June 10, 2014

Flight from History? The Communist Movement between Self-Criticism and Self-Contempt in 'Marxist Forum', Nature, Society, and Thought, vol. 13, no. 4 (2000) by Domenico Losurdo

Addressing the question of anti-Communism on the Italian Left...
Domenico Losurdo is a professor of philosophy at Urbano
University. Together with the late Hans Heinz Holz, he edited the Marxist
journal Topos: Internationale Beiträge zur dialektischen Theorie.

                                (photo: political poster of Lenin from 1960s. Why are communists in 2014 hiding from Lenin?)


In 1818, in the middle of the Restoration and just at that time
when the collapse of the French Revolution seemed obvious to
all, some of those who had initially welcomed the events of 1789
now placed them at arms length; for them it had become a colossal misunderstanding or, even worse, a despicable betrayal of
noble ideals. It was in this sense that Byron sang: “Yet France
was drunken with blood and spat out crimes. Its Saturnalia were
deadly for the cause of freedom in every epoch in every country.” Must we make these grave doubts our own today, if we
were to substitute 1917 for 1789 and the cause of socialism for
the “cause of freedom”? Must Communists be ashamed of their
In the history of persecuted ethnic and religious groups, we
find something quite remarkable. At a certain point even the victims tend to assimilate the worldview of the oppressor, and on
this account begin to loathe and hate themselves. This selfcontempt has been studied above all with regard to the Jews,
who for millennia have been subjected to systematic campaigns
of discrimination and defamation. Something similar and equally
tragic occurred in the history of blacks, who were robbed of their
identity as they were deported from their homelands, enslaved,
and oppressed. At a certain point, African American women,
Nature, Society, and Thought,vol. 13, no. 4 (2000)

even those of extraordinary beauty, began to dream and yearn to
be white, or at least to lighten the darkness of their skin. Such is
the extent to which victims may be subjugated to the values of
their oppressors.
This phenomenon of self-contempt does not affect only
ethnic and religious groups. It can also arise among social
classes and political parties that have suffered a particularly
profound defeat, especially when the victors, standing in the
background or setting aside their usual weapons, intensify their
attacks, today utilizing the profound firepower of the multiple
media. Among the many problems with which the Communist
movement must struggle, that of self-contempt is certainly not
the least important. Let us not even talk about the former leaders
and spokespersons for the Communist Party of Italy (PCI), who
as it turns out now assert that they may have been Party members
in the past without ever really being Communists. It is no accident that these people today look at a figure like Clinton who
could say at his re-election that he thanked God that he was
allowed to come into the world as an American with wonder
and perhaps even envy. An admittedly very subtle form of selfcontempt may ensnare anyone who has not had the good fortune
to belong to an elect or a privileged people, especially to that
people which considers itself predestined to carry to every corner
of the world and by every means available ideas and goods
“Made in USA.”
Thus, as I have said, let us set aside those ex-Communists
who today bewail the misfortune that they were not born AngloSaxons and liberals and lived so far from the sacred heart of the
true culture. Sadly this self-contempt has also taken hold within
the ranks of those who continue to identify themselves as Communists, yet who resist any notion that they had anything to do
with the past that both they and their political opponents regard
as synonymous with ruination. The inflated narcissism of the
victors, who religiously transfigure their own history, has its
counterpart in the conquered who are holding themselves
Flight from History? 459
To me it is clear that the battle against this onerous selfcontempt will be just that much more effective the more our
critical analysis of the momentous and fascinating period
beginning with the October Revolution becomes really radical
and free from preconceptions. Despite any seeming parallel,
self-critique and self-contempt are contradictory attitudes. Selfcriticism, with all of its sharpness and particularly its radicalism,
expresses a consciousness of the necessity to examine one’s own
history; self-contempt represents a cowardly running away from
this history and away from the ideological and cultural struggle
that is expressed in this history. If the foundation of selfcriticism is the revival of Communist identity, then selfcontempt is another word for capitulation and the denial of an
autonomous identity.
Such is the general outline of the analysis I have published in
a series of articles in Ernesto: Mensile comunista.I present here
revised versions of these texts, and I would like to thank the
journal for its consent to do so.
I. At a fork in the road: Religion or politics?
An analysis of the ideas, attitudes, and moods of the contemporary Left today requires that we delve deeply into the past.
1. An enlightening event, almost 2000 years ago
In the year 70 A.D.the Jewish national revolution against
Roman imperialism was forced to capitulate. The capitulation
was preceded by an unforgiving siege that not only sentenced
Jerusalem to starvation, but also destroyed all social relationships: “Sons ripped bread from their father’s mouths, and, what
was the very worst, the mothers were taken from the children.” If
the siege itself was horrendous, so too were the measures taken
to contend with it. Traitors and deserters, real or imagined, were
killed without exception. Suspicion had become pathologically
widespread, and often rested on false accusations that were
brought forth by individuals having private and vicious motives.
Even the elderly and the young were suspected of hiding food
and were tortured. Yet none of this occurred without reason: the
triumph of the Romans not only brought death to the national
revolution’s leaders and fighters, it brought exile and dispersion
to an entire people.
These events are described by a Jewish author who was
himself a resistance fighter there for a period of time, but who
changed sides and praised the profound courage and invincibility
of the victors. Out of Joseph as he was called emerged
Josephus Flavius; he assimilated this name from that breed of
soldier that had destroyed Jerusalem. More important than this
shifting of camps was what he knew and could disclose about the
Christians. Originally an integral part of the Jewish community,
they nonetheless felt the need to declare that they had nothing to
do with the uprising that had just been suppressed. They continued to rely on the Holy Book, sacred also to the defeated revolutionaries, but this latter group was then accused of falsifying and
betraying the sacred scripture.
This dialectic can be traced especially clearly in the Gospel
according to Mark, which was written immediately preceding the
destruction of Jerusalem. This was a catastrophe that Jesus had
foreseen: “Not one stone will remain upon another.” And the
arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, had already been prophesied by
Isaiah. According to this, the tragedy that had just befallen the
Jews was not ultimately attributable to Roman imperialism: it
was, on the one hand, an original component of the divine plan
of redemption, and on the other, a result of the progressive
deterioration of the Jewish community. The revolutionaries had
improperly interpreted the messianic prophecy in a worldly and
political way, instead of in an inwardly spiritual manner: horror
and catastrophe were the inevitable outcomes of this falsification
and betrayal. Determined to distance themselves from the Jewish
national revolution, the Christians also resolutely distanced
themselves from all historical and political action.
2. A history of subaltern classes and religious movements
Gramsci has made it clear that, in the contemporary world,
various more or less explicitly religious perspectives may also
Flight from History? 461
appear in the context of liberation movements. Just look at the
dialectic that developed in the wake of the collapse of “real,
existing socialism.”
Set aside those individuals who hurriedly
swung aboard the victors’ train. Let us concentrate instead on the
destruction, the intellectual and political devastation, that followed this collapse within segments of the Communist movement. Just as with the Christians in the Gospel according to
Mark, who turned to the Roman conquerors and proclaimed, as
the situation seemed to require, that they had absolutely nothing
to do with the national uprising, so too in our own time not a few
Communists are doing likewise. They passionately deny the
accusation that they are in any way connected to the history of
“real, existing socialism.” At the same time they reduce this history to a simple series of horrors in the hope that this will lend
them credibility especially in the eyes of the liberal bourgeoisie.
Marx summed up the idea and method of historical materialism with the statement about human beings making our own
history, yet not under conditions of our own choosing. When
someone today modestly attempts to direct attention to the permanently exceptional situation that characterized developments
since the October Revolution when someone wants to research
concretely the objective “conditions” within which the project of
building a postcapitalist society occurred just bet that the
“Communist” imitators of the early Christian assembly will cry
out that this is but a scandalous, indecent attempt at rationalization. To understand this attitude look to the Gospel of Mark
rather than to the German Ideologyor the Manifesto of the Communist Party. In the eyes of these “Communists,” the imperialist
encirclement of “real, existing socialism” and the socialist revolution are simply as irrelevant as the Roman siege of Jerusalem
and the Jewish national revolution were for the assembly of
Jewish early Christians. From this perspective every effort to
analyze the concrete historical conditions is a distraction and
immoral; the only thing that really matters is the authenticity and
the purity of the gospel of salvation. Distanced too far away to
perceive the conquest by the Romans as painful, the fall and
destruction of Jerusalem actually seemed to please the JewishChristian believers; this had been foreseen by Jesus, and in any
case from now on it was possible to proclaim the Gospel without
the falsifications and deviations that politics was said to require.
In like manner there are not a few Communists who declare that
they have a sense of relief and “liberation” since the collapse of
“real, existing socialism.” Now it is possible to return to the
“authentic” Marx and to the idea of Communism and to proclaim
these without the nasty encrustations that history and politics
have deposited upon them.
