Stalinism’s ghost: Domenico Losurdo on civil society and the State

Symptomatic residues


Image: Cover to the French edition of
Domenico Losurdo’s Stalin: History
and Critics of a Black Legend

One of the points on which I take issue most with Domenico Losurdo’s interpretation of historical liberalism regards the old issue of civil society’s relationship to the state. This is, of course, a topic that should be quite familiar to anyone who’s read Hegel (or Marx’s critique of Hegel, for that matter). For Losurdo, a noted Hegel scholar, the entire debate is by now surely second nature. How this figures into the broader history of liberalism might be less clear to readers, however. This might be briefly spelled out.

In his sweeping overview of liberal thought down through the ages, Liberalism: A Counter-History, Losurdo highlights “the self-government of civil society” as one of its core organizing principles.[1] By “civil society” he is here clearly referring to the Third Estate, understood as the undifferentiated mass of commoners exempt from feudal privileges, in contradistinction to the First and Second Estates, comprised of the clergy and the nobility (respectively). The self-governance of civil society thus required the bourgeoisie’s emancipation from the rule of the ancien régime. “First with the Glorious Revolution and then later, more completely, with the American Revolution,” writes Losurdo, “the assertion of self-government by civil society hegemonized by slaveholders involved the definitive liquidation of traditional forms of ‘interference’ by political and religious authority.” Further on, with specific reference to the American context, he writes: “The conquest of self-government by civil society hegemonized by large-scale property involved an even more drastic deterioration in the condition of the indigenous population. The end of the control exercised by the London government swept away the last obstacles to the expansionistic march of the white colonists.”[2]

It is precisely on account of Losurdo’s apparent preference for a world in which the State, in this case dominated by ecclesiastic, aristocratic, and monarchic elements, would step in to mitigate the injustices and inhumanities that take place within civil society, that led Henry Flynt to accuse the Italian philosopher of siding with feudal reaction against the ascendant bourgeoisie. “Losurdo gives his derogation of bourgeois democracy a twist: he brackets it with the rehabilitation of absolute monarchy,” Flynt maintains. “That the interviewers in the Platypus Review and editors of the International Socialist Review (ISR) allowed this claim to go without comment reflects the Left’s rapidly expanding bloc with medieval social regression against the center.”[3] To be fair to Losurdo, however, as well as to his interviewers in the Platypus Review (this happens to include me), the argument that society should return to a pre-bourgeois age, or would have been better off if only the old order would’ve survived, is never advanced. This is something Stefano G. Arrazà insists upon, with limited success, in his conspectus on “The work of Domenico Losurdo” in Historical Materialism: “Losurdo… never sets out to present a moralistic denunciation of liberalism as an ideological perversion and an antechamber of terror, but aims to comprehend its genesis materialistically, with its objective reasons and limits.”[4]

Indeed, though they are drastically overshadowed by the many passages in which the barbarity and unfreedom of civil society is stressed, there are at least two instances in which Losurdo admits to the progressive character of the bourgeois revolutions in liberating civil society from its position of subservience vis-à-vis the traditional State. “The conquest of self-government by civil society had a genuine revolutionary significance,” Losurdo reluctantly concedes. “Liberated from an arbitrary power, the members of the class that had assumed power granted one another liberty and respect for the rules, with the construction of the constitutional state and the advent of the liberal rule of law.”[5] Elsewhere, in his longer study on Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns, he praises the great German systematist for his sober recognition of civil society’s emancipatory value. “Hegel’s lucid description [of civil society] never reveals nostalgia[;] it never takes on the shape of a moral condemnation: modern civil society represents great progress because it brings about ‘the autonomous development of particularity’.”[6]

This is, in fact, one of the few points on which Losurdo expresses deep admiration for the liberal tradition. “[No ideology] has been as committed as [liberalism] to thinking through the decisive problem of the limitation of power.” However, he is quick to add, “historically, this limitation of power went hand in hand with the delimitation of a restricted sacred space: nurturing a proud, exclusivist self-consciousness, the community of the freemen inhabiting it was led to regard enslavement, or more or less explicit subjection, imposed on the great mass dispersed throughout the profane space, as legitimate.”[7] In the interview Pam Nogales and I conducted with him last year, Losurdo underscored this point even more emphatically, contrasting it with historical Marxism and anarchism:

Domenico Losurdo: [L]iberalism has the great historical and theoretical merit of having taught the limitation of power within a determined, limited community. Yes, it is only for the community of the free, but still it is of great historical importance. On this score I again counterpose liberalism to Marxism, but rule in favor of liberalism. I have criticized liberalism very strongly, but in this case I stress the greater merits of liberalism compared to Marxism.

