.

“Back to Marx” is clearly a religious phrase. Just as the early Christian assembly wanted to have nothing to do with the Jewish national revolution, and thereby opposed Isaiah and Jesus, so too today certain “Communists” oppose themselves and Marx to the historical developments begun with the October Revolution. The appeals to Gramsci and Che Guevara also carry with them quite remarkable tendencies. Neither can be conceived of apart from the teachings of Lenin, yet this must be carefully hushed up. Different as they are, they share the fate of having been in a certain way defeated. They never were able to participate in the exercise of power gained through revolution; instead they had to endure the coercive force of the old sociopolitical order. People esteem the martyrdom of both of these outstanding representatives of the international Communist movement, but not their thinking or their political activity, which belongs to a resolutely repressed history.

Recovering the capacity for political thought and action

The results of this ultimately religious attitude weigh very heavily. I will limit myself to two examples. The Italian publications Il Manifesto and Liberazione [2] correctly judged the embargoes against Iraq and Cuba to be genocide or attempted genocide, and then criticized the United States for granting permanent normal trade relationships to China, because this implicates it in repression of “dissidents.” A country said to be guilty of genocide is called upon to defend and respect human rights; on the one hand it is found guilty for its political embargoes, then on the other hand guilty for refusing to take any steps toward embargo. This is clearly bereft of any logic. Yet one will search in vain for even the faintest traces of logic in the discourse of a religious mind that shifts about in a realm of fantasy constantly concerned to proclaim its own rejection of evil wherever this evil may occur, such as embargoes against the people of Iraq and Cuba or as repression of “dissidents” in China.

One needs to have done only the slightest political or historical research to realize that the anti-Chinese campaign of that period was a “more or less foregone conclusion from the events of Tiananmen Square.” [3] In reality the United States is disturbed about “China as the last great region beyond the influence of U.S. politics, the as yet unconquered last frontier.” [4] But for the religious mind, which is only concerned to declare (and savor) its own purported purity, no kind of historical and political analysis counts. Why be bothered that the demand for a Chinese embargo at the expense of the Chinese people would indirectly legitimate the already practiced embargoes of Iraq or Cuba? The conquest of this “last frontier” by the United States would mean the dismemberment of China (following upon that of the USSR and Yugoslavia) and a catastrophe for the Chinese people. Making a debacle of this great Asian country would tremendously strengthen the military and political ability of U.S. imperialism to carry out its strategy of embargo and the genocidal strangulation of the peoples of Iraq and Cuba. Yet such thoughts are but superficial considerations in the religious primitivism of certain “Communists.”

Another example. In Liberazione one could read articles that quite correctly compared the radical wing of the secessionist movement in Italy with the Nazis. [5] But just a little while later this same publication undertook a polemic against those who demanded the intervention of the courts to halt the Lega Nord’s propagation of race hatred among secessionists as well as its preparations for a counterrevolutionary civil war. It seems that these comrades have not posed a very fundamental question: just how appropriate is it for Communists to demand that the Nazi groups not be penalized? Once again, every effort to seek a logic here other than a primitive religious mentality proves futile. Coercion is condemned absolutely. Who cares if this condemnation of law enforcement and judicial intervention powerfully invigorates the violence of the Lega supporters and the Nazis? No matter what, one’s own soul has been saved. We have a paradoxical situation here. The Vatican emphasizes again and again the danger of legalistic plans, and calls for government institutions to oppose quite decisively the danger of rebellion and counterrevolutionary civil war. Jesus, who emerged from the disastrous failure of the Jewish national revolution, openly declared: “My realm is not of this world.” The “Communists” have appropriated this slogan today, making it theirs even more than the Christians.

I have compared the perspective of certain “Communists” with that of the Jewish-Christian believers. But this needs to be made more precise. The withdrawal of these believers into their own inwardness also contains a positive element: the distancing from a national revolution also contributes to the emergence of universalistic thinking. But the contemporary withdrawal into inwardness and the distancing from a revolution and a historical development that is proclaimed today in explicitly universalistic terms quite simply means an involution and a regression. We do not need to get all worked up about it. It is quite natural that a disastrous failure of historical proportions gives rise to perspectives of a religious type. Yet it would be catastrophic to be stuck in this position. Communists, if they do not want to sentence themselves to powerlessness and subalternity, must recover the capacity to think and act in political terms, even when this politics is carried along by momentous ideational tension.

The collapse of the “socialist camp”: Implosion or Third World War?

“Implosion”: A myth in defense of imperialism

How did U.S. imperialism succeed in gobbling up Nicaragua? It subjected the country to an economic and military blockade, to surveillance and destabilization by the CIA, to mined harbors, and to a secretly-waged, undeclared, bloody, and dirty war, making a mockery of international law. Faced with all of this, the Sandinista government felt compelled to undertake limited defensive measures against external aggression and internal reaction. Incredibly, the U.S. administration swung itself into the role of defender of human rights against totalitarian repression, and directed the fire of its entire multimedia machinery against the Sandinista government. This campaign was supported in the main by the Catholic hierarchy, yet some of the beautiful souls on the “Left” played right along. Ortega’s ability to counteract the aggression was increasingly limited and destroyed. While ideological crusades and economic strangulation undermined the social support for the Sandinista government, military power and the terrorism of the Contras (supported by Washington) weakened the will and ability to resist. The result was elections in which the extraordinary financial and multimedia power of imperialism was allowed full play. Already bloodied and impoverished, with the knife closer to their throats than ever before, the Nicaraguan people “freely” chose to give in to the aggressors.

The strategy used against Cuba is just the same. Here one may well pose the question: was the collapse of the Sandinista government the result of an “implosion”? Could the overthrow of Fidel Castro and Cuban socialism, sought for decades by U.S. imperialism, be described as an “implosion” or “collapse”? Immediately visible here is the mystifying character of the concepts used by imperialism to portray a social crisis or catastrophe as a purely spontaneous and internal process, though in reality it can not be separated from the momentous stress that imperialism applied at every juncture.

The concept “implosion” is not any more persuasive when it is applied in this manner beyond the cases of Cuba and Nicaragua to the “socialist camp” in general. George Kennan emphasized as early as 1947, as he was formulating the politics of containment, that it would be necessary to influence “the internal developments, both within Russia and throughout the international Communist movement.” This should take place not just by means of the “informational activity” of the covert agencies, though the most influential advisors to the U.S. consulate in Moscow and within the U.S. administration of course underscored this especially. But articulated more generally and more ambitiously, the aim was “to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate,” in order to “promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” What is usually expressed with the remarkable euphemism “implosion” is here more precisely defined as a “breakup,” which would be so little spontaneous that it was foretold by roughly forty years, planned, and actively sought. At the international level, the economic, political, and military power relationships were to be such that — and this is still Kennan — the West would exercise a kind of “power of life and death over the Communist movement” and the Soviet Union. [6]

On the sources of the Cold War

The collapse of the “socialist camp” must therefore be seen in the context of an unremitting exercise of power, which was the so-called Cold War. This stretched across the entire globe and lasted for decades. At the beginning of the 1950s, its conditions were described as follows by General Jimmy Doolittle:

There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply… We must … learn to subvert, sabotage, and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated, and more effective methods than those used against us. [7]

Eisenhower came to the same conclusions. He, of course, shifted from the office of supreme military commander in Europe to that of U.S. president by no mere accident. We are talking about the assaying of enormous power, which on both sides utilized any means necessary (espionage, subversion, dirty tricks, etc.) and became real war in various areas of the globe for example, in Korea. Apparently seeking to overcome a lull in military operations in January 1952, Truman dallied with a radical idea. As he makes clear in his diary, one could confront the USSR and the People’s Republic of China with an ultimatum and make clear that if it were disregarded, “Moscow, Leningrad, Mukden, Vladivostock, Peking, Shanghai, Port Arthur, Darien, Odessa, Stalingrad and every other manufacturing plant in China and the Soviet Union will be eliminated.” [8] What is going on here is not simply some private rumination. During the Korean War, the use of atomic weaponry against the People’s Republic of China was seriously contemplated, and this threat was made all the more horrendous given the recent memories of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Without a doubt the Cold War aimed at the dissolution or — more accurately the breakup — of the USSR. But when did it begin? It was already underway as the Second World War raged. Nagasaki and Hiroshima were destroyed even as it was clear that Japan was ready to capitulate. Above and beyond using the bomb against this already defeated country, the United States aimed this threat at the USSR. This is the conclusion of prestigious U.S. historians based upon irrefutable evidence. The new and terrible weapon was not only to be tested over desert areas for demonstration purposes; it was to be dropped immediately on two large cities. In this manner the Soviets would come to realize, unmistakably and thoroughly, what the real nature of power relationships now was as well as the U.S. resolution to shrink from nothing. And in fact Churchill declared his approval of “eliminating all the Russian centres of industry” if it were necessary. At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson was prepared “to force the Soviet Union to abandon or radically alter its entire system of government.”

