‘Gulag socialism’ writes Jean-Jacques Marie. ‘Primitive thinking’ replies Domenico Losurdo. We publish here a review by Jean-Jacques Marie (contributor to La Quinzaine littéraire and head of the Centre d’études et de recherche sur les mouvements trotskistes et révolutionnaires internationaux) of Domenico Losurdo’s book Staline, histoire et critique d’une légende noire, along with Losurdo’s response.1 A short version of Jean-Jacques Marie’s text was published in La Quinzaine littéraire no. 1034 on 15 March 2011. Domenico Losurdo sent the journal extracts from his response to this article, in a very polemical tone. To date, the journal has not brought this to the attention of its readers. We therefore offer here the exchanges between Jean-Jacques Marie and Domenico Losurdo in full.
Jean-Jacques Marie: ‘Gulag Socialism’
With courage nothing is impossible, if we believe the Scouts. Domenico Losurdo belies this masculine motto. He is certainly courageous in trying to rehabilitate Stalin. But the inanity of such an undertaking, whose ambition is undoubtedly excessive, quickly becomes obvious.
Vade retro, Khrushchev!
Losurdo lambasts the report delivered by Khrushchev on some of Stalin’s crimes during a final closed-door session of the 20th Congress of the CPSU in February 1956. First of all, he distorts its scope. According to him, this report was an ‘indictment which proposed to liquidate Stalin in every aspect’. But Khrushchev asserted right away: ‘The aim of this report is not to make an in-depth criticism of Stalin’s life and activities. Enough books, pamphlets and studies were written on Stalin’s merits during his lifetime. Stalin’s role in the preparation and execution of the civil war and in the struggle for the building of socialism in our country is universally known. Everyone knows this perfectly well.’ And for those who didn’t understand he adds: ‘The Party fought a hard fight against Trotskyists, rightists and bourgeois nationalists... There Stalin played a positive role.’ Khrushchev therefore had nothing to say about the Moscow trials, from which Domenico Losurdo borrows a number of inventions that he presents as truths. Thanks, therefore, to Stalin for the liquidation of opponents of every shade! Khrushchev indeed specified that ‘before the 16th Congress’, which took place in January 1934, ‘Stalin had always taken into account the opinion of the collective’. Until then, Stalin had therefore been an excellent Communist leader. Stalin only became bad when he started to liquidate his own supporters from 1934 onwards. Losurdo erases this distinction to put Khrushchev and Trotsky on the same level.
Collective leadership versus ‘cult of personality’
I say Khrushchev, but Domenico Losurdo seems unaware (or conceals) the fact that Khrushchev was not in fact the author of the said report. This was written by Piotr Pospelov, on the basis of the work of a commission of the presidium of the Central Committee that he headed. Pospelov had been the main editor of the official biography of Stalin published shortly after the war, and was for a long time editor-in-chief of Pravda. A good and authentic Stalinist, therefore. Khrushchev was content to add to Pospelov’s text a few embellishments of his own, such as the detail (invented and grotesque) that Stalin had led the military operations of the Second World War on a globe. Two or three jokes of similar kind only marginally alter the nature and scope of a report produced collectively by a commission of Stalin’s supporters.
These Stalinists had only one concern, expressed in the reproach of ‘cult of personality’. Its very simple meaning escapes Losurdo completely – even with the help of Hegel. It meant that power was now in the hands, not of the Supreme Guide and Father of Peoples, but of the Central Committee, which Stalin had convened only four times from 1941 until his death in 1953. This is what Khrushchev had promised the Central Committee when it met to judge Beria in June 1953. And this is what the members of the Central Committee, silenced during the last thirteen years of Stalin’s rule, wanted to hear: ‘Now we will have collective leadership... The plenums of the Central Committee must be convened regularly.’ The report read by Khrushchev on behalf of the presidium of the Central Committee was the expression of this collective will.
The deportation of peoples ... ‘a lack of common sense’!
Losurdo’s arguments generally boil down to a simple schema: all states and all governments do the same thing. So what can we reproach Stalin for? He quotes the passage where the Khrushchev report denounced the deportations of certain peoples in 1943-44: ‘Not only a Marxist-Leninist, but anyone of good sense, cannot understand how it is possible to hold entire nations responsible for unfriendly activity, including women, children, old people, Communists and Komsomols [Communist youth], to the point of resorting to massive repression against them and condemning them to misery and suffering because of hostile acts perpetrated by individuals or groups of individuals.’
