Domenico Losurdo
Original publication:
Translation: Roderic Day

Domenico Losurdo interviewed by Matteo Gargani (2016)

51 minutes | English Ελληνική Italiano | Interviews

Domenico Losurdo, at the time Professor Emeritus at the University of Urbino in Italy, answers questions on the basis of two of his works: “Class Struggle: A Political and Philosophical History” (2013) and “The Absent Left: Crisis, the Society of the Spectacle, War” (2014).

Originally published under the title “A General Theory of Social Conflict: Class Struggle, Marxism, and International Relations.”

Gargani: In Italian Marxism, after World War II, with due historiographic caution, we are able to speak of three fundamental strands. The first is the historicist one, which upholds the interpretative canon of the Italian Communist Party, whose essential lines were laid down by Togliatti inspired by a reading of Gramsci as the culmination of a De Sanctis-Labriola-Croce ideological line. The second is the “workerist” one, whose symbolic start can be traced to 1961 in the foundation of the magazine Quaderni Rossi [Red Book], and which has counted among its ranks personalities of varied formations and political backgrounds, such as Tronti, Panzieri, Asor Rosa, Negri, and Cacciari. The third is that which is considered “Dellavolpism” which, mainly via the works of della Volpe and Colletti, attempted a scientific reading of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, playing down his early works and stressing his distance from Hegel. How did you read Marx in your formative years? Where does your interpretation of Marx lie among these three strands?

Losurdo: I would not put the three strands on the same level. Invoking Labriola and, earlier still, the Risorgimento, didn’t stop Togliatti from emphasizing the colonial question and denouncing, with Lenin, the “barbaric discrimination among human creatures” as typical of capitalism and liberalism itself (a question which was ignored by Labriola, who celebrated Italian expansion in Libya). Taking his cue from the Risorgimento and of its most radical currents, Togliatti on the one hand rejects the vision dear to Gobetti for whom fascism would be “the autobiography of a nation,” and on the other hand he criticizes the thesis of Croce, according to whom the advent of fascist dictatorship would entail an explosion of barbarism and madness comparable to “the invasion of the Hyksos.”

In his reading of Fascism, Gobetti’s essentialism is no less naive than Croce’s self-absolution of liberal Italy. Both of the “explanations” of Fascism cited here make the mistake of ignoring class struggle and the struggle between progress and reaction that characterizes the history of Italy and other countries. And it is only in light of this struggle that one can understand why Italy was accepting of the October Revolution, which led to the formation of the Italian Communist Party in 1921. This was not an artificial import of foreign ideology, contrary to what reactionary propaganda claimed.

We can draw an analogy to Cuba where, even before Fidel Castro, the tradition makes reference to Jose Martí, who understood the necessity of struggle against neocolonialism as well as against classic colonial domination even though he never knew Marx, who grasped the socio-economic dimension of the struggle for national liberation. Or we can consider the role of Sun Yat-sen in China, who hailed the October Revolution as the first salvo of a worldwide revolution against colonialism, a revolution he anticipated and promoted, without ever having been a Marxist. In each case a revolutionary movement with national roots makes reference to Marx and Lenin; the national roots remain firm, but the theoretical platform is Marxism-Leninism. This is the tradition in which I recognize myself.

What can we say, then, about the school headed by Galvano della Volpe? It seems to me that in this school the colonial question plays a reduced role. When Norberto Bobbio begins to negatively contrast the socialist camp to the liberal West in 1954, Togliatti responds by emphasizing the “barbaric discrimination among human creatures” which I previously referenced, the condition of people not only in the colonies but also those of colonial origin (e.g. African-Americans oppressed by the regime of White Supremacy). Della Volpe instead limits himself to distinguishing between major liberty (the socialist one) and minor liberty (the liberal one), without ever clarifying how the latter is annulled by the former. It is significant that, at the time of his break with Marxism and Communism, his collaborator Lucio Colletti draws up a balance sheet which portrays the history of the socialist movement as catastrophic, without accounting for the conditions which gave rise to anti-colonial revolutions around the world.

The attitudes taken by “workerism” in regards to this subject are even more questionable, even disquieting. In 1966, Mario Tronti published Workers and Capital. There he imagines “Lenin in England” (the title of one of his central chapters), but not to analyze the internal workings of the Empire engaged in one colonial war after another in pursuit of world hegemony, described by Engels as “a nation which exploits the whole world,” where, according to Marx’s denunciation, the workers themselves, infected by the dominant ideology, consider and treat the Irish as subhuman. No, this Lenin in England deals exclusively with the factory and the condition of the workers. In other words, the great revolutionary is read in the trade-unionist key that he harshly criticized. We can add a further consideration: in Workers and Capital Tronti calls for the “abolition of work,” thus coining a slogan that rejects the task of building a society different from the existing one, reducing Marxism to impotent “critical theory” or messianic expectation.