Paradoxically, it was the military leaders who reacted negatively and registered opposition to these plans for bombardment. They called the new weapons “barbarous” because they would indiscriminately kill “women and children.” These were viewed as no better than the “bacteriological weapons” and “poison gas” that were prohibited under the Geneva accords. Beyond all this, Japan was “already defeated and prepared to capitulate.” These military officers did not even know that the atomic weapons were really aimed at the Soviet Union, the one country that was prepared to oppose Truman’s policy to make the United States into “the world’s marshal and sheriff” (as explicitly formulated at a cabinet meeting on 7 September 1945). The horrible destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima disturbed public opinion in the United States to a degree that could even be called an outcry. For this reason Stimson intervened with an article that was played up by all the media. It spread the deceitful fable that these two cruel massacres were necessary to save the lives of millions of people. In reality, however, as the U.S. historian cited here emphasizes, it was about stopping the wave of criticism and getting public opinion used to the idea that the employment of nuclear weapons would now be absolutely normal, as well as renewing a warning to the USSR. [9] [10]

In Japan another situation was unfolding that is also helpful in understanding the Cold War. In its aggression against China, the imperial army of Japan had committed gruesome crimes. Numbers of captives had been used as guinea pigs for dissection and other experiments, and bacteriological weapons were used against the civilian population. Yet those persons responsible for this and the members of the notorious Unit 731 were guaranteed immunity by the United States in exchange for the delivery of all the data collected through these war crimes. In the Cold War that was just getting started, not only nuclear bombs but also bacteriological weapons were put into place. [11]

In this way the beginnings of the Cold War and the final phases of the Second World War are interrelated. In fact, it is not even necessary to wait until 1945 to see these connections. It is enlightening to look at the declaration that Truman made immediately after the Nazi invasion of the USSR. At this point the United States was not officially a participant in the war, though in fact an ally of Great Britain. It is understandable that the future U.S. president would make clear that he “doesn’t want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances.” Yet on the other hand he does not shy away from announcing: “If we see that Germany is winning, we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany and that way let them kill as many as possible.” In this fashion Truman made known despite the given alliance with Great Britain and thereby indirect alliance with the USSR that he was decidedly interested in seeing the country that arose with the October Revolution bleed to death. At the same time the British minister Lord Brabazon made similar sentiments known. He was forced to step down, yet the fact remains that influential circles in Great Britain continued to see the USSR, with whom they were formally allied, as their mortal enemy. [12]

In 1944, Vice President Truman (who in a year would be president) became engaged in altering the policy set in the summer of 1941. One should add that Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who not accidentally had Truman as vice president for a year) did not seem to have been unacquainted with the intention of weakening the Soviet Union or bleeding it dry. Toward the end of the war, it was becoming clear that the Soviet Union and not Great Britain would emerge from it as “the most important opponent of a global ‘Pax Americana,’” and Roosevelt radically altered his military strategy. According to an observation of a German historian:

The consequence of this, letting the USSR carry on the main effort toward the defeat of Germany, resulted from the decision to put into place only 89 of the 215 divisions originally called for in the “Victory Plan”; the chief military might of the U.S. was shifted to the navy and the air force to secure superior strength in the air and at sea. [13]

Perhaps it is necessary to delve back even further. Andre Fontaine begins his Geschichte des kalten Krieges [History of the Cold War] in a very telling way with the October Revolution which was, of course, really contested both with hot and cold war. In the period between October 1917 and 1953 (Stalin’s death), we see Germany and the Anglo-Saxon powers combating the USSR relay-style, so to speak, passing the baton to relieve one another. The aggression of Wilhelmanian Germany (continuing until the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk) was followed first by that of the Entente, then that of Hitler’s Germany, and finally the Cold War in the narrow sense, whose beginnings were visible decades before and even connected to the two world wars.

A deadly combination: The new face of war

In the struggle against the Soviet Union and the “socialist camp,” the U.S. administration used the same deadly combination of economic, ideological, and military pressures that it had successfully utilized to bring down the Sandinista government and which it hoped would lead to the breakdown of the social and political system in Cuba. This was the same mixture that it also deployed against other nations such as Iraq, Iran, Libya, and from time to time against China.

This new, more subtle, and highly developed type of warfare was worked out in the course of the prolonged battle against the social formation that emerged from the October Revolution. Herbert Hoover, himself a high-level representative of the U.S. administration and later president, emphasized that sending soldiers against Soviet Russia was sending them to prevent “infection with Bolshevik ideas.” In his estimation it would be still better to utilize an economic blockade in a struggle against the enemy and against those nations who let themselves be seduced by Moscow, because the threat of an economic blockade and the perils of starvation would get them to come to their senses. The French premier, Georges Clemenceau, was immediately fascinated by Hoover’s suggestions. He acknowledged that this would be a “really effective weapon” that offered “greater chances for success than military intervention.” Gramsci, in contrast, was incensed by the imperialistic formula, “Your money or your life! Bourgeois rule or starvation.” [14]

Since the start of the Cold War (narrowly defined), yet another weapon has also been introduced. As early as November 1945, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Averill Harriman, recommended opening up an ideological and propaganda front against the USSR. One could certainly begin this with the dissemination of newspapers and journals, yet “the printed word” was in his estimation “fundamentally unsatisfactory.” Still better would be to utilize strong radio broadcasts in all of the various languages of the Soviet Union. The penetrating power of stations such as these was repeatedly recommended and praised. [15] Thus radio became the newest weapon in the gigantic confrontation that was now beginning. Radio, which had served the Nazi regime in the solidification of its social consensus, was now utilized to destroy the social consensus of the Soviet state.

In combination with this new weaponry, the old standard weapons continued to be directly or indirectly employed. The epoch beginning in 1945-46 has been characterized by Eric Hobsbawm as “a Third World War, though a very peculiar one.” [16] It is particularly inappropriate to call a war “cold” that begins with Nagasaki and Hiroshima. What we had here was a war that not only heated up repeatedly in various places around the globe, but periodically threatened to become, almost in the blink of an eye, so hot that the whole (or nearly the whole) planet would go up in flames. In terms of the confrontation between the chief antagonists, one must never lose sight of the fact that this represented a probing and experimentation with terrible military might, though most of the public fronts were in political, diplomatic, economic, and propaganda battles. Even if there were never to be a direct and total clash, these forces nonetheless had serious consequences. This assaying and estimation of power in the end had effects on the economy and politics of the enemy nation, its entire system of internal relations. This was the aim, and it succeeded, as we have seen, in destroying the alliances, the “camp” of the enemy.

At this juncture the concept “implosion” is revealed to be but a myth in defense of the systems of capitalism and imperialism. These systems are celebrating their own presumed advantages in comparison exclusively with what are considered to be the built-in disadvantages, crises, and difficulties of the social systems in Moscow, in the Caribbean, and in Latin America. The concept of implosion or collapse serves primarily to crown the winner. Yet it has found a friendly acceptance within the Left and among Communists, especially among those who present themselves as ultra-Communists and ultra-revolutionaries. This is but renewed evidence of their ideological and political subalternity.

A refusal to use the concept “implosion” does not mean a refusal to engage in an unflinching historical examination of “real, existing socialism” and the international Communist movement. Far from it: this kind of examination is only possible when one explicitly reflects on the reality of the “Third World War.” Because this unremitting examination must never be mistaken for capitulation, it is necessary also to carry out fully the critique of subalternity and religious primitivism as these have taken hold in the Communist movement in the wake of defeat.

A Communist movement with limited sovereignty?

We have shown that the concept “implosion” is completely inappropriate as an explanation for the collapse of “real, existing socialism.” It is far more reasonable to speak of a “Third World War,” a world war in which a multimedia and ideological barrage has played a central role. This aspect also accounts for the disorientation of the vanquished. It is as if an ideological Hiroshima has destroyed the ability of the international Communist movement to think in its own behalf.

Normality and the exceptional circumstance

“Sovereign are they who get to decide the exceptional circumstance.” This aphorism formulated by the ultrareactionary and ingenious legal scholar Carl Schmitt can aid us in understanding not only the concrete way in which a constitutional system operates, but also in understanding the vitality of a political movement and its actual degree of autonomy. An example: In Algeria in 1991 a coup annulled the election that would have brought the Islamic Reform Front into power. A military dictatorship was set up using the rationalization that the reform movement represented an immense danger to the country and its prospects for modernization. The generals pointed to the exceptional circumstance, and showed themselves to be the real holders of political power. As Mao Zedong made clear: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” And sovereign are those who decide when the guns speak. At least this much can be said about the realities of power within the realm of a government.

Now let us apply the same methodological criterion to an investigation of the relations between the different political camps. The coup in Algeria was accepted at that time by the West and defended with the argument that it avoided the establishment of an Islamic and obscurantist government that would have brought an end to all freedom of expression and horrible retrogression, especially where women were concerned. In a similar manner a few years earlier, the USSR had tried to defend its intervention in Afghanistan and supported a government embarked on an ambitious modernization program. It thereby battled the rabid resistance of Islamic fundamentalists. In this instance the West displayed not only its disapproval, but also armed to the teeth the same sort of “freedom fighters” who in Algeria are branded as common criminals and bloodthirsty murderers. Thus we see that appealing to exceptional circumstances in one instance is not regarded as valid in another. Sometimes breaking the rules is legitimated and sanctified, and on other occasions regarded as heresy to be condemned.

It should not surprise us that the United States or France inconsistently judge controversial cases according to changing geopolitical and economic conditions. It is much more interesting to inquire into the attitudes of the Left and especially the Communists. All in all they seem to plug into the established ideology: they view the coup in Algeria as if it were something almost natural and noncontroversial, though they never tire of condemning the Soviet use of force in Afghanistan. The exceptional circumstances, which call for the suspension of the usual rules of the game, are the exclusive prerogative of the liberal, capitalist, and imperialist West to decide. And thus arises the regrettable condition of a Communist movement without sovereignty, or at best with limited sovereignty. If that person is sovereign who decides about exceptional circumstances, then the sovereign par excellence sits in Washington. Washington’s sovereignty is complete to the degree that it is able to limit and sometimes entirely cast aside the power of independent thinking of those very groups, journals, newspapers, and movements that consider themselves to be Communist.