3. “Back to Marx” and the formalistic cult of martyrs
In this way the slogan “Back to Marx” has come to pass. Yet
it can be rather easily shown that Marx is the most resolute critic
of all “back to” philosophies. In his own time he made fun of
those who, in their disputes with Hegel, wanted to go back to
Kant and even back to Aristotle. One of the fundamentals of historical materialism is the conclusion that theory develops along
with history and the concrete process of change. This great revolutionary thinker did not hesitate to acknowledge that he stood in
debt even to the short-lived experience of the Paris Commune.
Nowadays, however, decade upon decade of incredibly rich historical experience (from the October Revolution to the Chinese
and Cuban revolutions) is declared to be meaningless and unimportant in comparison to the “authentic” Gospel announced once
and for all in the sacred texts. These need simply to be rediscovered and religiously rethought.
At the same time those who proclaim the slogan “Back to
Marx” are the first not to take it really seriously. How else can
anyone explain that they devote such attention to Gramsci and to
Che Guevara? These are certainly individuals whose thought and
action is predicated upon the Bolshevik Revolution and the
development of the international Communist movement, and
who thus understood important decades of world history since
Marx’s deathhistory that took place under conditions that Marx
did not foresee, nor could he have foreseen them. In which text
from Marx, pray tell, is it prognosticated that we will find
Flight from History? 463
socialism on a small island like Cuba or a guerrilla in Bolivia
fighting for a socialist type of revolution? And as far as Gramsci
is concerned, it is known how he greeted the October Revolution
as The Revolution against Das Kapital.It was the Mensheviks
who at that time used the phrase “Back to Marx” and understood
it in a mechanistic way. The greatness of Gramsci is to be found
specifically in his opposition to them.
“Back to Marx” is clearly a religious phrase. Just as the earlyChristian assembly wanted to have nothing to do with the Jewish
national revolution, and thereby opposed Isaiah and Jesus, so too
today certain “Communists” oppose themselves and Marx to the
historical developments begun with the October Revolution. The
appeals to Gramsci and Che Guevara also carry with them quite
remarkable tendencies. Neither can be conceived of apart from
the teachings of Lenin, yet this must be carefully hushed up. Different as they are, they share the fate of having been in a certain
way defeated. They never were able to participate in the exercise
of power gained through revolution; instead they had to endure
the coercive force of the old sociopolitical order. People esteem
the martyrdom of both of these outstanding representatives of the
international Communist movement, but not their thinking or
their political activity, which belongs to a resolutely repressed
4. Recovering the capacity for political thought and action
The results of this ultimately religious attitude weigh very
heavily. I will limit myself to two examples. The Italian publications  Il Manifestoand Liberazione2
correctly judged the
embargoes against Iraq and Cuba to be genocide or attempted
genocide, and then criticized the United States for granting
permanent normal trade relationships to China, because this
implicates it in repression of “dissidents.” A country said to be
guilty of genocide is called upon to defend and respect human
rights; on the one hand it is found guilty for its political
embargoes, then on the other hand guilty for refusing to take any
steps toward embargo. This is clearly bereft of any logic. Yet
one will search in vain for even the faintest traces of logic in the
discourse of a religious mind that shifts about in a realm of
fantasy constantly concerned to proclaim its own rejection of
evil wherever this evil may occur, such as embargoes against the
people of Iraq and Cuba or as repression of “dissidents” in
One needs to have done only the slightest political or historical research to realize that the anti-Chinese campaign of that
period was a “more or less foregone conclusion from the events
of Tiananmen Square” (Jean 1995, 205). In reality the United
States is disturbed about “China as the last great region beyond
the influence of U.S. politics, the as yet unconquered last frontier” (Valladao 1996, 241). But for the religious mind, which is
only concerned to declare (and savor) its own purported purity,
no kind of historical and political analysis counts. Why be bothered that the demand for a Chinese embargo at the expense of the
Chinese people would indirectly legitimate the already practiced
embargoes of Iraq or Cuba? The conquest of this “last frontier”
by the United States would mean the dismemberment of China
(following upon that of the USSR and Yugoslavia) and a catastrophe for the Chinese people. Making a debacle of this great
Asian country would tremendously strengthen the military and
political ability of U.S. imperialism to carry out its strategy of
embargo and the genocidal strangulation of the peoples of Iraq
and Cuba. Yet such thoughts are but superficial considerations in
the religious primitivism of certain “Communists.”
Another example. In Liberazioneone could read articles that
quite correctly compared the radical wing of the secessionist
movement in Italy with the Nazis (Caldiron 1977). But just a little while later this same publication undertook a polemic against
those who demanded the intervention of the courts to halt the
Lega Nord’s propagation of race hatred among secessionists as
well as its preparations for a counterrevolutionary civil war. It
seems that these comrades have not posed a very fundamental
question: just how appropriate is it for Communists to demand
that the Nazi groups not be penalized? Once again, every effort
to seek a logic here other than a primitive religious mentality
proves futile. Coercion is condemned absolutely. Who cares if
Flight from History? 465
this condemnation of law enforcement and judicial intervention
powerfully invigorates the violence of the Lega supporters and
the Nazis? No matter what, one’s own soul has been saved. We
have a paradoxical situation here. The Vatican emphasizes again
and again the danger of legalistic plans, and calls for government
institutions to oppose quite decisively the danger of rebellion and
counterrevolutionary civil war. Jesus, who emerged from the
disastrous failure of the Jewish national revolution, openly
declared: “My realm is not of this world.” The “Communists”
have appropriated this slogan today, making it theirs even more
than the Christians.
I have compared the perspective of certain “Communists”
with that of the Jewish-Christian believers. But this needs to be
made more precise. The withdrawal of these believers into their
own inwardness also contains a positive element: the distancing
from a national revolution also contributes to the emergence of
universalistic thinking. But the contemporary withdrawal into
inwardness and the distancing from a revolution and a historical
development that is proclaimed today in explicitly universalistic
terms quite simply means an involution and a regression. We do
not need to get all worked up about it. It is quite natural that a
disastrous failure of historical proportions gives rise to perspectives of a religious type. Yet it would be catastrophic to be stuck
in this position. Communists, if they do not want to sentence
themselves to powerlessness and subalternity, must recover the
capacity to think and act in political terms, even when this politics is carried along by momentous ideational tension.
II. The collapse of the “socialist camp”:
Implosion or Third World War?
1. “Implosion”: A myth in defense of imperialism
How did U.S. imperialism succeed in gobbling up Nicaragua?
It subjected the country to an economic and military blockade, to
surveillance and destabilization by the CIA, to mined harbors,
and to a secretly waged undeclared, bloody, and dirty war,
making a mockery of international law. Faced with all of this,
the Sandinista government felt compelled to undertake limited
defensive measures against external aggression and internal reaction. Incredibly, the U.S. administration swung itself into the role
of defender of human rights against totalitarian repression, and
directed the fire of its entire multimedia machinery against the
Sandinista government. This campaign was supported in the
main by the Catholic hierarchy, yet some of the beautiful souls
on the “Left” played right along. Ortega’s ability to counteract
the aggression was increasingly limited and destroyed. While
ideological crusades and economic strangulation undermined the
social support for the Sandinista government, military power and
the terrorism of the Contras (supported by Washington) weakened the will and ability to resist. The result was elections in
which the extraordinary financial and multimedia power of
imperialism was allowed full play. Already bloodied and impoverished, with the knife closer to their throats than ever before, the
Nicaraguan people “freely” chose to give in to the aggressors.
The strategy used against Cuba is just the same. Here one
may well pose the question: was the collapse of the Sandinista
government the result of an “implosion”? Could the overthrow
of Fidel Castro and Cuban socialism, sought for decades by U.S.
imperialism, be described as an “implosion” or “collapse”?
Immediately visible here is the mystifying character of the concepts used by imperialism to portray a social crisis or catastrophe
as a purely spontaneous and internal process, though in reality it
can not be separated from the momentous stress that imperialism
applied at every juncture.
The concept “implosion” is not any more persuasive when it
is applied in this manner beyond the cases of Cuba and
Nicaragua to the “socialist camp” in general. George Kennan
emphasized as early as 1947, as he was formulating the politics
of containment, that it would be necessary to influence “the
internal developments, both within Russia and throughout the
international Communist movement.” This should take place not
just by means of the “informational activity” of the covert
agencies, though the most influential advisors to the U.S. consulate in Moscow and within the U.S. administration of course
Flight from History? 467
underscored this especially. But articulated more generally and
more ambitiously, the aim was “to increase enormously the
strains under which Soviet policy must operate,” in order to
“promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in
either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”
What is usually expressed with the remarkable euphemism
“implosion” is here more precisely defined as a “breakup,”
which would be so little spontaneous that it was foretold by
roughly forty years, planned, and actively sought. At the
international level, the economic, political, and military power
relationships were to be such that and this is still Kennan the
West would exercise a kind of “power of life and death over the
Communist movement” and the Soviet Union (Hofstadter and
Hofstadter 1982, 418 f).
