Following the missile strike on Shayrat in Western Syria last Thursday, a wave of protests broke out across the United States. These proved something of a mixed bag, as one might expect. In addition to those who support the Free Syrian Army but oppose further American intervention, a number of unsavory sorts also showed up. Portraits of Putin and Assad could be seen alongside yellow signs put out by the ANSWER Coalition. A few flags featuring the modified orange tornado-swastika of the fascist Syrian Social Nationalist Party or SSNP, a close ally of the Ba’athist regime, also appeared at the demonstrations. Some organizers took a more principled stand, however, rejecting calls for a heightened US military role while at the same time refusing to march with Assadists.
While I’m heartened by such unequivocal declarations of principle, we are still all too ready to forgive those who make excuses for reactionaries. Marxists must do more to distance ourselves from bourgeois nationalists, religious fundamentalists, and others who present false alternatives to foreign domination. Even more so, we must stop giving a pass to those who discredit the antiwar movement through casuistry and moral equivalence. Under the crude logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” anyone and everyone who challenges Anglo-European hegemony is viewed as a potential ally. Cliffites, like the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) in Britain or the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in the US, lend their “critical but unconditional support” to openly antisemitic groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas against Israeli aggression into Gaza. Giovanni Scuderi of the Marxist-Leninist Party of Italy (PMLI) recently called on his followers to unite with the Islamic State against Western imperialism.
Of course, it’s far easier to skewer obscure sects with barely a hundred members than it is to do the same to beloved Marxist academics. Domenico Losurdo, for example, enjoys the reputation in the English-speaking world of a diligent and wide-ranging intellectual historian. Richard Seymour was among the first to herald his work, opining in 2007: “Losurdo is, if you ask me, the best critic of capitalist ideology writing today.” His arguments were cited frequently, moreover, in the 2010 study Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea by Badiou translator Alberto Toscano. Meanwhile, the monolingual Hegel scholar Harrison Fluss praises Losurdo’s research to the rafters, Ishay Landa lauding him for his “masterly dialectical style” [meisterhafte dialektische Art]. Speaking just for myself, I find his book on Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns (1992) to be his strongest work, though his critique of Arendt on totalitarianism and overview of Heidegger and the Ideology of War: Death, Community, and the West (1991) are also pretty good.
Glancing at some of the PCI philosopher’s past political positions, however, one is shocked to learn that he’s consistently sought to rehabilitate both Stalinist dictators from the age of “actually-existing socialism” as well as nationalist strongmen whose interests happened to run counter to US geopolitical aims in the postcommunist era. With regard to the latter, of these, a couple of cases suffice to make the point. Back in the 1990s, Losurdo was an outspoken apologist for Slobodan Milošević, going so far as to preface a pamphlet in defense of the disgraced Serbian leader as late as 2005. Milošević was suspected of inciting violence against Albanians earlier in the decade as well as subsequent ethnic cleansing campaigns in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Croatia. Yet Milošević is not the only nationalist strongman Losurdo has supported since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. He earlier defended the Romanian premier Nicolae Ceausescu, in power for decades, from charges of genocide artificially concocted by the “lie industry” [l’industria della menzogna] — i.e., the Western media — which Losurdo considers an “integral part of the imperialist war machine” [parte integrante della macchina di guerra dell’imperialismo].
1989 supposedly marked a turning point after which the influence of the lie industry (he might as well say Lügenpresse) over daily life became total. Losurdo grounds these paranoid ramblings in Debord’s theory of the “society of the spectacle.” In recent years, he maintains, the lie industry’s focus has turned to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, whose regime the West is hoping to overthrow at any cost. Dismissing claims that either Assad or Putin could be “war criminals” in any sense of the word, Losurdo insists that the real war criminals in Syria are the masterminds in Israel and the US, who want to destabilize the region. He is therefore skeptical of allegations that Syrian government or Russian forces have committed atrocities against civilians caught in the conflict. Specifically, Losurdo denies that barrel bombs or chemical weapons have been deployed by the regime. The August 2013 gas attacks were staged using a “photomontage” technique. “By making the most of its overwhelming multimedia firepower and new manipulation technologies thanks to the Internet, the West portrays the Syrian crisis as an exercise of brutal and gratuitous violence against peaceful and non-violent demonstrators,” Losurdo hyperbolically wrote in a 2011 article for the 9/11 truther Voltaire Network. “There is no doubt that Goebbels, evil minister of the Third Reich, has gained a following… One cannot but recognize that his disciples in Washington and Brussels have even surpassed their unforgettable master.”