Bobbio and the exceptional circumstance

What has been said above is not all that may be said in defense of the thesis presented here. In August of 1991 a curious putsch occurred in Moscow, which Yeltsin kept from being really understood. Instead, he provided it with a colossal propaganda trial, which became the precondition of its ultimate success. A certain amount of suspicion is legitimate here. The editorial in Expresso on the 1 September of that year carried the famous headline: “Yeltsin, or rather Bush, made the real putsch.” But this is not what interests us just now. Those who initiated the “putsch” made assurances that they wanted to oppose a dramatic threat to the unity and independence of the USSR, and that they were relying on the special use of force that was foreseen in the constitution in case of exceptional circumstances. Now, who does not remember the massive international disarmament campaign at that time that also drew in, or overran, the Communists?

Two years later it was Yeltsin who, as the protagonist of a putsch, dissolved the parliament that had been freely elected by the people and allowed it to be fired upon. This time the machinery of repression was well oiled and promptly put into service. It did not content itself with empty threats. The constitutional system was liquidated with utter brutality, yet this did not prevent the “democrat” Clinton or the “socialist” Mitterrand from expressing their approval. And the Communists? Above all a moving sensibility was displayed by Il Manifesto, which looks toward Turin in order to follow the convolutions of the grand theoretician of the absolute inviolability of rules and regulations. When asked to articulate his position, Bobbio [17] proclaimed: “I defend government by rule of law and will always defend it. Yet in the Russian instance I ask myself: do conditions still exist there for a law-governed state?” [18] Too bad that this question did not occur to the illustrious philosopher two years earlier, in August 1991. Nonetheless, his consideration here is simple and rational, just a matter of distinguishing exceptional circumstances from normality. This is a consideration from which Communists also have much to learn, yet they refuse to distinguish such things and leave it to the sovereign sitting in Washington, or more modestly in Turin, to decide whether exceptional circumstances exist.

It is enlightening to look at the subaltern dependency of the Left especially with regard to the campaign that the U.S. administration has undertaken against the People’s Republic of China. A whole series of disclosures has recently shed new light on the events of Tiananmen Square. Banned students and intellectuals, who were exiled to the United States, are today criticizing the “radical” exponents of the movement back then for seeking to impede reconciliation with officials in Beijing at any cost. Thus we see the real goal pursued by certain circles (in China and outside it) after the disturbances of 1989. This is made clear in an article in Foreign Affairs (a journal close to the State Department) where it is gleefully forecast that China will fall apart after the death of Deng Xiaoping. It is also noted in passing that this was exactly the result sought in 1989, the year when the collapse of Communism was observed “in a dozen countries.” [19] From this we can see that the same circles that today want to pillory the leadership in Beijing were ready at a moment’s notice to rationalize the canon barrage that might have been fired by a Chinese Yeltsin.

The struggle for hegemony

Yet none of this seems to evoke any real analytical effort on the part of some on the Left, though they are so full of praise for Gramsci. They seem to forget that one of the fundamental aspects of his work is the battle against hegemony. Categories, judgments, historical comparisons — one could say that all of these are today ultimately extracted by this Left from the dominant ideology. The thirtieth anniversary of the Hungarian uprising became a platform for a recollection of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. And, in accordance with logic and duty, the Communists busied themselves with profound and pitiless self-critique. Toward the end of 1997, however, nobody took the opportunity to remember the repressive measures taken by Chiang Kai-shek on Taiwan fifty years earlier. A pretty insignificant event? From official Hungarian sources we know that the tragic events of 1956 claimed the lives of 2,500 people. At the beginning of 1947, nine years before, 10,000 people died as a result of the USA-sponsored Kuomintang repression. [20]

Every year there is a renewed memorialization of Tiananmen Square, but who remembers the hundreds or perhaps thousands of people who died during the U.S. intervention in Panama (bombing thickly populated areas without any declaration of war) in the same year, 1989? There are so many reasons to assert that the Left, including numerous Communists, is operating with but limited sovereignty, especially in terms of its own historical understanding and historical perspective.

This lack of autonomy is all the more evident when we look at how certain concepts are used. I shall limit myself to one especially obvious example. Whenever did the leftist press and the Communist press not join the bourgeois press in referring to the opposition against Yeltsin (including the Russian Communists) as “nationalists”? It might as well suffice just to read the pronouncements of U.S. leaders to get ourselves a good grounding in the facts. From his point of view, Bush expressed himself at the time quite clearly:

I see America as the leader a unique nation with a special role in the world. And this has been called the American century, because in it we were the dominant force for good in the world. We saved Europe, cured polio, went to the moon, and lit the world with our culture. And now we are on the verge of a new century, and what country’s name will it bear? I say it will be another American century. Our work is not done, our force is not spent. [21]

Let us listen to Bill Clinton more recently: America “must come to lead the world,” “our mission is timeless.” [22] And finally let us listen to the pragmatist Kissinger: “World leadership is inherent in America’s power and values.” [23] We see here the regrettable mythology of the chosen people taking shape once again. The chauvinism that characterizes it is unmistakable. Yet those who dare to oppose this chosen people are branded as nationalists.

Mistrust is more than justified. Even the American news magazine Time admits the following: “For four months a group of American advisors participated secretly in the campaign to elect Yeltsin.” An “influential member of the State Department” had declared so there would be no mistake about it that “a Communist victory” could under no circumstances be tolerated. [24] Therefore, whatever the final judgment may be about the putschists of August 1991, it must be recognized that their conduct was undergirded by a justifiable concern for the unity and independence of the country! And whatever the final judgment may be about the way in which the Chinese Communists met the crisis of 1989, the fact remains that they all have reason to be on guard against maneuvers designed to destroy the unity and independence of the one single country today in a position to restrain the definitive triumph of the American century.

Let me say something very clearly: the point here is not to justify this or that position with regard to the tensions between the former CPSU and the CP of China. Every concrete action of this or that Communist Party (and this means every party that calls itself Communist) must be examined in a concrete way, without preconceptions. And this analysis must not be uncritically derived from those interests and methods that are spread by the dominant ideology. An approach that is free from preconceptions must be extended to everything, and have the aim of retrieving independent judgment and historical understanding. Communists are called upon to liberate themselves once and for all from that limited sovereignty that the victors of the Cold War (that is to say the “Third World War”) would gladly make permanent.

The years of Lenin and Stalin: An initial assessment

Total war and “totalitarianism”

You cannot separate the history of the USSR from its international context. The despotism and terror, first of Lenin and then of Stalin, are less related to the much-maligned Oriental tradition than to the totalitarianism that began to spread worldwide following the Second Thirty Years War as governments, even in the liberal countries, expanded their “‘legitimate’ power over life, death, and freedom.” [25] Evidence for this is found in the total mobilization for war, widespread use of military courts, world championship style competition in executions, and the arbitrary use of force. It is especially revealing to examine this last phenomenon.

Even in liberal Italy the top military leadership regularly utilizes this, discarding the principle of individual accountability. There are lessons to be learned from how this works in the United States too. After Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt had U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry (including women and children) deported to internment camps. This occurred not on the basis of any sort of due process, but rather solely on account of their membership in a distrusted ethnic group. (Here too the principle of individual accountability was abrogated — a characteristic component of totalitarianism.)

In 1950, the McCarran Act was passed, which called for the construction of six detention camps for political prisoners in various regions of the country. Among the congressmen approving of this measure were future U.S. presidents Kennedy, Nixon, and Johnson! Beyond all this, the phenomenon of the personal abuse of power should also be seen in a comparative perspective. Franklin D. Roosevelt was ushered into the presidency out of the depths of the Great Depression and was immediately granted tremendous controls and powers. Re-elected three times, he died at the beginning of his fourth term. The Soviet government, building up its power during a war characterized by the total mobilization and coerced consolidation of populations (even in countries with secure liberal traditions and relatively safe geographical positions, surrounded either by oceans or the Mediterranean Sea), had to contend with permanently exceptional circumstances.

If we look at the period from 1917 to 1953, the year Stalin died, we see that this epoch was characterized by at least four or five wars and two revolutions. From the West, the aggression of Wilhelmanian Germany (until the peace of Brest-Litovsk) was followed first by that of the Entente and then by that of Hitler fascism. Ultimately there was also the aggression of the Cold War that threatened to become a tremendous hot one through the use of atomic weapons. From the East, Japan (which only after 1922 pulled back from Siberia and after 1925 from Sachalin) became a military threat to the borders of the USSR with its invasion of Manchuria. This led to larger border skirmishes before the official start of the Second World War in 1938 and 1939. All of the wars mentioned here were total wars in the sense that they were either begun without a declaration of war (whether one looks at the Entente or the Third Reich), or the invaders had the declared intention of destroying a given regime, as when Hitler’s campaign sought the elimination of the “subhumans” to the East.

In addition to these wars, we must add the revolutions. Aside from that of October, there were the revolutions from above that began to collectivize agriculture and to industrialize the expansive country. The dictatorships of Lenin and (for all of the differences) that of Stalin had one essential feature in common: they were confronted with this total war and with permanently exceptional circumstances, and the Soviet Union was a backward country without a liberal tradition.