These are the basic reasons why I align with the first strand.

As far as my “formation” is concerned, since I consider it of little interest, I will limit myself to one detail: I began publishing in 1970, in Studi Urbinati, a very long essay (a pamphlet) titled “State and Ideology in the Young Marx.” It attracted the attention of Bobbio, and was included in the brief bibliography that concludes the entry “Marxism” edited by him for the Dictionary of Politics (Utet). I never printed this text myself, which was influenced by Althusser, an author from whom I later distanced myself.

Gargani: “The theory of class struggle is configured as a general theory of social conflict” [1] seems by all intents and purposes to be the central thesis on which the framework of your work Class Struggle is built. Before looking more closely at how you develop this thesis, I would like to ask you if the theory of class struggle represents for you the most important aspect of Marx’s thought, and what relationship do you see between this theory of class struggle and the mature Marxian project in Critique of Political Economy?

Losurdo: Capital, which bears the subtitle “Critique of Political Economy,” devotes ample space to the struggle of the working class for the reduction of working hours, to the particular and additional forms of exploitation imposed on the female workforce, and to the extermination of Native Americans and the slave trade that accompany the emergence and development of capitalism. Thus, the three fronts of the class struggle I discuss in my book are well-represented in Capital itself. Regarding the critique of political economy proper, one point must be made clear: in Marx it has nothing to do with the vision dear to the young Ernst Bloch, who, in 1918, called for the end of “every private economy” and every “money economy” as well as the “mercantile morality that consecrates all that is most evil in man.” Bloch wrote at a time where the carnage of the First World War was being identified as a consequence of the capitalist-imperialist system and the race for the conquest of raw materials, markets, and maximum profit, but also and above all as the consequence of the auri sacra fames [from Virgil’s Aeneid: “accursed greed for gold”].

These were also the years in which “War Communism” was affirmed in Soviet Russia, read and celebrated by a fervent Catholic visiting Moscow (Pierre Pascal) as the advent of a completely egalitarian society, a society where there was only room for “the poor and the very poor.” In this ideological climate, these positions and arguments reverberated strongly within the Bolshevik party and the international communist movement. It is thus worth remembering the following passage from the Communist Manifesto: there is “nothing easier than to give Christian asceticism a socialist coat of paint”; something to keep in mind whenever “a universal asceticism and a crude egalitarianism” is invoked.

In other words, Marx’s critique of political economy has nothing to do with the egalitarian distribution of misery or scarcity, or with the populist celebration of misery or scarcity as the source of moral excellence. Already in his Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts (1844) we can read that capitalism aims to transform the proletarian into an “ascetic but productive slave.” Thus, the critique of political economy is not the cult of austerity or of “degrowth”; it is instead the critique of a social order which, according to Smith, promised the “wealth of nations,” but which in reality delivered the broad masses of the working class into forced asceticism and the spiritual misery which tends to be associated with this condition. This is the ruling order which class struggle is called upon to overthrow.

Gargani: “The history of all hitherto existing human society is the history of class struggles” are the opening words of the Communist Manifesto. You comment on this thesis by stating: “The transition from the singular to the plural clearly signals that the conflict between proletariat and bourgeoisie is but one class struggle among others, and the latter, running throughout world history, are by no means a feature exclusively of bourgeois, industrial society.” [2] You recognize a plurality of forms of class struggle, thus urging us to eschew a binary interpretation of it defined exclusively in the terms of the bourgeoisie-proletariat struggle. Alongside that one, you identify two other forms of class struggle: those for the emancipation of women, and those for the emancipation of people from colonialism and neo-colonialism. Even though Marx and Engels themselves took positions such as pro-union during the American Civil War, or for the national liberation of Poland in 1863, or in defense of Irish revolts — struggles not immediately readable through the binary scheme of a class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie — they did not develop a complete theoretical framework for this plural reading of class struggles. Can we ascribe this theoretical deficiency to Marx and Engels’ attraction to a [Hegelian] philosophy which understands history as a finalistic process? In other words, do Marx and Engels privilege the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie because it is, in their eyes, a historically decisive contradiction, in whose resolution a certain messianic hope is placed?

