by Stefano G. Azzarà (Urbino University) The fundamental motives that inspire the work of Domenico Losurdo, one of the greatest contemporary Italian philosophers of the Marxist tradition, may be summarized as follows: a critique of liberalism, involving its major theorists and the actual history of the societies that have inspired them; a great comparative fresco in which the closed comparison between liberalism and the conservative and revolutionary traditions, developed over several centuries, breaks down the barriers of the historiographic tradition, and reveals the laborious process of constructing modern democracy; the sketching out of a general theory of conflict, based on a philosophical understanding, in a dialectical sense, of the relationship between universalistic aspirations and particularism; and an application of the historico-materialistic method that aims at its radical renewal through the assertion of the equilibrium between recognition and criticism of modernity. In order to introduce this author, whose intellectual production already exceeds 200 titles, it will inevitably be necessary to effect a selection of the contents, while seeking to avoid trivializing the complexity.
I. Calling liberalism to account
Losurdo has occupied himself for many years in a critical reflection on liberalism. This philosophico-political tradition, which today is the vision of the hegemonic world in the Western countries, tends to identify its history with that of individual liberty and of modern democracy itself. Losurdo shows how, in reality, liberalism has begun only very recently to think about democracies and human rights in a satisfactory way. It was not liberalism that imposed the requirement of universal suffrage in Europe, but rather Jacobinism – the radical tide of the French Revolution. It was in this setting, moreover, that there arose for the first time – with Robespierre and Saint Just – the demand not only for political equality, but also for “material rights”, such as “the right to life” and “the right to work”. Liberalism, by contrast, was distinguished in the revolutionary period by a violent anti-revolutionary argument in support of the Ancien Régime, on the side of the aristocratic classes, and against the principle of “sovereignty of the people”.
Contesting the very idea of universal laws, Burke affirmed the supremacy of “historical” rights that the English nation and its ruling elite had learned to attain with force. Authors such as Constant, Tocqueville, and the English and German liberals, would continue, during the eighteen hundreds, to assert the necessity of a rigid «restriction based on census» of suffrage (a tax quota for voting rights), based upon an anthropology that drew a clear distinction between the landed gentry and the subordinate classes.
The rights to vote and to participate in political life were the privilege of the affluent classes, who, having a steady income with no need to work, could further their own culture and education by investigating the problems of the State. The manual workers, by contrast, constituted a social stratum whose very belonging to the human species was considered doubtful: halfway between beasts and «instruments of work», they spent their whole lives in the material production and their natural destiny, as Nietzsche would come to say, consist in sacrificing themselves to the service of society. Dehumanized and ignorant, they could not govern themselves, it was thought, and they needed constant guardianship on the part of their masters. It would therefore be absurd and catastrophic to grant them voting rights, thus giving rise to the formation of governments of popular extraction, which would establish a dictatorship of the masses, threatening the sacredness of private ownership and upsetting the very foundation of Western civilization.
The liberalism of this period therefore demonstrated, according to Losurdo, the tendency to present social conflict in terms of racial divides. It did manage to put forward the theme of liberty of the individual, but was incapable of considering such liberty in a universalistic manner, as liberty that concerns all men, because it lacked entirely the universal concept of man – the idea of equality – which was to find expression with the French Revolution. For liberalism, “man” corresponded to “white, property-owning male”. Individual liberty – which springs from the liberation of civilized society from the patronage of the absolute sovereign, and implies the limitation of monarchic power through the institution of a representative government – was subjected, therefore, to heavy exclusion clauses. It did not concern the subordinate classes, whose condition was one of servitude, and who were therefore denied political and civilian rights.
Liberalism has shown the same limits in its approach to international relationships. It has identified Europe – and subsequently the West – with the area of civilization, clearly separated form the “Barbaric” extra-Western world. Towards colonial peoples it has therefore put in action the most merciless wars of conquest, not hesitating to carry out massacres and genocides, but mantling its fury of dominion with the notion of planet-wide exportation of Christianity, civilization, and, in recent times, democracy. It is beginning with this distinction – between a “sacred space” of liberty, in which are valued the recognition among equals and the guarantee of law, and a “profane space” of barbarity, in which only the right of the strongest applies – that the diffusion of liberalism, according to Losurdo, has been able to go hand in hand with the justification and strengthening of racial slavery, as was demonstrated in nineteenth-century America. The political regime defined by liberalism has presented itself, therefore, as a sort of «democracy that applies only the population of gentlemen» («Herrenvolk democracy»). Even in the twentieth century, indeed, forms of «naturalistic de-specification» and racist visions of interpersonal relationships were extremely diffused in liberal circles.
