Domenico Losurdo
Original publication:
Translation: David Fernbach, Roderic Day

Primitive Thinking and Stalin as Scapegoat (2011)

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In March 2011, following the release of Losurdo’s book Stalin: History and Critique of a Black Legend, French historian Jean-Jacques Marie, an avowed Trotskyist, wrote a scathing review titled “Gulag Socialism!”. [1] Losurdo’s response minced no words, and works as an excellent companion piece to the book itself.

One cannot overstate the wisdom of that phrase attributed to Georges Clemenceau: War is too serious a business to be left to the generals! Even in his acute chauvinism and anticommunism, the French prime minister maintained a fairly lucid awareness of the fact that specialists (in this case war specialists) are often unable to see the forest for the trees, and let themselves be overwhelmed by details while losing sight of the whole. In this sense, they know everything except what is essential. One is immediately inclined to recall Clemenceau’s saying upon reading the hatchet job that Jean-Jacques Marie attempts to inflict on my book on Stalin. As it turns out, the author is one of the greatest experts in “Trotskyism-ology,” and he’s keen to demonstrate this fact at every opportunity.


1. Stalin liquidated by the Secret Report, the Secret Report liquidated by historians

Marie begins by immediately challenging my assertion that Khrushchev “intended to liquidate Stalin in every respect.” Yet it was the great Trotskyist intellectual Isaac Deutscher who pointed out that the Secret Report paints Stalin as a “huge, grim, whimsical, morbid, human monster.” Even this portrait, however, is insufficiently monstrous in Marie’s eyes! My book goes on to describe the indictment delivered by Khrushchev: “the man guilty of so many horrendous crimes was an individual worthy of contempt both at the moral and the intellectual level. Besides being ruthless, the dictator was also laughable.” It suffices to mention one detail that Khrushchev dwells on: “We should note that Stalin planned operations on a globe. Yes, comrades, he used to take a globe and trace the front line on it.” [2] It is clear that the portrait of Stalin drawn here is a caricature. How could a USSR led by a man who was both a criminal and a fool have managed to defeat Hitler? And how could this leader, this criminal and fool, have directed by means of “a globe” a battle as epic as Stalingrad, fought district by district, street by street, floor by floor, door by door? Instead of responding to these objections, Marie concerns himself with demonstrating that, as the foremost expert of “Trotskyism-ology,” he also knows the Khrushchev report by heart, and goes on to quote at length aspects of it that have nothing to do with the issue at hand!

To prove that this total liquidation of Stalin (both at the intellectual as well as at the moral level) does not withstand historical investigation, I draw attention to two points: eminent historians (none of whom can be suspected of being pro-Stalin) speak of Stalin as “the greatest military leader of the twentieth century.” And they go even further: they attribute to him an “exceptional political talent” and consider him an “extremely gifted” politician who saved the Russian nation from the decimation and enslavement that the Third Reich had destined it for; this was thanks not only to his shrewd military strategy, but also to his “masterful” war speeches, sometimes real “bravura performances” that, at tragic and decisive moments, manage to stimulate national resistance. And that’s not all: fervent anti-Stalinist historians acknowledge the “perspicacity” with which he treats the national question in his 1913 writings, and the “positive effect” of his “contribution” on linguistics. [3]

Secondly, I point out that, as early as 1966, Isaac Deutscher expressed strong doubts about the credibility of the Secret Report: “Nor do I take all of Khrushchev’s ‘revelations’ at their face value: I do not accept, in particular, his assertion that Stalin’s role in the Second World War [and the victory over the Third Reich] was virtually insignificant.” [4] Today, in light of the archival material newly at our disposal, the scholars who accuse Khrushchev of having resorted to lying are not few in number. Thus, just as Khrushchev proceeded to undertake the total liquidation of Stalin, so has recent historiography liquidated the credibility of the so-called Secret Report. [5]

How does Marie respond to all of this? He summarizes not only my point of view but also that of the authors I cite (including the Trotskyist Deutscher) with the formula: “Vade retro Khrushchev!” [6] In other words, the great expert in “Trotskyism-ology” believes he can exorcise the insurmountable difficulties that he faces by chanting two words in (ecclesiastical) Latin!