Gulag and emancipation in the Stalin period

Up to this point we have said little or nothing about the internal developments in this country that emerged from Red October. At the outset let me make clear that the terror is only one side of the coin (and this is true also for the Stalinist period). The other side needs to be described with some citations and quotations from impeccable sources. “The fifth five-year plan for the school system was an organized attempt to eradicate illiteracy.” Further policies in this area led to the preparation “of a completely new generation of skilled workers and technicians and technically skilled managerial personnel.” Between 1927/28 and 1932/33 the number of college and university students increased markedly from 160,000 to 470,000. The proportion of students in higher education from working-class families rose from one-fourth to one-half. “New cities were founded and old cities were reconstructed.” The emergence of gigantic new industrial complexes went hand in glove with massive upward mobility. This led to “social advancement for capable and ambitious citizens from working-class and agricultural backgrounds.” As a consequence of the cruel and extensive repression of those years, “ten thousand Stakhonovites became factory managers,” and there occurred a parallel phenomenon of upward mobility in the armed forces. One understands nothing of the Stalin period if one does not see it as a combination of barbarism (with an immense Gulag) and social progress. [26]

A history we need to be ashamed of?

Members of the phantom (anti-Marxist) “Back to Marx” movement claim that Communists above all must acknowledge that the history of the use of power by Lenin and Stalin is a shameful one. Yet it is not. The epoch-making feature of the October Revolution and the historical turning-point introduced by Lenin is described as follows by Stalin in 1924:

Formerly, the national question was usually confined to a narrow circle of questions, concerning, primarily, “civilized” nationalities. The Irish, the Hungarians, the Poles, the Finns, the Serbs, and several other European nationalities that was the circle of unequal peoples in whose destinies the leaders of the Second International were interested. The scores and hundreds of millions of Asiatic and African peoples who are suffering national oppression in its most savage and cruel form usually remained outside of their field of vision. They hesitated to put white and black, “civilized” and “uncivilized” on the same plane. … Leninism laid bare this crying incongruity, broke down the wall between whites and blacks, between Europeans and Asiatics, between the “civilized” and “uncivilized” slaves of imperialism, and thus linked the national question with the question of the colonies. [27]

Was this just talk? All theory that does not bring immediate profit can be regarded as nonessential only in the mind of the short-sighted capitalist manager or provincial shopkeeper. In no case can this be the view of a Communist, who is supposed to have learned from Lenin that theory is indispensable for the construction of an emancipatory movement, as well as from Marx that theory becomes a material force of the utmost importance when it is grasped by the masses. And this really did happen.

Even in the darkest years of Stalinism, the international Communist movement played a progressive role not only in the colonial areas, but also in the developed capitalist countries. In the “Third Reich,” the Jewish philologist, Viktor Klemperer, described in heart-rending terms the degradation and insult that were connected to wearing the star of David;

A removal man, whom I have grown fond of from two earlier removals, suddenly stands before me in the Freiburger Strasse and pumps my hand with his two paws and whispers so that one must be able to hear it across the Fahrdamm: “Now Professor, don’t let it get you down! Before long they’ll be finished, the bloody brothers.”

The Jewish philologist was referring with loving irony to the fact that it must be “decent people who reek strongly of the KPD [German Communist Party]” who were challenging the regime in this way. [28]

Let us shift from Germany to the United States. There Franklin D. Roosevelt has become president. But in the South a politics of segregation and lynching is directed against the African American population. Who is opposing it? The Communists, who not for nothing were branded as “foreigners” and “n—erlovers” by those with the dominant mindset. An American historian describes the courage that Communists needed in the United States: “Their challenge to racism and to the status quo prompted a wave of repression one might think inconceivable in a democratic country.” To be a Communist really could mean: “to face the possibility of imprisonment, beatings, kidnapping and even death.” [29]

In this manner, Communists struggled against anti-Semitic and racist barbarism in two very different countries, and, as we want to stress, they viewed Stalin’s USSR filled with sympathy and hope.

Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Stalin

Now let us examine the ideology of the dictator himself, and we shall not liken it to that of Hitler — such an absurd comparison can be left to the professional anti-Communists. Instead, let us look at the ideologies of two other leaders of the antifascist coalition. A few years ago a well-respected English newspaper disclosed that Churchill was attracted to the idea that groups of vagabonds, barbarians, derelicts, and criminals — who are not capable of participating in social life at the level of civilized beings — should be forcibly sterilized. [30]

This type of thinking was also evident with Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was enamored of a radical project at least for some length of time after his declaration in Yalta that he felt “more than ever the need for revenge against the Germans” due to the crimes they had committed. “We’ve got to be tough against the Germans and I mean the German people, not just the Nazis. We’ve got to castrate the German people or at least treat them so that they can never again bring forth people who will want to act as in the past.” [31]

In spite of the immense losses and the indescribable suffering that resulted from Hitler fascism, Stalin never engaged in any kind of comparable wholesale racialization of the Germans. In August 1942, he asserted:

It would be ludicrous to equate the clique around Hitler with the German people or the German government. The lessons of history show that Hitlers come and go, yet the German people, the German state continue. The strength of the Red Army rests upon the fact that it can not and does not abide racial hatred against other peoples, including the German people. [32]

In this case too one could shrug it off as mere theory, mere talk. But one thing is certain: apart from the barbarism and terror of these years, Marxist theory, even in Stalin, was superior to the ideas held by even these respected exponents of the bourgeois world.

Two chapters from the history of subaltern classes and oppressed peoples

We recommend some reflection to the Communists who have joined ranks with the dominant ideology in demonizing Stalin. They continue to look to Spartacus. Historians report that Spartacus, in order to avenge and honor the death of his comrade Crixus, sacrificed three hundred Roman prisoners, and killed others the night before this battle. Still more violent was the action of the slaves who dared an insurgency some decades before. According to Diodorus Siculus, they broke into the home of the rulers, raped the women, and brought about “a massive blood bath, that did not even spare the infants.” These are certainly not the types of conduct that Italian Communists want to valorize when they wave the portrait of Spartacus at their Liberazione festivals or depict it in the pages of their revolutionary Communist newspaper. They never place him on the same plane as Crassus, who (after restoring an iron discipline to the Roman Legion through the exercise of arbitrary power) succeeded in putting down the insurgents and had four thousand prisoners crucified along the Appian Way. Crassus was the richest man in Rome. He wanted to see slavery made permanent and he wanted to deny all dignity to the “instruments with speech” of the world. Yet one of these talking instruments had some success, at least for a time, in confronting and deflating the arrogance of his imperial masters, expressing the protest of his comrades in work and suffering. Insofar as they honor Spartacus, the Italian Communists are also reinforcing the fact that his personality and his destiny were (in spite of the errors) part of a movement that was a liberation movement and inseparable from the history of subaltern classes.

It is little different with the Russian Communists and the meaning of their demonstrations against the use of the portrait of Stalin. They want to avoid identifying with the Gulag and the systematic liquidation of opponents, just like the “Liberazione” avoid identification with the brutality against women and the massacre of prisoners and infants that the insurgent slaves were guilty of. The simple-minded transfiguration of Spartacus is the other side of the coin of demonizing Stalin. It makes no sense to flee from reality or to sanitize it arbitrarily in order to protect our comfort zone. One need not be a Communist to recognize that “Stalinism,” with all of its horror, is a chapter in a liberation movement that defeated the Third Reich and that provided the impetus for anticolonialism and for the struggles against anti-Semitism and racism; every honest historian knows this.

One historian observes: It is an error to think “Nazi racism was renounced as early as the 1930s.” Even the neologism “racism” with its negative connotations comes into use only later. Before then racial prejudice was a component of the dominant ideology taken for granted on both sides of the Atlantic. [33] Can we even imagine the radical confrontation and transformation of the concepts “race” and “racism” without the contributions from Stalin’s USSR?

Communists must reappropriate their own history

During his presidency, Bill Clinton declared that he wanted to model himself on Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy was not only the theoretician of the “big stick” needed when dealing with Latin America. The person of whom Clinton was so enamored was also a proponent of the “eternal war” without “false sentimentality” against the American Indians. “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely about the tenth.” [34] Of course this is not the Theodore Roosevelt that Clinton wanted to take as his model. But this should give us pause to think: a careless reference to a personality that stepped right up to the threshold of a theoretical justification for genocide. And we should also think about the silence of others who tirelessly demand that the Left and the Communists must come to terms with their criminal past.

On the other hand, there are well-known legal scholars who speak of a “Western genocide” (or at minimum a massacre that has already cost hundreds of thousands of lives) with regard to the long-standing embargo against the people of Iraq. And this massacre did not occur as a result of a horrific and extraordinary circumstance, but rather in a period of peace. Even the Cold War was over, and the security and hegemony of the United States were in no way threatened. Upon what logical basis can one contend that the crimes of Lenin and Stalin are worse that those of which Clinton is guilty?