Losurdo shows how, in liberalism, there acts not so much the principle of individual liberty, but, rather, a dialectical mechanism of «emancipation» and «de-emancipation». To the liberation of the aristocracy and the great middle class from monarchic power there corresponded, in fact, a still more brutal exploitation of the masses in the industrial society, and the total loss of liberty of colonized peoples. At least up until the First World War, liberalism revealed itself, therefore, to be undermined by the presence of «three great discriminations»: those towards the subordinate classes, women and the «inferior races».
Modern democracy, instead, according to Losurdo, coincides exactly with the overcoming of these limits. It is clear, therefore, that the passage from liberalism to democracy is by no means a «linear» movement: the history of the construction of modern democracy has been a complicated and contradictory process, in which phases of supremacy imposed by the dominant classes are interspersed with phases of emancipation of the masses. Above all, the birth of modern democracy is not at all the outcome of an «autonomous» evolution of liberalism. It is, rather, an arduous conquest arising from the struggles of the excluded – the subordinate classes and the colonial peoples – to gain recognition of their own humanity and their own rights against liberalism itself.
During the eighteen hundreds, liberalism would react fiercely to these struggles, very nearly reaching the point of dictatorship and the suspension of law. It was exactly the attempt to quell these popular revolts, both in the European nations and farther afield, that would lead, in the twentieth century, to the beginning of the «Second Thirty-Year War», that catastrophic cycle which included the First and Second World Wars. In the course of that period, Europe would come to know – and in a particular way with the advent of Nazism – the horrors of Total War, which, until that time, had been practiced only in the colonial world. Only at its end – at the end, that is, of a conflict that constituted a real «international democratic revolution» – would there rise, according to Losurdo, modern democracy as the universalization of political, economic and social rights, with the affirmation of universal suffrage and the construction of public welfare systems (with corresponding rights to work, housing, health and education).
The end of the socialist camp and the triumph of the liberal world led by the United States have strongly unbalanced the power relationships among the classes and among the different areas of the world. With the defeat of the popular classes, democracy itself, according to Losurdo, is today being questioned. In the forms of «neo-liberalism» or «neo-conservatism», current-day liberalism seems to want to be freed from every democratic adjective, and to point towards recovering the positions of proto-liberalism or nineteenth-century liberalism, purifying itself of that compromise that the working classes and the people of the Third World have imposed upon it. In the West, the Social State is being dismantled, and nineteenth-century forms of exploitation are resurfacing, while an ever more refined control of the various means of communication is weakening the parties with mass-appeal, and allowing the construction of bonapartistic political forms of social control.
In international relations, liberalism has assisted in a «revival of colonialism» that is not ashamed to use war as a everyday tool with which to manage power relationships. Thus is the world of the «American Century» – a world in which there reigns, uncontested, a single military and political superpower that is also a «theological power»: it hands out graces and excommunications, and sovereignly decides who belongs to the area of civilization and who is, instead, a barbarian or a criminal to be punished. So powerful is the ideological force of American imperialism, that it allows the U.S.A. to restructure the collective imagination, furnishing the whole society and the aforementioned subordinate classes with the language and the concepts with which to name and to conceive reality.
The inheritance of German classical philosophy
The political criticism that Losurdo directs towards liberalism is based upon a precise philosophical analysis: he exposes the lack of universalism in this train of thought: its inability to go beyond representing the special interests of the strongest classes. The background of this approach consists of the studies that Losurdo has carried out on German classical philosophy, a field in which the universal concept of man was fully developed for the first time.
Losurdo deals, in the first place, with Kant. Kant follows, with great enthusiasm, the events of the French Revolution, considering it as a decisive phase in the «progress of the human species». Not only does he defend the republic that arose from the revolution, recognizing its political legitimacy, but he also defends, above all, a new type of State, which actively intervenes in the relationships among individuals and classes with the purpose of overcoming the feudal order and its corresponding political backwardness and social imbalances. The French revolutionary leaders engaged in a most difficult conflict to oppose the dominion and traditional privileges of the dominant groups – the aristocracy and the clergy – imposing upon these separate bodies a respect for the universality of a law valid for all, through the installation of a government that represented the majority of the nation, and by way of reforms that extended even to the confiscation of property and to the rigours of general taxation. For this reason, Kant recognized the revolution as the affirmation of «universal principles» that overcame the inherent particularism in the social relationships of power.
