Nia Frome

Losurdo and Roberts

As the main-co-editor of Red Sails, I feel that this essay by Nia Frome really captures the spirit of our project, like a mission statement of sorts.

We recognizably owe a debt to Domenico Losurdo and William C. Roberts. Nia explains why we find this combination of writers so promising, and makes clear what’s still missing and what’s still left to do. — R. D.

Domenico Losurdo and William Clare Roberts are not often mentioned in the same breath. While they are both central theoretical reference points for Red Sails, it must be admitted that they make for an odd couple. Losurdo is concerned primarily with criticizing Western Marxism for its utopianism and anticommunism, whereas Roberts sits squarely within that tradition. Losurdo has it out for Nietzsche; Roberts is something of a fan. Losurdo is a Hegelian statist who rejects even the “withering away of the state” as anarchism, whereas Roberts has both anti-Hegelian and anti-statist sympathies. It’s hard to tell what, if anything, they might have in common, apart from being (obviously) white male academic Marxists from the global North.

I propose to view them both through the lens of abstraction vs. concreteness in order to make sense of their appeal. In both cases, what’s at stake is fundamentally a commitment to serious partisanship, although this seriousness is understood in slightly different ways: Roberts’ version is more rationalist, while Losurdo’s is more empiricist. Unseriousness appears as a persistent worry for both. This question of serious partisanship marks them as distinctly illiberal and concrete in comparison to most other academic Marxists.

Losurdo is an intellectual historian with a formidable body of work; he’s best-known for Liberalism: A Counter-History, but has also written about Kant, Hegel, Marx, Stalin, Gramsci, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Non-Violence, and Western Marxism. Broadly speaking, his project has been to defend the revolutionary tradition up to and including actually existing socialism (AES) and to expose the continuity of counterrevolutionary thought, up to and including liberalism and left anticommunism. One of his central ideas is that the anti-colonial revolutions that rocked the world in the twentieth century represent a continuation of global class struggle, i.e. the fight for socialism. This is not the only sense in which Losurdo advocates for a broadening of the concept of class struggle, which, as he points out, appears in the plural in the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto (“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”). The struggles against racism and patriarchy are also class struggles, properly understood.

The specter of unseriousness looms in the form of utopian purism on the part of those leftists who claim to support emancipation but are inevitably heard objecting to actual measures taken by the revolutionary masses (especially when they erect “authoritarian regimes” outside the global North). Unseriousness is no laughing matter, though: purists can do serious damage. Imperialism relies on their ability to put distance between progressive movements in the global North and those outside it. This purism is at the same time a repudiation of thinkers associated with the “obscure disaster” of AES: Hegel for one, but also the great betrayers Engels, Stalin, and Deng. It recruits arch-reactionaries like Nietzsche and Heidegger in order to give its misanthropic pessimism an air of profundity. Among revolutionary leaders, it prefers martyrs like Rosa and Che.

Losurdo offers us a powerful hermeneutic. His critics generally allege that it’s an oversimplification. The question of whether any given reduction constitutes bad reductionism, though, hangs on whether what’s lost in translation had any real value. It’s easy to object to Losurdo’s arguments if one values nuance for nuance’s sake; he’s not the world’s most cautious writer. It’s much harder to show that that missing nuance matters politically (without pulling out the big guns: accusations of Stalinism).

At first glance, Roberts would seem to be Losurdo’s diametric opposite: if anything, he’s too cautious a writer. He’s a good deal younger than Losurdo, steeped in the habitus of Anglophone academia, and has published only one book, Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital, along with several articles. I’ll be discussing the book.

There are three main strands of Marx’s Inferno. The first is that which has gotten the most attention from reviewers: Roberts’ claim that Marx, in Capital, relies on and advances a republican conception of freedom as freedom from domination, and indicts capitalism primarily for trespassing on this freedom by impersonally dominating the producers. [1] Republican freedom from domination, on this account, is contrasted with liberal freedom from intervention. A slave with a kind master may not be unfree in the liberal sense, as long as their master doesn’t actively interfere with their pursuits, but in the republican sense the very possibility of arbitrary interference somewhere down the road constitutes intolerable unfreedom.