Just in passing, it should be noted that Losurdo has contributed more than fifty articles in seven different languages to Voltaire Net. Even his biggest fans would likely be disturbed by this fact, given the kind of material one finds elsewhere on the website. Laurent Guyénot’s article “September 11: Inside Job or Mossad Job?” is typical of the antisemitic filth they regularly publish. Conspiracy theories abound not only here but on other supposedly left-wing venues such as Counterpunch, where authors like Israel Shamir and Gilad Atzmon are frequent contributors. (Shamir, like Losurdo, has also come out in defense of Pol Pot. Pol Pot’s career began with “a brilliant national-liberation struggle,” according to Losurdo, so it is a shame things ended so badly. Whereas Shamir contests the scale of violence in general, Losurdo looks to displace blame onto the United States. Nixon and Kissinger’s saturation bombing of Cambodia in the early seventies doubtless contributed to the crisis later, but these were hardly the decisive factor. Here Losurdo forgets that the US actually helped prop up the Khmer Rouge in the United Nations as part of its deal with China, when the killing was most intense. Regardless, responsibility is again laid at the feet of la «grande» presse d’information for this portrayal).
But the theme of fabricated news stories (fake news?) shows up throughout all of Losurdo’s work, even his most scholarly texts. In War and Revolution, for instance, he writes that “today we know that the testimony, statements, images, and stills documenting the atrocities of Wilhelmine Germany were the result of skillful manipulation, to which the nascent US cinema industry, shooting scenes in New Jersey of the savage, barbarous behavior of German troops in Belgium, made a splendid contribution.” Losurdo continues: “We can now understand the arguments of historical revisionism, so-called ‘negationism.’ For why should the systematic extermination of European Jewry attributed to the Third Reich not itself be a myth? Are we just dealing with a new, more acute formulation of the charge of ritual murder laid against the Germans, consummated in the Holocaust of a people blessed by the Bible?” To be sure, Losurdo does not believe that the Holocaust was fabricated of whole cloth. He does, however, regard such a view as understandable given the pervasive reality of media distortion. Certainly, a degree of skepticism is warranted when it comes to developing stories where the facts aren’t yet known. Pseudo-critical questions such as “cui bono?” or “who benefits?” can lead to the wackiest declarations that such and such must be a “false flag” by conspiracists both Left and Right. Zionists often brush aside video evidence of Israeli soldiers mistreating Arabs by saying they’re all just actors employed by “Paliwood.”
One need only look at the 2008 tome Stalin: The History and Critique of a Black Legend for an example of how Losurdo operates in exonerating the fallen heroes of state socialism. It swiftly becomes apparent from reading extracts translated into English that he is little more than an Italian version of Grover Furr. Although Losurdo’s subjects of inquiry vary a bit more than those of his American counterpart, the two men announced their mutual admiration in 2013 through an exchange of letters commending each other’s work. Furr was impressed by his colleague’s defense of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, while Losurdo found himself persuaded by Furr’s arguments about “periodic Russian famines.” When the Italian edition of Khrushchev Lied came out, Losurdo volunteered to write the preface. Like Furr, Losurdo blames Stalin’s overwhelmingly bad reputation in the West first of all on malicious rumors spread by Khrushchev at the ⅩⅩth Party Congress of the CPSU. Siding with Mao in disapproval, Losurdo reproaches Stalin’s successor for “demonizing those who preceded him in holding power.” Yet the unintended irony of the line that immediately follows cannot be lost on anyone familiar with the judicial travesties that occurred during the Great Purges: “On this basis, a truly grotesque trial [!!] against Stalin develops.” Though he doesn’t bother trying to exonerate the Kremlin highlander for every indiscretion, Losurdo rejects the incidence of mortality reported in Western statistics overall as “greatly exaggerated.”