2. On the sources of the Cold War
The collapse of the “socialist camp” must therefore be seen in
the context of an unremitting exercise of power, which was the
so-called Cold War. This stretched across the entire globe and
lasted for decades. At the beginning of the 1950s, its conditions
were described as follows by General Jimmy Doolittle:
There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable
norms of human conduct do not apply....We must...
learn to subvert, sabotage, and destroy our enemies by
more clever, more sophisticated, and more effective
methods than those used against us. (Ambrose 1991, 377)
Eisenhower came to the same conclusions. He, of course,
shifted from the office of supreme military commander in
Europe to that of U.S. president by no mere accident. We are
talking about the assaying of enormous power, which on both
sides utilized any means necessary (espionage, subversion, dirty
tricks, etc.) and became real war in various areas of the
globe for example, in Korea. Apparently seeking to overcome a
lull in military operations in January 1952, Truman dallied with
a radical idea. As he makes clear in his diary, one could confront
the USSR and the People’s Republic of China with an ultimatum
and make clear that if it were disregarded, “Moscow, Leningrad,
Mukden, Vladivostock, Peking, Shanghai, Port Arthur, Darien,
Odessa, Stalingrad and every other manufacturing plant in China
and the Soviet Union will be eliminated” (Sherry 1995, 182).
What is going on here is not simply some private rumination.
During the Korean War, the use of atomic weaponry against the
People’s Republic of China was seriously contemplated, and this
threat was made all the more horrendous given the recent memories of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Without a doubt the Cold War aimed at the dissolutionmore
accurately the breakup of the USSR. But when did it begin? It
was already underway as the Second World War raged. Nagasaki
and Hiroshima were destroyed even as it was clear that Japan
was ready to capitulate. Above and beyond using the bomb
against this already defeated country, the United States aimed
this threat at the USSR. This is the conclusion of prestigious U.S.
historians based upon irrefutable evidence. The new and terrible
weapon was not only to be tested over desert areas for demonstration purposes; it was to be dropped immediately on two large
cities. In this manner the Soviets would come to realize,
unmistakably and thoroughly, what the real nature of power relationships now was as well as the U.S. resolution to shrink from
nothing. And in fact Churchill declared his approval of
“eliminating all the Russian centres of industry” if it were
necessary. At the same time U.S. Secretary of State Henry L.
Stimson was prepared “to force the Soviet Union to abandon or
radically alter its entire system of government.”
Paradoxically, it was the military leaders who reacted negatively and registered opposition to these plans for bombardment.
They called the new weapons “barbarous” because they would
indiscriminately kill “women and children.” These were viewed
as no better than the “bacteriological weapons” and “poison gas”
that were prohibited under the Geneva accords. Beyond all this,
Japan was “already defeated and prepared to capitulate.” These
military officers did not even know that the atomic weapons
were really aimed at the Soviet Union, the one country that was
prepared to oppose Truman’s policy to make the United States
Flight from History? 469
into “the world’s marshal and sheriff” (as explicitly formulated
at a cabinet meeting on 7 September 1945). The horrible destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima disturbed public opinion in the
United States to a degree that could even be called an outcry. For
this reason Stimson intervened with an article that was played up
by all the media. It spread the deceitful fable that these two cruel
massacres were necessary to save the lives of millions of people.
In reality, however, as the U.S. historian cited here emphasizes,
it was about stopping the wave of criticism and getting public
opinion used to the idea that the employment of nuclear weapons
would now be absolutely normal (as well as renewing a warning
to the USSR (Alperovitz 1995, 316–330, 252, 260 f).
In Japan another situation was unfolding that is also helpful
in understanding the Cold War. In its aggression against China,
the imperial army of Japan had committed gruesome crimes.
Numbers of captives had been used as guinea pigs for dissection
and other experiments, and bacteriological weapons were used
against the civilian population. Yet those persons responsible for
this and the members of the notorious Unit 731 were guaranteed
immunity by the United States in exchange for the delivery of all
the data collected through these war crimes. In the Cold War that
was just getting started, not only nuclear bombs but also
bacteriological weapons were put into place (Meirion and
Harries 1987, 39).
In this way the beginnings of the Cold War and the final
phases of the Second World War are interrelated. In fact it is not
even necessary to wait until 1945 to see these connections. It is
enlightening to look at the declaration that Truman made immediately after the Nazi invasion of the USSR. At this point the
United States was not officially a participant in the war, though
in fact an ally of Great Britain. It is understandable that the
future U.S. president would make clear that he “doesn’t want to
see Hitler victorious under any circumstances.” Yet on the other
hand he does not shy away from announcing: “If we see that
Germany is winning, we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is
winning, we ought to help Germany and that way let them kill as
many as possible.” In this fashion Truman made knowndespite
the given alliance with Great Britain and thereby indirect
alliance with the USSR that he was decidedly interested in seeing the country that arose with the October Revolution bleed to
death. At the same time the British minister Lord Brabazon made
similar sentiments known. He was forced to step down, yet the
fact remains that influential circles in Great Britain continued to
see the USSR, with whom they were formally allied, as their
mortal enemy (Thomas 1988, 187).
In 1944, Vice President Truman (who in a year would be
president) became engaged in altering the policy set in the summer of 1941. One should add that Franklin Delano Roosevelt
(who not accidentally had Truman as vice president for a year)
did not seem to have been unacquainted with the intention of
weakening the Soviet Union or bleeding it dry. Toward the end
of the war, it was becoming clear that the Soviet Union and not
Great Britain would emerge from it as “the most important opponent of a global ‘Pax Americana,’” and Roosevelt radically
altered his military strategy. According to an observation of a
German historian:
The consequence of this, letting the USSR carry on the
main effort toward the defeat of Germany, resulted from
the decision to put into place only 89 of the 215 divisions
originally called for in the “Victory Plan;” the chief military might of the U.S. was shifted to the navy and the air
force to secure superior strength in the air and at sea.
(Hillgruber 1988, 295 n. 71)
Perhaps it is necessary to delve back even further. Andre
Fontaine begins his Geschichte des kalten Krieges[History of
the Cold War] in a very telling way with the October Revolution,
which was, of course, really contested both with hot and cold
war. In the period between October 1917 and 1953 (Stalin’s
death), we see Germany and the Anglo-Saxon powers combating
the USSR relay style, so to speak, passing the baton to relieve
one another. The aggression of Wilhelmanian Germany (continuing until the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk) was followed first by that
Flight from History? 471
of the Entente, then that of Hitler’s Germany, and finally the
Cold War in the narrow sense, whose beginnings were visible
decades before and even connected to the two world wars.
3. A deadly combination: The new face of war
In the struggle against the Soviet Union and the “socialist
camp,” the U.S. administration used the same deadly combination of economic, ideological, and military pressures that it had
successfully utilized to bring down the Sandinista government
and which it hoped would lead to the breakdown of the social
and political system in Cuba. This was the same mixture that it
also deployed against other nations such as Iraq, Iran, Libya, and
from time to time against China.
This new, more subtle, and highly developed type of warfare
was worked out in the course of the prolonged battle against the
social formation that emerged from the October Revolution.
Herbert Hoover, himself a high-level representative of the U.S.
administration and later president, emphasized that sending soldiers against Soviet Russia was sending them to prevent
“infection with Bolshevik ideas.” In his estimation it would be
still better to utilize an economic blockade in a struggle against
the enemy and against those nations who let themselves be
seduced by Moscow, because the threat of an economic blockade
and the perils of starvation would get them to come to their
senses. The French premier, Georges Clemenceau, was immediately fascinated by Hoover’s suggestions. He acknowledged that
this would be a “really effective weapon” that offered “greater
chances for success than military intervention.” Gramsci, in contrast, was incensed by the imperialistic formula, “Your money or
your life! Bourgeois rule or starvation.”
Since the start of the Cold War (narrowly defined), yet
another weapon has also been introduced. As early as November
1945, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Averill Harriman, recommended opening up an ideological and propaganda front
against the USSR. One could certainly begin this with the dissemination of newspapers and journals, yet “the printed word”
was in his estimation “fundamentally unsatisfactory.” Still better
would be to utilize strong radio broadcasts in all of the various
languages of the Soviet Union. The penetrating power of stations
such as these was repeatedly recommended and praised (Thomas
1988, 223). Thus radio became the newest weapon in the gigantic confrontation that was now beginning. Radio, which had
served the Nazi regime in the solidification of its social consensus, was now utilized to destroy the social consensus of the
Soviet state.
In combination with this new weaponry, the old standard
weapons continued to be directly or indirectly employed. The
epoch beginning in 1945–46 has been characterized by Eric
Hobsbawm as “a Third World War, though a very peculiar one”
(1994, 226). It is particularly inappropriate to call a war “cold”
that begins with Nagasaki and Hiroshima. What we had here was
a war that not only heated up repeatedly in various places around
the globe, but periodically threatened to become, almost in the
blink of an eye, so hot that the whole (or nearly the whole) planet
would go up in flames. In terms of the confrontation between the
chief antagonists, one must never lose sight of the fact that this
represented a probing and experimentation with terrible military
might, though most of the public fronts were in political, diplomatic, economic, and propaganda battles. Even if there were
never to be a direct and total clash, these forces nonetheless had
serious consequences. This assaying and estimation of power in
the end had effects on the economy and politics of the enemy
nation, its entire system of internal relations. This was the aim,
and it succeeded, as we have seen, in destroying the alliances,
the “camp” of the enemy.
