Roderic Day

On Losurdo’s Stalin

12 minutes | English | The Crew

Personal notes written ahead of participation in a digital panel on Domenico Losurdo’s work, joining translators Henry Hakamäki and Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro and professors Gabriel Rockhill and Jennifer Ponce de León; hosted by the Toronto Public Library. [1]

What makes this book special?

The prevailing narrative against Stalin in the liberal-capitalist world is a pile of aggressively insulting nonsense. Were one looking for a counterweight that championed Stalin in a mirror-like way, that gave an affective, emotional sense of the passion and inspiration he produced in so many people within the Soviet Union as well as around the world, one could read Ludo Martens’s Another View of Stalin, or Grover Furr’s attempts to exonerate him of every single crime. [2] None of this is meant derisively: Martens, for instance, is a superb writer and researcher, and Furr has been both honest and charming in my brief correspondence with him. However, I think Domenico Losurdo’s book Stalin: History and Critique of a Black Legend attempts something altogether different.

In his book on Nietzsche, The Aristocratic Rebel, Losurdo discusses at length the concept of “hermeneutics of innocence” and “hermeneutics of suspicion.” These refer to general interpretative tendencies that bend textual reading into accommodating pre-existing biases. For example, for a determined reader operating under a hermeneutic of innocence, Nietzsche’s open defense of slavery becomes nothing but a playful metaphor. Analogously, under a hermeneutics of suspicion, Stalin’s denunciation of antisemitism becomes a cruel and calculated taunt. Losurdo is concerned with how easily this procedure allows us to dismiss any problematic evidence in order to achieve a desired ideological result. To undermine the distorting effects of an established consensus, Losurdo develops his arguments almost exclusively by citing enemies of communism and enemies of Stalin, but “against the grain” of their intentions, taking advantage of what is known in law as “declaration against interest.” In other words, instead of building a positive case for Stalin by citing praise from his lieutenant Vyacheslav Molotov or from his fellow revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, Losurdo builds a case out of begrudging or unintended admissions from the likes of British spy-historian Robert Conquest, or Adolph Hitler (“How can such a primitive people manage such technical achievements in such a short time!”). [3]

This type of argument is resilient to charges of bias, and makes for refreshing and effective reading. It does, however, have its downsides. I’ve had discussions with frustrated members of communist parties that argue that, since the pool of quoted authorities is reduced to mostly liberals, this approach inevitably sells Stalin short, barely beating some allegations. Much is proven to be no worse than what liberals were doing at the time… but not that much better, either. What’s worse, since a wealth of sincere and insightful communist literature analyzing Stalin’s work and achievements is excluded, one might even get the impression that communists as a whole are being dismissed as unreliable witnesses. And to what end, merely trying to to corral liberals into a gotcha? But this can be understood. It’s not a book about Joseph Stalin. As its title indicates, it’s a History and Critique of a Black Legend.

In the aftermath of the release of the French translation of the book, back in 2011, Losurdo engaged in open polemic with well-known French Trotskyist Jean-Jacques Marie. [4] Thanks to Marie-Ange Patrizio, the French translator of said document (and of the book), I was able to get the original Italian version, to produce an Italian-to-English translation. [5] I learned two things from this exercise.

First: Losurdo comes close to calling the procedure described above — citing against interest while contextualizing Soviet policies by comparing them to the actions of Western states — “whataboutism.” The exact term he uses is “comparatistics.” However, this is an analytical approach that, were it to escape into the English-speaking mainstream today, would be immediately branded and derided as “whataboutism.” And yet he insists upon the validity of this approach. Losurdo shows that it’s not just a matter of merely defending the acceptability of the occasional “whataboutism” — “whataboutism” turns out to be sometimes the only and often the best tool available to those trying to understand the world, faced with objective contradiction as it manifests in practice. This is not a mere tu quoque or “hypocrisy callout” — comparatistics are introduced not as a flippant end-in-themselves, but rather as a starting point from which all-encompassing explanations are laboriously developed. By avoiding the habit of studying the phenomenon in isolated and absolutist terms, by instead studying it relative to other phenomena, we are able to fully make sense of the contradictory accounts that arise around it: our final story accounts both for why Stalin was beloved and for why he was hated. In this way, “whataboutism” — comparatistics — is revealed to simply be dialectics in action, evolving our understanding.