Losurdo: Is it really the case that “Marx and Engels privilege the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie”? In fact, in their works there is ample space devoted to the national question in Poland and Ireland, and to the colonial question. It is precisely their reflection on these issues that stimulates theoretical conclusions of great importance: “A people which oppresses another cannot emancipate itself.” [3] And again: “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.” [4]

Judging a country (and its political system) by abstracting it from its international context and from the fate it forces upon colonial peoples or peoples of colonial origin, as the dominant ideology continues to do today, means mutilating reality and disregarding Hegel’s great saying (well known to Marx and Engels): “The truth is the whole.” It is true, however, that Marx and Engels did not “develop a complete theoretical framework for this plural reading of class struggles”; although they were making a break with the binary reading of social conflict; they never did fully carry out this break. [5] Lenin went further in this direction, although the apocalyptic climate of World War I hindered even in him a final reckoning. [6]

The risk of messianism is inherent to the binary. I must add, however, that breaking with the binary reading and messianism does not mean accepting the vision, already criticized by Hegel, according to which there would never be anything new under the sun, and everything reduces to a cyclic “slaughterhouse.” It is not a question of choosing between a vision that reduces the historical process to an incessant and senseless slaughterhouse, and a finalism in which the predetermination of the final result effectively cancels the “seriousness of the negative.”

Gargani: From a theoretical point of view, your plural reading of class struggles would seem in some ways indebted to Mao Zedong’s 1937 work On Contradiction. The attention Mao devotes to distinguishing between the “primary contradiction” and “secondary ones” would seem to be the foundation of your plural reading of class struggles, seeking to capture the full depth of the problematic. Your theory of class struggles therefore looks at the possibility of “transcending” the binary dimension of the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, seeking instead to identify where the decisive contradiction is located in each given situation. Additionally, Mao’s 1938 thesis that in China’s resistance against Japan “the class struggle takes the form of the national struggle” [7] seems to play a decisive role in the way you read social conflict on a geopolitical level. Is this the case? What role does Mao play in your interpretation of Marx?

Losurdo: My debt to Mao is unquestionable, full of conviction and, I believe, openly-declared. If we reflect on the greatest anti-colonial revolution in history, it develops while tensions and conflicts of all kinds continue to reverberate through the great Asian nation, and though at the global level the great colonial powers clash between themselves, the imperial and colonial forces that aim to control China remain and even intensify: in 1937 Japan takes the place of Great Britain and the US, only to be supplanted by the US again eight years later. How to orient oneself amid this web of contradictions? What is the principal contradiction? How does the class struggle manifest itself? On which allies, and to what extent, can the protagonists of the emancipatory class struggle — the people committed to shake off the yoke of colonialism — count? In the effort to answer these questions, Mao broke definitively with the binary reading of the social conflict, and went beyond Marx and Engels: in them the colonial question is well-present, but the colonial peoples do not appear as protagonists of a revolutionary process that profoundly changes the course of world history.

Gargani: One author that you do not spare from criticism is Louis Althusser. You do not accept Althusser’s thesis of an alleged “epistemic break” between a humanistic pre-1845 Marx (imbued with ethical elements derived first from a liberal-radical matrix, then Feuerbachian) and a scientific Marx, founder of a “new science of history,” who takes distance from ethics and humanism in Capital. In regards to this you write:

If the Theses on Feuerbach conclude by criticizing philosophers who are incapable of ‘changing’ a world where human beings are crushed and humiliated, Capital is a ‘critique of political economy’ — as indicated by the sub-title — in moral terms as well. The ‘political economist’ is criticized not only for his theoretical errors but also for his ‘stoical peace of mind’ — his incapacity for moral indignation at the tragedies inflicted by bourgeois society. This is the context in which to situate the denunciation of ‘the pharisees of “political economy.”’ In short, it is difficult to imagine a text more charged with moral indignation than the first volume of Capital[8]

In spite of this, Althusser seems to me to be an author who in many ways valued two issues that seem dear to you. On the one hand, he pursues the theme of the plurality of contradictions, through the question of the “overdetermined” contradiction. Althusser warns against a reductionist reading of contradiction, a reading which reduces it solely to “productive forces” and “relations of production.” On the other hand, I am thinking of the essays collected in Lenin and Philosophy and Answers to John Lewis, where Althusser placed the greatest emphasis on class struggle within philosophical practice, going so far as to affirm that “philosophy is, in the last instance, a class struggle in theory.” Are you critical of Althusser also with respect to these last two aspects? Don’t you think that Althusser’s anti-humanist theses are a response to a deterministic [Hegelian] “philosophy of history” (linked, according to Althusser, to categories of “end” and “origin”), those from which Marx intends to free himself? Aren’t these anti-humanistic theses, therefore, part a non-messianic interpretation of Marx, which you’re sympathetic to?

Losurdo: Having read Lenin, theorist of the revolution (who identifies weak links in the chain of imperialism where the contradictions of the system are thickest) and having studied Mao’s essay On Contradiction (which Reading Capital explicitly refers to), I find Althusser’s considerations of the “overdetermined” contradiction interesting and pertinent, but not particularly original.