At this juncture the concept “implosion” is revealed to be but
a myth in defense of the systems of capitalism and imperialism.
These systems are celebrating their own presumed advantages in
comparison exclusively with what are considered to be the builtin disadvantages, crises, and difficulties of the social systems in
Moscow, in the Caribbean, and in Latin America. The concept of
implosion or collapse serves primarily to crown the winner. Yet
it has found a friendly acceptance within the Left and among
Communists, especially among those who present themselves as
Flight from History? 473
ultra-Communists and ultra-revolutionaries. This is but renewed
evidence of their ideological and political subalternity.
A refusal to use the concept “implosion” does not mean a
refusal to engage in an unflinching historical examination of
“real, existing socialism” and the international Communist
movement. Far from it: this kind of examination is only possible
when one explicitly reflects on the reality of the “Third World
War.” Because this unremitting examination must never be
mistaken for capitulation, it is necessary also to carry out fully
the critique of subalternity and religious primitivism as these
have taken hold in the Communist movement in the wake of
III. A Communist movement with limited sovereignty?
We have shown that the concept “implosion” is completely
inappropriate as an explanation for the collapse of “real, existing
socialism.” It is far more reasonable to speak of a “Third World
War,” a world war in which a multimedia and ideological barrage has played a central role. This aspect also accounts for the
disorientation of the vanquished. It is as if an ideological Hiroshima has destroyed the ability of the international Communist
movement to think in its own behalf.
1. Normality and the exceptional circumstance
“Sovereign are they who get to decide the exceptional
circumstance.” This aphorism formulated by the ultrareactionary
and ingenious legal scholar Carl Schmidt can aid us in understanding not only the concrete way in which a constitutional
system operates, but also in understanding the vitality of a
political movement and its actual degree of autonomy. An example: In Algeria in 1991 a coup annulled the election that would
have brought the Islamic Reform Front into power. A military
dictatorship was set up using the rationalization that the reform
movement represented an immense danger to the country and its
prospects for modernization. The generals pointed to the
exceptional circumstance, and showed themselves to be the real
holders of political power. As Mao Zedong made clear:
“Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun.” And sovereign are those who decide when the guns speak. At least this
much can be said about the realities of power within the realm of
a government.
Now let us apply the same methodological criterion to an
investigation of the relations between the different political
camps. The coup in Algeria was accepted at that time by the
West and defended with the argument that it avoided the
establishment of an Islamic and obscurantist government that
would have brought an end to all freedom of expression and horrible retrogression, especially where women were concerned. In
a similar manner a few years earlier, the USSR had tried to
defend its intervention in Afghanistan and supported a government embarked on an ambitious modernization program. It
thereby battled the rabid resistance of Islamic fundamentalists. In
this instance the West displayed not only its disapproval, but also
armed to the teeth the same sort of “freedom fighters” who in
Algeria are branded as common criminals and bloodthirsty murderers. Thus we see that appealing to exceptional circumstances
in one instance is not regarded as valid in another. Sometimes
breaking the rules is legitimated and sanctified, and on other
occasions regarded as heresy to be condemned.
It should not surprise us that the United States or France
inconsistently judge controversial cases according to changing
geopolitical and economic conditions. It is much more interesting to inquire into the attitudes of the Left and especially the
Communists. All in all they seem to plug into the established
ideology: they view the coup in Algeria as if it were something
almost natural and noncontroversial, though they never tire of
condemning the Soviet use of force in Afghanistan. The exceptional circumstances, which call for the suspension of the usual
rules of the game, are the exclusive prerogative of the liberal,
capitalist, and imperialist West to decide. And thus arises the
regrettable condition of a Communist movement without sovereignty, or at best with limited sovereignty. If that person is
sovereign who decides about exceptional circumstances, then the
sovereign par excellencesits in Washington. Washington’s
Flight from History? 475
sovereignty is complete to the degree that it is able to limit and
sometimes entirely cast aside the power of independent thinking
of those very groups, journals, newspapers, and movements that
consider themselves to be Communist.
2. Bobbio and the exceptional circumstance
What has been said above is not all that may be said in
defense of the thesis presented here. In August of 1991 a curious
putsch occurred in Moscow, which Yeltsin kept from being
really understood. Instead, he provided it with a colossal
propaganda trial, which became the precondition of its ultimate
success. A certain amount of suspicion is legitimate here. The
editorial in Expressoon the 1 September of that year carried the
famous headline: “Yeltsin, or rather Bush, made the real putsch.”
But this is not what interests us just now. Those who initiated the
“putsch” made assurances that they wanted to oppose a dramatic
threat to the unity and independence of the USSR, and that they
were relying on the special use of force that was foreseen in the
constitution in case of exceptional circumstances. Now, who
does not remember the massive international disarmament campaign at that time that also drew in, or overran, the Communists?
Two years later it was Yeltsin who, as the protagonist of a
putsch, dissolved the parliament that had been freely elected by
the people and allowed it to be fired upon. This time the machinery of repression was well oiled and promptly put into service. It
did not content itself with empty threats. The constitutional system was liquidated with utter brutality, yet this did not prevent
the “democrat” Clinton or the “socialist” Mitterrand from
expressing their approval. And the Communists? Above all a
moving sensibility was displayed by Il Manifesto,which looks
toward Turin in order to follow the convolutions of the grand
theoretician of the absolute inviolability of rules and regulations.
When asked to articulate his position, Bobbio5
proclaimed: “I
defend government by rule of law and will always defend it. Yet
in the Russian instance I ask myself: do conditions still exist
there for a law-governed state?” (La Stampa, 24 September
1993). Too bad that this question did not occur to the illustrious
philosopher two years earlier, in August 1991. Nonetheless, his
consideration here is simple and rational, just a matter of distinguishing exceptional circumstances from normality. This is a
consideration from which Communists also have much to learn,
yet they refuse to distinguish such things and leave it to the sovereign sitting in Washington, or more modestly in Turin, to
decide whether exceptional circumstances exist.
It is enlightening to look at the subaltern dependency of the
Left especially with regard to the campaign that the U.S. administration has undertaken against the People’s Republic of China.
A whole series of disclosures has recently shed new light on the
events of Tiananmen Square. Banned students and intellectuals,
who were exiled to the United States, are today criticizing the
“radical” exponents of the movement back then for seeking to
impede reconciliation with officials in Beijing at any cost. Thus
we see the real goal pursued by certain circles (in China and outside it) after the disturbances of 1989. This is made clear in an
article in Foreign Affairs(a journal close to the State Department) where it is gleefully forecast that China will fall apart after
the death of Deng Xiaoping. It is also noted in passing that this
was exactly the result sought in 1989, the year when the collapse
of Communism was observed “in a dozen countries” (Waldron
1995, 149). From this we can see that the same circles that today
want to pillory the leadership in Beijing were ready at a
moment’s notice to rationalize the canon barrage that might have
been fired by a Chinese Yeltsin.
3. The struggle for hegemony
Yet none of this seems to evoke any real analytical effort on
the part of some on the Left, though they are so full of praise for
Gramsci. They seem to forget that one of the fundamental
aspects of his work is the battle against hegemony. Categories,
judgments, historical comparisons one could say that all of
these are today ultimately extracted by this Left from the
dominant ideology. The thirtieth anniversary of the Hungarian
uprising became a platform for a recollection of the 1956 Soviet
Flight from History? 477
invasion of Hungary. And, in accordance with logic and duty,
the Communists busied themselves with profound and pitiless
self-critique. Toward the end of 1997, however, nobody took the
opportunity to remember the repressive measures taken by
Chiang Kai-shek on Taiwan fifty years earlier. A pretty insignificant event? From official Hungarian sources we know that the
tragic events of 1956 claimed the lives of 2500 people. At the
beginning of 1947, nine years before, 10,000 people died as a
result of the USA-sponsored Kuomintang repression (Lutzker
1987. 178).
Every year there is a renewed memorialization of Tiananmen
Square, but who remembers the hundreds or perhaps thousands
of people who died during the U.S. intervention in Panama
(bombing thickly populated areas without any declaration of
war) in the same year, 1989? There are so many reasons to assert
that the Left, including numerous Communists, is operating with
but limited sovereignty, especially in terms of its own historical
understanding and historical perspective.