Khrushchev listed only five of the dozen deported peoples who suffered this fate, and Losurdo – who in no way reproaches him for this selective choice – refrains from listing them. In a few words, Losurdo evokes ‘the horror of collective punishment’, but once this humanitarian concession is made to a tragedy in which on average a quarter of the deportees – primarily old people and children – perished in the course of their interminable transport, he adds cynically: ‘This practice was characteristic of the second Thirty Years’ War,’2 starting with tsarist Russia which, although allied with the liberal West, experienced during the First World War ‘a wave of deportation’ of ‘dimensions unknown in Europe (especially people of Jewish or Germanic origin)’. He then evokes the expulsion of the Han people from Tibet by the ultra-reactionary Dalai Lama, who flirted for a while with the Nazis, and the internment in camps of all American citizens of Japanese origin by the President Roosevelt in 1942. So our Italian philosopher benignly concludes: ‘If it was not distributed equally, the lack of “common sense” was widespread among the political leaders of the twentieth century.’ Hey presto!
Thus, 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. The latter, in response to the German advance in 1915, did indeed moved half a million Jews to the east, unofficially suspected of spying for the Germans. But the justificatory reference to this is unfortunate, because however barbaric this transfer was, it caused far fewer deaths than that of the Soviet Koreans in 1937 (in the absence of any war), who were collectively described as potential spies for Japan... after they had fled from the terror that Japan was unleashing in their country, or the Crimean Tatars, Kalmuks, Chechens and Ingush in 1944. We should add that the deportation of these last two peoples is one of the causes of the tragedy that their region has been experiencing for almost twenty years. Stalin’s legacy still causes bloodshed today.
Losurdo uses the same line of argument when he evokes the gulag by parading all the horrors of concentration camps in colonial countries.
An heir to the Moscow trials
Losurdo repeats the falsifications of the Moscow trials, but without referring directly to them given how polluted is the source. For example, he maintains that in 1918: ‘Lenin, accused or suspected of treason, seemed to be the target of a plan envisaged by Bukharin, however vague, for a coup d’état.’ This plan, fabricated by prosecutor Vychinsky during the third Moscow trial of March 1938, is presented here first as hypothetical, before becoming a certainty with the wave of a magic wand: ‘To thwart the peace of Brest-Litovsk, which he had experienced as a capitulation to German imperialism and a betrayal of proletarian internationalism, Bukharin cultivated for a moment the idea of a kind of coup d’état, aiming to remove from power at least for a while the man who until then had been the indisputable leader of the Bolsheviks’ (Losurdo gives here a reference to his previous sentence, the invention supposedly serving itself as evidence). No doubt thinking that a fable repeated several times thereby acquires the status of truth, he continues: ‘We have seen Bukharin on the occasion of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk caress for a moment the project of a sort of coup d’état against Lenin, whom he criticised for wanting to “turn the party into a dung heap”.’ In reality, we have seen nothing at all, except Losurdo’s pirouettes.
Why is it that Losurdo, who multiplies references to anyone, including novelists such as Montefiore, promoted to historian, or Feuchtwanger, whom Stalin brought to exalt the second Moscow trial in exchange for the publication of his works in the USSR and the payment of a juicy fee, does not refer to this invention of Vychinsky’s? The truth is quite simple: during Lenin’s speech to the Soviet executive committee on the Brest-Litovsk treaty, on 23 February 1918, the Left Socialist-Revolutionary Kamkov – whose party was still in coalition government at the time – approached the ‘Left Communists’ Piatakov and Bukharin, who were hostile to signing, and asked them what would happen if they had a majority in the party against the Brest-Litovsk peace. In his opinion, he told them, ‘In that case Lenin will leave and we and you will have to set up a new Council of People’s Commissars’ which Piatakov could chair. The two men saw this simply as a joke. A few days later, the Left S-R Prochian suggested to Radek that, instead of writing interminable resolutions the Left Communists would do better to arrest Lenin for twenty-four hours, declare war on the Germans and then unanimously re-elect Lenin president of the government, since being forced to react to the German offensive, ‘while insulting us and you, Lenin will nevertheless wage a defensive war better than anyone else’. Six months later, Prochian died. Radek then repeated the sentence to Lenin, who burst out laughing.