Let’s look at a second example. At the beginning of the second chapter (“The Bolsheviks from Ideological Conflict to Civil War”), I analyze the conflict that developed on the occasion of the peace of Brest-Litovsk. Bukharin denounced the “peasant degeneration of our party and Soviet power”; other Bolsheviks resigned from the party; still others declared Soviet power itself to be worthless. On the opposite side, Lenin expressed his indignation at these “strange” and “monstrous” remarks. From the very first months of its existence, Soviet Russia saw an ideological conflict developing which was extremely bitter and on the verge of turning into civil war. And — I note in my book — it would all the more easily turn into civil war once, upon Lenin’s death, “an undisputed authority is missing.” Indeed, according to an illustrious bourgeois historian (Conquest), Bukharin had already on that occasion considered the idea of a coup d’état. [7] How does Marie respond to all of this? Again he exhibits all his erudition as a great and perhaps the greatest expert on “Trotskyism-ology,” but makes no effort to answer the questions that arise: Was the deadly conflict that subsequently tore the Bolshevik leadership group apart Stalin’s fault alone? (Primitive thinking cannot do without a scapegoat.) How can we explain the harsh exchange of accusations in which Lenin condemned as “monstrous” the phrases uttered by those who castigated the “degeneration” of the Communist Party and Soviet power? And how do we explain the fact that Robert Conquest, who has dedicated his entire life to proving the infamy of Stalin and the Moscow Trials, speaks of a plan for a coup d’état against Lenin cultivated or toyed with by Bukharin?

Not knowing what to say in response, Marie accuses me of manipulation, and even writes that the idea of a coup d’état by Bukharin is my own invention. I don’t have time to waste on insults. I shall confine myself to pointing out that on p. 43, footnote 10, my reference is to a historian (Conquest) who is inferior to Marie neither in erudition nor in anti-Stalinist zeal. [8]

2. How do Trotskyists à la Marie insult Trotsky?

With Lenin’s death and Stalin’s consolidation of power, the ideological conflict increasingly became a civil war: the Dialectic of Saturn, which manifests itself in one way or another in all great revolutions, unfortunately did not spare the Bolsheviks either. [9] I develop this thesis in the second part of my second chapter, by quoting a series of quite varied figures who reveal the existence of a clandestine and military apparatus set up by the Opposition, and above all by quoting Trotsky himself. Yes, it was Trotsky himself who declared that the struggle against the “bureaucratic oligarchy” of Stalin allows “no peaceful outcome for the crisis.” [10] It was he who asserted that this development lead “obviously to the road of revolution,” towards civil war, and that, “under conditions of civil war, the assassination of individual oppressors ceases to be an act of individual terror” and instead becomes an integral part of the “death struggle” between opposing sides. [11] As we can see, at least in this case, it’s Trotsky who throws the mythology of a scapegoat into crisis.

We can thus understand Marie’s very particular embarrassment. What’s next? We already know the display of erudition is a smokescreen. Let’s proceed to the substance. Among the many diverse figures I quote, Marie chooses two: one of these, Curzio Malaparte, he considers incompetent; the other, Lion Feuchtwanger, he brands a bribed agent in service of the criminal and imbecile sitting in the Kremlin. And this is how the game is played: the civil war vanishes and once again the primitivism of the scapegoat celebrates its triumph. But, to refuse to consider the arguments put forward by a great intellectual such as Feuchtwanger, to limit one’s engagement to smearing him as a bribed agent in service of the enemy, is this not the way of proceeding generally considered “Stalinist”? Above all, what should we make of Trotsky’s testimony, which speaks of “civil war” and “death struggle”? Isn’t it a paradox that the great specialist and high priest of “Trotskyism-ology” consigns the deity he venerates to silence? [12] Yes. But it isn’t the only paradox, nor is it the most glaring one. Trostky not only compares Stalin to Tsar Nicholas II, [13] he goes further: an “agent provocateur in the service of Hitler” or “Hitler’s butler” sits in the Kremlin. [14] And Trotsky, who boasted of having many followers in the Soviet Union and who even, according to Pierre Broué (Trotsky’s biographer and hagiographer), had managed to infiltrate his “faithfuls” into the GPU — this Trotsky would do nothing to overthrow the counterrevolutionary power of this new tsar, this servant of the Third Reich? Marie ends up portraying Trotsky as either a mere phrasemonger whose boasts amount to barroom tirades, or as a revolutionary lacking in consistency — even a downright cowardly and abject one. The most glaring paradox is that I am in fact forced to defend Trostky against some of his apologists!