In the contemporary “contractualistic” vision of Burke and liberalism, the State presents itself as a sort of «pact» between the dominant groups, as a federation among private subjects who recognize and look after one another, providing themselves with particular jurisdictions and claiming the inviolability of their own interests over those of the collective. To defend the sovereignty of the new French State as interpreter of the general will implies, then, the overcoming, once and for all, of this feudal conception, and the affirmation of the principle of popular sovereignty. At this point, Losurdo can reveal the concordance between the revolution and Kant’s philosophy, both at the international level (as one deduces from the text on Perpetual Peace, in which an appeal for mutual respect among nations is launched), and at the level of the internal orders. As an idea of self-government according to popular will, founded upon the public use of universal reason, the revolution presents itself, indeed, as the «practical realization of Kantian philosophy». In the new State that took form in the French Republic, a rational arrangement of the world was made concrete. Embodying the universalistic slogans of the revolution, it was the realization of three fundamental principles dictated by reason (an element common to all men, and therefore the first basis of equality).
The advent of Napoleon, however, turned post-revolutionary France into an aggressive nation that sought to expand itself throughout the whole of Europe. In Germany, this gave rise to a popular resistance movement and to a war of liberation. Hegel recognized the legitimacy of the Befreiungskrieges in defence of German liberty but, at the same time, denounced the serious limits present in the independence movement. Many intellectuals and political men who had sympathized with Jacobinism saw the Napoleonic aggression as the end of the «myth» of the revolution, and as a sort of «betrayal» of the ideals of peace, universal liberty and brotherhood among nations. This gave rise to a regressive response, which affirmed the failure of the revolution, and expressed a strong mistrust towards the very politics of it, now judged as irremediably “soiled”, incapable of moulding the world according to ideal principles and to moral «duty». The «hypochondriac» and «romantic» reaction of many German intellectuals in a private dimension, in the contemplation of nature or art, was accompanied, moreover, by the emergence of strongly ambiguous positions: they contested, in addition to Napoleonic France, the Enlightenment, the “French” principles of 1789, and the ideas of progress and modernity. A chauvinistic and fundamentalist ideology spread, which proclaimed the uniqueness and superiority of the German identity, and which, in opposition to every universalistic overture, looked to the past, recalling the imperial glories of Germany, or even the values of the Germans of a more distant past.
As Losurdo explains, Hegel was to busy himself in contesting these retrograde positions, and in affirming the value, in his own Country, of the ideas of the French Revolution. Against the defenders of the feudal order, he would maintain the necessity of a renewal of society and of the German political sphere, favouring the development of democratic expectations. In this sense, he was to recognize the political role of Protestantism as a religion of individual liberty, in opposition to the Catholic obscurantism; and he would exalt the modernizing function and the illuministic and cosmopolitan overtures of Prussia under Frederic II, busily overcoming feudalism and the discretion of the aristocracy. Above all, Hegel would engage in a reflection on history and on his own dialectical movement, which would go hand in hand with the affirmation of modernity.
The Hegelian principle of the rationality of reality would not involve, therefore, the conservative justification of the existing politico-social orders, and the backing up of the Ancien Régime. On the contrary, it would constitute, according to Losurdo, a defence of the results of the Enlightenment and the revolution, because it was to entail the affirmation of the ability of reason to go beyond immediate knowledge, to know reality in full, to descend into it, to transform it, to stamp a progressive course upon history. This reason-made-reality, then, was to find its objectivity in the modern State as an agent of universality.
Hegel sees civil society as the seat of insuperable conflict between the partial interests of individuals and groups; here, precise relationships of power and dominion are in force, and the principle of the law of the strongest holds sway. It constitutes, therefore, a residue of that feral state of nature that must constantly be surmounted in the direction of a «second historical and cultural nature», in which man’s spiritual element replaces the immediateness of violence, and the impartiality of law replaces private will. The State is precisely the sphere in which the egoisms of civil society are to be overcome in the dimension of universality, common welfare and general interest, through the form of impartial law. For Hegel, it is therefore a factor of social mediation and readjustment, in which the liberty of the individual conjoins with equality. Allowing the recognition of material rights and an active political intervention of society it is a presupposition of modern democracy.