This lack of autonomy is all the more evident when we look
at how certain concepts are used. I shall limit myself to one especially obvious example. Whenever did the leftist press and the
Communist press not join the bourgeois press in referring to the
opposition against Yeltsin (including the Russian Communists)
as “nationalists?” It might as well suffice just to read the pronouncements of U.S. leaders to get ourselves a good grounding
in the facts. From his point of view, Bush expressed himself at
the time quite clearly:
I see America as the leader a unique nation with a special
role in the world. And this has been called the American
century, because in it we were the dominant force for
good in the world. We saved Europe, cured polio, went to
the moon, and lit the world with our culture. And now we
are on the verge of a new century, and what country’s
name will it bear? I say it will be another American century. Our work is not done, our force is not spent. (1989,
Let us listen to Bill Clinton more recently: America “must
come to lead the world” “our mission is timeless” (1994). And
finally let us listen to the pragmatist Kissinger: “World leadership is inherent in America’s power and values” (1994, 834). We
see here the regrettable mythology of the chosen people taking
shape once again. The chauvinism that characterizes it is unmistakable. Yet those who dare to oppose this chosen people are
branded as nationalists.
Mistrust is more than justified. Even the American news
magazine Time admits the following: “For four months a group
of American advisors participated secretly in the campaign to
elect Yeltsin.” An “influential member of the State Department”
had declared so there would be no mistake about it that “a Communist victory” could under no circumstances be tolerated
(Chiesa 1997, 14 and 36). Therefore, whatever the final judgment may be about the putschists of August 1991, it must be
recognized that their conduct was undergirded by a justifiable
concern for the unity and independence of the country! And
whatever the final judgment may be about the way in which the
Chinese Communists met the crisis of 1989, the fact remains that
they all have reason to be on guard against maneuvers designed
to destroy the unity and independence of the one single country
today in a position to restrain the definitive triumph of the American century.
Let me say something very clearly: the point here is not to
justify this or that position with regard to the tensions between
the former CPSU and the CP of China. Every concrete action of
this or that Communist Party (and this means every party that
calls itself Communist) must be examined in a concrete way,
without preconceptions. And this analysis must not be uncritically derived from those interests and methods that are spread by
the dominant ideology. An approach that is free from preconceptions must be extended to everything, and have the aim of
retrieving independent judgment and historical understanding.
Communists are called upon to liberate themselves once and for
all from that limited sovereignty that the victors of the Cold War
Flight from History? 479
(that is to say the “Third World War”) would gladly make
IV. The years of Lenin and Stalin: An initial assessment
1. Total war and “totalitarianism”
You cannot separate the history of the USSR from its international context. The despotism and terror, first of Lenin and then
of Stalin, are less related to the much-maligned Oriental tradition
than to the totalitarianism that began to spread worldwide following the Second Thirty Years War as governments, even in the
liberal countries, expanded their “‘legitimate’ power over life,
death, and freedom” (Max Weber). Evidence for this is found in
the total mobilization for war, widespread use of military courts,
world championship style competition in executions, and the
arbitrary use of force. It is especially revealing to examine this
last phenomenon.
Even in liberal Italy the top military leadership regularly utilizes this, discarding the principle of individual accountability.
There are lessons to be learned from how this works in the
United States too. After Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt had
U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry (including women and children) deported to internment camps. This occurred not on the
basis of any sort of due process, but rather solely on account of
their membership in a distrusted ethnic group. (Here too the principle of individual accountability was abrogated a characteristic
component of totalitarianism).
In 1950, the McCarran Act was passed, which called for the
construction of six detention camps for political prisoners in various regions of the country. Among the congressmen approving
of this measure were future U.S. presidents Kennedy, Nixon, and
Johnson! Beyond all this, the phenomenon of the personal abuse
of power should also be seen in a comparative perspective.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was ushered into the presidency out of the
depths of the Great Depression and was immediately granted
tremendous controls and powers. Re-elected three times, he died
at the beginning of his fourth term. The Soviet government,
building up its power during a war characterized by the total
mobilization and coerced consolidation of populations (even in
countries with secure liberal traditions and relatively safe
geographical positions, surrounded either by oceans or the
Mediterranean Sea), had to contend with permanently exceptional circumstances.
If we look at the period from 1917 to 1953, the year Stalin
died, we see that this epoch was characterized by at least four or
five wars and two revolutions. From the West, the aggression of
Wilhelmanian Germany (until the peace of Brest-Litovsk) was
followed first by that of the Entente and then by that of Hitler
fascism. Ultimately there was also the aggression of the Cold
War that threatened to become a tremendous hot one through the
use of atomic weapons. From the East, Japan (which only after
1922 pulled back from Siberia and after 1925 from Sachalin)
became a military threat to the borders of the USSR with its
invasion of Manchuria. This led to larger border skirmishes
before the official start of the Second World War in 1938 and
1939. All of the wars mentioned here were total wars in the
sense that they were either begun without a declaration of war
(whether one looks at the Entente or the Third Reich), or the
invaders had the declared intention of destroying a given regime,
as when Hitler’s campaign sought the elimination of the “subhumans” to the East.
In addition to these wars, we must add the revolutions. Aside
from that of October, there were the revolutions from above that
began to collectivize agriculture and to industrialize the expansive country. The dictatorships of Lenin and (for all of the
differences) that of Stalin had one essential feature in common:
they were confronted with this total war and with permanently
exceptional circumstances, and the Soviet Union was a backward
country without a liberal tradition.
2. Gulag and emancipation in the Stalin period
Up to this point we have said little or nothing about the
internal developments in this country that emerged from Red
Flight from History? 481
October. At the outset let me make clear that the terror is only
one side of the coin (and this is true also for the Stalinist period).
The other side needs to be described with some citations and
quotations from impeccable sources. “The fifth five-year plan for
the school system was an organized attempt to eradicate illiteracy.” Further policies in this area led to the preparation “of a
completely new generation of skilled workers and technicians
and technically skilled managerial personnel.” Between 1927/28
and 1932/33 the number of college and university students
increased markedly from 160,000 to 470,000. The proportion of
students in higher education from working-class families rose
from one-fourth to one-half. “New cities were founded and old
cities were reconstructed.” The emergence of gigantic new
industrial complexes went hand in glove with massive upward
mobility. This led to “social advancement for capable and ambitious citizens from working-class and agricultural backgrounds.”
As a consequence of the cruel and extensive repression of those
years, “ten thousand Stakhonovites became factory managers,”
and there occurred a parallel phenomenon of upward mobility in
the armed forces. One understands nothing of the Stalin period if
one does not see it as a combination of barbarism (with an
immense Gulag) and social progress.”
3. A history we need to be ashamed of?
Members of the phantom (anti-Marxist) “Back to Marx”
movement claim that Communists above all must acknowledge
that the history of the use of power by Lenin and Stalin is a
shameful one. Yet it is not. The epoch-making feature of the
October Revolution and the historical turning-point introduced
by Lenin is described as follows by Stalin in 1924:
Formerly, the national question was usually confined to a
narrow circle of questions, concerning, primarily,
“civilized” nationalities. The Irish, the Hungarians, the
Poles, the Finns, the Serbs, and several other European
nationalities that was the circle of unequal peoples in
whose destinies the leaders of the Second International
were interested. The scores and hundreds of millions of
Asiatic and African peoples who are suffering national
oppression in its most savage and cruel form usually
remained outside of their field of vision. They hesitated to
put white and black, “civilized” and “uncivilized” on the
same plane....Leninism laid bare this crying incongruity, broke down the wall between whites and blacks,
between Europeans and Asiatics, between the “civilized”
and “uncivilized” slaves of imperialism, and thus linked
the national question with the question of the colonies.
(1965, 70–71)
Was this just talk? All theory that does not bring immediate
profit can be regarded as nonessential only in the mind of the
short-sighted capitalist manager or provincial shopkeeper. In no
case can this be the view of a Communist, who is supposed to
have learned from Lenin that theory is indispensable for the construction of an emancipatory movement, as well as from Marx
that theory becomes a material force of the utmost importance
when it is grasped by the masses. And this really did happen.
Even in the darkest years of Stalinism, the international
Communist movement played a progressive rolenot only in the
colonial areas, but also in the developed capitalist countries. In
the “Third Reich,” the Jewish philologist, Viktor Klemperer,
described in heart-rending terms the degradation and insult that
were connected to wearing the star of David;
A removal man, whom I have grown fond of from two
earlier removals, suddenly stands before me in the
Freiburger Strasse and pumps my hand with his two paws
and whispers so that one must be able to hear it across the
Fahrdamm: “Now Professor, don’t let it get you down!
Before long they’ll be finished, the bloody brothers.”
The Jewish philologist was referring with loving irony to the fact
that it must be “decent people who reek strongly of the KPD
[German Communist Party]” who were challenging the regime
in this way (Burleigh and Wipperman 1991, 94).
Flight from History? 483
Let us shift from Germany to the United States. There
Franklin D. Roosevelt has become president. But in the South a
politics of segregation and lynching is directed against the African American population. Who is opposing it? The Communists,
who not for nothing were branded as “foreigners” and “n-lovers” by those with the dominant mind-set. An American
historian describes the courage that Communists needed in the
United States: “Their challenge to racism and to the status quo
prompted a wave of repression one might think inconceivable in
a democratic country.” To be a Communist really could mean:
“to face the possibility of imprisonment, beatings, kidnapping
and even death” (Kelley 1990, 30 and xii).