At the beginning of December 1923, in the middle of the Left Opposition’s campaign for the democratisation of the party, Bukharin, then allied with Stalin against it, transformed these anecdotes into serious proposals that the ‘left-wing Communists’ of the time supposedly discussed – so he asserted, despite the denials of all concerned. The Opposition, he concluded, thus played into the hands of the party’s enemies. Zinoviev protested: the Left Communists had hidden these ignoble proposals from the Central Committee, which only learned of them six years later! Stalin went further: some of his opponents of 1923 had already, according to him, been potential members of the would-be anti-Leninist government of 1918. Bukharin would pay with his life for this trafficking in memory. At the third Moscow trial, in March 1938, the prosecutor Vyshinsky, using his demagogic declarations of 1923, accused him of having negotiated with the Left S-Rs the overthrow and arrest of Lenin. Bukharin was sentenced to death.
Ignorantus, ignoranta, ignorantum...
Domenico Losurdo does not know the history on which he writes commentaries, sometimes with references to Hegel, who, sadly, cannot respond. He describes the head of the provisional government of 1917, Alexander Kerensky, as a ‘Menshevik leader’. But Kerensky was close to the Socialist-Revolutionaries, and had never in his life been a Menshevik. Referring to the assassination of Serge Kirov on 1 December 1934 in Leningrad, Losurdo writes: ‘Initially the authorities’ enquiries turned to the White Guards’ (p. 102). The authorities had a strange way of turning to them. The day after the murder, Stalin had a hundred White Guards shot, men who were already in prison and who were not questioned beforehand, given that they could not organise the slightest attack from their cells.
Seeking to confirm Trotsky’s perfidy, Losurdo further states that ‘Lenin already saw a Bonapartist peril hanging over Soviet Russia and expressed his concerns even about Trotsky’ (p 127). The absence of reference here again conceals a trick. In 1924, the year of Lenin’s death, Gorky, then in Italy, published Lenin and the Russian Peasant, in which he quoted only Lenin’s laudatory phrases about Trotsky. Six years later, Gorky republished his book in the USSR and added a sentence ascribed to Lenin, who had returned from the grave six years after his death to express a belated fear of Trotsky’s imaginary Bonapartist ambitions. Even more astounding, Losurdo repeatedly evokes an alleged ‘conspiracy led by Trotsky’ and confirms this fable from the Moscow trials with a quote from Curzio Malaparte. Yet no historian has ever considered Malaparte as anything other than a literary source. Who would quote Malaparte’s Kaputt in a history of the Second World War? A talented writer, he considered history nothing more than a servant of literature and fabricated just as he pleased.
What a lovely gulag!
We must pause for a moment in the all too easy dismantling of Losurdo’s fantasies. But we cannot pass over in silence his ramblings about the gulag. He is certainly right to stress that the Stalinist gulag was not the kind of extermination camp that the Nazis set up for the Jews. That said, one cannot read without surprise the assertion that ‘the attempts to achieve in the “whole” of the country “Soviet democracy”, “socialist democracy” and even “a socialism without the dictatorship of the proletariat” [as if the oppressed proletariat then exercised the slightest dictatorship!], were matched by attempts to re-establish “socialist legality” or “revolutionary legality” in the gulag’. Finally, Losurdo ecstatically finds in the gulag ‘a paedagogical concern’: ‘the gulag prisoner was a potential “comrade” obliged to participate in particularly harsh conditions in the productive effort of the whole country’. Particularly harsh, of course, but the word ‘comrade’, even a very potential one, is priceless. And, Losurdo swears, ‘until 1937 the guards called the prisoners “comrade”. Imprisonment in a concentration camp, moreover, did not exclude the possibility of social promotion’. What a social ascent this gulag socialism provided!
Domenico Losurdo’s response: Primitive thinking and Stalin as a scapegoat
One can never appreciate enough the wisdom of the phrase attributed to Georges Clemenceau: war is too serious a business to entrust it to generals! Even in his acute chauvinism and anticommunism, the French prime minister kept a fairly lucid awareness of the fact that specialists (in this case war specialists) are often able to see the trees but not the forest, and let themselves be overwhelmed by details while losing sight of the whole. In this sense, they know everything but the essential. One is immediately inclined to recall Clemenceau’s saying on reading the demolition job that Jean-Jacques Marie attempts to inflict on my book on Stalin. From what it seems, the author is one of the greatest experts in ‘Trotskyism-ology’, and he is keen to demonstrate this in all circumstances.