Second: Far from offering us a hagiography of Stalin, Losurdo is often quite harsh. While always emphasizing, as one should, external factors that led to the destruction of the USSR — Western sabotage and invasion, terrorism, etc. — Losurdo also explains that he believes there was no shortage of internal problems and self-inflicted wounds, and speculates about what would have been required to avoid or overcome them. For example, without mincing any words, he blames the pitiless way the Soviet Civil War played out on “Stalin and Trotsky’s philosophical poverty”:

“On both sides, rather than engage in the laborious analysis of objective contradictions and opposed alternatives, and of the political conflicts that develop on their basis, the protagonists preferred to hastily resort to the category of treason — and in its most extreme configuration at that, such that the traitor becomes a conscious mercenary agent on behalf of the enemy. Trotsky never tires of denouncing the ‘conspiracy of the Kremlin bureaucracy against the working class,’ and this plot is all the more despicable for the fact that the ‘Stalinist bureaucracy’ is nothing more than ‘a transmissive mechanism of imperialism.’ It is hardly necessary to point out that Trotsky was generously repaid in kind. He complained of being branded as an agent ‘of this and that power,’ but in turn labeled Stalin an ‘agent provocateur in the service of Hitler.’”

From Losurdo’s point of view communists should avoid scapegoating their enemies in this way, and should instead center the harder question of how their opposition — any opposition — is able to swell to a large enough size to cause them trouble. More specifically, communists should guard against naturalistic explanations and denunciations, against narratives of Great Betrayers born to Wrong Classes and thus afflicted with Evil Souls, bearing, as it were, a kind of ineradicable Original Sin. Racialization lurks in that direction.

Losurdo praises various other communists — not just Marx and Lenin and Mao, but also Gramsci and Deng and Castro — for avoiding this pitfall. I get the impression that Losurdo commends Lenin in particular for “rediscovering” Hegel: “Lenin explicitly juxtaposes ‘Hegel and Marx’ and highlights ‘germs of historical materialism in Hegel’.” [6]

In an attempt to make a humble tribute to Losurdo’s repeated achievement of finding the unifying idea for the seemingly eclectic mountains of work of other prolific and controversial authors, [7] this is what I identify as the latent and recurring theme of all of Losurdo: a reminder to communists that philosophy matters. Hegelian philosophy matters in particular, insofar as that’s the name we give to the refusal to resign oneself to perspectivism or naturalism or superstition, to insisting instead that the world is “governed by reason” even when it doesn’t appear to be.

It’s precisely this one single trick — this insistence on uncovering the “method behind the madness” without taking cheap shortcuts — that allows Losurdo to write book after book settling, with radical answers, various so-called “mysteries” of philosophy and history: Nietzsche and Heidegger were ingenious reactionaries (not innocent, co-opted poets), Kant and Hegel have to be read through the lens of self-censorship (not as obedient scribes), it’s not a curious accident that liberalism’s most ardent champions are slave-owners, and so on.

As pertains emancipatory projects (as opposed to intellectual history), Losurdo never loses sight of the fact that many rebellions and revolutions have taken off and been won mostly in absence of philosophical education, powered overwhelmingly by passion and grit. However, he believes, with Gramsci, that the communist revolution that truly prevails will prevail precisely insofar as it gives a solid and permanent form — a State — to a collective consciousness that is able to dialectically grasp social reality and thus manage objective contradiction. [8]

Therefore, I think this work’s real value lies beyond its immense utility as a historical corrective against liberal propaganda. It lies in conveying, with his other works, the value and potential of applied philosophy. That is for me its greatest merit.

[1] “Domenico Losurdo: A Counter-Historian” (14 November 2023), On Civil Society series of the Toronto Public Library. [web] 

[2] Or Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway’s praise of his crushing of Hitler, or W. E. B. Du Bois’s obituary of Stalin… [web] 

[3] Domenico Losurdo, Stalin: History and Critique of a Black Legend (2008), Ch. 1. [web] 

[4] Incidentally, this would be good material for an appendix in future editions of the book. 

[5] Domenico Losurdo, “Primitive Thinking and Stalin as Scapegoat” (2011). [web] 

[6] Domenico Losurdo, “Marx Against Hegel?” (2010). [web] 

[7] In Nietzsche he uses the metaphor of Ariadne’s thread and the Minotaur’s Labyrinth. 

[8] The notion of a “Permanent State” might alarm some Marxists, but Losurdo insists: “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. […] 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. […] 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. […] We lack a theory for conflict within a socialist society or within the socialist camp. […] The wisdom of Gramsci would be a fine counterweight to these basically anarchistic and religious tendencies.” — Flight from History? The Communist Movement between Self-Criticism and Self-Contempt (1999). [web]