In this manner, Communists struggled against anti-Semitic
and racist barbarism in two very different countries, and as we
want to stressthey viewed Stalin’s USSR filled with sympathy
and hope.
4. Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Stalin
Now let us examine the ideology of the dictator himself, and
we shall not liken it to that of Hitlersuch an absurd comparison
can be left to the professional anti-Communists. Instead, let us
look at the ideologies of two other leaders of the antifascist
coalition. A few years ago a well-respected English newspaper
disclosed that Churchill was attracted to the idea that groups of
vagabonds, barbarians, derelicts, and criminals who are not
capable of participating in social life at the level of civilized
beings should be forcibly sterilized (Ponting 1992).
This type of thinking was also evident with Franklin D.
Roosevelt. He was enamored of a radical project at least for
some length of time after his declaration in Yalta that he felt
“more than ever the need for revenge against the Germans” due
to the crimes they had committed. “We’ve got to be tough
against the Germans and I mean the German people, not just the
Nazis. We’ve got to castrate the German people or at least treat
them so that they can never again bring forth people who will
want to act as in the past” (Bacque 1992, chap. 1).7
In spite of the immense losses and the indescribable suffering
that resulted from Hitler fascism, Stalin never engaged in any
kind of comparable wholesale racialization of the Germans. In
August 1942, he asserted:
It would be ludicrous to equate the clique around Hitler
with the German people or the German government. The
lessons of history show that Hitlers come and go, yet the
German people, the German state continue. The strength
of the Red Army rests upon the fact that it can not and
does not abide racial hatred against other peoples, including the German people. (1942)
In this case too one could shrug it off as mere theory, mere talk.
But one thing is certain: apart from the barbarism and terror of
these years, Marxist theory, even in Stalin, was superior to the
ideas held by even these respected exponents of the bourgeois
5. Two chapters from the history of subaltern classes and oppressed peoples
We recommend some reflection to the Communists who have
joined ranks with the dominant ideology in demonizing Stalin.
They continue to look to Spartacus. Historians report that
Spartacus, in order to avenge and honor the death of his comrade
Crixius, sacrificed three hundred Roman prisoners, and killed
others the night before this battle. Still more violent was the
action of the slaves who dared an insurgency some decades
before. According to Diodorus Siculus, they broke into the home
of the rulers, raped the women, and brought about “a massive
blood bath, that did not even spare the infants.” These are certainly not the types of conduct that Italian Communists want to
valorize when they wave the portrait of Spartacus at their
Liberazionefestivals or depict it in the pages of their revolutionary Communist newspaper. They never place him on the same
plane as Crassus, who (after restoring an iron discipline to the
Roman Legion through the exercise of arbitrary power) succeeded in putting down the insurgents and had four thousand
Flight from History? 485
prisoners crucified along the Appian Way. Crassus was the richest man in Rome. He wanted to see slavery made permanent and
he wanted to deny all dignity to the “instruments with speech” of
the world. Yet one of these talking instruments had some
success, at least for a time, in confronting and deflating the
arrogance of his imperial masters, expressing the protest of his
comrades in work and suffering. Insofar as they honor Spartacus,
the Italian Communists are also reinforcing the fact that his personality and his destiny were (in spite of the errors) part of a
movement that was a liberation movement and inseparable from
the history of subaltern classes.
It is little different with the Russian Communists and the
meaning of their demonstrations against the use of the portrait of
Stalin. They want to avoid identifying with the Gulag and the
systematic liquidation of opponents, just like the “Liberazione”
avoid identification with the brutality against women and the
massacre of prisoners and infants that the insurgent slaves were
guilty of. The simple-minded transfiguration of Spartacus is the
other side of the coin of demonizing Stalin. It makes no sense to
flee from reality or to sanitize it arbitrarily in order to protect our
comfort zone. One need not be a Communist to recognize that
“Stalinism,” with all of its horror, is a chapter in a liberation
movement that defeated the Third Reich and that provided the
impetus for anticolonialism and for the struggles against antiSemitism and racism; every honest historian knows this.
One historian observes: It is an error to think “Nazi racism
was renounced as early as the 1930s.” Even the neologism
“racism” with its negative connotations comes into use only
later. Before then racial prejudice was a component of the dominant ideology taken for granted on both sides of the Atlantic
(Barkan 1993, 1–3). Can we even imagine the radical confrontation and transformation of the concepts “race” and “racism”
without the contributions from Stalin’s USSR?
6. Communists must reappropriate their own history
During his presidency, Bill Clinton declared that he wanted to
model himself on Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy was not only the
theoretician of the “big stick” needed when dealing with Latin
America. The person of whom Clinton was so enamored was
also a proponent of the “eternal war” without “false sentimentality” against the American Indians. “I don’t go so far as to
think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I
believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire
too closely about the tenth” (Hofstadter 1967, 209). Of course
this is not the Theodore Roosevelt that Clinton wanted to take as
his model. But this should give us pause to think: a careless reference to a personality that stepped right up to the threshold of a
theoretical justification for genocide. And we should also think
about the silence of others who tirelessly demand that the Left
and the Communists must come to terms with their criminal past.
On the other hand, there are well-known legal scholars who
speak of a “Western genocide” (or at minimum a massacre that
has already cost hundreds of thousands of lives) with regard to
the long-standing embargo against the people of Iraq. And this
massacre did not occur as a result of a horrific and extraordinary
circumstance, but rather in a period of peace. Even the Cold War
was over, and the security and hegemony of the United States
were in no way threatened. Upon what logical basis can one contend that the crimes of Lenin and Stalin are worse that those of
which Clinton is guilty?
Sergio Romano has called the periodic bombings against Iraq
a continuation of the election campaign by other means. Terror
bombing as political advertising: this would have warmed
Goebbels’ heart, yet it is undertaken by the leading state of the
“democratic” West. And all of this, once again, in a period of
peace. The question must be posed: for what reason should a
future historian consider the U.S. president “more humane” than
those who led the USSR during one of the most tragic periods of
world history? Here the attitudes of certain Communists really
become repellent and coarse as they demonize Stalin and view
Clinton as a representative, albeit a moderate one, of the “Left.”
Let us examine the history of colonialism and imperialism. The
West eliminated most Indians from the face of the earth and
Flight from History? 487
enslaved the blacks. Similar fates awaited other colonial peoples
at their hands, yet this did not stop the West from characterizing
its expansion as the advancement of freedom and civilization,
thus a cause for celebration. This vision has culminated in the
domination of its victims in such a manner that they have internalized their defeat and feel entirely dependent on the conqueror.
They hope to sit in the lap of “civilization,” and they have given
up their historical understanding and cultural identity. Today we
are witnessing a kind of colonization of the historical consciousness of Communists. And this is more than just a metaphor.
Historically the Communist movement has come to power in
colonial lands at the periphery of the West. On the other hand,
the triumph of globalization and the Pax Americana, seen from
the point of view of the media, means that everywhere beyond
the West becomes just a colony or a province. At least this is so
potentially; from the point of view of the center of empire,
Washington can (and does), day in and day out, strike any spot
on the globe with the concentrated fire-power of its multiple
media. To resist this is difficult, yet without this resistance, there
are no Communists.
V. Why the United States won the “Third World War”
1. The U.S. diplomatic-military offensive
The beginning and the end of the “Cold War” were marked
explicitly by two military warnings, two threats, not just of war
but of total war and annihilation: the atomic destruction of
Nagasaki and Hiroshima ordered by Truman, and the Star Wars
program initiated by Reagan. But not just for this reason can the
period between 1945 and 1991 be understood as a kind of “Third
World War” with its own unique characteristics. The victors successfully disturbed and transformed the political-military strategy of their enemies. In 1953, Yugoslavia became a kind of corresponding member of NATO five years after it broke with the
USSR on the basis of its approval of the “Balkan Pact” with
Turkey and Greece, and was thus integrated into the “defensive
position of the West.”
Beginning in the 1970s, a kind of “de facto alliance” against the USSR was built up through the U.S.-China reconciliation process, though for its part the USSR wanted to win the United States for a “quasi-alliance againstChina” (Kissinger 1994, 729).
It is obvious that the winning diplomatic initiatives of the
West were connected to powerful military pressures. Let us look
at the People’s Republic of China, which was politically seeking
its own national unity after decades and even centuries of colonial humiliation, yet caught up in a conflict in which its major
goal was the recovery of Quemoy and Matsu, two islands that, as
Churchill emphasized in a letter to Eisenhower on 15 February
1955, lay “offshore” and “are legally part of China.” They
formed a kind of pistol at its temple. And this pistol was not to
be considered out of bounds by the U.S. administration. It would
not hesitate to threaten to defend the islands with atomic weapons. Thus, in 1958, when the Quemoy-Matsu crisis broke out
anew, the USSR, fully aware of the military superiority of the
United States, gave to China a defense agreement that limited
itself only to the mainland. The great Asiatic power was thus
forced to give up its goal one that even Churchill saw a legitimate and “natural.” The assurances were of no use that Khrushchev had given Mao two years earlier, rebuilding the leadership
that the socialist camp required along with  contre-cordon
sanitaire.Obedience to the political line of the USSR no longer
appeared as the path that could end colonial degradation or
achieve national unity. In this manner, the threat of using military force (above all nuclear), if not the actual use of force itself,
decisively influenced the development of the Third World War.