1. Stalin liquidated by the Khrushchev report, the Khrushchev report liquidated by the historians
Marie immediately begins by challenging my assertion that Khrushchev ‘sought to liquidate Stalin in all aspects’. Yet it was the great Trotskyist intellectual Isaac Deutscher who pointed out that the secret report portrayed Stalin as a ‘huge, dark, capricious, degenerate human monster’. And even this portrait is not monstrous enough in Marie’s eyes! My book goes on to say that, in Khrushchev’s indictment, ‘the man responsible for horrible crimes was a despicable individual, both morally and intellectually. The dictator was not only ruthless but also laughable.’ Let’s just dwell on one detail that Khrushchev mentions: ‘It is worth noting that Stalin drew up his plans using a globe. Yes, comrades, it was with the help of a globe that he drew the front line’ (p. 27-9). It is clear that the portrait of Stalin drawn here is a caricature: how did the USSR manage to defeat Hitler under a leader who was both criminal and a fool? And how did this leader, both criminal and foolish, manage to lead on a ‘globe’ an epic battle such as that of Stalingrad, fought district by district, street by street, floor by floor, door by door? Instead of answering these objections, Marie is concerned to demonstrate that, as a great expert of ‘Trotskyismology’, he knows the Khrushchev report from memory, and he starts quoting it at length and in broad terms on aspects that have nothing to do with the problem in question!
I demonstrate that this total liquidation of Stalin (on the intellectual as well as the moral side) does not stand up to historical investigation, by calling 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; and this was thanks not only to his military strategy but also to his ‘masterful’ war speeches, sometimes real ‘purple passages’ which stimulated national resistance in tragic moments. And that is not all: fervent anti-Stalinist historians acknowledge the ‘perspicacity’ with which he dealt with the national question in his 1913 writings and the ‘positive effect’ of his ‘contribution’ on linguistics (p. 409).
Secondly, I note that, as early as 1966, Isaac Deutscher expressed strong doubts about the credibility of the Secret Report: ‘I cannot accept without reservation Khrushchev’s alleged “revelations”, in particular his assertion that during the Second World War [and in the victory over the Third Reich] Stalin had a practically insignificant role’ (p. 407). Today, in the light of the new material at our disposal, researchers who accuse Khrushchev of having resorted to lies are far from rare. So, if Khrushchev undertook the total liquidation of Stalin, more recent historiography liquidates the credibility of the so-called Secret Report.
How does Marie respond to all this? He summarises not only my point of view but that of the authors I quote (including the Trotskyist Isaac Deutscher) with the formula: ‘Vade retro Khrushchev!’ In other words, the great expert in ‘Trotskyism-ology’ believes he can exorcise the insurmountable difficulties in which he struggles by pronouncing two words in (ecclesiastical) Latin!
Let us look at a second example. At the beginning of the second chapter (‘The Bolsheviks from ideological conflict to civil war’), I analyse the conflict that developed on the occasion of the Brest-Litovsk peace. 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 would all the more easily turn into civil war, I say in my book, when, with Lenin’s death, ‘an undisputed authority was missing’. On that very occasion, I add, following an illustrious bourgeois historian (Robert Conquest), Bukharin had already toyed with the idea of a coup d’état (p. 71). How does Marie respond to all this? Once again, he displays all his erudition as the great and perhaps greatest expert in ‘Trotskyismology’, but makes no effort to answer the questions that arise: If the deadly conflict which lacerated the Bolshevik ruling group was Stalin’s fault (primitive thinking cannot do without a scapegoat), how can we explain the harsh exchange of accusations in which Lenin condemned as ‘monstrous’ the words 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 existence to demonstrating the infamy of Stalin and the Moscow trials, speaks of a plan for a coup d’état against Lenin cultivated and toyed with by Bukharin?
Not knowing what to answer, Marie accuses me of manipulation and even writes that the idea of a coup d’état by Bukharin is my own invention. I have no time to waste with insults. I shall confine myself to pointing out that on p. 71, note 137, I refer to a historian (Conquest) who is inferior to Marie neither in erudition nor in anti-Stalinist zeal.