Often, Marxism has spoken of the disappearance of power as such — not the limitation of power, but its eventual disappearance — the withering away of the State and so on. This vision is a messianic vision that has played a very negative role in the history of socialism and communism. If we think that power will simply disappear, we do not feel under any obligation to limit it. This vision had terrible consequences in countries like the Soviet Union.

Ross Wolfe: So you believe that historical Marxism’s theorization of the eventual “abolition” of the state, or the “withering away” of the State — as Lenin, following Engels, put it — was misguided?

DL: Totally misguided!

RW: So do you feel that society can never autonomously govern itself without recourse to some sort of external entity, something like the State? Must the State always exist?

DL: I do not believe society can exist without regulation, without laws. Something must ensure obedience to the laws, and in this case the “withering away” of the State would mean the “withering away” of rights, of the rule of law. Gramsci rightly says that civil society, too, can be a form of power and domination. If we conceive the history of the United States, the most oppressive forms of domination did not take the shape of State domination, but came from civil society. The settlers in the American West independently carried out the expropriation, deportation, and even extermination in more extensive ways than the state. Sometimes, even if only partially, the federal government has tried to place limits on this phenomenon. Representing civil society as the expression of liberty — this is nonsense that has nothing to do with real Marxism.

Marx himself speaks of the despotism in the capitalist factory, which is not exercised by the state, but rather by civil society. And Marx, against this despotism, proposed the interference of the State into the private sphere of civil society. He advocated State intervention in civil society in order to limit or abolish this form of domination, in order to limit by law the duration and condition of the work in the factory.

RW: That’s the famous passage where Marx describes industrial capitalism as “anarchy in production, despotism in the workshop.”[8] In other words, haphazard production-for-production’s-sake alongside this kind of militarized discipline of industrial labor. But insofar as Marx conceives the modern State as the expression of class domination, the domination of the ruling class over the rest of society, do you believe that a classless society is possible? Because it would seem unclear why a classless society would need a State, if the State is only there to express class domination.

DL: On the one hand, Marx speaks along the lines you just laid out. In many texts, Marx and Engels say that the State is the expression of one class’s domination over the other. But at other times, they speak of another function of the State. They write that the State functions to implement guarantees between the different individuals of the ruling class, the individual bourgeois. And I don’t understand why this second function of the State would disappear. If we have a unified mankind, in this case too there is the necessity of guarantees between individuals within this unified mankind.

Furthermore, we are not allowed to read the thesis of Marx and Engels in a simplistic way. Sometimes they speak of the “withering away” of the State. In other circumstances, however, they speak of the “withering away” in its actual political form. These two formulations are very different from one another. But in the history of the communist movement, only the first definition was present, the most simplistic definition: the “withering away” of the State as such. The other formulation is more adequate: the “withering away” of the State in terms of today’s political form.[9]

Bracketing, for just a moment, Losurdo’s attempt to distinguish these two different functions of the State in Marxist theory, it is worth pausing briefly in order to dwell on an exclusively historical claim that he made along the way. “[The] vision [of the withering away of the State] had terrible consequences in countries like the Soviet Union,” Losurdo remarks in passing. While he was not pushed to expand upon what he meant here (a failure on my part as the interviewer), he elaborates on this argument in yet another text:

A significant role in the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe was played, finally, by the crying contradiction between a philosophy of history that proclaims the withering away of the state together with the removal of every form of political power and the reality of a state-party that exercised power in a terroristic manner. To be sure, here one also comes across a hidden complicity. What sense can it make to devote oneself to the construction of a socialist state founded on law if the state will disappear in any case? Not by chance was it proclaimed immediately after the October Revolution that the idea of a constitution is a bourgeois idea. On this basis, it is impossible to arrive at constitutional normality and, by the same token, the state of emergency can no longer be regulated in any way a result which Marx and Engels themselves paradoxically foresaw. It is true that they insisted upon the withering away of the state (or, rather, withering away in the current political meaning of the term, which is not the same thing), but they remarked, on at least one occasion, that an antiauthoritarianism carried to extremes frustrates every decision resting on general rules, consensus, and democratic control and, finally, favors the arbitrary domination of a small minority. Alleged antiauthoritarianism turns into a barracks communism.