2. The national question and the decline of the “socialist camp”
None of this reduces the magnitude of the mistakes, crimes,
and guilt of the socialist camp. Quite the contrary, it makes these
clearer. Let us take a look at the most difficult points of crisis. In
1948, the USSR broke with Yugoslavia. In 1956, the invasion of
Hungary. In 1968, the invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1969,
Flight from History? 489
bloody border confrontations between the USSR and China.
Though avoided then, war between two governments calling
themselves socialist would become a tragic reality a decade later:
first between Vietnam and Cambodia, then China and Vietnam.
In 1981, martial law in Poland in order to prevent a “comradely”
intervention by the USSR, and to bring under control an oppositional movement that had found widespread support because it
appealed to the national identity that Big Brother scorned. For a
variety of reasons, it is nonetheless common to all of the crises
that the national question played a central role. Not for nothing
did the dissolution of the socialist camp begin at the edges of the
“empire,” in countries that had been dissatisfied for a long time
with the limited sovereignty forced upon them. There were also
decisive factors internal to the USSR. The stirrings in the Baltic
republics, which had had socialism “exported” to them in 1939
and 1940, were key to the ultimate collapse, well before the
obscure “putsch” of August 1991. In definite ways the national
question, which had importantly helped the success of the October Revolution, also sealed the end of the historical cycle which
it began.
The strengthened vitality of the People’s Republic of China
(no matter how one evaluates its political orientation back then)
is explicable only because Mao took to heart historical
experiences and understood how to analyze critically the major
difficulties in the USSR caused by its policies in regard to the
peasantry and national minorities (1979, 365 f and 372). At least
during certain periods of their history, the Chinese Communists
understood to stay on the high ground represented by Lenin’s
views of 1916, which stressed that the national question remains
even after Communist and workers’ parties come to state power.
A position paper of the Chinese Communist Party in 1956
stressed that within the socialist camp continuing efforts are necessary to overcome the tendency toward great nation chauvinism. This is a tendency that by no means disappears immediately
with the conquest of a bourgeois or semifeudal regime, and that
may even be heightened during the “heady” times when revolution is newly victorious. The position paper states:
[This is a ] phenomenon that is not unique to any particular country. For example, country B can be small and
backward compared to country A, yet large and developed
with regard to country C. Therefore it can happen that
country B, while complaining about the great-nation chauvinism of country A, can simultaneously display characteristics of great-nation chauvinism toward country C.
(Ancora a proposito1956)
I am treating the problem here very generally, yet is not hard
to see that behind B we could find Yugoslavia complaining
about the arrogance and chauvinism of the USSR (A), yet itself
showing hegemonic ambitions toward Albania (C). Ultimately
the Chinese Communists came to denounce the USSR as socialist in words but imperialist in deeds. They utilized a concept
(social imperialism) that correctly castigated actions like the
invasion of Czechoslovakia, but which nonetheless unfairly
erased national conflict from socialist reality and fell thereby
into a utopian perspective on socialism.
Not so very long ago Fidel Castro attempted to analyze and
evaluate these issues and came to this remarkable conclusion:
“We socialists have committed the following error: we have
underestimated the power of nationalism and religion.” (Here
one should remember that religion in particular can form an
essential element of national identity, as in countries like Poland
and Ireland. Today we might also say the same about the Islamic
world.) Unable to acknowledge and respect national peculiarities
because of an abstract and aggressive “internationalism,”
Brezhnev’s openly chauvinistic and hegemonic theory of the
“international dictatorship of the proletariat” came to pass, which
resulted in limiting the sovereignty of countries officially allied
with the USSR. The breakup and collapse of the socialist camp
stems from this, as does also the ultimate triumph and practice of
the “international dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” worked out by
the United States.
Flight from History? 491
3. The economic and ideological front of the “Third World War”
Above and beyond the diplomatic/military side of the “Third
World War” was the economic side, the war’s second front. A
technological embargo had been declared against the USSR and
kept in force, for all practical purposes, until the final breakdown
of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless it would be erroneous to overestimate the role played by the economy in this process. It will
suffice to relate the views of a few establishment U.S. sources on
this matter. Paul Kennedy viewed the Russia of the 1930s as
being on the road to a speedy transformation to an economic
superpower, and considered the five-year period from 1945 to
1950 as constituting a minor economic miracle. Lester Thurow
characterized the economy of the Soviet Union in the years that
immediately followed as growing “faster than the United States,”
and also contended that “the sudden disappearance of Communism” is “mysterious,” at least as regards the economy (1992, 11
and 13). Since the collapse of production in the formerly socialist countries occurred only after 1991, it can very definitely be
said that the economy was not the key factor in the collapse of
“real, existing socialism.”
We are thus compelled to examine the third front of the
“Third World War,” the ideological one. One of the first goals of
the CIA was to set up an efficient “Psychological Warfare Workshop.” In November 1945, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow,
Averill Harriman, demanded the construction of high-powered
radio stations that could broadcast in all of the USSR’s diverse
languages. In 1956, during the days of the Hungarian uprising,
the dozen or so small and secretly constructed radio transmitters
played a major role.
4. A completely unrealistic theory of Communism
The multimedia supremacy of the United States was not, of
course, the most important factor. During the 1950s (when, as
we have seen, the rhythm of Soviet economic development was
extremely promising), Khrushchev proclaimed the goals of Communism in terms of outpacing the United States. At that time
“real, existing socialism” was ideologically on the offensive to
such a degree that, in terms of history and philosophy of history,
it considered the fate of capitalism as being already sealed. The
ensuing years and decades demonstrated the unreal nature of this
perspective. Forced to reduce its ambitions drastically, the Soviet
Union proved unable to analyze its own history or to examine its
own ideology in a fundamental way. Its leaders offered assurances again and again that rapid progress was being made on the
path toward the realization of Communism. Yet this was a Communism understood in the fantastical manner that is oftentimes
handed down to us as a definition from Marx and Engels.
According to the German Ideology,Communism is supposed to
bring forth a condition where it is possible for every one of us
“do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the
morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise
after dinner” according to one’s own wishes “without ever
becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic” (Marx and
Engels 1976, 47).
If we would like to adopt this definition, it would require that
the productive capacities of Communism be advanced so
wonderfully that the problems and conflicts that are ordinarily
connected to the measurement and regulation of the labor necessary for the production of social wealth and the distribution of
this wealth would have disappeared. Furthermore, such an understanding of Communism presupposes not only the end of the
state, but also of the division of labor, and indeed labor itself, not
to mention the disappearance of all forms of power and duty.
Decades of rich historical experience should have given rise to a
profound examination of these themes and problems. In reality
we have not gotten much further than the efforts of Lenin in
reformulating the theory of socialist revolution and taking into
account the lengthy duration of the transition and its unavoidable
complexity. What is lacking is the (absolutely necessary) radical
reexamination of the theory of socialism and Communism in the
totality of postcapitalist society.
It is clear that when the attainment of Communism is put off
until an ever more distant and unlikely future, “real, existing
Flight from History? 493
socialism” loses its credibility and legitimacy all the more. A
Party leadership that gradually became more and more selfimportant, more spoiled and more corrupt, lacked any type of
general legitimacy. A time like ours seeks political justification
in terms of democracy and people’s self-determination. In addition, the tangible consequences of “real, existing socialism”
undermined the very reasons for its existence. Ever-present
compulsion became more and more unbearable within the civil
society that did develop thanks to mass education, the wide
extension of culture, and a modicum of social security.
The internal difficulties of the “socialist camp” became all the
more obvious as the rhythm of economic development began to
lag. The thesis of the inevitable (and immediate) crisis of
capitalism, propounded by socialism’s philosophy of history,
increasingly came into crisis itself. The foundation for social
consensus disappeared, and the powerful mechanisms of repression were met with growing revulsion. At the same time, the
Soviet leadership mindlessly cranked out its tiring hurdy-gurdy
tunes about the arrival of the fantastical kind of Communism
described above. And these kinds of litanies had very disadvantageous consequences for the economy. Disequalibrium and
underdevelopment were already manifest and demanded energetic interventions to heighten the productivity of labor. Yet the
solving of this problem is not made any easier by the idea that
we supposedly find ourselves on a path to Communism aiming at
universal leisure, nor by branding every attempt at a rationalization of the production process as the “restoration of capitalism.”
If we want to speak of a collapse in Eastern Europe, this was far
more of an ideological than an economic one.
