Moar like Absurdo, amirite?

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.

13 thoughts on “Moar like Absurdo, amirite?

  1. As a libertarian, I think the goal isn’t to create the perfect society, but to stop people killing each other. (In fact, people are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, assuming others aren’t trying to ‘help’ them – otherwise we’ve learned nothing from millions of years of evolution.) So in Syria, the goal isn’t to establish a nationwide Commune, but simply to stop Russia from supporting Assad (and to stop Trump from encouraging him, which has already happened – yay!). Then there will be peace, even if some people have a little more than others. I find it a bit disturbing that the goal here seems to be more about ideological purity than ending the slaughter.

    • Since when is “Don’t make common cause with fascists” a demand for ideological purity? We all want to end the slaughter. But you won’t do that if you just hand the knives to a different set of butchers.

  2. If you “like” Domenico Loabsurdo, you should check out Diego Fusaro, one of the “rising stars” of the Italian (alt-) left…

  3. hmmmm… interesting and well written. i’ve never even heard of the writer you’re critiquing here but i have some points against your defense and disbelief in American imperialism. it seems like you’re unwilling to believe in Losurdo’s claims and arguments against ‘the lie industry’ and the manipulation of media as a means to economic ends. you consistently pull the snarky, mocking quotation marks around those interesting ideas but you don’t offer any arguments against them, explaining why you disagree.
    have you ever lived outside of the united states for a significant period of time? (england, france, and germany dont count.)

    Here’s an empirical, careful critique of the media’s role in the Balkan conflicts of 20 years ago:
    surely this interests you, no? take a look at it. you’re a good writer, i like your stuff. its just surprising to me that you doubt america’s ability to inject chaos and destabilize other nations and regimes. these things are fairly well documented and widely written about on the left.
    (also, i dont want to get into it with you, but i’ve spoken in person with some syrians who have told me syria was a very, very nice place, yes, under assad, before the united states came to ‘liberate’ these poor helpless brown folks.)
    cheers man.

  4. You spent a long time discussing the positions Losurdo took over his career but at no point actually use the texts themselves to look for the reasons he took said positions.

    If you’re going to cover an intellectual then this is a deeply lazy approach and more resembles factional posturing on your end than it does an attempt to in any way understand the person you’ve decided to make the focus of this article.

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