The messianic expectation of the withering away of the state has also, in another respect, played a pernicious role. A socialist society cannot be conceived without a more or less extensive state sector whose functioning is decisive. The solution of this problem may be transferred to the anarchist mythology of the coming of the new man, who spontaneously identifies with society, without contradictions ever cropping up between what is private and what is public, between individuals or between social groups. Thus, it comes to a reversal of the dialectics of capitalist society: to anarchism in the factory corresponded the terror over civil society in real socialism, a terror that became unbearable in the same measure as the reasons for the state of emergency became elusive. Moreover, a philosophy of history became increasingly implausible that promised the advent of communism together with the disappearance of the state, of national identity, of the market, and so on.[10]

Here, I contend, the residual statolatry of Losurdo’s neo-Stalinist worldview shines through quite clearly. “Stalinism” in this instance is meant in a very literal and straightforward sense, as Trotsky himself once defined it. “Stalinism is a product of a condition of society,” Trotsky wrote in August 1937, “in which society was still unable to tear itself out of the straitjacket of the State.” Trotsky entertained no illusions when it came to the character of the modern bourgeois or class State, upholding Engels’ and Lenin’s doctrine of the withering away of the State: “The State as an apparatus of coercion is an undoubted source of political and moral infection. This also applies, as experience has shown, to the workers’ state…Having agreed with the anarchists that the State, even the workers’ state, is the offspring of class barbarism and that real human history will begin with the abolition of the State, we have still before us in full force the question: what ways and methods will ultimately lead to the abolition of the State?”[11]

Obviously, the aspect of Marxism that Losurdo would like to see stripped away is the one where it shares a substantial goal with anarchism: i.e., the creation of a stateless society. He says as much in another article, in which he argues (against not only Trotsky, but also Lenin, Engels, and Marx) that

In general, one can say of Marx and Engels that politics, after playing a decisive role in the conquest of power, apparently disappears along with the state and the use of political force. This is all the more true when (in addition to the disappearance of classes, the state, and political power) the division of labor, nations, and religions, in short all possible sites of conflict, are thought to have disappeared.

This messianic vision ultimately leads to anarchism, and has also played a deleterious role in regard to the economy. A socialist society is quite unthinkable apart from a more or less extensive public sector (or one regulated by government) within the productive apparatus as well as within the service industries, the functioning of the public sector being decisive. The solution to this problem can be left to the anarchist myth of the emergence of the “new man,” who, it is alleged, will spontaneously identify with the collective without the appearance of any sort of conflict or contradiction between private and public, individual and individual, social group and social group. This is obviously a secular version of the religious notion of “grace,” which would make the law unnecessary. Or the solution can be sought in a system of rules and incentives (both material and moral), and of controls that are intended to secure the transparency, efficiency, and productivity of this sector. Certainly all of this is made more difficult, if not impossible, by an (anarchistic) phenomenology of power that situates domination and oppression exclusively in the state, the centralized power, and the general social rules. In this manner, the dialectic of the capitalist society as Marx described it is quite reversed. In “real, existing socialism,” anarchism led to terror as compared to a civil society. This terror became all the more unbearable as exceptional circumstances faded, and the philosophy of history that promised the withering away of the state, of national identities, of the market, etc., increasingly lacked credibility.[12]

Even if something like “laws” are to be upheld as a practical measure, it is not at all clear who would make these laws, or who would enforce them. And is the continued existence of such a State, which has recourse to and legal monopoly on violence in order to suppress contradictions arising within society compatible with the idea of a peaceful society in which violence has eventually been abolished? As for the other objective structures that Losurdo believes will persist indefinitely, even beyond an indefinite intermediary or transitional phase (can something truly be called “transitional” if there’s nothing it’s transitioning away from or transitioning toward?), it is plain enough to see that, besides Lenin, he is arguing with two of the other radicals of the Second International: Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky. He polemicizes against Luxemburg on the persistence of nationalities,[13] whereas he polemicizes against Trotsky (and Evgenii Preobrazhenskii) on the persistence of the money-form.[14] For Losurdo, neither will the revolution eventually lead to the abolition of religious belief or the family structure. In fact, it is rather unclear what would be different at all under socialism.