Sergio Romano has called the periodic bombings against Iraq a continuation of the election campaign by other means. Terror bombing as political advertising: this would have warmed Goebbels’ heart, yet it is undertaken by the leading state of the “democratic” West. And all of this, once again, in a period of peace. The question must be posed: for what reason should a future historian consider the U.S. president “more humane” than those who led the USSR during one of the most tragic periods of world history? Here the attitudes of certain Communists really become repellent and coarse as they demonize Stalin and view Clinton as a representative, albeit a moderate one, of the “Left.” Let us examine the history of colonialism and imperialism. The West eliminated most Indians from the face of the earth and enslaved the blacks. Similar fates awaited other colonial peoples at their hands, yet this did not stop the West from characterizing its expansion as the advancement of freedom and civilization, thus a cause for celebration. This vision has culminated in the domination of its victims in such a manner that they have internalized their defeat and feel entirely dependent on the conqueror. They hope to sit in the lap of “civilization,” and they have given up their historical understanding and cultural identity. Today we are witnessing a kind of colonization of the historical consciousness of Communists. And this is more than just a metaphor. Historically the Communist movement has come to power in colonial lands at the periphery of the West. On the other hand, the triumph of globalization and the Pax Americana, seen from the point of view of the media, means that everywhere beyond the West becomes just a colony or a province. At least this is so potentially; from the point of view of the center of empire, Washington can (and does), day in and day out, strike any spot on the globe with the concentrated fire-power of its multiple media. To resist this is difficult, yet without this resistance, there are no Communists.

Why the United States won the “Third World War”

The U.S. diplomatic-military offensive

The beginning and the end of the “Cold War” were marked explicitly by two military warnings, two threats, not just of war but of total war and annihilation: the atomic destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima ordered by Truman, and the Star Wars program initiated by Reagan. But not just for this reason can the period between 1945 and 1991 be understood as a kind of “Third World War” with its own unique characteristics. The victors successfully disturbed and transformed the political-military strategy of their enemies. In 1953, Yugoslavia became a kind of corresponding member of NATO five years after it broke with the USSR on the basis of its approval of the “Balkan Pact” with Turkey and Greece, and was thus integrated into the “defensive position of the West.” [35] Beginning in the 1970s, a kind of “de facto alliance” against the USSR was built up through the U.S.-China reconciliation process, though for its part the USSR wanted to win the United States for a “quasi-alliance against China.” [36]

It is obvious that the winning diplomatic initiatives of the West were connected to powerful military pressures. Let us look at the People’s Republic of China, which was politically seeking its own national unity after decades and even centuries of colonial humiliation, yet caught up in a conflict in which its major goal was the recovery of Quemoy and Matsu, two islands that, as Churchill emphasized in a letter to Eisenhower on 15 February 1955, lay “offshore” and “are legally part of China.” They formed a kind of pistol at its temple. And this pistol was not to be considered out of bounds by the U.S. administration. It would not hesitate to threaten to defend the islands with atomic weapons. Thus, in 1958, when the Quemoy-Matsu crisis broke out anew, the USSR, fully aware of the military superiority of the United States, gave to China a defense agreement that limited itself only to the mainland. The great Asiatic power was thus forced to give up its goal, one that even Churchill saw a legitimate and “natural.” The assurances were of no use that Khrushchev had given Mao two years earlier, rebuilding the leadership that the socialist camp required along with the contre-cordon sanitaire. Obedience to the political line of the USSR no longer appeared as the path that could end colonial degradation or achieve national unity. In this manner, the threat of using military force (above all nuclear), if not the actual use of force itself, decisively influenced the development of the Third World War.

The national question and the decline of the “socialist camp”

None of this reduces the magnitude of the mistakes, crimes, and guilt of the socialist camp. Quite the contrary, it makes these clearer. Let us take a look at the most difficult points of crisis. In 1948, the USSR broke with Yugoslavia. In 1956, the invasion of Hungary. In 1968, the invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1969, bloody border confrontations between the USSR and China. Though avoided then, war between two governments calling themselves socialist would become a tragic reality a decade later: first between Vietnam and Cambodia, then China and Vietnam. In 1981, martial law in Poland in order to prevent a “comradely” intervention by the USSR, and to bring under control an oppositional movement that had found widespread support because it appealed to the national identity that Big Brother scorned. For a variety of reasons, it is nonetheless common to all of the crises that the national question played a central role. Not for nothing did the dissolution of the socialist camp begin at the edges of the “empire,” in countries that had been dissatisfied for a long time with the limited sovereignty forced upon them. There were also decisive factors internal to the USSR. The stirrings in the Baltic republics, which had had socialism “exported” to them in 1939 and 1940, were key to the ultimate collapse, well before the obscure “putsch” of August 1991. In definite ways the national question, which had importantly helped the success of the October Revolution, also sealed the end of the historical cycle which it began.

The strengthened vitality of the People’s Republic of China (no matter how one evaluates its political orientation back then) is explicable only because Mao took to heart historical experiences and understood how to analyze critically the major difficulties in the USSR caused by its policies in regard to the peasantry and national minorities. [37] At least during certain periods of their history, the Chinese Communists understood to stay on the high ground represented by Lenin’s views of 1916, which stressed that the national question remains even after Communist and workers’ parties come to state power. A position paper of the Communist Party of China in 1956 stressed that within the socialist camp continuing efforts are necessary to overcome the tendency toward great nation chauvinism. This is a tendency that by no means disappears immediately with the conquest of a bourgeois or semifeudal regime, and that may even be heightened during the “heady” times when revolution is newly victorious. The position paper states:

[This is a] phenomenon that is not unique to any particular country. For example, country B can be small and backward compared to country A, yet large and developed with regard to country C. Therefore it can happen that country B, while complaining about the great-nation chauvinism of country A, can simultaneously display characteristics of great-nation chauvinism toward country C. [38]

I am treating the problem here very generally, yet is not hard to see that behind B we could find Yugoslavia complaining about the arrogance and chauvinism of the USSR (A), yet itself showing hegemonic ambitions toward Albania (C). Ultimately the Chinese Communists came to denounce the USSR as socialist in words but imperialist in deeds. They utilized a concept (social imperialism) that correctly castigated actions like the invasion of Czechoslovakia, but which nonetheless unfairly erased national conflict from socialist reality and fell thereby into a utopian perspective on socialism.

Not so very long ago Fidel Castro attempted to analyze and evaluate these issues and came to this remarkable conclusion: “We socialists have committed the following error: we have underestimated the power of nationalism and religion.” (Here one should remember that religion in particular can form an essential element of national identity, as in countries like Poland and Ireland. Today we might also say the same about the Islamic world.) Unable to acknowledge and respect national peculiarities because of an abstract and aggressive “internationalism,” Brezhnev’s openly chauvinistic and hegemonic theory of the “international dictatorship of the proletariat” came to pass, which resulted in limiting the sovereignty of countries officially allied with the USSR. The breakup and collapse of the socialist camp stems from this, as does also the ultimate triumph and practice of the “international dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” worked out by the United States.

The economic and ideological front of the “Third World War”

Above and beyond the diplomatic/military side of the “Third World War” was the economic side, the war’s second front. A technological embargo had been declared against the USSR and kept in force, for all practical purposes, until the final breakdown of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless it would be erroneous to overestimate the role played by the economy in this process. It will suffice to relate the views of a few establishment U.S. sources on this matter. Paul Kennedy viewed the Russia of the 1930s as being on the road to a speedy transformation to an economic superpower, and considered the five-year period from 1945 to 1950 as constituting a minor economic miracle. Lester Thurow characterized the economy of the Soviet Union in the years that immediately followed as growing “faster than the United States,” and also contended that “the sudden disappearance of Communism” is “mysterious,” at least as regards the economy. [39] Since the collapse of production in the formerly socialist countries occurred only after 1991, it can very definitely be said that the economy was not the key factor in the collapse of “real, existing socialism.”

We are thus compelled to examine the third front of the “Third World War,” the ideological one. One of the first goals of the CIA was to set up an efficient “Psychological Warfare Workshop.” In November 1945, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Averill Harriman, demanded the construction of high-powered radio stations that could broadcast in all of the USSR’s diverse languages. In 1956, during the days of the Hungarian uprising, the dozen or so small and secretly constructed radio transmitters played a major role.

A completely unrealistic theory of Communism

The multimedia supremacy of the United States was not, of course, the most important factor. During the 1950s (when, as we have seen, the rhythm of Soviet economic development was extremely promising), Khrushchev proclaimed the goals of Communism in terms of outpacing the United States. At that time “real, existing socialism” was ideologically on the offensive to such a degree that, in terms of history and philosophy of history, it considered the fate of capitalism as being already sealed. The ensuing years and decades demonstrated the unreal nature of this perspective. Forced to reduce its ambitions drastically, the Soviet Union proved unable to analyze its own history or to examine its own ideology in a fundamental way. Its leaders offered assurances again and again that rapid progress was being made on the path toward the realization of Communism. Yet this was a Communism understood in the fantastical manner that is oftentimes handed down to us as a definition from Marx and Engels. According to the German Ideology, Communism is supposed to bring forth a condition where it is possible for every one of us “do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner” according to one’s own wishes “without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.” [40]

If we would like to adopt this definition, it would require that the productive capacities of Communism be advanced so wonderfully that the problems and conflicts that are ordinarily connected to the measurement and regulation of the labor necessary for the production of social wealth and the distribution of this wealth would have disappeared. Furthermore, such an understanding of Communism presupposes not only the end of the state, but also of the division of labor, and indeed labor itself, not to mention the disappearance of all forms of power and duty. Decades of rich historical experience should have given rise to a profound examination of these themes and problems. In reality we have not gotten much further than the efforts of Lenin in reformulating the theory of socialist revolution and taking into account the lengthy duration of the transition and its unavoidable complexity. What is lacking is the (absolutely necessary) radical re-examination of the theory of socialism and Communism in the totality of postcapitalist society.