So how should the crimes and misdeeds of past revolutionaries be dealt with, then? “Deng Xiaoping understood how to push along change without imitating Khrushchev’s model of destalinization,” suggests Losurdo. “The enormous historical contributions Mao made… are not to be forgotten.” Many who had been supportive of the PRC under Mao regarded the country’s reintroduction of market relations as a betrayal of the 1949 revolution, but Losurdo applauds Deng’s reforms for their pragmatism. Warning that “to speak of a restoration of capitalism in China would be viewing the problem too superficially,” he acknowledges that the move away from the hard Maoist line was important. At the same time, however, it was imperative not to lower Mao’s prestige in the eyes of the people. “Heroes are necessary for the transition from exceptional conditions to normalcy,” asserts Losurdo, so the fond memories of the Great Helmsman must be upheld even while dismantling his political agenda. It could be argued, of course, that Khrushchev betrayed his predecessor only in word while remaining loyal to him in deed, whereas Deng remained loyal to his predecessor only in word while betraying him in deed. Nevertheless, Losurdo regards post-Maoist China as faithful enough to its original goals to still be “the center of the struggle of colonial and former colonial peoples.” Chinese officials were thus fully justified in gunning down students at Tienanmen Square in 1989, as Losurdo figures they were US State Department employees anyway.
Responses to Losurdo’s effort to absolve Stalin have been less than favorable on the whole. Back in 2014 the tankie theologian Roland “fucking” Boer described it as a “well-reasoned and elaborately researched book,” but outside the Marxist-Leninist party press few seem to have appreciated it. The Italian Trotskyist Antonio Moscato published a scathing polemic in 2011 against the “obsessions” of Losurdo. Moscato, a specialist in Soviet history, took particular aim at his mendacious method of dealing with facts (which he elsewhere calls “the comparative approach”). Uncovering numerous anachronisms in Losurdo’s timeline, Moscato then goes on to confront his blatant mischaracterization of Trotsky’s stance on Russia. Especially forceful is his vindication of charges of antisemitism leveled against Stalin, which seem all the more perspicacious in retrospect given that the most egregious incidents of this prejudice only came after World War II. An even bigger shitstorm followed the release of Losurdo’s book in Spanish and Portuguese. Christoph Jünke in Germany criticized the “neo-Stalinism” of Losurdo in a 2000 piece published by the Rosa Luxemburg Institute, mocking the “cynical counting game” [Spiel bis zur zynischen Erbsenzählerei] of comparing the numbers killed by Stalin to the numbers killed by Roosevelt, Churchill, and others.
The looming threat of a “red-brown” (i.e, communist-fascist) alliance over geopolitical conflicts is worrisome, to say the least. Losurdo is right, of course, to point out that Hitler and Stalin were not twin brothers but mortal enemies. However, as Moscato counters, this enmity did not prevent them from having a mutual respect for each other’s accomplishments. Nor did it keep them from holding a joint victory parade in Brest-Litovsk, to celebrate their (re)partition of Poland in 1939. Budding fascists like Richard Spencer, Colin Liddell, and Greg Johnson are longtime admirers of nationalist strongmen like Putin, Assad, and Gaddafi — not least for their defiance of Israel and the US, the two countries supposedly most responsible for “globalism” around the world. Even leftish populists like Hugo Chávez of Venezuela hold great appeal for right-wing nationalists who still hold onto the autarkic ideal despite the reality of the world market. Kerry Bolton of Counter-Currents thus exclaimed “Viva Chávez!” back in 2013. As Marxists, we must not allow our legitimate opposition to US militarism or the expansion of settlements in Israel allow us to make common cause with reactionaries.
Vulgar anti-imperialism such as Losurdo’s is far too close to the isolationist rhetoric of ethnonationalists for comfort. While this hardly disqualifies all his intellectual contributions, it would be equally mistaken to think that there is no connection between the bad politics of Losurdo and his theoretical outlook. “Charlatanism in science and accommodation in politics are inseparable,” as Marx put it, speaking of Proudhon.