I think of republican freedom as splitting the difference between Isaiah Berlin’s positive and negative freedoms. On the one hand it’s negative because it’s formally defined by the via negativa, freedom from domination. But it’s a good deal thicker than the liberal version of negative freedom because it requires that no one even be in a position where they could interfere arbitrarily with my projects. This thickness has roots in an Aristotelian conception of the good life — domination is offensive to the republican because it is anathema to virtue, flourishing, eudaimonia, the teloi of “positive freedom.”

If you dig into the fine print on this republican (or neo-republican) freedom, you get to a political theorist named Philip Pettit. In his book Republicanism, which spearheaded the neo-republican tendency in contemporary political philosophy, he writes that “[b]eing unfree does not consist in being restrained; on the contrary, the restraint of a fair system of law — a non-arbitrary regime — does not make you unfree. Being unfree consists rather in being subject to arbitrary sway: being subject to the potentially capricious will or the potentially idiosyncratic judgement of another.” So everything hinges on the question of arbitrariness. As long as the republican doesn’t want to call parents, teachers, or doctors dominators, they must have some conception of non-arbitrary interference, interference that tracks the interferee’s interests and therefore doesn’t count as domination.

Now it’s obvious that, for Pettit, the politics of non-domination militate just as strongly against the state (public domination, or “imperium”) as they do against private domination (“dominium”). It’s not as clear where Roberts stands, since for him the big bad is an entirely new form of domination not considered by Pettit, the impersonal domination of the market. Still, it’s easy to see where a tankie might find an in: if proletarian authority is authentically democratic, or in some other way essentially bound to serve the people’s interests, then its interference is non-arbitrary, and thus non-domination. At first, the central question seemed to be “Are you free from domination?” It turns out, though, that this question remits to others: “Do the forces that rule over you govern arbitrarily?” “Can you reasonably expect interference in your life to track your interests?” and “Do you have real (not merely formal) ways to hold authorities accountable?”

Losurdo doesn’t reason in the same way, from first principles (though one can imagine him arguing in defense of imperium). Instead he looks at what has empirically happened in workers’ states, comparing these outcomes not to those of the global North but of other formerly colonized countries. According to this outcome-oriented approach, socialism is a clear winner, inasmuch as it has lifted millions out of poverty, defeated fascism, improved the lives of working people along nearly every metric of well-being devised, and righted a global imbalance of power that for centuries favored the colonizers. Some might argue that socialism achieved all this without ever making itself genuinely accountable to the people under its rule, but this is implausible. Surely outcomes consistent with far greater flourishing are at least circumstantial evidence for greater accountability — otherwise how are they supposed to have come about? Either this is republicanism in action (as the names of these states would suggest), or it’s some kind of Platonic philosopher-king performing far better than democrats would predict, in a way that should call basic republican commitments into question.

The second strand of Marx’s Inferno is Roberts’ insistence that Capital be understood as an intervention in the political debates that were happening in the socialist and workers’ movement of Marx’s day. Marx undertook an exhaustive study of political economy not only to criticize it, but also so that he could effectively refute the claims of utopian socialists, particularly Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. [2] Understanding what Marx is about, then, requires that we familiarize ourselves with the ideas being bandied about by his opponents. It turns out that Proudhon’s socialism is (besides being misogynistic and antisemitic) based on a moralizing critique of the rich coupled with a romanticized view of petty production and commodity exchange among artisans. Proudhon celebrates the capitalist ideal of voluntary and equal exchange, unaware that all the evils of capitalism he rails against can be deduced from this seemingly unobjectionable practice.

Proudhon, by the way, is known in some circles as the father of anarchism. That makes the Marx of Marx’s Inferno an anarchism slayer. Roberts’ proximity to Losurdo is more evident here than in the case of republican freedom, since both authors take aim at anarchist tendencies on the left. In fact, it sheds new light on the republican freedom debate: liberal freedom means seeing the mere existence of authority as inimical to freedom (as libertarians do), whereas republican freedom means understanding that it is the specific character of authority, its content, the arbitrariness of its decision-making, that matter. If Marx is a republican and not a liberal, then he’s less of a libertarian than others have made him out to be.