2. How do Trotskyists à la Marie insult Trotsky?
With the death of Lenin and the consolidation of Stalin’s power, the ideological conflict increasingly turned into a civil war: the diabolical dialectic that manifests itself in one way or another in all great revolutions sadly did not spare the Bolsheviks either. I develop this thesis in the second part of my second chapter, quoting a series of quite varied figures who revealed the existence of a clandestine and military apparatus set up by the Opposition, and above all quoting Trotsky himself. Yes, it was Trotsky who declared that the struggle against the Stalinist ‘bureaucratic oligarchy’ precluded a peaceful solution. And it was Trotsky himself who proclaimed that ‘the country is clearly heading towards revolution’, towards civil war, and that ‘in conditions of civil war, the murder of certain oppressors ceases to be individual terrorism’ and is an integral part of the ‘struggle to the death’ between opposing factions (p. 104). As can be seen, in this case, at least, it was Trotsky himself who turned the tables on the scapegoat myth.
We can thus understand Marie’s particular embarrassment. So what? We are already familiar with the display of erudition as a smokescreen. Let’s proceed to the substance. Among the many diverse figures I quote, Marie chooses two: one of these (Malaparte) he considers incompetent, the other (Feuchtwanger) he stigmatises as a bribed agent in the service of the criminal and idiot who sat in the Kremlin. And so the game is played: the civil war has disappeared and once again this scapegoat primitivism can celebrate its triumph. But to refuse to take into consideration the arguments put forward by a great intellectual such as Feuchtwanger, to limit oneself to describing him as a bribed agent in the service of the enemy: is this not the way of proceeding generally considered ‘Stalinist’? And above all: what should we think of Trotsky’s testimony which speaks of ‘civil war’ and ‘struggle to the death’? Isn’t it a paradox that the great specialist and high priest of ‘Trotskyismology’ silences the deity he worships? But this is not the only paradox, or even the most glaring one. Trotsky not only compares Stalin to Nicholas II (p. 104), but goes further: in the Kremlin sits ‘a provocateur in the service of Hitler’ or even ‘Hitler’s majordomo’ (pp. 126 and 401). 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 ‘followers’ into the GPU – did Trotsky do nothing to overthrow the counter-revolutionary power of this new tsar, the servant of the Third Reich? Marie ends up painting Trotsky as a simple phrasemonger who limits himself to barroom tirades, even as an inconsistent revolutionary, fearful and abject. The most glaring paradox is that I am in fact forced to defend Trotsky against some of his apologists!
I say ‘some of his apologists’ as not all of them are as destitute as Marie. With regard to the ‘merciless civil war’ that developed between the Bolsheviks, I observe in my book:
We have here a category that constitutes the main research thread of a Russian historian (Vadim Rogovin) of sure and proven Trotskyist obedience, author of a monumental work in several volumes dedicated precisely to the meticulous reconstruction of this civil war. He speaks of the ‘civil war’ unleashed by Stalin against those in Soviet Russia who organised to overthrow him. This civil war manifested itself even outside Russia, and at times spread within the framework of the front fighting against Franco; indeed, referring to Spain in 1936-39, people talk of not one but ‘two civil wars’. With great intellectual honesty and making use of new and rich documentary material, available thanks to the opening of the Russian archives, the author quoted here comes to the conclusion: ‘The Moscow trials were not a cold-blooded, unmotivated crime, but Stalin’s reaction during an acute political struggle.’
In a polemic with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who portrayed the victims of the purges as a collection of ‘rabbits’, the Russian Trotskyist historian reports a leaflet from the 1930 that called for ‘the fascist dictator and his clique’ to be swept out of the Kremlin. And he comments: ‘Even from the point of view of the Russian legislation in force today, this leaflet must be judged as a call for a violent overthrow of the state (more precisely of its dominant upper stratum).’ In conclusion, far from being the expression of ‘an irrational and senseless outburst of violence’, the bloody terror unleashed by Stalin was in fact the only way in which he managed to break ‘the resistance of real Communist forces’ (p. 117-8).