I say “some of his apologists” because not all of them are as blithe as Marie. About the “merciless civil war” that develops among the Bolsheviks, my book observes:

“We are in the presence of a category that constituted the guiding thread of the research of a Russian historian (Vadim Rogovin) of sure and declared Trotskyist faith, the author of a monumental work in several volumes, dedicated precisely to the minute reconstruction of this civil war. He spoke, with regard to Soviet Russia, of a ‘preventive civil war’ unleashed by Stalin against those organizing to overthrow him. Even outside the USSR, this civil war manifests itself and at times flares up within the front fighting against Franco; and, in fact, in reference to Spain in 1936-39, one speaks not of one but of ‘two civil wars.’ With great intellectual honesty and taking advantage of the new, rich documentary material available thanks to the opening of the Russian archives, the author quoted here came to the following conclusion: ‘The Moscow trials were not an unmotivated and cold-blooded crime but Stalin’s reaction in the course of an acute political struggle.’

Polemicizing against Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who paints the victims of the purges as a collection of ‘rabbits,’ the Russian Trotskyist historian reported that a leaflet in the 1930s called to sweep out of the Kremlin ‘the fascist dictator and his clique.’ Then he comments, ‘Even from the point of view of the Russian legislation in force today, this leaflet must be judged as a call for the violent overthrow of power (more exactly of the ruling upper stratum).’ In conclusion, far from being an expression of ‘an excess of irrational and senseless violence,’ the bloody terror unleashed by Stalin is in fact the only way in which he succeeded in bending the ‘resistance of true communist forces.’” [15]

This is how the Russian Trotskyist historian expresses himself. The opposite is the case with Marie, who, refusing to give up his primitivism and his quest for a scapegoat (Stalin) on whom to pin all the sins of the Terror and the Soviet Union as a whole, prefers to follow in Solzhenitsyn’s footsteps, portraying Trotsky as a “rabbit.”

3. Betrayal or objective contradiction? Hegel’s lesson

Within the framework I have established, Stalin’s merits appear firm. He understood a number of essential points: the new historical phase that was beginning as a result of the failure of the revolution in the West; the danger of slavery and colonization that loomed over Soviet Russia; the urgency of catching up with the West; the necessity of acquiring the most advanced science and technology, and the realization that the struggle to achieve this could in certain circumstances be an essential and even decisive aspect of the class struggle; the need to link patriotism and internationalism, and the understanding that a victorious struggle of resistance and national liberation (such as the Great Patriotic War was) constituted at the same time a major contribution to the internationalist cause of the struggle against imperialism and capitalism. Stalingrad set the stage for the crisis experienced by the colonial system on a planetary scale. Today’s world is characterized by the growing difficulties faced by the neo-colonialist system, resulting from the emergence of countries like China and India and, more generally, of civilizations once subjugated or destroyed by the West; by the crisis of the Monroe Doctrine and the effort of certain Latin American countries to link the struggle against imperialism with the construction of a post-capitalist society. In any case, one cannot conceive of this world without Stalingrad.

And yet, having said this, it is possible to understand the tragedy of Trotsky. After acknowledging the great role he played during the October Revolution, my book thus describes the conflict in the aftermath of Lenin’s death:

“To the extent that authority on the basis of charisma was still viable, it tended to take form in the figure of Trotsky — the genius organizer of the Red Army, the brilliant orator and writer, who claimed to embody the hopes of the triumph of world revolution, from which he derived legitimacy for his aspiration to rule the Party and the State. Stalin was instead the embodiment of legal-traditional authority, which struggled to take form. Unlike Trotsky, who came late to Bolshevism, Stalin represented the historical continuity of the party that was the protagonist of the revolution and therefore the custodian of the new legality; moreover, by affirming the realizability of socialism even in a single (large) country, Stalin conferred a new dignity and identity to the Russian nation, enabling it to overcome the frightful crisis, ideal as well as material, that it had been mired in since the defeat and ensuing chaos of the first World War. In this way the nation regained its historical continuity. But precisely for this reason his opponents accused him of ‘betrayal,’ and they were in turn seen as traitors by Stalin and his followers, who argued that their adventurism facilitated the intervention of foreign powers, thus endangering the survival of the Russian nation, which was at the same time identified as the vanguard of the revolutionary cause. The clash between Stalin and Trotsky is therefore not only due to a conflict between two political programs, but also between two principles of legitimacy.” [16]

At a certain point, faced with the radical novelty of the national and international situation, Trotsky becomes convinced (wrongly) that a counterrevolution has taken place in Moscow, and acts accordingly. In the picture drawn by Marie, however, Trotsky and his followers, despite having managed to infiltrate the GPU and other vital sectors of the state apparatus, allow themselves to be defeated and slaughtered without a fight, at the hands of a criminal and idiotic counterrevolutionary who installed himself in the Kremlin. There’s no doubt that this is a narrative that ridicules Trotsky in particular, as it shrinks and renders petty and unrecognizable every protagonist of the great historical tragedy that unfolded in the wake of the Russian Revolution (a tragedy that befalls all great revolutions).