It is true that in my youthful writing I was also influenced by the polemic against humanism. But it is precisely on this point that I now focus my critique. It is not only or primarily a matter of language and philology. Anti-humanism precludes an understanding of how class struggles, far from having a merely economic dimension, are struggles for recognition. This is particularly true of the struggles of colonial people and the struggles of people of colonial origin, since the dehumanizing drive of the capitalist-imperialist system manifests itself against them in a particularly brutal way. That’s why, in the course of modern and contemporary history, the great power struggles between anti-colonial and colonial forces, between abolitionism and slavery (or semi-slavery), all have borne witness to the ideological confrontation of the pathos of the universal concept of man on the one hand, and its denial or derision on the other. They have borne witness to the face-off between humanism and anti-humanism. A celebrated propaganda poster of the abolitionist campaign showed a Black slave in chains exclaiming “Am I not a man and a brother?”

At the end of the eighteenth century, Toussaint Louverture leads the great revolution of the Black slaves by calling for “the absolute adoption of the principle that no man, born red, black, or white, can be the property of his fellow man”; [9] however modest their condition, men cannot be “confused with animals,” as happens within the slave system. On the opposite side, Napoleon, who proposes to reintroduce colonial rule and Black slavery in Haiti, proclaims, “I am for the whites because I am white; I have no other reason, and that one is good.”

About a century later, with the colonial system in full apogee, certain public parks in the Southern United States bear the warning: “No entry to dogs and negroes”; while in Shanghai the French concession defends its purity by displaying the sign: “No entry to dogs and Chinese.” Leaping forward a couple of decades, with Black and colonial people in mind, the American Lothrop Stoddard elaborates for the first time the category of under-man. The term was immediately translated into German, and thus Untermensch became a keystone of Nazi ideology and a rallying cry for the gigantic counterrevolution unleashed by the Third Reich in the name of colonialism and slavery.

On the opposite corner, the leaders of the communist movement indignantly denounce the nominalistic dissolution of the universal concept of man. Lenin draws attention to the fact that, in the eyes of the West, the victims of colonial expansionism “do not even deserve the name of people”; in the final analysis, they are excluded from the human community itself. Even more explicit is Gramsci, who denounces the “white superhumans” and points out that, even for a prestigious philosopher (Bergson), “in reality ‘humanity’ means ‘the West.’”

In conclusion: centuries of history and class struggle are at stake; we cannot understand them parting from anti-humanism. I realize that in his polemic Althusser targets a “humanism” committed to concealing the reality of exploitation and oppression. However, in my opinion, a second error intervenes here. There are no ideologically and politically “pure” terms. To give just one example: in the nineteenth century USA, “Democratic” was the party committed to defending initially chattel slavery and then the white supremacist regime of terror, but this is not a reason to dismiss the very notion of democracy.

Liquidating the theoretical platform that presides over centuries of class struggles has two very relevant and very negative consequences:

1) Marx has repeatedly insisted that his theory is the theoretical expression of real processes and movements. With Althusser, however, a shift into idealism takes place. Historical materialism is seen as the result of the genius of a single individual: following the discovery of the “mathematical continent by the Greeks” and the “physical continent by Galilei and his successors,” Marx launched himself to the discovery of the “continent of History.” After having repeatedly reproached humanism for concealing the class struggle, it is now Althusser himself who makes class struggle disappear beneath the elaboration of historical materialism.

2) The shift into idealism is at the same time a shift into Eurocentrism. In Marx and Engels (and in Lenin, Gramsci, etc.) materialism has behind it, on the one hand, the industrial revolution, and on the other hand, the political revolution — first and foremost the French revolution. Neither of these revolutions has an exclusively European dimension. The first refers in some way to the process of formation of the world market, to colonial expansionism, to the original capitalist accumulation; the second sees one of its highest moments in the uprising of the Black slaves of Santo Domingo and in the abolition of colonial slavery decreed in Paris by the Jacobin Convention.

With Althusser, the elaboration of historical materialism turns out to be a chapter of an intellectual history that takes place exclusively in Europe.