This is how the Russian Trotskyist historian expresses himself. Except that Marie, in order not to renounce his primitivism and the quest for a scapegoat (Stalin) on whom to focus all the sins of the terror and the Soviet Union as a whole, prefers to follow the path traced by Solzhenitsyn and depict Trotsky as a ‘rabbit’.
3. Betrayal or objective contradiction? The lesson from Hegel
Within the framework I have outlined, Stalin’s merits remain. He understood a series of essential points: the new historical phase that opened with the failure of revolution in the West; the danger of enslaving colonisation that threatened Soviet Russia; the urgency of recovering from backwardness in relation to the West; the necessity of acquiring the most advanced science and technology, and the awareness that the struggle to achieve this could be in certain circumstances an essential, 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 (the Great Patriotic War) was at the same time a major contribution to the internationalist cause of the struggle against imperialism and capitalism. Stalingrad established the foundations for the crisis of the colonial system on a global scale. Today’s world is characterised by the growing difficulties of the neo-colonialist system, by the emergence of countries like China and India and more generally of civilisations that had been subjugated or annihilated by the West, by the crisis of the Monroe doctrine and the effort of some South American countries to link the struggle against imperialism with the construction of a post-capitalist society. Well, this world would have been unthinkable 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 describes the conflict that would arise with Lenin’s death as follows:
To the extent that charismatic power was still possible, it tended to take form in the figure of Trotsky, the outstanding organiser of the Red Army and the brilliant orator and writer who claimed to embody the hopes of triumph of world revolution, and derived from this the legitimacy of his aspiration to rule the party and the state. Stalin, on the other hand, was the embodiment of the legal-traditional power that was laboriously trying to take shape. Unlike Trotsky, who came late to Bolshevism, he represented historical continuity in the party that was the protagonist of the revolution and, therefore, the holder of the new legality; moreover, by affirming the feasibility of socialism even in a single (large) country, Stalin conferred a new dignity and identity on the Russian nation, which thus overcame the appalling crisis, which was not only material, arising from the defeat and chaos of the First World War. In this way the nation recovered its historical continuity. But precisely because of this, his adversaries cried ‘treason’, while in the eyes of Stalin and his followers they appeared as traitors on account of an adventurism which facilitated the intervention of foreign powers and in the last analysis endangered the survival of the Russian nation, which was at the same time the vanguard component of the revolutionary cause. The confrontation between Stalin and Trotsky was a conflict not only between two political programmes but also between two principles of legitimacy (p. 150).
At a certain point, faced with the radical novelty of the national and international context, Trotsky was (wrongly) convinced that there had been a counter-revolution in Moscow and acted accordingly. In the context presented by Marie, on the other hand, Trotsky and his followers, although they had managed to infiltrate the GPU and other vital sectors of the state apparatus, let themselves be slaughtered and massacred without a fight by the criminal and idiot counter-revolutionary in the Kremlin. Without a doubt, it is this reading that particularly ridicules Trotsky, by making all the protagonists of the great historical tragedy which developed on the wave of the Russian revolution (as of any great revolution) petty and unrecognisable.
In order to understand this tragedy adequately, we must rely on the category of objective contradiction dear to Hegel (and Marx). Unfortunately, on the other hand (as I observe in my book), both Stalin and Trotsky shared the same philosophical poverty and were unable to go beyond the mutual accusation of treason:
On both sides, rather than engage in the laborious analysis of objective contradictions and opposing options, and the political conflicts that developed on this basis, the protagonists preferred to invoke the category of treason, and in its extreme configuration the traitor becomes the conscious and mercenary agent of the enemy. Trotsky consistently denounced ‘the plot of the Stalinist bureaucracy against the working class’, a plot that was all the more despicable because the ‘Stalinist bureaucracy’ was nothing more than an ‘apparatus for the transmission of imperialism’. The least one can say is that Trotsky was repaid in kind. He complained at being stigmatised as an ‘agent of a foreign power’, yet he had himself stigmatised Stalin as a ‘provocateur in the service of Hitler’ (p. 126).
Less than ever willing to problematise the category of treason, Marie waxes ironic on my frequent reference to Hegel. In the current debate here, who then is the ‘Stalinist’?