In order to adequately understand this tragedy it is necessary to leverage the category of objective contradiction dear to Hegel (and Marx). Unfortunately, however, as I observe in my book, Stalin and Trotsky share the same philosophical poverty, and are unable to go beyond the mutual exchange of accusations of betrayal:

“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.’” [17]

Even less willing to problematize the category of “betrayal” is Marie, who in fact waxes ironic about my frequent references to Hegel. In the debate now underway, then, who is the “Stalinist”?

4. Comparatistics as an instrument of struggle against the falsifications of the dominant ideology [18]

So far we have seen from the great expert on “Trotskyism-ology” a display of erudition that is either an end in itself or works as a smokescreen. And yet, one must recognize that Marie follows a certain logic, or an effort at a logic. When I compare the crimes of Stalin, or the crimes attributed to Stalin, to those perpetrated by the liberal West and its allies, Marie objects: “So in the triumphant homeland of socialism (as, for Losurdo, socialism flourished in the USSR), which achieved the unity of peoples, it was normal to use the same methods as the leaders of the capitalist countries, a feudal obscurantist, or even Tsar Nicholas II.” Let us examine this objection. Let us put aside inaccuracies, whether contrived or resulting from genuine misunderstanding. Nowhere do I speak of the USSR or any other country as “the triumphant homeland of socialism”; in my books I have written, on the contrary, that socialism is a difficult “learning process” that is far from over. But let’s focus on the essentials. From the October Revolution to the present day, the tendency to demonize everything that has anything to do with the history of Communism has has been a constant feature of the dominant ideology. As I point out in my book, for some time it was Trotsky who was stigmatized (by Goebbels, for example) as the one who “may have on his conscience the greatest number of crimes that ever weighed on a man.” [19] This inglorious record would later be attributed to Stalin, and today it is attributed to Mao Zedong. Tito, Ho Chi Minh, Castro, etc. are also criminalized in various ways. Must we submit to this “demonization” when, as I argue in the last chapter of my book, it’s simply the other side of the “hagiography” of capitalism and imperialism?

Let’s see how Marx reacted to this Manichean manipulation. When the bourgeoisie of his time, focusing on the killing of hostages and the fires started by the Communards, denounced the Paris Commune as synonymous with the vilest babarism, Marx replied that the practices of taking (and possibly executing) hostages and starting fires had been invented by the ruling classes and that, in any case, as far as fires were concerned, a distinction had to be made between the “vandalism of a desperate defence” (that of the Communards) and the “vandalism of triumph.”

Marie flatters me by polemicizing against me on this point; he would do better to take it up with Marx directly. Alternatively, he could take it up with Trotsky, who also proceeded in the way I am reproached for: in his pamphlet Their Morals and Ours Trotsky recalls the passage from Marx that I quoted above in order to refute the charge that the Bolsheviks — and only the Bolsheviks — are guided by the principle that “the end justifies the means” (violent and brutal). He brings attention not only to the behaviour of the bourgeoisie of the 19th and 20th centuries, but also to that of Martin Luther, protagonist of a war of extermination against Thomas Müntzer and the peasants. [20]

Except that, caught up as he is in a cult of erudition, Marie does not even reflect on the texts of the authors dearest to him. He mocks me by giving his intervention the title “Gulag Socialism!”, but one could, with the same irony, make fun of Lenin’s (and Trotsky’s) Soviet Russia — “Cheka Socialism!”, “the Cheka’s Socialist Revolution!”, or “The Socialism (or the Socialist Revolution) of Hostage-takers” (keep in mind that, in Their Morals and Ours, Trotsky is also forced to defend himself against the charge that he resorted to this practice). In truth, using this kind of irony so dear to Marie, one can liquidate any revolution. To wit: the “Shot-hostage Commune,” the “Guillotine of Freedom and Equality,” etc., etc. At the same time, these aren’t imaginary examples. This is precisely how the tradition of reactionary thought has attacked the French Revolution (especially Jacobinism), the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, and so on.