Gargani: You see in Marx a “tragic vision of the historical process and class struggle,” which leads him to declare that “the national demands of the Czechs or other nationalities can forfeit legitimacy, not because they are unjustified in themselves, but because they are absorbed by a more powerful reality, which represents a much more serious threat to the freedom and liberation of nations.” [10] You then recognize the importance of the Gramscian “cathartic moment” [11], where a historical event leads to an authentic class consciousness, which is capable of foregoing short-term gains for long periods of time. You invoke the case of the proletariat as a politically ruling but not economically dominant class during the NEP [12], and quote Benjamin here who sees in the NEP the interruption of the “communication between money and power.” [13] The acquisition of a synoptic gaze renders the project capable of legitimizing actions that would appear to be in open contrast with the interests of the class they intend to represent. This brings to mind a classic question of Leninism, already in Kautsky, of the extent to which class consciousness is “brought in from the outside.” You say in this regard: “Acquisition of class consciousness and participation in revolutionary class struggle presupposed understanding the social totality in all its aspects.” [14]

This is a question that seems to me lurks in the background of your Class Struggle. It seems that the party, or at least an organized political force, plays a necessary role in recognizing, orienting, and ultimately shaping class struggles that would otherwise remain in the incipient state and would easily dissipate. What is the role and significance of the party or, more generally, of the organized political force, in the recognition, conduction, and perhaps sometimes even “creation” of class struggles?

Losurdo: Parting from my reading of the Communist Manifesto, my book is also a history of parties that have laid claim to socialism. I give particular attention — two paragraphs — to What Is To Be Done?, the text in which Lenin attempts to provide a theoretical foundation for the Bolshevik party. My book is also a history of the process that leads from the First to the Third International (with some critical mention of the Fourth as well). In other words, a history of the international associations of parties of socialist or communist orientation. I go to great lengths to demonstrate that the International is not the protagonist of the revolution: in the midst of great historical crises, from the Franco-Prussian war to the two World Wars, neither the First, nor the Second, nor the Third International (to say nothing of the Fourth) proved capable of rising to the occasion.

This confirms that the task of leading the revolutionary process to victory (and the task of building of the new order) can only be carried out by the party of a given country. A party that, even in its internationalism, rejects any form of “national nihilism” (to quote Dimitrov), and manages to take root in national soil, eventually representing not just the cause of the proletariat, but that of the nation as a whole.

It goes without saying that this theory of the party can be further developed and explored.

Gargani: Your “theory of class struggles” in the plural contains some aspects that may appear unpopular and at times even dissonant to certain modern cultural orientations. You generally recognize the role of work and production as central, essential tools in all post-colonial or semi-colonial countries that seek to build a socialist society. You discuss the historical case of the NEP in the Soviet Union, and then refer to it again as the model that inspired the Reform and Opening Up program introduced by Deng Xiaoping in China in the late ’70s. [15]

All of this presupposes a broad recognition of the theoretical weight of concepts such as the individual, work, and ultimately responsibility. Such an emphasis is diametrically opposed to the critique of subjectivity that, starting with Foucault, is shared by many schools of philosophy today. On these grounds you also criticize Serge Latouche’s attacks against the “totalitarianism of productivity” and the “society of growth.” [16] Your discourse focuses on post-colonial or semi-colonial countries with a desperate need to close the economic gap to avoid a reversion, and in your texts the formation of subjectivity and the specific nature of work in contemporary Western society would seem to feature less. In fact, Western subjectivity appears constitutively passive before the dynamics of reproduction, anesthetized not only with respect to the idea of class struggle, but with respect to conflict across the board.

Beyond questions of emphasis — you polemically define Foucault as “a sort of icon” for the “western left” [17] — don’t you think his “biopolitics” do grasp some new forms of subjectivity that arise particularly within Western society?

Losurdo: I don’t find counterposing the “East” and “West” or “South” and “North” in this way very convincing, and this is partly because in the “West” and the “North” battles are being fought on the basis of the dismantling of the welfare state, social polarization, and the return of the figure of the “working poor.”

But the main reason is another. Not even ecological commitment in the strict sense can do without an appeal to the “individual” and his sense of “responsibility”: otherwise, how effective would the fight against pollution be? “Work” also imposes itself: highly skilled work is still work. Work which makes possible the reduction of energy per unit of product, the generation of renewable energy, the design and construction of homes and cities that make it easier to save energy and water, the promotion and proliferation of green areas, the protection of the environment. No. In order to understand the ideological phenomenon you describe, perhaps we need a different approach.

Many today announce, with Nietzsche, the eclipse of the subject and, more emphatically, with Foucault, the death of man; no fewer, however, are those who, with Bobbio and others, speak of the rights of man as the “civil religion of our time.” These two analyses are difficult to reconcile; yet there is no lack of those who, especially on the left, refer simultaneously to Nietzsche-Foucault and to Bobbio, to the death of man and to the religion of the rights of man. We are immersed in an ideological climate in which literary aesthetics have the upper hand over conceptual rigor: didn’t Giorgio Colli invite us to “listen to Nietzsche as one listens to music”?

Of the two visions compared here, the second seems to me to be decidedly more sensible: We witness the proliferation of governmental and non-governmental organizations committed to discovering and denouncing every possible offense to man (and woman), to the subject. So widespread and felt is the religion of the rights of man (and woman) that many have come to recognize how often it is exploited in service of what many call the “imperialism of the rights of man.” There remains work to be done, however, in explaining the prevalence of the motif of the eclipse or death of the subject and of man (I have tried to do so at the conclusion of my essay dedicated to Sebastiano Timpanaro).