4. Comparison as an instrument of struggle against the falsifications of the dominant ideology
So far, we have seen from the great expert of ‘Trotskismology’ a display of erudition as an end in itself or used as a smokescreen. And yet, one has to recognise in Marie a certain line of reasoning, or at least an attempt at this. When I compare the crimes of Stalin, or attributed to Stalin, with 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, leaving aside any inaccuracy, forcing or 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 us focus on the essential. From the October Revolution to the present day, the tendency to demonise everything that has anything to do with the history of Communism has been a constant feature of the dominant ideology. As I point out in my book, at one time it was Trotsky who was stigmatised (by Goebbels, for example) as the person who ‘perhaps has on his conscience the greatest number of crimes that ever weighed on a man’ (p. 343); this not very glorious primacy was later attributed to Stalin, and is today to Mao Zedong; Tito, Ho Chi Minh, Castro etc. were also criminalised. Must we undergo this ‘demonisation’, which, as I argue in the last chapter, is only 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, with respect to the execution of hostages and the fires started by the Communards, denounced the Paris Commune as synonymous with infamous barbarism, Marx replied that the practices of taking (and possibly executing) hostages and starting fires had been invented by the dominant 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 does me too much honour when he polemicises with me on this point; he would do better to attack Marx directly. Or he could attack Trotsky, who also proceeded in the way I am accused of. In his little book Their Morals and Ours, Trotsky referred to the passage from Marx I have just quoted, and to refute the accusation that the Bolsheviks alone were inspired by the principle that ‘the end justifies the means’ (violent and brutal), he adduced the behaviour not only of the bourgeoisie of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but also of Luther, protagonist of a war of extermination against Thomas Müntzer and the peasants.
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 ironically titles his attack on me ‘gulag socialism’, but one could with the same irony, make fun of Lenin’s (and Trotsky’s) Soviet Russia as ‘Cheka socialism’ (or socialist revolution) or ‘hostage-taking socialism’ (bearing in mind that, in Their Morals and Ours, Trotsky was forced to defend himself from the accusation of having resorted to this practice). In reality, with the kind of irony dear to Marie, one can liquidate any revolution. We would then have the ‘hostages-shot Commune’, ‘guillotine freedom and equality’ etc., etc. These are not, by the way, imaginary examples. This is precisely how the tradition of reactionary thought has liquidated the French Revolution (and especially Jacobinism), the Paris Commune, the Russian revolution, and so on.
Marx summed up the methodology of historical materialism in the assertion that ‘men make their own history, but in circumstances they have not chosen’. Instead of starting from these lessons to investigate the errors, moral dilemmas and crimes of the protagonists of any great historical crisis, Marie formulates the simple alternative: either revolutionary movements are sovereignly superior and even miraculously transcendent in relation to the historical world, and to the historical contradictions and conflicts in which these movements develop; or these revolutionary movements are a complete failure and a total deception. And, so, the history of revolutions as a whole is configured as the history of a single, uninterrupted and miserable failure and deception. And Marie once again places himself in the wake of the tradition of reactionary thought.
5. Socialism as a laborious and unfinished learning process
I said that the construction of socialism is a laborious and unfinished learning process. But it is precisely for this reason that answers must be formulated: do socialism and communism involve the total disappearance of identities and even national languages, or was Castro right when he said that Communists were wrong to underestimate the weight that the national question continues to carry even after the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist revolution? In the society of the foreseeable future, will there be no more room for any kind of market, not even for money, or should we take advantage of Gramsci’s lesson that the ‘determined’ character of the ‘market’ should not be forgotten? On the subject of communism, Marx sometimes speaks of the ‘extinction of the state’, other times of the ‘extinction of the state in the current political sense’: these are two quite different formulas; from which of them can we draw inspiration? These are the problems that provoked among the Bolsheviks first a bitter ideological conflict and then civil war; and it is to these problems that we must respond, if we want to restore credibility to the revolutionary communist project and avoid the tragedies of the past. It is in this spirit that I first wrote Fuir l’histoire? La révolution russe et la révolution chinoise aujourd’hui, and then Staline. Histoire et critique d’une légende noire. If we do not confront these problems, we will be able neither to understand the past nor project 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 sense of the phrase word dear to Clemenceau: just as war is too serious a thing to entrust to generals and strategists, so the tragedy of Trotsky (not to mention the great and tragic history of the Communist movement as a whole) is too serious a thing to entrust to specialists and generals of Trotskyismology.
Translated by David Fernbach