Hegel constructs this philosophy on the basis of the results of the French Revolution, from which he deduces the idea of the historico-social process as a «qualitative jump» that moves, by way of «objective contradictions», along a dialectical course. The philosophy of German idealism is, after all, a real «philosophical revolution» for Hegel – the reflection, in terms of thought, on the great events that have marked the forward march of modernity. To understand his own time through the concept meant grasping the progressive affirmation of the universal in history, and that was the affirmation of the idea of equality. At this point, in the reading of Losurdo, the superiority of Hegel in comparison to liberalism emerges. Liberalism denies the existence of the social issue, and contests every legislative intervention of the State in civil society as an undue interference in the sacred sphere of private ownership, because it is unable go beyond a reflection of the partial and particularistic interests of the landed classes. Hegel can, instead, recognize the social issue as a wholly political matter, and can affirm the superiority of liberty and rights of all individuals compared to private ownership, because he has succeeded in achieving that universal concept of man – the idea of a common human dignity, independent of sex, wealth and race – that it is the true basis of democracy.
The crisis of real socialism and the refoundation of historical materialism
Hegel’s inheritance was picked up, according to Losurdo, by Marx and Engels, who developed his method – in which philosophical criticism, historical investigation and political analysis are fused together – under the new conditions marked by the advent of the workers’ movement in Europe. Marxist materialism is first and foremost the acquisition of a wholly historical look at reality. The “criticism” of the bourgeois-capitalistic society is not the moralistic disapproval of its evils and of the wretchedness of the subordinate classes, but signifies, first of all, with Kant and Hegel, the rational comprehension of society – the understanding of the historical and structural conditions for which the society and its institutions are composed in a certain way and have a determined function; the understanding of the intrinsic limits to this socio-economic formation and to this type of historically determined State; and finally, the identification of those internal contradictions which, if brought to light and solicited by organized subjective action, can lead towards destabilization and a more rational and solidaristic social and political configuration. This new look at reality provides socialism with the possibility of examining reality in its totality, and allows its passage from utopia to science (in the Hegelian sense of science of the concept as «concrete universal»).
From Hegel, moreover, Marx and Engels learned that the removal of the relationships of power and dominion is very much more complex than is suggested by the liberal vision, which aims entirely at the liberation of civil society from the power of the State. Forms of non-recognition, abuse and exploitation are present, instead, first of all in the social relationships between individuals, classes, and also national and ethnic groups. The limitation of the power of the State, in the name of formal liberty of its citizens, can transform itself, therefore, into a monstrous expansion of the power of some parts of the society over others, and formal liberty can come into conflict with the real liberty of the majority.
Marx and Engels understand, moreover, the contradiction that often exists between liberty and equality. If taken to the extreme, the «inequality of the socio-economic conditions may even end up annulling the liberty decreed by law», and it is therefore necessary to affirm, alongside civil rights, concrete material rights, without which the term negative liberty remains but an empty expression. It is on the basis of this awareness that, according to Losurdo, Marx and Engels can reveal the wholly political nature of the social issue, and then place it in connection with the relationships of ownership and production, and with the juridico-governmental sphere that preserves them.
Liberalism, in other words, it is unable to view liberty in a universal dimension, because it is deprived of the idea of equality, and does not recognize the human dignity of the working classes. It is for this reason that the oppression sustained in the capitalistic factory becomes, for Marx and Engels, «the presupposition because the working class is configured as the central subject of the transformation». The workers – those individuals «de-humanized by the dominant social order and ideology» – come to refuse «the condition thitherto suffered as a natural calamity». They recognize themselves as men, and they claim the general recognition of that condition. This is the meaning of the Marxist idea for which «the proletariat is the very “heart” of human emancipation»: «an entire social class seizes its dignity» and claims access to the universal laws from which the bourgeois society has excluded it. The struggle of the workers’ movement is therefore above all «a struggle for liberty» and for universal «recognition», a struggle for democracy and against liberalism itself.
Marx and Engels, however, were, in the main, able to view the universal concept of man from a solely Eurocentric perspective. It was Lenin who, beginning with the denouncement of the massacres linked to colonialism and its wars of conquest, along with those of the slaughterhouse that was the world war, would put in discussion «the civilization/barbarism dichotomy» with which Europe had traditionally read the East-West relationship. More than on the problem of reform or revolution, or on the theory of the avant-garde and the dictatorship of the proletariat, it is principally on this point – on the criticism of the «unilineal vision of the historical process of the bourgeois philosophy of history» and on its aggressive and even racist results – that Lenin differs with the “orthodox” Marxism of Bernstein and of European Social Democracy. The opening of Marxism to the “savages” of the colonies – its completion in the sense of a criticism of imperialism – becomes a theory of general liberation that invites non-European peoples to acknowledge the «high points of the European and western tradition» (the French Revolution and historical materialism above all) and speaks now to all men, irrespective of national borders and differences in race. With this movement, Lenin would link the struggle of the western proletariat, for a socialist revolution in the capitalistic world, to the struggle of subdued populations for national independence, thus setting the conditions for the planet-wide success of communism in the 20th century. This implied not only, for the first time in history, the total generalization of the universal concept of man, but also the understanding of the role of the national problem and of the self-determination of peoples as the very heart of international political conflict.