In short, and by means of analogy: Schelling, as a young man, amid the climate of enthusiasm aroused by the French Revolution, celebrated the passage from the “loss of self” (in a “foreign world”) to the conquest of “subjectivity.” Later, in the years of the Restoration [of aristocratic rule after the French Revolution], the philosopher turned to condemn “negative philosophy” (first and foremost Hegelian philosophy), accusing it of having taken its cue from the cogito ergo sum of Cartesian subjectivity. As Hegel explains, with the onset of disappointment and disenchantment, the celebration of the creativity of the subject can easily turn into its opposite.

Similarly, after the Second World War, after having become enthusiastic about the pathos of the engagement of the subject and having subscribed to Sartre’s polemic against historical materialism (as incapable of showing that “there is no reality except in action”), [18] the Western left finally comes to the Heideggerian denunciation of the oblivion of being, or to the painful acknowledgement of the death of the subject and of man.

Meanwhile, the ideological and political climate is changing again. The economic crisis on the one hand, and the worsening dangers of war on the other, are producing a certain awakening, as demonstrated by the massive mobilization in 2003 against the second Gulf War and the more recent demonstrations against “Wall Street and War Street.”

What is still missing is an articulate and persuasive analysis of the world that emerged at the end of the Cold War and, subsequently, of the decline and end of the American Empire.

Gargani: You affirm:

Whatever conclusion one may draw from this, it is necessary to take note of a bitter truth: if implemented prematurely and naively, the “democratization” of a country can open it up to destabilization and coup d’états, and lead to the triumph of the planetary dictatorship of imperialism. This is a clear reminder that a proclamation of democratic faith that does not primarily fight for the democratization of international relations has no credibility. [19]

In this regard, you recall what you call the “syllogism of war,” which is at the basis of the so-called “humanitarian” interventions of the last twenty-five years: “There exist universal values; the West is their exclusive interpreter and guardian, and therefore has the right to export these universal values, possibly even resorting to a sovereignly declared war.” [20] You also say:

It is evident that, by arrogating to themselves the right to declare the sovereignty of other states superseded, the NATO countries are attributing to themselves an expanded and imperial sovereignty, to be exercised well beyond their own national territory. In new forms they reproduce the dichotomy (nations elected and truly endowed with sovereignty versus peoples unworthy of constituting an autonomous nation-state) which is proper to imperialism. [21]

With respect to the concept of sovereignty, you resort to what you call the “classic” Weberian definition of “state sovereignty” as a “monopoly of legitimate violence,” and add “on the international level, the US already behaves as if it had a monopoly of legitimate violence by reserving exclusively for itself (and its allies and subordinates) the jus ad bellum and by effectively controlling the International Criminal Court and the exercise of international justice as a whole.” [22]

If, on the other hand, we look at a Schmittian conception of sovereignty, what happens in the so-called “humanitarian interventions” would no longer seem to be a systematic violation, but merely the manifestation of the authentic nature of sovereignty. That is, of a legal concept constitutively founded on the possibility of the “transcendence” of that legal plane itself, which such sovereignty is at the same time called upon to legitimize.

Does it not seem to you, therefore, that it is the concept of sovereignty thought up by Carl Schmitt in his Political Theology, i.e. the thesis according to which “sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception,” that manifests the authentic nature of the sovereignty operating in the repeated (and unpunished) violations of international law carried out today through “humanitarian interventions”?

Losurdo: I see no contradiction between Weber and Schmitt. In fact, the latter has sometimes posed as a continuer of the former. Both have the merit of having formulated two enlightening factual judgments: what defines the modern state, or rather a well-functioning modern state, is the monopoly of legitimate violence; what defines the sovereign is his ability to decide the state of exception (and consequently to re-establish the monopoly of legitimate violence, if thrust into question by a devastating crisis on the political or political-constitutional level).

Immediately after triumphing in the Cold War, the US presidents who succeeded each other in Washington began to pose as leaders of a World State under construction: the wars they unleashed were self-defined as international police operations, while those who resisted were outlaws to be judged and condemned. This was an attempt to give the US a monopoly on legitimate violence. US presidents made use of the resolutions of the UN Security Council, but did not hesitate to act even in their absence when in their eyes there was a “humanitarian crisis” that required a decisive intervention (the resident of the White House claimed to be the sovereign who decided the state of exception). Significantly, a leading exponent of the “neoconservative revolution” (Robert Kagan) called on the US to abandon all hesitation and behave “as an international sheriff, self-appointed perhaps but widely welcomed nevertheless, trying to enforce some peace and justice in what Americans see as a lawless world where outlaws need to be deterred or destroyed, and often through the muzzle of a gun.” [23] The year of the second Gulf War, 2003, was a year of clashes with the opposition. At the UN not only with Russia and China, but also with France and Germany; in Iraq with the armed resistance of important sectors of the population; in the squares of the West and the whole world with the protest of large masses. Even then the US president’s claim to play the role of planetary sovereign or international sheriff was proving fragile.