For Roberts, unseriousness takes the form of moralizing and personalizing left politics, unscientific politics that fail to grapple with the novel structural and impersonal character of capitalist domination. Those leftists (even self-described Marxists!) who are still fundamentally operating within a Proudhonian paradigm will tend to make Proudhonian mistakes: they will avoid confrontation with the capitalist state, they will view the problem of exploitation as amenable to distributive and cooperative solutions, and they will ultimately fall back on some kind of romantic, backwards-looking anti-capitalism rather than seeing us through to the other side of it. Roberts reintroduces us to a Marx who is concerned with the struggle for power, concerned with getting the science right, and a staunch partisan of the future.

There is a whiff here of a sort of anti-humanist accelerationism — one wonders where exactly Roberts would part ways with, say, U/Acc. [3] But the main impression the book gives is one of clarity and precision. Roberts has done the reading and familiarized himself with prevailing bowdlerizations of Marx so as to debunk them one by one through careful exegesis. Not only that, but the Marx that emerges in the course of the book is utterly relatable — his project holds up, it hangs together, it makes sense. This effect is achieved by combining the two preceding strands with a third: the idea that Capital is structured after Dante’s Inferno[4]

The light cast by Inferno throws any number of details from Capital into relief: the sins of incontinence, violence, fraud, and treachery are all there, depersonalized and attributed to emergent social forces. Marx’s understanding of commodity fetishism, the particular wrong of capitalist exploitation, the two-sidedness of capitalist development, and the centrality of colonialism and the state are all brought out in the course of Roberts’ presentation. What makes his thesis persuasive is how well it explains and organizes what previously seemed like arbitrary choices on Marx’s part. Why does Marx, in the section on relative surplus value, seem to be saying nice things about capitalism? Why does he start with circulation, if he thinks the truth lies in production? Why is that last chapter so weird, and how is the section on primitive accumulation not contradicting what was said earlier about voluntary exchange being the basis of capitalism? How is the critique of political economy supposed to contribute anything to the socialist movement? Roberts’ book answers these questions precisely by mapping out the various ways Capital’s logic mirrors Inferno’s. It brings the reader around to Marx’s belief that we must exit through the bowels of capitalism (by climbing down Satan’s leg!) rather than indulge in idle fantasies of never being eaten in the first place.

What makes the thesis implausible, of course, is its hubris. How is it possible that no one else caught this in the 150 years since Capital was published? Is it conceivable that Engels would have missed it? The idea that Marx deliberately structured Capital after Inferno is quite literally hard to believe. One is drawn into a world of cloaks and daggers, hidden messages, theology. Here we see another parallel between Roberts and Losurdo, because the latter’s “Stalin good, Deng good” has a similar effect. The audacity of the claim puts the reader in a tight spot: they can assent, thereby distancing themselves from the respectable mainstream and joining a secret war, or they can bail, in which case they probably feel silly for picking up the book in the first place. The compromise position of disagreeing with the basic thesis but still finding some value in the book is for liberal cowards; no wonder it’s been the most popular response among academic reviewers.

Alain Badiou’s terms apply well: the reader is presented with a choice between claiming fidelity to a Truth-Event or writing it off as a pseudo-Event. Only the former has revolutionary consequences, by putting the reader in direct contact with a fighting tradition that extends right up to the present day. If we are just now finally getting at the truth of Capital, then it holds untold potential, and we are honor-bound to realize it. These long-dead revolutionaries were onto something, something that hasn’t fundamentally changed, but continues to plague us as a species. This isn’t just a matter of choosing one’s favorite interpretation as from a buffet — the partisanship, the call, the entanglement, are baked into the ideas themselves. They can’t be understood without recognizing their legitimate status as orthodoxy. These are words that cut. Accepting them means accepting an ethical commitment there’s no coming back from.

Even within this happy convergence, there are still differences: Losurdo is still fixated on imperialism as the principal contradiction, while Roberts is still arguably guilty of book-worship. This leads them to draw nearly opposite conclusions on any number of issues, especially markets and states. [5] Losurdo’s fidelity to AES and Roberts’ fidelity to Marx the thinker are not the same thing. They do, however, represent two poles of an ineradicable tension within Marxism. [6] Marxism is both a textual tradition and a political movement. It can’t ever decide completely in favor of one over the other without losing its essence, since each works as a constant corrective to the insularity and self-certainty of the other. The experience of communists on the ground must be theoretically encoded for transmission and self-criticism, while books of theory are no better than ornamental unless and until their contents are taken up by the real movement. Nuance doesn’t have to be an end in itself — it can be made to serve the cause of liberation, as long as it manages to get out of its head.