Marx summed up the methodology of historical materialism with the assertion that “men make their own history, but not under circumstances of their own choosing.” Instead of parting from this lesson in order to investigate the errors, moral dilemmas, and crimes of the protagonists of every major historical crisis, Marie formulates this simple alternative: either revolutionary movements manage to stand sovereign and even miraculously aloof in relation to the historical world and the contradictions and conflicts of the historical world from which they develop, or those revolutionary movements are a complete failure and a total betrayal. And so the history of revolutions as a whole becomes as a single, uninterrupted, miserable history of failure and betrayal. Marie thus finally situates himself within the tradition of reactionary thought.

5. Socialism as a laborious and unfinished learning process

I’ve said before that the construction of socialism is a laborious and unfinished learning process. But it is precisely because of this reason that efforts must be made to formulate answers: Do socialism and communism entail the total dissolution of national identities and even languages, or was Castro right to assert that communists have been wrong to underestimate the importance of the national question even in the aftermath of an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist revolution? In the society of the foreseeable future, are markets and all currency destined for abolition, or should we heed Gramsci’s lesson and keep in mind their “determinate” character? On the subject of communism, Marx sometimes speaks of “the withering away of the state,” yet at other times he speaks of “the withering away of the state in its contemporary political sense.” These two formulas are markedly different. From which of the two should we draw our inspiration? These are the problems that provoked among the Bolsheviks first a bitter ideological conflict and then civil war; and these are the problems that we must resolve if we are to restore credibility to the communist revolutionary project, as well as to avoid the tragedies of the past. This is the spirit in which I first wrote Flight From History? The Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution Today [21] and later Stalin: History and Critique of a Black Legend[22] If we do not confront these problems, we will remain unable to either understand the past or plan for the future. If we do not confront these problems, then learning by heart every little detail of the biography (or hagiography) of this or that protagonist of October 1917 will only serve to confirm once again the profound wisdom of that phrase so dear to Clemenceau: just as war is too serious a business to be left to the strategists and generals, so with the tragedy of Trotsky (to say nothing of the great and tragic history of the Communist movement as a whole). It’s too serious a matter to leave it to the specialists and generals of Trotskyism-ology.

[1] Jean-Jacques Marie, “Gulag Socialism!” (16 March 2011), La Quinzaine littéraire. [web] 

[2] pp. 11-13 of Iskra Books edition. 

[3] Geoffrey Roberts, Andrea Graziosi, Zhores and Roy Medvedev, p. 284. 

[4] p. 407. [web] 

[5] The “Secrecy” of the report is ridiculed because, spoken in late February 1956, by early June that year, through the CIA, it had already made the front page of the New York Times. — R. D. 

[6] “Vade retro satana!” is Church Latin for “Begone, Satan!” — R. D. 

[7] p. 43. 

[8] Robert Conquest, The Great Terror (1973). [web] 

[9] The Dialectic of Saturn refers to the “eat its own” aspect of revolutions, alluding to how Saturn — Roman name given to the Greek titan Cronus — ate his sons in an attempt to stave off the prophecy that he’d be overthrown by one of them, Jupiter (Zeus). [web] — R. D. 

[10] Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (1936), Ch. 11. [web] 

[11] Leon Trotsky, “Their Morals and Ours” (1938). [web] 

[12] This theme, of the acolyte that disfigures the subject of their worship, is often developed by Losurdo in relation to the whitewashing of various other important figures, perhaps most notably Heidegger and Nietzsche. [web] — R. D. 

[13] Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (1836), Ch. 7. [web] 

[14] Leon Trotsky, “The Kremlin’s Role in the War” (1940). [web] 

[15] pp. 77-78. 

[16] p. 100-101. 

[17] p. 84. 

[18] I was tempted to alter this translation to make reference to “whataboutism,” but I decided that would be too much editorialism. The tactic of whining about “whataboutism” is exactly what Losurdo is referring to, though! — R. D. 

[19] p. 237. 

[20] Martin Luther was the leader of the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic Church. Thomas Müntzer was initially his ally, but then turned against Luther due to his compromises with the feudal establishment. After the peasant uprising of 1525 Müntzer was captured, tortured, and finally executed. — R. D. 

[21] The full version of an early version of this brilliant book is available on RS as “Flight from History? The Communist Movement between Self-Criticism and Self-Contempt” (1999). [web] — R. D. 

[22] The RS translation of the first chapter of this work is available at “How to Cast a God into Hell: The Khrushchev Report” (2008). [web] — R. D.