The main innovation in communist theory is, however, for Losurdo, the «critical Marxism» of Anthony Gramsci, according to whom liberalism is revealed as incapable of seeing through to the end the cause of the general progress of humanity. Marxism is therefore the continuator of the best moments of the western tradition – the heir to «the ideal conquests and politics of the French Revolution and of modern civilization, rather than to “the whole of modernity”»: «the march of communism is in a certain sense the march of universality» that carries to fulfilment that «process of emancipation» that the liberals left half unfinished.
But which form of Marxism? Gramsci rejects every evolutionistic and mechanistic reading of reality, contesting the vulgar materialism of the Second International, and valuing, in part, the experience of Leninism in preference to Marx himself. Overcoming every economism, he understands the complex nature of the revolutionary process, defining it as a long-standing interweaving between the economy and various political components, such as war or national oppression. Revolution therefore has an well-established character, in which the national issue plays a heavy role, as do the «historical and cultural traditions of a particular people».
Above all, Gramsci overcomes, according to Losurdo, the «Messianism» that is so much a part of «western Marxism». He lived through the failure of the revolution in the West and through the advent of fascism. He has therefore experienced the strength of capitalism and a middle class that is far from being in crisis. From this he derives the refusal to conceive Marxism in «religious» and «eschatological» terms. The history of the modern world and of the middle class is not an accumulation of horrors to reject in toto, and socialism is not a «palingenesis» that transforms society and man in their entirety, suddenly obliterating every contradiction and conflict. There is a need, instead, to maintain a constant «theoretical equilibrium» between the criticism of the contradictions of the capitalistic society, and the recognition of the progressive significance of middle-class modernity and its conquests, without surrendering to the anarchic and Luddite temptations of those who seek, through revolutionary violence, the redemption of the world and a new beginning.
More realistically, communism entails, for Gramsci, a «regulated society»: a society built on rational bases, in which the sympathetic bonds among men are guaranteed by rules and procedures that do not deny, but universalize, the conquests of modernity; a society that does not expect to overcome, in a single stroke, the currency, the exchange value and every form of division of labour, but which, through the experimentation of socio-economic forms that are inevitably as heterogeneous and “impure” as Lenin’s New Economic Programme, leads to the construction of a fair and efficient socialist market; a society that does not try to eliminate borders, national identities, or traditions (including religious ones), but which knows how to take account of the particular differences, and to appreciate them, preventing, by means of an authentic internationalism, every tendency to hegemony; a society, finally, that does not expect to extinguish the State in a kingdom of anarchy, but which founds a new type of State.
It is here that for Losurdo, after the crisis of socialism at the end of the 20th century, there is no sense in calling for a simple «”return” to Marx», which would wipe out, as a mere accumulation of errors and horrors, the experience of twentieth-century communism, the lesson of its teachers, and its concrete political efforts. Only this experience and the reflections of authors such as Lenin and Gramsci allow us to understand the «limits» present in Marxism – limits that have weakened socialism, because overloaded it with an inflated utopian tension. Such a messianic socialism proved itself unable of managing the state of exception and adequately planning the transition to a normal socialist democracy, guided by laws that regulate the rights and duties of citizens.
From here, to conclude, we come to the great attention that Losurdo pays to modern-day China. With Deng, China has adopted a political attitude that is not dogmatic, but secular and pragmatic. It is an experimental attitude, which views the construction of socialism as a constant «learning process», bearing in mind that pre-established models do not exist. Here socialism has known how to escape from the «utopia-state of exception spiral»: it has understood the complexity and graduality of the process of transition, and therefore it is not afraid to face capitalism, its wealth and technology, nor to submit its own results to scrutiny, and to publicly recognize the political, social and environmental discrepancies that arise from time to time. China is developing the practical application of a political project that brings, year on year, millions of people out of poverty, while at the same time it is constructing a socialist constitutional state and, in the manner of «a gigantic and prolonged New Economic Project», it is erecting an efficient socialist market in the production and redistribution of wealth. Something as important as the success of China on its national road to socialism could represent a most significant factor in the readjustment of the current international scene. It is not by chance that the United States tries everything to hinder this country, identified as the true strategic adversary of the 21st century.  Democrazia o bonapartismo. Trionfo e decadenza del suffragio universale, Bollati Boringhieri, Turin 1993, 2001.
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