It is clear that when the attainment of Communism is put off until an ever more distant and unlikely future, “real, existing socialism” loses its credibility and legitimacy all the more. A Party leadership that gradually became more and more self-important, more spoiled and more corrupt, lacked any type of general legitimacy. A time like ours seeks political justification in terms of democracy and people’s self-determination. In addition, the tangible consequences of “real, existing socialism” undermined the very reasons for its existence. Ever-present compulsion became more and more unbearable within the civil society that did develop thanks to mass education, the wide extension of culture, and a modicum of social security.

The internal difficulties of the “socialist camp” became all the more obvious as the rhythm of economic development began to lag. The thesis of the inevitable (and immediate) crisis of capitalism, propounded by socialism’s philosophy of history, increasingly came into crisis itself. The foundation for social consensus disappeared, and the powerful mechanisms of repression were met with growing revulsion. At the same time, the Soviet leadership mindlessly cranked out its tiring hurdy-gurdy tunes about the arrival of the fantastical kind of Communism described above. And these kinds of litanies had very disadvantageous consequences for the economy. Disequilibrium and underdevelopment were already manifest and demanded energetic interventions to heighten the productivity of labor. Yet the solving of this problem is not made any easier by the idea that we supposedly find ourselves on a path to Communism aiming at universal leisure, nor by branding every attempt at a rationalization of the production process as the “restoration of capitalism.” If we want to speak of a collapse in Eastern Europe, this was far more of an ideological than an economic one.

“Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement”

But is not an explanation idealist if it places the accent far more on ideology than on the economy? In thinking about this question, Marxists would be well served if they recalled Gramsci’s irony with reference to “the baroque conviction that we are all the more orthodox the more we reach back and grasp ‘material’ things.” [41] In addition, it is worth remembering one of Lenin’s most famous statements, “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” [42] Certainly the Bolshevik Party had a theory for acquisition of power, yet insofar as revolution meant going beyond the destruction of the old order and the construction of a new one, the Bolsheviks and the Communist movement essentially were without revolutionary theory. An eschatological wish for a completely harmonious society, free of contradiction and conflict, cannot be considered a theory of the postcapitalist society in need of construction. We must acknowledge the grievous and gaping void here. This void cannot be filled by going back to Marx or to other classic sources. We are confronting here a new, extremely difficult, and absolutely inescapable task.

The People’s Republic of China and the historical analysis of socialism

Mao Zedong and the Chinese Revolution

In China, the Communist Party rose to power riding on the tide of a national-liberation struggle of epic proportions. The projects relating to profound social transformation were thus closely connected to the task of recovering the greatness of the Chinese nation. This is a nation with a civilization going back through the millennia, yet after the Opium War it was coerced into semicolonial (and semifeudal) relations. How did this gigantic Asian land both modernize and socialize, and thereby overcome the fragmentation and national degradation that imperialism had forced upon it? And how did it succeed in this amid the difficult conditions of the Cold War and the economic, or at least technological, embargo that had been deployed by the advanced capitalist countries? Mao Zedong believed that these problems could be solved through the uninterrupted mobilization of the masses. This led to the “Great Leap Forward,” and then to the “Cultural Revolution.” As the difficulties and dead ends of the Soviet model began to become evident, Mao proclaimed the slogan “advance the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat.” A new stage of the revolution was called upon to guarantee both economic development and progress in the direction of socialism. This new stage of socialism had the mission of liberating the initiatives of the masses from all bureaucratic obstacles even from the bureaucratic obstacles of the Communist Party and the state that it controlled.

Make no mistake about it: this policy led to massive losses. On the political level, instead of the hoped-for rapid development, there occurred a terrifying slowdown or even back-sliding in the democratization process. The democratic warranties and rules of the game were done away with within the Communist Party and then even more so in the society at large. Clearly relationships worsened between the Han and the national minorities, who were subjected to multiple vendettas during the “cultural revolution.” They were sharply discriminated against, or indoctrinated through intensive short-term schooling. This pedagogy was inspired by an aggressive and intolerant “enlightenment” approach that came from Beijing or other urban centers populated by the Han. Because the mediating roles of the Party and the state had been swept away, there really only existed, on the one hand, the immediate relationship to the charismatic leader, and on the other hand, the immediate relationship to the masses (though these were in fact manipulated and fanaticized by means of the news media and controlled by an army prepared to intervene in emergencies). These were truly the years of a triumphal Bonapartism.

Immense losses were also obvious in the economic arena, and these were not only on account of the splits and continual confrontations that resulted from the crisis of having no criteria of legitimation other than fidelity to the charismatic leader. There is a perhaps more important dimension to the problem. The “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution” took no account of the need to normalize the process of transformation. No one can call upon the masses to be heroes all the time, to endure being continuously and eternally mobilized, always ready to sacrifice, to do without, to deny oneself. The call to heroism must always remain the exception and never become the rule. We could say with Brecht, “happy is the people that has no need of heroes.” Heroes are necessary for the transition from exceptional conditions to normalcy, and are heroes only insofar as they guarantee the transition from exceptional conditions to normalcy, which is to say they are heroes to the extent to which they are willing to make themselves superfluous. It would be a very peculiar “Communism” that required sacrifice and self-denial ad infinitum, or nearly ad infinitum. Normalcy must be organized according to a variety of principles, by means of mechanisms and norms that allow for the greatest possible undisturbed enjoyment of daily events. Here you need rules of the game, and insofar as the economy is concerned, incentives.

In the last years or months of his life, Mao himself must have been aware of the need for a change in course. Deng Xiaoping understood this, how to push along this kind of change without imitating the Khrushchev model of “de-Stalinization.” He did it without demonizing those who preceded him in holding power. The enormous historical contributions that Mao made by building up the Communist Party, and through his leadership of the revolutionary struggle, were not to be forgotten. The serious mistakes committed toward the end of the 1950s were seen in a larger context, namely within the contours of more-or-less hasty, even crazy, experiments, which accompanied the projects proposed in the building of a society that was without historical precedent. Was it not the same Mao, who in his better times, 1937, authored On Practice? He demanded that we not lose sight of the fundamental fact that just as the “development of an objective process is full of contradictions and struggles, … so is the development of the movement of human knowledge.” [43] This is in fact the key to understanding the oscillations that are characteristic of the history of the Communist parties and the societies that see themselves as guided by Communist principles. The point is to emphasize the objectively contradictory character of consciousness and the knowledge process, and not the “betrayal” or the “degeneration” of this or that personality. Insofar as Khrushchev demonized Stalin and reduced everything to the “cult of personality,” he perpetuated the problematic side of this heritage. Because Deng Xiaoping refused to quarrel in this manner with Mao, he is the heir of the better side.

The procedure chosen by the new Chinese leadership, in any case, avoided a delegitimation of revolutionary power. Above all, it made possible a genuine debate about the conditions and characteristics of the construction of a socialist society, because it did not shift all the difficulties, uncertainties, and objective contradictions onto one person as scapegoat. In the course of this debate the internal presuppositions of the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution” were criticized and rejected.

A tremendous and innovative New Economic Policy (NEP)

In the economic arena we are gradually seeing “market socialism” emerge. Characteristic of this is the development of a large private sector and a concern to make the public sector efficient. Getting connected up with the world market and the technology of the West, as well as with its wisdom in the areas of industrial organization and business management, does not come without a price. In China, openly capitalist “special economic zones” have appeared. On the other hand, what are the alternatives? Above all it is no longer possible, after the crisis and dissolution of the USSR and the “socialist camp,” for a nation to isolate itself from global capitalist markets unless it wants to condemn itself to backwardness and powerlessness. Under the new conditions of the world market and global politics, isolationism would be tantamount to giving up on modernity and socialism. And even with the attendant high costs, the outcomes of undertaking this new course are generally visible: a rapid expansion in the development of productive forces; an economic miracle of European proportions; access like never before to economic and social opportunities for hundreds of millions of Chinese. All of this adds up to a liberation process of enormous proportions.

In the political realm, the questions were how to develop democracy and eliminate the residue of the old regime that had survived the revolution as well as reduce the arrogance of the new bureaucrats (which was derived from the arrogance of the Mandarins). And so the path that the aged Mao found so worthy — “Advance the Revolution under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat” — was relinquished. Because this path had intensified rather than eliminated the power plays and arbitrariness of the bosses and little bosses, it created a crisis that delegitimated even the very few norms and warranties that existed in society. The limitation and regulation of power is today grounded in the rule of law, a codified system of rules, norms, and rights. Such a system of law was hitherto unknown, but is now rapidly growing simultaneously with the separation of Party organizations from governmental structures. An electoral system has emerged in the villages along with a wide assortment of candidates. Other measures are being experimented with in this democratization process, which, as the leaders of the People’s Republic explicitly acknowledge, is far from complete. In the course of its history, “real, existing socialism” branded “formal” freedoms as empty and deceptive. Paradoxically, the cultural revolution operated along the same lines. Currently, however, the Chinese Communist leaders value very highly the “formal” freedoms guaranteed by law. They also adhere to the notion that the emphasis must be placed today on economic and social rights, given the present stage of economic development in the People’s Republic. The decision to pursue also political modernization is irrevocable. In both political and economic terms, no socialism is now even thinkable that does not understand how to analyze, compare, and creatively evaluate the most forward-looking practices of the capitalist West as it rode the wave of bourgeois democratic revolution.

The social order that in China is currently considered valid presents itself as a kind of gigantic and expanded New Economic Policy (NEP). This is an NEP that has become harder to achieve because of globalization and power relationships worldwide. Nonetheless, the program is quite conscious of the necessity to connect continually socialism, democracy, and the market with one another, and to transcend the crudely simplified notion of the homogeneity of the society it is attempting to build.