But there is a more important consideration. The concepts of monopoly of legitimate violence and proclamation of the state of exception by the sovereign have always been defined in the plural by Weber and Schmitt respectively, with neither ever questioning the Westphalian order. If one wants to analyze the attitude of the USA in the light of Schmitt’s lesson, rather than Political Theology one would do well to refer to another essay: Forms of modern imperialism in international law.

Gargani: In several places you recall a famous passage from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s January 1941 State of the Union speech to Congress, where the “four freedoms” which were to serve as foundation for the world are enumerated: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. In legitimizing certain political choices made by the Cuban and Chinese governments, you introduce the possibility of establishing a hierarchy among these freedoms. This hierarchy is justified in terms of differing economic conditions, and especially in terms of the particular international situation in which these nations operate. You write:

For centuries subjected, first to Spanish colonial rule and then to the protectorate of the United States, then the victim in 1961 of an attempted invasion, besieged and threatened by a superpower that in the past has repeatedly attempted to assassinate the leader of the rebel island, Cuba is forced to establish a scale of priorities among the various universal values, at the top of which is obviously placed the value, itself universal, of independence and national dignity. Similar considerations could be made for other countries. [24]

Regarding the leaders of the People’s Republic of China, a little further on:

Up to now they have focused on the right to life and on the liberation from poverty of hundreds of millions of people — values whose universality is difficult to contest — rather than on democratization, which they nevertheless declare they do not want to renounce, and to which they do not deny the attribute of universality, even if it is now a universality called upon to respect national peculiarities. [25]

However, you then remark on the extreme caution with which we must approach the “hierarchization” of freedoms, warning:

Not only can the ordering of priorities of the Cuban or Chinese (or Vietnamese, etc.) leadership be questioned, but the pace of their realization as well. However, the champions of the Democratic Crusade should perhaps show less self-confidence, for it is precisely the US who at every opportunity largely disregards the principle and universal value of the rule of law, as Guantánamo, the practice of rendition, and Obama’s weekly “kill list” all demonstrate. [26]

Roughly speaking, therefore, there seems to be one side, the Western world, that puts freedom of speech and worship before freedom from want and fear, and another side that, for reasons that you consider legitimate, puts freedom from want and fear before the first two. We seem to be facing a real case of class struggle on a global level, in which essentially two parts of the world are trying — starting from different conditions of economic, political and media power — to “ideologically” legitimize their conduct in terms of rights in domestic and international politics. In the Communist Manifesto Marx, speaking of the class struggle as a “battle,” adds that it “has each time ended with a revolutionary transformation of the whole of society or with the common demise of the classes in conflict.” If it is true that here too we are faced with a case of class struggle on a global level, what outcome do you foresee from this conflict?

Losurdo: Although I have never developed it systematically, on several occasions in my books I have evoked the theme of the “conflict of liberties,” which in certain circumstances can occur in this or that country, whatever its political and social regime.

In January 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was able to proclaim and enumerate the “four freedoms,” in his eyes all essential and inalienable; however, one year later, while the war with Japan was raging, with a simple executive order he decided on the deportation and internment of all American citizens of Japanese origin, including women and children. We can and perhaps must discuss to what extent the danger of the formation of a fifth column on US territory, thousands of kilometers away from the theaters of war operations, was real and well-founded; it is more difficult to question the inevitability of a hierarchy of freedoms (with primacy given to national security and to “freedom from fear”) when a great war intervenes.

Wilson behaved no differently during the First World War. What happened to traditional liberal freedoms after the Espionage Act was passed on May 16, 1918? According to it, one could be sentenced to up to twenty years in prison for expressing “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States … or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the Army or Navy.”

It is a rule: “Although protected by the Atlantic and the Pacific, every time it has rightly or wrongly felt itself in danger, the North American republic has proceeded to a more or less drastic strengthening of executive power and to a more or less heavy restriction of freedom of association and expression. This is true for the years immediately following the French Revolution (when its followers on American soil were affected by the harsh measures provided for in the Alien and Sedition Acts), for the War of Secession, the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, the situation created after the attack on the Twin Towers.” [27]

On the other hand, it is a classic, indeed sacred, text of American liberal constitutionalism that clearly states that in situations of acute crisis the executive power must be able to proceed “without limitations” and without “constitutional shackles.” [28]

As we can see, the thesis according to which the USA always considers liberal liberties inalienable is a myth. Or, to be more exact, an ideology of war agitated against potential enemies.