Marx’s Inferno doesn’t always manage to get out of Marx’s. Roberts is doing ideal theory, particularly when he talks about republican freedom. Ideal theory has a well-deserved reputation for being removed from reality. It can describe which state of affairs is best, but has a much harder time choosing between imperfect courses of action, which is the choice we face in real life. Marxist criticisms of ideal theory generally highlight the crude class basis of lofty abstractions like right and justice — there’s no reason why “freedom” doesn’t belong on this list as well. If US imperialism demonstrates anything, it’s that the term “freedom” is ripe for abuse. It’s not clear what daylight there is between American Freedom™ and freedom from domination. Republicans may claim to be worlds apart in outlook, but Pettit at least is obviously still liberal, all too liberal. Is freedom from domination meant to be taken as an absolute good for communists, or is it okay to subordinate it to other goods? Certainly any communist should be on board with the proletariat dominating the bourgeoisie, right? These practical difficulties go unaddressed in Marx’s Inferno.

But if Roberts’ concreteness is not above reproach, neither is Losurdo’s. As an intellectual historian, he has very little to say about the economic details of a transition out of capitalism. At times it seems like the secret formula is optimism, anti-racism, and a decision in favor of Hegel against Nietzsche. I’m sure his comrades in the CPC are glad to have Losurdo’s endorsement, but it’s hard to tell what he might offer them in the way of advice or clarification on practical matters, the long road still left to travel. The significance of his intellectual contribution derives from and is directly proportional to the West’s chauvinism and backwardness. He stands up ahead of us, no doubt, but he’s pulling rather than pushing.

Neither author will serve as the model for what a communist should be, but they both embody virtues that every communist should emulate. Losurdo teaches solidarity, non-dogmatism, and fearlessness. Roberts teaches rigor and intellectual generosity, and cautions against claiming easy victories. Both are part of the recent resurgence of Marxism in the global North, a resurgence that has demanded we outgrow “anti-authoritarian” clichés and rejoin a serious, scientific, world-historical tradition that has been making tremendous strides without us. Communism will win — it’s up to all of us to figure out how exactly, to ascend from abstract to concrete and transform our circumstances into ones befitting the human race.

tl;dr: The average person needs to read Losurdo; the average ML needs to read Roberts.

  1. Roberts spares a few words to chide Michael Heinrich and Moishe Postone, two authors with whom he largely agrees, for their excessive and depoliticizing abstractness (pp. 91). 

  2. According to Roberts, Marx saw Robert Owen’s utopian socialism (with its emphasis on feminism, enlightened child-rearing, and large-scale industry) as a far better model than the others on offer. Roberts even goes so far as to dub Marx’s communism “Owenite republicanism.” 

  3. Accelerating Meltdown, 2019-02-19. Grey Hat Accelerationism — An emergent hyperstition? Part 1. Bleeding Into Reality. [web] 

  4. Wait… what?? This is insane. It boggles the mind that other reviewers have managed to discuss this thesis so calmly (and dismiss it so summarily), because it’s far and away the weirdest and most ambitious claim the book makes. Marx disliked domination and had beef with Proudhon? Wow, you don’t say. Marx’s magnum opus was a rewriting of an epic poem from the fourteenth century classifying the different kinds of sins? Now that’s worth writing home about! (Harvey could never.) 

  5. In an essay titled “Pessimism and Anti-State Politics,” Roberts points to a third option as potentially harboring the seeds of socialism: the firm. The experience of AES — a.k.a. “state capitalism” and/or “market socialism” — could be taken as confirmatory or disconfirmatory of this point, depending on the extent to which the economic organization of those states is viewed as firm-like. The ideal theorist, though, always reserves the right to cast the real into the abyss of absolute condemnation, a.k.a. “not real socialism,” in which case AES will have nothing to teach theory. In the face of this standing threat to withdraw solidarity, it’s not surprising that most Marxists on the receiving end of it have soured on ideal theory altogether. 

  6. This tension tracks with the tension between empiricism and rationalism that is sublated by dialectical materialism. For more, see Sean Sayers’ Reality and Reason