The stakes are immense

To speak of a restoration of capitalism in China would be looking at the problem too superficially. A solid bourgeoisie has undoubtedly emerged there, although it currently has no possibility of transforming its economic power into political power. We need to understand the difficult situation in which the Chinese leaders find themselves. On the one hand, they have to push forward with the democratization process. This is an essential element of socialist modernization as it is also a means of consolidating power (today the only principle of legitimation is that of investiture from below). On the other hand, they must avoid having the democratization process lead to a conquest of power by the bourgeoisie, which, by the way, is the goal sought in an entirely unremitting fashion by the United States. It is resolved to undermine the hegemony of the Communist Party by any means necessary. If it can bring China into conformity with the capitalist West, it will attain the planetary triumph of the “American Century.”

It is a shame that the U.S. administration gets support for this also from the “Left.” Certain leftists get upset about the priority that is given to the attainment of a modicum of material equality within a developing country having one billion two hundred million inhabitants. Here these leftists demonstrate that they have retrogressed to the position of the neoliberals, who do not merely view Marx with contempt, but also liberals like Rawls. They talk about the primacy of freedom over equality, or put it another way in terms of negative over positive freedom. They quickly add that their principle is only valid “under the presupposition of a minimum income guarantee.”

But what of the openly declared capitalism of the “special economic zones”? Those who are undertaking an anti-Chinese crusade in the name of Mao Zedong would do well to think over an important fact. As late as five years before the conquest of power, the great revolutionary leader acknowledged the durability not only of capitalism in this gigantic country, but also the “slave-holding regimes” (referring to Tibet) as well as the “feudal landlords,” yet he was not at all upset by this. And if we want to consider how broadly extended conditions of poverty and unemployment clash with the upwardly mobile lifestyles of the newly rich, think back to an extraordinary page from Gramsci written in 1926. He is analyzing the USSR and writes about a phenomenon “that has never occurred in history.” A “ruling” political class “in its entirety” lived “under conditions that were worse than certain elements and strata of the dominated and subjugated class.” Masses of people, who endured a life of deprivation and want, were made to feel even more insecure by the theatrics of the “NEP-man in furs, who had access to all the material goods of the earth.” Yet this must not lead to perturbation or refusal, because the proletariat can neither conquer power nor retain it if it is not able to sacrifice particular and immediate interests to the “general and permanent interests of the class.”

The construction of a socialist society is an extraordinarily complex process. Certainly the contents and essential characteristics of the society that the Chinese Communists seek remain vague. The process of acknowledging the objective realities is occurring one more time, and one gets to know the objective realities confronting a society unprecedented in history neither linearly nor easily. Given the theoretical weaknesses of Marxism, it would be stupid during this epoch of globalization to underestimate the great danger of the homogenization of China through adaptation to the surrounding context of capitalism. But it would be an act of political blindness to assume that this homogenization has already occurred, and even worse to promote the process by joining the anti-Chinese campaign instigated by the United States. The stakes are immense in this game. The realities of a continent-wide country include every sort of difficulty and contradiction. Yet China is resolved to overcome underdevelopment and not to give up its political independence. Furthermore, by becoming technologically autonomous, it seeks to attain socialist modernity. Should it succeed in this, the power relationships of our planet would be drastically and completely altered.

Marxism or anarchism? Think through Communist theory and practice in a fundamentally new way

Materialism or idealism?

The historical events introduced by the October Revolution have led to certain conclusions for many leftists that might serve as negative models. Very often the degeneration and the collapse of the USSR and the “socialist camp” are explained by tracing everything back to Stalin. This attitude is translatable into the sigh: Oh, if only Lenin had lived longer! What a terrible misfortune that his place was not taken by Trotsky or Bukharin. Too bad that the Bolshevik leadership did not understand how to follow the path Marx would have wanted — the path of the “authentic” Marx — as understood by one or another of the inflexible judges over the history of “real, existing socialism.” And if perchance one of them (like Rossana Rossanda) had held power instead of Stalin, we would not have had the return of the Czarist flag and the Duma to Moscow. Not at all, we would have the victory of the soviet system and the red flag over New York. If that analysis were correct, we would not only have to go back to Marx, but at least as far as Plato and his idealism. It really is hard to imagine a more radical liquidation of historical materialism. The objective circumstances are of no interest at all: the condition of Russia and its historical background; the class struggles domestically and internationally; power relationships in the areas of economics, politics, and the military, etc. Everything was the result of the crudeness, the brutality, the will to power, the paranoia — in any case, the character of a single personality. Ironically, it is just this type of explanation that reproduces the fundamental errors of Stalinism. These are reproduced even to a greater degree, because the objectively existing contradictions are forgotten and a weak and prejudicial recourse is made to the concept of “betrayal.” Mind you, not to a specific act, but rather to almost seventy years of history regarded as one long uninterrupted “betrayal” of Communist ideals. All of this committed by Stalin, who is thus to be delivered over to the execution squad of the historians, or better yet, to the journalists and ideologues.

From this type of analysis sometimes an entire philosophy of history is hammered together. In the period around 1968, a book was circulated fairly widely whose very title, Proletarians without Revolution, [44] was thought to deliver the key to understanding universal history. Always inspired by the most noble Communist sentiments, the masses were regularly betrayed by their leaders and the bureaucrats. And this is also paradoxical because what was intended to be a complaint of the masses against the leaders and bureaucrats converts abruptly into an indictment against the masses. The analysis reveals the masses to be completely irredeemable simpletons who are entirely unable to comprehend their own interests at decisive moments. They long to consign their fate to swashbucklers. And here once again we see an overarching idealism; deception and betrayal by swashbucklers is supposed to explain all of world history.

Occasionally there are slight variations of this account. Here one contrasts the initial liveliness, beauty, and abundance of debate in the soviets with the monotony of the bureaucratic and autocratic apparatus that takes over. Again we give the traitors, gravediggers, and killers of the soviets the merry chase. People who reason this way (or who sigh this way) forget that historical upheavals and revolutions are generally accompanied by a transition from poetry to prose. The Protestant Reformation challenged the pope and the powers of the day by distributing the demands of the general priesthood, yet the original enthusiasm did not survive the occurrence of difficulties, objective contradictions, and the outbreak of the terrible conflicts that followed. The changes could only take place on a more limited, yet more realistic, basis. The revolutions of 1789 and 1848 in France give us similar things to consider.

It is not reasonable to compare the inspiration and encouragement of the initial stages of the battle against the old regime needing to be toppled with the later more prosaic and more difficult phases. Here a new government must be built in spite of all the difficulties and in spite of contradictions of every sort, including those that derive from having too little experience. It would be like condemning a marriage or partnership (including the successful ones) in the name of the unique and irreplaceable moments experienced when one first fell in love. It appears that in the developmental stages of a revolution the original enthusiasm of the participants can suspend for a time the mundane division of labor and everyday business. Still these will eventually again demand our attention. Therefore it makes sense to reduce that sector of society that will need to be called upon to be actively involved, and this leads unavoidably to a certain degree of professionalization in political life. The institutions that developed out of the Protestant Reformation followed one and the same dialectic. So too did the clubs of the French Revolution, the Russian soviets, the sections of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) that emerged during struggle, or reemerged in the student organizations that arose during the movements of 1968. A “general priesthood” cannot last forever. Rather it makes room for more limited and prosaic structures, which, if the revolution or movement has succeeded, are very different from a return to the old order. In terms of the USSR, the real problem was never a taking leave from the original beauty of the soviets, but rather the return of the Duma and the economic and political power of big money.

“Dictatorship of the proletariat” and “withering away of the state”

In order to get beyond the idealist types of pseudoexplanations, it is necessary to replace the concept of betrayal (that really plays a minor role) with that of learning. The victory of a revolution can only be considered secure when the class that has carried it out succeeds in giving its sovereignty a durable political form. All of this takes place in the middle of a long and complex learning process marked by conflict and contradiction, experiment and error. This learning process lasted from 1789 to 1871 for the French bourgeoisie, for example. Not until after this period does this class really find its form of political rule, as Gramsci underscores, in a parliamentary republic grounded in universal (male) suffrage. This proves itself to be durable when it succeeds in connecting hegemony and compulsion in such a manner that its dictatorship and use of force only become visible in moments of acute crisis.

Why did not something quite similar occur after the October Revolution? In order to explain the “totalitarian” petrification of the Soviet regime, the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat is often cited. This is a very superficial understanding. Ultimately it acts as if the demands of the liberals, or at least the non-Marxists, for freedom preclude a theoretical justification for dictatorship during a transitional phase or for situations of acute crisis. In reality, all of the classical philosophers of liberalism (Locke, Montesquieu, Hamilton, Mill, etc.) have explicitly allowed for the suspension of constitutional guarantees and the use of dictatorship in exceptional circumstances. For Italy, the example of Mazzini is of particular interest. He spoke of a “dictatorial, strongly concentrated power” that would suspend the Charter of Rights, and fulfill its mission only when the national revolution had finally triumphed and independence had been attained. What the national revolution was for Mazzini, the socialist revolution was for Marx, Lenin, or Stalin. With regard to the USSR, the problem can thus be reformulated: Why was the transitional phase (or exceptional circumstance) never overcome?

Of course, one must never lose sight of the economic encirclement. But closely connected to this objective fact is an important subjective limit: the political and cultural education of the Bolshevik leaders. As with Marx and Engels, so too with these leaders. Time and again they were confronted with the problem of democracy, yet this came to the fore only to disappear again almost immediately. The reason was this: one of the fundamentals of their theory or their worldview was that the state withers away with the overcoming of class antagonisms and social classes, and so democracy as a form of the state also withers away.