For a long time the People’s Republic of China was excluded from the UN; it was besieged diplomatically, economically, and militarily; it was the target of threats that did not exclude even the use of nuclear weapons; and it continues to be threatened by a gigantic war apparatus deployed along the immediate borders of its sea and air space. Under these circumstances, is it surprising that the great Asian country gives attention and priority to national security or to “freedom from fear”?

The conflict of freedoms can also manifest itself between liberal rights on the one hand and socio-economic rights on the other. The priority of the latter has been recognized by great Western philosophers. According to Hegel, the man at risk of death by starvation suffers from a “loss of rights altogether.” [29] Facilitated also by a strong executive power, which has prevented the derailment of various inevitable political, social, and national conflicts, China’s prodigious economic development has freed hundreds of millions of people from the situation of “total want of want” that, at least in part, was the result of the colonialist aggression that began with the Opium Wars. One may well criticize the slow and contradictory nature of the democratization process in the great Asian country, but the way in which it deals with the two conflicts of freedoms analyzed here, and the priority given to national security and economic-social rights, or, rather, to “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want,” all seem to me to be difficult to dispute.

In any case, the liberal West has no right to stand as master and dominus.

Gargani: You are among the signatories of the Appeal for the Reconstruction of the Communist Party and have actively taken part in some initiatives within the framework of this project, but you have titled your book The Absent Left. In short, Professor Losurdo, left-wing or communism? In what terms do you see these two political positions, do you favor their break or their continuity?

Losurdo: The last chapter of the Communist Manifesto is titled “The position of the Communists with respect to the various opposition parties.” These are parties that, although starting from different ideological and political positions, also intend to transform “the existing political and social conditions” and that later Marx and Engels, analyzing the debates of the Frankfurt Assembly, will define as the “left.” With respect to this “left,” the communists assume an attitude that is of both unity and struggle, of criticism of weaknesses and inconsistencies reproached to it. The most mature socialist and communist parties have followed this line, and it is in this tradition that I recognize myself.

I see no contradiction between the commitment to “the Reconstruction of the Communist Party” and the wish and encouragement for the recovery of the left in our country (and in the West more generally). Once you get past the binary reading of social conflict, you can understand very well the existence of forces that, while not subscribing in any way to the communist program of overthrowing the capitalist-imperialist order, are fighting for the defense of the welfare state and for a politics of peace. On the contrary, it was authors such as Bobbio who believed that the overthrow of the “socialist camp” in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of communist parties in the West would give impetus to the Western left, finally freed from the lead in its wings. As is well known, the opposite happened. The Absent Left draws attention to this. In this regard, the book specifies that the recovery of the left in the West implies not only the fight against the dismantling of the welfare state, but also against wars whose neo-colonial character and catastrophic consequences are now clear to everyone.

[1] Class Struggle, 53. 

[2] Class Struggle, 4. 

[3] Friedrich Engels, June 1874. A Polish Proclamation. [web] 

[4] Karl Marx, July 1853. The Future Results of British Rule in India. [web] 

[5] Engels, in correspondence with Bloch in 1890, actually says: “Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction.” [web] 

[6] See, for example, V. I. Lenin in conversation with Clara Zetkin about women: “I want no part of the kind of Marxism which infers all phenomena and all changes in the ideological superstructure of society directly and blandly from its economic basis, for things are not as simple as all that. A certain F. Engels has established this a long time ago with regard to historical materialism.” [web] 

[7] Class Struggle, 171. 

[8] Class Struggle, 82. 

[9] Toussaint Louverture, 1799. Proclamation on Saint-Domingue. [web] 

[10] Class Struggle, 149. 

[11] Class Struggle, 218. 

[12] Class Struggle, 213-214. 

[13] Class Struggle, 214. 

[14] Class Struggle, 150. 

[15] Class Struggle, 214. 

[16] Absent Left, 261. 

[17] Absent Left, 267. 

[18] Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism” (1946). [web] — R. D. 

[19] Absent Left, 171. 

[20] Absent Left, 156. 

[21] Absent Left, 186. 

[22] Absent Left, 187. 

[23] Robert Kagan, August 2002. The Cowboy and the Saloon Keeper. [web] 

[24] Absent Left, 159-160. 

[25] Absent Left, 160. 

[26] Absent Left, 160. 

[27] Absent Left, 168. 

[28] Hamilton, “The Federalist,” no. 23. 

[29] Elements of the Philosophy of Right, § 127.