Domenico Losurdo on democracy, intellectuals and hegemony
This past spring, left-wing Brazilian journal Revista Opera published a four-part interview with famed Italian Marxist thinker Domenico Losurdo. Losurdo took time from promoting the Portuguese release of his book, War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century, published in English by Verso Books, to discuss modern-day anti-colonialism, US foreign policy, revolution and Hegel.
With the permission of our colleagues at Revista Opera, we will be publishing all four parts of the interview in English for the first time. This week, we continue with our translation of the third part in the series, 'Favoring a Revolution Is Not Just a Feeling.' You can find the original in Portuguese here.
We spoke about a "certain left," that "other left," and I would like to unpack a few things. Because here in Brazil we have a professor from the University of São Paulo who wrote an article about you where he says that you're a "reheated Stalinist" due to your focus on the colonial question, which he says is a focus on the "state question." I'd like then for you to speak about this type of thinking on the Left, on the question of micropower [horizontalism], the relations of micropower, and about the role of this type of thinking within the Left in recent years. Because on one side we have these so-called "democratic revolutions"—for example, you spoke of [Karl] Popper, but we also know the billionaire George Soros, who also presents himself as a philosopher, likes Popper and Kant. He presents himself as a Kantian, and has been an important figure in the so-called "democratic revolutions," like in Ukraine, where these banners were used to expand NATO's power in Ukraine. What do you think of this, of the so-called "post-modern wave"?
First we must consider, in a very serious way, the democratic question. However, we must consider the question in a proper light.
For example, if we read Bill Clinton's inaugural speech when elected US president, he says what is common in the hegemonic ideology, that the US was the first democracy in the world and, therefore, that Americans are destined to rule the world. "Our mission is timeless," in Bill Clinton's words. Our response must be that we don't consider the democratic question a question without importance; quite the contrary, we should say that when Bill Clinton says that the US was the first democracy, he is saying that that "first democracy" was a place where blacks were enslaved and the natives exterminated. That is, we must say that Bill Clinton is a racist because he believes that the fate of black people and natives is something that can be neglected. He thinks it's not important. That is white supremacy—it is western supremacy. It is contrary to democracy. I repeat: contrary.
And the first thing we must achieve if we seriously consider the problem of democracy is the democratization of international relations. If a country or a group of countries declares or decides that they have the right to provoke a war—or worse, a world war—without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council, they are articulating a theory in which the West has the right to exercise despotism over the rest of humanity. It is naked despotism; the U.S. and the west openly declare that they have the right to intervene militarily in every corner of the world. This is despotism. Take, for example, Syria; many speak of the war in Syria, but the so-called "neoconservative revolution" in the US had already stated, at the start of the century, that [Bashar al-]Assad should be toppled. They argued that they should carry out régime change in Syria because Assad is an opponent of Israel, that he is against the West, etc. This is despotism, and those who struggle against such despotism are the true defenders of democracy.
This is the case even as it relates to personal relations. When considering the Middle East, where does the US provoke wars? Not in countries like Saudi Arabia or the Gulf monarchies. America always targets countries that have had an anti-colonial and anti-feudal revolution. Iraq, Libya, Syria–obviously we can criticize this or that aspect–but what is the difference between these countries in relation to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies? In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, there was neither an anti-colonial revolution nor an anti-feudal revolution. And what is the result of the neocolonial wars of the US and the West? Not only the destruction of the state and the creation of a desperate mass of refugees, who often die during their escape. Let us take for example the situation of women in the Middle East; has their lot improved or worsened? One can read, even in the Western press, that the enslavement of women has been reintroduced in the Middle East. After the toppling of Gaddafi, there is now polygamy in Libya–perhaps the reintroduction of polygamy is a post-modernist victory [laughs]. We have the reintroduction of dictatorial marital power over women. Imperialism has meant, in practice, the worsening of the condition of women, a terrible decline.
We need to consider the problem of democracy in all these respects. I cite Hegel—truth is in the totality. Bill Clinton, when he spoke of the US as the first democratic country, didn't consider the totality, just the status of the white community. "Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East"–this is the common-sense belief–but Israel is also, on the other hand, a despotic power standing over the Palestinian people. Where is the law for the Palestinians? Palestinians can be imprisoned, expropriated and killed extrajudicially; the Israeli military can decide the fate of every Palestinian. Imperialism is the greatest enemy of the cause of democracy, if we consider democracy in all these aspects.