All of these hopes for the dissolution of older, oppressive social relations are more or less infinitely deferred for Losurdo, and thus naturalized, exactly as they were for Stalin. Notions about the withering away of society’s legal edifice were also quite common throughout the 1920s, until Stalin and others put a stop to such “vain speculations.” Though these relations are, of course, the product of centuries of social development, Losurdo cannot imagine that they might someday disappear. He dismisses the very idea of such an outcome as evidence of a “messianic” hope. “The messianic expectation of the withering of the State, national identities, and money,” Losurdo ultimately concludes, “culminates in all three cases in the tendency to transfigure phenomena (the lack of a precise constitutional framework, national oppression, insufficient development of the national market) into anticipation of the future postcapitalism, even though these phenomena are actually expressions of the continued existence of the old regime.”[15] Believing that such idle anticipations only complicate matters in the present, Losurdo counsels a more “realistic” and “attainable” course, much as Stalin did in turning away from world revolution toward “socialism in one country.”

But Losurdo’s outlook can be deemed Stalinist in a much more basic and banal sense. Nor should this be seen as some sort of smear or assault on his character. It is to his credit that Losurdo has been so forthcoming about his commitment to combat “revisionist” accounts of Stalin’s legacy, as well as his devotion to the positive reevaluation of the Soviet leader’s contributions to revolutionary politics. His publishers in the now-defunct journal Nature, Society, and Thought seem to have had no qualms with it either, as they published several articles in which Losurdo came to Stalin’s defense on a number of scores. The overt omission or occlusion of this central ideological influence on Losurdo’s thought is a much more recent development, as his Anglophone editors look to promote or otherwise popularize his writings on liberalism, fundamentalism, and his monumental tirade against Nietzsche.

While he faults Stalin at times for his “excesses,” for the most part an effort is made to absolve him of any political responsibility for the authoritarianism and the notorious loss of life that occurred under his watch. The most extreme measures Stalin implemented, he argues, were just desperate responses to “the permanently exceptional circumstances” under which the Soviet Union was forced to operate following the October Revolution.[16] For all of their wanton terror and coerciveness, Losurdo reads Stalin’s policies during this time as attempts to bring normality to what was clearly an extraordinary state of affairs.[17] Losurdo blames most of the bad press Stalin has received in the West on the “black legend” Khrushchev supposedly cooked up for the Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU in 1956. Losurdo reproaches Stalin’s heir for “demonizing those who preceded him in holding power.”[18] But the unintended irony at work in the following lines cannot be lost on anyone familiar with the judicial travesties that occurred during the Great Purges: “On [the] basis [of Khrushchev’s secret report in 1956], a truly grotesque trial [!!!] against Stalin develops.”[19] In Losurdo’s opinion, the image of the historical Stalin has been warped beyond recognition both by Khrushchev’s defamatory speech. While he does not seek to wholly exonerate the Kremlin highlander for his indiscretions, Losurdo rejects the mortality rate reported in most Western statistics as “greatly exaggerated.” “Against today’s historiographical mainstream, Losurdo asserts that on this political background Stalin has been an outstanding leader with his clearness of thought and temperance,” Stefano Arrazà wrote in his review of Losurdo’s untranslated Stalin: The history and critics of a black legend.

In this task of restoring Stalinism’s good name, Losurdo is not alone. Besides his own book on the matter, he has been joined by his fellow academic Stalinist Grover Furr, author of the recent book Khrushchev Lied. As its title would suggest, Furr largely agrees with Losurdo in tracing Stalin’s tarnished reputation in the West to Khrushchev’s secret speech. (This was pointed out by Roger Keeran in his review of Furr’s text, reposted on the Expresso Stalinist blog). Until recently, however, the affinity of Furr’s work with Losurdo’s was only noticed by others, and not the two authors themselves. But just a little over two months ago, Losurdo received the unexpected support of Furr in a debate he was having with Nicolas Werth, by most accounts a fairly tedious German liberal. Their exchange, mostly in English, was posted to Losurdo’s academic blog.