This theory, or rather illusion, of Marx and Engels is grounded in a dramatic historical analysis. The First Republic, born in France in 1789, was transformed in the course of the revolution first into dictatorship and then into the empire of Napoleon I. The Second Republic, a child of the 1848 revolution, soon made room for the Bonapartist dictatorship of Napoleon III. In England, during periods of crisis, the ruling class did not hesitate to suspend habeas corpus or legal rights, and subjected Ireland to a kind of permanent siege when its people rather undiplomatically rejected British colonial rule. And afterwards the liberal and democratic state had no difficulty in transforming itself into an open and even terrorist dictatorship whenever a crisis situation emerged or became more acute. Lenin drew a conclusion from all of this. With the outbreak of the First World War, the Bolshevik leaders saw governments with long-established liberal traditions change over into ones that would totally regiment their populations, becoming bloody behemoths. They were prepared to utilize martial law, execution squads, and arbitrary terror, sacrificing their citizens in massive numbers on the altar of imperial expansion and the state’s will to power.

Whether we look at it from the point of view of its historical or psychological origins, the theory of the withering away of the state flows into an eschatological vision of a society without conflict that consequently needs no norms of legality to regulate or limit conflicts. The abstract utopian quality of this watchword is something of which Marx and Engels at definite times seem explicitly conscious. For example, they obviously oscillate between speaking of the withering away or demise of the state in general, yet on the other hand refer specifically to the “state in its contemporary political sense” and “political force in its own peculiar sense.” Furthermore, the state, as they quite appropriately analyze it, is not only an instrument of class domination, but also a form of the “reciprocal rights” and “mutual security” that exist between individuals and the class in power. It is not at all clear why one would find “rights” and “security” superfluous for the individual members of a solidified society after the disappearance of classes and class struggle.

In any case, waiting for the withering away of all conflict and the demise of the state, and political force generally, makes it impossible to solve the problem of how to transform the government that emerges from socialist revolution. This expectation privileges the continuing existence of inflexible “overturners,” whose perspective is incapable of giving concreteness or stability to the emancipation of the subaltern classes. After the October Revolution, there were outstanding revolutionary socialists who proclaimed that “the idea of a constitution is a bourgeois idea.” With this as one’s basis, it would not only be easy to justify terroristic measures during emergencies, but also extremely difficult or impossible to make a transition to constitutional normalcy, especially since this is branded as bourgeois from the start. In this manner, exceptional circumstances privilege utopianism, and utopianism makes exceptional circumstances more extreme.

Politics and the economy

In general, one can say of Marx and Engels that politics, after playing a decisive role in the conquest of power, apparently disappears along with the state and the use of political force. This is all the more true when (in addition to the disappearance of classes, the state, and political power) the division of labor, nations, and religions, in short all possible sites of conflict, are thought to have disappeared.

This messianic vision ultimately leads to anarchism, and has also played a deleterious role in regard to the economy. A socialist society is quite unthinkable apart from a more or less extensive public sector (or one regulated by government) within the productive apparatus as well as within the service industries, the functioning of the public sector being decisive. The solution to this problem can be left to the anarchist myth of the emergence of the “new type of person,” who, it is alleged, will spontaneously identify with the collective without the appearance of any sort of conflict or contradiction between private and public, individual and individual, social group and social group. This is obviously a secular version of the religious notion of “grace,” which would make the law unnecessary. Or the solution can be sought in a system of rules and incentives (both material and moral), and of controls that are intended to secure the transparency, efficiency, and productivity of this sector. Certainly all of this is made more difficult, if not impossible, by an (anarchistic) phenomenology of power that situates domination and oppression exclusively in the state, the centralized power, and the general social rules. In this manner, the dialectic of the capitalist society as Marx described it is quite reversed. In “real, existing socialism,” anarchism led to terror as compared to a civil society. This terror became all the more unbearable as exceptional circumstances faded, and the philosophy of history that promised the withering away of the state, of national identities, of the market, etc., increasingly lacked credibility.

A Communism beyond the abstract, anarchical utopia

Even now we lack a theory for conflict within a socialist society or within the socialist camp. This is why the most profound crisis of the Communist movement set in at the same time, paradoxically, as the triumph and immense expansion of socialism after World War II. The anarchistic and messianic version of Communism which prevails up to the present time must be confronted with its own definition as a “realistic movement.” This has nothing to do with a resurgence of the slogan coined by Bernstein (“the movement is everything, the goal is nothing”). Bernstein refused to challenge the political domination of the bourgeoisie and the arrogance of the imperialist powers. (It is well known how the leaders of German social democracy looked at the “civilizing” mission of colonialism with great approval.) The one ambition that Bernstein would gladly have given up (thus perpetuating the established sociopolitical systems nationally and internationally) was the building of a postcapitalist and postimperialist society, a social order that can and must no longer be imagined as an insipid and uncritical utopia. Detachment from this kind of utopianism is the fundamental precondition of the Marxian notion of Communism as a “realistic movement.”

It is entirely understandable that the desire outlined here to find a new conception of Communism has given rise to some perplexity. In their polemic against my position with regard to the withering away of the state, it appears to me that comrades Luigi Cortesi and Walter Peruzzi do not present arguments that can make plausible the idea of a society without conflict or the need for legal safeguards. Instead they give vent to their disappointment that no properly inspired vision of a postcapitalist society leaps forth from my pages. Many a comrade might even go further, and question whether it is worth the trouble of fighting for a future society that does not bring with it the elimination of all conflict and contradiction. This is a little bit like the religious notion that life on earth does not really make any sense without the prospect of an afterlife beyond.

The wisdom of Gramsci would be a fine counterweight to these basically anarchistic and religious tendencies. He accomplished an enormous historical task as the first to have deliberated about an effective and radical project of liberation that never viewed itself as the end of history. It is really a matter of drawing a clear line of demarcation between Marxism and anarchism, and thereby taking leave once and for all from abstract utopianism, while at the same time demonstrating the historical reasons why it arises. We can also make good use here of a piece of advice from Engels, who observed the following, while comparing the revolutions in England and France: “In order to secure even those conquests of the bourgeoisie that were ripe for gathering at the time, the revolution had to be carried considerably further. … This seems, in fact, to be one of the laws of evolution of bourgeois society.” [45] There is no reason not to apply the materialistic method developed by Marx and Engels to the real historical movements and revolutions they both inspired.


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  1. The term real, existing socialism was used in the Soviet Union and its allied socialist countries to describe the socioeconomic and political system that they had adopted for socialist construction. The term was intended to distinguish an idyllic, utopian approach to the establishment of a communist society from the practical realities of socialist construction under conditions of constant economic, military, and political pressure by the imperialist powers committed to their destruction. — Ed. 

  2. Liberazione is the organ of the Communist Refoundation Party. Il Manifesto identifies itself as a “Communist daily newspaper.” — Ed. 

  3. Jean 1995, p. 205. 

  4. Valladao 1996, p. 241. 

  5. Caldiron 1977. 

  6. Hofstadter and Hofstadter 1982, p. 418f. 

  7. Ambrose 1991, p. 377. 

  8. Sherry 1995, p. 182. 

  9. Alperovitz 1995, pp. 316–330; ibid., p. 252; ibid., p. 260f. 

  10. On Truman’s policy, see Thomas 1988, p. 187. 

  11. Meirion and Harries 1987, p. 39. 

  12. Thomas 1988, p. 187. 

  13. Hillgruber 1988, p. 295 n. 71. 

  14. See in this regard Losurdo 1997, pp. 75–88. In regard to Hoover’s policy, see Trani 1979, p. 124. 

  15. Thomas 1988, p. 223. 

  16. 1994, p. 226. 

  17. Norberto Bobbio is an Italian philosopher and member of the Italian Senate, representing the Party of the Democratic Left. — Ed. 

  18. La Stampa, 24 September 1993. 

  19. Waldron 1995, p. 149. 

  20. Lutzker 1987, p. 178. 

  21. 1989, p. 125. 

  22. 1994. 

  23. 1994, p. 834. 

  24. Chiesa 1997, pp. 14 and 36. 

  25. Max Weber. 

  26. On the problems treated here, see Losurdo 1996a, 1996b, and 1998. 

  27. 1965, p. 70–71. 

  28. Burleigh and Wipperman 1991, p. 94. 

  29. Kelley 1990, pp. 30 and xii. 

  30. Ponting 1992. 

  31. Bacque 1992, chap. 1. With regard to the racialization of the Germans (and the Japanese) in the United States during the Second World War, see Losurdo 1996a, pp. 158–69. 

  32. Stalin 1942. Compare also Losurdo 1996a, pp. 153–54. 

  33. Barkan 1993, pp. 1–3. 

  34. Hofstadter 1967, p. 209. 

  35. This is the way the Yearbook of International Politics of the Istituto gli Studia di Politica Internazionale expressed it on p. 391 that same year (cited in Canfera 1996). 

  36. Kissinger 1994, p. 729. 

  37. 1979, pp. 365f and 372. 

  38. Ancora a proposito, 1956. 

  39. 1992, pp. 11 and 13. 

  40. Marx and Engels 1976, p. 47. 

  41. 1975, p. 1442. 

  42. 1961, p. 369. 

  43. 1968, pp. 18–19. 

  44. Carria 1966. 

  45. 1990, pp. 291–92.