Domenico Losurdo
Original publication:
Translation: Roderic Day

Losurdo interviewed by Eychart (2007)

7 minutes | English Français

An interview with Domenico Losurdo conducted by Baptiste Eychart in 2007, marking the occasion of the publication of his book Gramsci: From Liberalism to “Critical Communism.”

Baptiste Eychart: Domenico Losurdo, you’ve devoted several book-length studies to major thinkers of the modern era: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Hegel. However, this is the first time you’ve written an intellectual biography of an important figure of the workers’ movement: Antonio Gramsci. What circumstances led you to this choice?

Domenico Losurdo: Gramsci enables us to challenge both neoliberalism and postmodernism — two versions of today’s dominant ideology that often appear intertwined. How many books have been written attempting to demonstrate that Marxism and Communism sacrifice concrete individuality and moral standards at the altar of the philosophy of history?

Important liberal writers, including Benedetto Croce, justified Italy’s intervention in the carnage of the First World War, over and against widespread popular opposition, in terms of the right of heroic elites to force the cowardly masses to rise for the sake of the unity and regeneration of the nation. Gramsci became a communist through his criticism of this philosophy of history; he condemned its pretensions towards “transforming the working people into raw material for the history of the privileged classes.” [1]

Baptiste Eychart: The analogues between our current political situation and Gramsci’s period of counter-revolution are strong. The strength of your work lies in showing that Gramsci needed to carry out a self-critique of his previously held positions to better grasp the historical situation in the late twenties and thirties.

Domenico Losurdo: The most interesting Gramsci is the one who reflects on the stability of Western capitalism in spite of the horrors of the Great War it provoked. This led him to a radical critique of the theory of the collapse of capitalism, and to a much more sophisticated reformulation of the theory of revolution. Thus, his vision of socialism underwent an evolution: when he first greeted the October Revolution he emphasized that it would produce equality; nine years later he supported the NEP despite its flagrant social inequalities in the name of the need to develop the productive forces.

Baptiste Eychart: For Gramsci it’s also a question of abandoning a utopianism that turns out to endanger the construction of socialism…

Domenico Losurdo: Indeed. The horrors of the 1914-1918 war on the one hand, and the extreme hopes generated by the October Revolution on the other, encouraged a messianic reading of Marxism: in the same manner as classes, states and nations, religion, the market, money (or power as such), and in fact every manifestation of conflict, were all set to disappear. Compounding the non-stop state of emergency provoked by imperialist aggression, these utopian aspirations made it even more difficult to build a post-capitalist society based on democracy and the rule of law. Gramsci proposed a path that still must be followed from beginning to end: to conceive of a powerful project of emancipation that nevertheless does not presume to be the end of history.

Baptiste Eychart: In your opinion, the “critical return” to this cultural heritage shouldn’t be an occasion for Communists to engage in self-flagellation, it should be carried out from the perspective of a struggle against a capitalism whose novel features are yet to be fully theorized. Do you think that Gramscian categories such as “passive revolution” shed light into the dynamics of today’s capitalism?

Domenico Losurdo: There’s no reason for communists to resign themselves to self-hate (autophobie) and a flight from history. [2] Decolonization and, focusing on the West more properly, the birth of democracy and of universal suffrage, as well as the overcoming of the three great historical discriminations (based on race, caste, and gender) and the creation of the welfare state, are achievements that would have been unthinkable without the contribution of the communist movement. [3]

In the era which corresponded to the “passive revolution,” the West responded to the challenge posed by communist agitation by introducing important reforms, albeit under the direction and control of the bourgeoisie. With the disappearance of this challenge comes a period of more or less open reaction: it suffices to consider here the dismantling of the welfare state, or what the American historian Arthur Schlesinger describes as the return of discrimination based on caste (discrimination censitaire) as a result of the growing role played by wealth in the electoral process. Also indicative of this regression is the return of the principle of hierachies among entire peoples, exemplified by American representatives openly claiming to be “God’s chosen people,” with a duty to lead and dominate the rest of the world.

Baptiste Eychart: For a long time Gramsci has been classified as a representative of “Western Marxism,” with a series of authors claiming that Gramsci shared with them a number of objections of the early “Orthodox Marxism” of Kautsky and Lenin. You seem to challenge this characterization.

Domenico Losurdo: Gramsci’s point of view contrasts “our Marx” — a Marx read alongside the “Oriental” Lenin — to the the “Marxism contaminated with positivist and naturalist encrustations” of Bernstein and Kautsky (“Westerners”!), which appears incapable of understanding the dialectics and historical necessity of the October Revolution. Moreover, Gramsci distinguishes between, on the one hand, a dogmatic communism and, on the other, a “critical communism” that presents itself as heir of the highest summits of the bourgeois cultural tradition, parting from Hegel and classical German philosophy. [4] That said, even here the notion of “Western Marxism” turns out to be misleading: it’s finally Stalin who liquidates Hegel as an expression of German reaction to the French Revolution; a formulation accepted by many European Marxists, yet rejected by Mao Zedong.

The problem is that this category of “Western Marxism” positively contrasts the West to the East, and pure intellectuals to politicians engaged in the construction of a post-capitalist society. This brings us back to the problematic discussed at the beginning of this interview: those unable to criticize the self-flattering apologia of the West promoted by liberal ideology are forced to retreat from history — the “original sin” of “Western Marxism.”

[1] The pejorative use of “philosophy of history” here refers to the common liberal argument that socialists are guilty of abandonding all norms under the premise that “the (historical) ends justifies the (political) means,” which Losurdo demonstrates is in reality is a very generic vice, at many points in history championed primarily by liberals themselves. — R. D. 

[2] See also Domenico Losurdo’s “Flight from History? The Communist Movement between Self-Criticism and Self-Contempt” (1999). [web] — R. D. 

[3] See for example Alice Malone, “Concessions” (2023). [web] — R. D. 

[4] “Bolsheviks […] are not ‘Marxists’ as such; they have not derived a doctrine out of the work of the Master, dogmatic and beyond questioning. They live out Marxist thought, the undying continuation of German and Italian idealism, that in Marx appeared contaminated by positivist and naturalist affectations.” — Antonio Gramsci, “The Revolution Against Das Kapital” (1917). [web] — R. D.