[1] Losurdo, Domenico. Liberalism: A Counter-History. Translated by Gregory Elliot. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2011). Pgs. 36-40.
[2] Ibid., pg. 39.
[3] Flynt, Henry. “An Exposé of Classical Liberalism? A Reply to Domenico Losurdo.” Platypus Review. (No. 49, September 2012). Pg. 2.
[4] Arrazà, Stefano. “Settling Accounts with Liberalism: On the Work of Domenico Losurdo.” Historical Materialism. Pg. 111.
[5] Losurdo, Liberalism. Pgs. 307-308.
[6] Losurdo, Domenico. Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns. Translated by Jon and Marella Morris. (Duke University Press. Durham, NC: 2004). Pg. 148.
[7] Losurdo, Liberalism. Pg. 343.
[8] “[I]n the society where the capitalist mode of production prevails, anarchy in the social division of labor and despotism in the manufacturing division of labor mutually condition each other.” Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 1982). Pg. 477.
[9] Losurdo, Domenico interviewed by Ross Wolfe and Pam Nogales. “Liberalism and Marx.” Platypus Review. (№ 46: May 2012). Pg. 3.
[10] Losurdo, Domenico. “Marx, Columbus, and the October Revolution.” Nature, Society, and Thought. (Vol. 1999). Pgs. 82-83.
[11] Trotsky, Leon. “Stalinism and Bolshevism.” (August 1937).
[12] Losurdo, Domenico. “Flight from history? The Communist Movement between Self-Criticism and Self-Contempt.” Translated by Charles Reitz. Nature, Society, and Thought. (Volume 13, № 4: 1999). Pgs. 506-507.
[13] Losurdo, Domenico. “History of the Communist Movement: Failure, Betrayal, or learning process?” Translated by Hanna Gidora. Nature, Society, and Thought. (Volume 16, № 3: 2003). Pg. 50.
[14] Ibid., pg. 49.
[15] Ibid., pg. 50.
[16] Losurdo, “Flight from History?” Pg. 480.
[17] Ibid., pg. 479.
[18] Ibid., pg. 496.
[19] Losurdo, “History of the Communist Movement.” Pg. 41.

12 thoughts on “Stalinism’s ghost: Domenico Losurdo on civil society and the State

  1. Pingback: Stalinism’s ghost: Domenico Losurdo on civil society and the state | The (Dis)Loyal Opposition to Modernity:

  2. You taint Losurdo with Stalinist guilt by association for suggesting the state could contribute to a more socialist social order. You could also ‘damn’ him as a social democrat by the same logic. I don’t buy that he’s an apologist for Stalin either. I believe he applies the same historical rigour to this subject as he does to liberalism, substituting close historical scrutiny for the demonisation of the former and for the haliography of the latter.

    • My criticism is not that Losurdo suggests “the state could contribute to a more socialist social order.” No Marxist, or at least none who are influenced by Lenin and Engels, would deny the instrumental necessity of deploying the state apparatus to suppress counterrevolutionary elements, and take on some administrative role thereafter. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” is nothing other than the State in this transitional form, moving toward its own abolition or withering away by facilitating the creation of a classless society.

      As you can see, Losurdo argues explicitly against this theorization of the State’s function in a socialist society. For him, the State is a perpetual, deathless necessity, not a transient necessity. Incidentally, your point about its affinity to the social-democratic welfare state is valid: Stalinism and postwar European Social-Democracy, though divergent in terms of their self-consciousness orientation toward revolution or reform, were similarly Bonapartist in this respect.

  3. I take your point except talk of the state is intrinsically prone to becoming so abstract that it degenerates into semantics. At what point does a radically altered political order cease to be ‘the state’, at least as we know it? Most are ‘guided’ here, perhaps Losurdo included, by the more or less unconscious pesupposition that ‘it’s the state or nothing’. The anarcho-syndicalist vision of a radically decentralised order, for example, is readily dismissed as the reimportation of the state.

  4. What a vacuous and typical ‘Trotskyist’ critique. I agree with the first commentator that your criticism of Losurdo’s book is essentially based on the premise that he doesn’t agree with what Uncle Leon said in 1937 vis a vis the state and must therefore be wrong, without providing an actual argument, instead relying upon name dropping. This kind of critique showcases why unreconstructed trots are just as misguided as their Stalinist counterparts.

    I’ve read the German version and your views do not hold, have you actually read the book, or just reviews?

    • No, I’ve not read the book and nowhere do I claim to have. My ex-girlfriend read much of the Spanish-language version of the book and the debates that surrounded it, and another friend read the German version. All of my argument here is based on those writings by Losurdo that have been translated into English, however.

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