5. “Without revolutionary theory there
can be no revolutionary movement”
But is not an explanation idealist if it places the accent far
more on ideology than on the economy? In thinking about this
question, Marxists would be well served if they recalled
Gramsci’s irony with reference to “the baroque conviction that
we are all the more orthodox the more we reach back and grasp
‘material’ things” (1975, 1442). In addition, it is worth
remembering one of Lenin’s most famous statements, “Without
revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement”
(1961, 369). Certainly the Bolshevik Party had a theory for
acquisition of power, yet insofar as revolution meant going
beyond the destruction of the old order and the construction of a
new one, the Bolsheviks and the Communist movement essentially were without revolutionary theory. An eschatological wish
for a completely harmonious society, free of contradiction and
conflict, cannot be considered a theory of the postcapitalist society in need of construction. We must acknowledge the grievous
and gaping void here. This void cannot be filled by going back to
Marx or to other classic sources. We are confronting here a new,
extremely difficult, and absolutely inescapable task.
VI. The People’s Republic of China and
the historical analysis of socialism
1. Mao Zedong and the Chinese Revolution
In China, the Communist Party rose to power riding on the
tide of a national-liberation struggle of epic proportions. The
projects relating to profound social transformation were thus
closely connected to the task of recovering the greatness of the
Chinese nation. This is a nation with a civilization going back
through the millennia, yet after the Opium War it was coerced
into semicolonial (and semifeudal) relations. How did this
gigantic Asian land both modernize and socialize, and thereby
overcome the fragmentation and national degradation that imperialism had forced upon it? And how did it succeed in this amid
the difficult conditions of the Cold War and the economic, or at
least technological, embargo that had been deployed by the
advanced capitalist countries? Mao Zedong believed that these
problems could be solved through the uninterrupted mobilization
of the masses. This led to the “Great Leap Forward,” and then to
the “Cultural Revolution.” As the difficulties and dead ends of
the Soviet model began to become evident, Mao proclaimed the
slogan “advance the revolution under the dictatorship of the
proletariat.” A new stage of the revolution was called upon to
Flight from History? 495
guarantee both economic development and progress in the direction of socialism. This new stage of socialism had the mission of
liberating the initiatives of the masses from all bureaucratic
obstacles even from the bureaucratic obstacles of the Communist Party and the state that it controlled.
Make no mistake about it: this policy led to massive losses.
On the political level, instead of the hoped-for rapid development, there occurred a terrifying slowdown or even back-sliding
in the democratization process. The democratic warranties and
rules of the game were done away with within the Communist
Party and then even more so in the society at large. Clearly relationships worsened between the Han and the national minorities,
who were subjected to multiple vendettas during the “cultural
revolution.” They were sharply discriminated against, or indoctrinated through intensive short-term schooling. This pedagogy
was inspired by an aggressive and intolerant “enlightenment”
approach that came from Beijing or other urban centers populated by the Han. Because the mediating roles of the Party and
the state had been swept away, there really only existed, on the
one hand, the immediate relationship to the charismatic leader,
and on the other hand, the immediate relationship to the masses
(though these were in fact manipulated and fanaticized by means
of the news media and controlled by an army prepared to intervene in emergencies). These were truly the years of a triumphal
Immense losses were also obvious in the economic arena, and
these were not only on account of the splits and continual confrontations that resulted from the crisis of having no criteria of
legitimation other than fidelity to the charismatic leader. There is
a perhaps more important dimension to the problem. The “Great
Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution” took no account of
the need to normalize the process of transformation. No one can
call upon the masses to be heroes all the time, to endure being
continuously and eternally mobilized, always ready to sacrifice,
to do without, to deny oneself. The call to heroism must always
remain the exception and never become the rule. We could say
with Brecht, “happy is the people that has no need of heroes.”
Heroes are necessary for the transition from exceptional conditions to normalcy, and are heroes only insofar as they guarantee
the transition from exceptional conditions to normalcy, which is
to say they are heroes to the extent to which they are willing to
make themselves superfluous. It would be a very peculiar
“Communism” that required sacrifice and self-denial ad infinitum, or nearly ad infinitum. Normalcy must be organized
according to a variety of principles, by means of mechanisms
and norms that allow for the greatest possible undisturbed
enjoyment of daily events. Here you need rules of the game, and
insofar as the economy is concerned, incentives.
In the last years or months of his life, Mao himself must have
been aware of the need for a change in course. Deng Xiaoping
understood this, how to push along this kind of change without
imitating the Khrushchev model of “de-Stalinization.” He did it
without demonizing those who preceded him in holding power.
The enormous historical contributions that Mao made by building up the Communist Party, and through his leadership of the
revolutionary struggle, were not to be forgotten. The serious
mistakes committed toward the end of the 1950s were seen in a
larger context, namely within the contours of more-or-less hasty,
even crazy, experiments, which accompanied the projects
proposed in the building of a society that was without historical
precedent. Was it not the same Mao, who in his better times,
1937, authored On Practice? He demanded that we not lose sight
of the fundamental fact that just as the “development of an
objective process is full of contradictions and struggles,...so is
the development of the movement of human knowledge” (1968,
18–19). This is in fact the key to understanding the oscillations
that are characteristic of the history of the Communist parties
and the societies that see themselves as guided by Communist
principles. The point is to emphasize the objectively contradictory character of consciousness and the knowledge process, and
not the “betrayal” or the “degeneration” of this or that personality. Insofar as Khrushchev demonized Stalin and reduced
everything to the “cult of personality,” he perpetuated the
problematic side of this heritage. Because Deng Xiaoping
Flight from History? 497
refused to quarrel in this manner with Mao, he is the heir of the
better side.
The procedure chosen by the new Chinese leadership, in any
case, avoided a delegitimation of revolutionary power. Above
all, it made possible a genuine debate about the conditions and
characteristics of the construction of a socialist society, because
it did not shift all the difficulties, uncertainties, and objective
contradictions onto one person as scapegoat. In the course of this
debate the internal presuppositions of the “Great Leap Forward”
and the “Cultural Revolution” were criticized and rejected.
2. A tremendous and innovative New Economic Policy (NEP)
In the economic arena we are gradually seeing “market
socialism” emerge. Characteristic of this is the development of a
large private sector and a concern to make the public sector
efficient. Getting connected up with the world market and the
technology of the West, as well as with its wisdom in the areas
of industrial organization and business management, does not
come without a price. In China, openly capitalist “special economic zones” have appeared. On the other hand, what are the
alternatives? Above all it is no longer possible, after the crisis
and dissolution of the USSR and the “socialist camp,” for a
nation to isolate itself from global capitalist markets unless it
wants to condemn itself to backwardness and powerlessness.
Under the new conditions of the world market and global politics, isolationism would be tantamount to giving up on modernity
andsocialism. And even with the attendant high costs, the outcomes of undertaking this new course are generally visible: a
rapid expansion in the development of productive forces; an economic miracle of European proportions; access like never before
to economic and social opportunities for hundreds of millions of
Chinese. All of this adds up to a liberation process of enormous
In the political realm, the questions were how to develop
democracy and eliminate the residue of the old regime that had
survived the revolution as well as reduce the arrogance of the
new bureaucrats (which was derived from the arrogance of the
Mandarins). And so the path that the aged Mao found so
worthy“Advance the Revolution under the Dictatorship of the
Proletariat” was relinquished. Because this path had intensified
rather than eliminated the power plays and arbitrariness of the
bosses and little bosses, it created a crisis that delegitimated even
the very few norms and warranties that existed in society. The
limitation and regulation of power is today grounded in the rule
of law, a codified system of rules, norms, and rights. Such a system of law was hitherto unknown, but is now rapidly growing
simultaneously with the separation of Party organizations from
governmental structures. An electoral system has emerged in the
villages along with a wide assortment of candidates. Other
measures are being experimented with in this democratization
process, which, as the leaders of the People’s Republic explicitly
acknowledge, is far from complete. In the course of its history,
“real, existing socialism” branded “formal” freedoms as empty
and deceptive. Paradoxically, the cultural revolution operated
along the same lines. Currently, however, the Chinese Communist leaders value very highly the “formal” freedoms guaranteed
by law. They also adhere to the notion that the emphasis must be
placed today on economic and social rights, given the present
stage of economic development in the People’s Republic. The
decision to pursue also political modernization is irrevocable. In
both political and economic terms, no socialism is now even
thinkable that does not understand how to analyze, compare, and
creatively evaluate the most forward-looking practices of the
capitalist West as it rode the wave of bourgeois democratic
The social order that in China is currently considered valid
presents itself as a kind of gigantic and expanded New Economic
Policy (NEP). This is an NEP that has become harder to achieve
because of globalization and power relationships worldwide.
Nonetheless, the program is quite conscious of the necessity to
connect continually socialism, democracy, and the market with
one another, and to transcend the crudely simplified notion of the
homogeneity of the society it is attempting to build.
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3. The stakes are immense
To speak of a restoration of capitalism in China would be
looking at the problem too superficially. A solid bourgeoisie has
undoubtedly emerged there, although it currently has no possibility of transforming its economic power into political power. We
need to understand the difficult situation in which the Chinese
leaders find themselves. On the one hand, they have to push
forward with the democratization process. This is an essential
element of socialist modern