In your book L'ipocondria dell'impolitico, we find a fundamental theme—the question of the political position of the intellectual; how despite the intellectual having a political position, they frequently flee from it, trying to be neutral, anti-political, etc. And you have in all your work a strong Gramscian element. So I'd like to ask: how do you see this question of the role of the intellectual and—why not—of the journalist?
We need distinguish between intellectuals. There are many intellectuals who are, shall we say, professional manipulators. Sometimes they are bought by imperialism; there are books that describe how many journalists get paid off. That is one aspect, but this aspect isn't so important insofar as there are always intellectuals bought by the ruling class. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is altogether different. We have many intellectuals who aspire to surpass the existing order, who do not identify with capitalist society; who want a better world, a better society. However, many of these intellectuals don't understand what political action looks like. In the book you referenced, I studied Hegel, the first great philosopher who sought to explain what politics is.
In L'ipocondria dell'impolitico, I make a comparison between Hegel and Lenin, both of whom struggled against phraseology. What do I mean by phraseology? It's the affirmation that it is only the expression of feelings, and not an effort to study the concrete situation. We have a wonderful phrase by Lenin: "Marxism is the concrete analysis of the concrete situation." There aren't many intellectuals who can make a concrete analysis of the concrete situation. I've explained, for example, the difference between the First World War and the Second, as well as the danger of a Third. We should make concrete analysis of the concrete situation. Supporting revolution cannot be limited to mere sentiment; you cannot make a concrete transformation of reality only through feelings.
And as far as Gramsci is concerned, everyone today likes to speak about Gramsci…
Even the Stalinists [laughs].
[laughs] …but Gramsci was a philosopher and a revolutionary militant who spoke of the importance of the national question. There's no hegemony if we don't consider the national question, only the Party that considers the national question is capable of developing hegemony. First, Marx and Engels. Yes, they spoke of the revolutionary proletariat, but if we look at the works of Marx and Engels, many of these writings are on the national question, in Poland, in Ireland, or in other countries; in the colonial world. Why? Was this a distraction of theirs? No! The concrete revolution must consider the concrete situation, and the concrete situations are the different national situations.
And as for Gramsci, he wrote many, many pages about the "risorgimento italiano," for example, because if we are to exercise hegemony, we must consider the concrete situation. We can sum up Gramsci's thinking with an episode, which I cite in my book about Gramsci, after he was condemned by a military court. He said: "You are causing the destruction of the Italian nation and we communists will rebuild it." And in this case, Gramsci was prophetic because Mussolini intended to create a "new Roman Empire," and prosecuted a war in Ethiopia under the slogan of "the reappearance of the empire on the hills of Rome"; in other words, that Italy would have a new empire in Rome. That was Mussolini's great ambition. This was obviously crazy, but what was the conclusion? That Italy, at the end of the Second War, was occupied by the army of the Third Reich. Italy became a colony of the Third Reich, and to regain its independence, antifascist resistance was necessary, and the Italian Communist Party (the PCI) led that resistance. Gramsci saw the situation very clearly, and in this sense the Communist Party, which was intellectually hegemonic, was the party of the leading intellectuals and, at the same time, of the workers...
Why didn't they take power in the 50s? They had weapons, and great popularity… we know that the first post-war elections in Italy were bought by the CIA, which gave money to the Christian Democrats...
Not only money [laughs]. Thanks to documents released by the CIA, we now know that if the communists had won the election, the CIA would have declared the independence of Sardinia and Sicily against the Italian state. Of course, Togliatti tried to avoid a terrible civil war as was provoked in Greece. He understand the situation, and instead of provoking a war which they were destined to lose, given the number of American soldiers in Italy, Togliatti sought to develop another strategy, and this strategy was only defeated by the historic defeat of the socialist camp.
So are you saying the "historic compromise" wasn't exactly a mistake?
The historic compromise was formulated by [Enrico] Berlinguer after the coup d'etat in Chile, in which we know, of course, the CIA had a role. The coup in Chile demonstrated that it wasn't enough to have a small majority; that, yes, a small majority can win elections and form a government, but that the CIA can wage a bloody counter-revolution. And Berlinguer tried to avoid this situation. Later, we saw the crisis, Gorbachev's capitulation in the Soviet Union, and the world situation was totally different.