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Publishing Losurdo's History and Critique

By David Peat

Editorial Board, Iskra Books


Must we undergo this "demonisation," which […] is only the other side of the "hagiography" of capitalism and imperialism?

Domenico Losurdo’s intellectual project, across his expansive body of work, focused on the role and uses of history in the (re)production of the liberal worldview—a reproduction which involved both the "erasure of history and the construction of mythology," to take from one of the chapter titles of Losurdo’s newly-published Stalin: History and Critique of a Black Legend. As with contemporary news media’s jaundiced reporting on so-called "pariah states," this process relies on an informational pincer movement: on the one side, a deliberate omission of relevant contextual and factual information, and on the other side, distortion and outright fabrication. Both of these are strengthened through constant repetition and reinforcement, in all areas of cultural production, high to low.

Over the course of his life's work, Losurdo has examined the varying formulations of this process across the centuries, following the rise and fall of polities, and, most importantly, of particular narratives. This iterative process can be seen with the grand stories Liberalism uses to describe itself: Losurdo’s Stalin and other works articulate examples of historical omission, such as the lack of attention paid to how the very worst horrors of World War 2 were presaged by (and indeed inspired by) by the Euro-American colonial tradition. And we can see historical distortions and fabrications, such as the characterisation of 1776 as a wondrous victory of democracy, while historians such as Gerald Horne see this event instead as “in effect—creating the first apartheid state.” [1]

The importance of these kinds of ideological buttresses for Liberalism can be seen by the reactions evoked today by anyone calling them into question, from the confected hysteria aroused by 'Critical Race Theory,' alongside real attacks on academics and departments which refuse to follow now-hegemonic narratives. [2]

One arena in which this process takes place, and one which is of particular interest to the editors of Iskra Books, is in book publishing. Professional propagandists have long extolled the particular effectiveness of books as tools for changing minds. As the CIA’s Covert Operations Director wrote in 1961:

Books differ from all other propaganda media, primarily because one single book can significantly change the reader's attitude to an extent unmatched by the impact of any other single medium […] [this makes] books the most important weapon of strategic (long-range) propaganda. [3]

Such an understanding guided the agency's enormous forays into the publishing industry, the details of which were revealed in 1975 in the Church Committee’s investigations into the activities of US intelligence agencies. The CIA was directly (if covertly) involved in the production of more than 1000 books by 1968. “Politically significant” books were promoted, including the commissioning of works to push specific ideological and geopolitical arguments. All of this effort was undertaken in order to construct a 'compatible' (non-communist) left, and to define the intellectual boundaries within which it could operate. This aim, thanks also to wider structural and historical influences, was largely achieved, and to a large extent is continuing to self-reproduce.

Losurdo's work charts how this occurs in the process of writing histories, and Stalin forms a case study of how hegemony itself is contested and established through competing interpretations of historical events and persons. In following the "ups and downs of the image of Stalin" we are able to witness the purposes to which these images are put. These alternating, overlapping demonizations and hagiographies have battled since Lenin’s death and in many senses have been and remain a metonym for wider ideological conflicts. It is fitting, then, that the publication of Losurdo’s Stalin in English has itself been an ideological struggle, of sorts. The English language publisher of perhaps the most widely-read work of Losurdo’s (Liberalism), has explicitly refused to touch Losurdo’s Stalin, a book Losurdo’s own son called his "most heartfelt."

In response to frequent, organic requests from its customer base for a translation of this seminal text, [4] a senior editor of this publishing house asserted that it was one of Losurdo’s "worst books," inferring that the text lacked intellectual merit and was not based on serious research. [5] Such a vehement rejection, in the face of strong demand, on a topic likely to drive engagement (and thus further sales), by an esteemed writer they otherwise claimed to admire, [6] hints at the ideological nature of this decision.

Indeed, when comparing their already-published Losurdo texts to Stalin, the ridiculousness of such claims shine through. In Liberalism’s introduction, Losurdo argued that his process involved, "[p]lacing ideas and events in their concrete reality" [7]—the exact same methodological process undertaken in Stalin. Indeed, many of the referenced works in Losurdo's Liberalism and War and Revolution also make an appearance in Stalin. In some cases, even the same quotations are used to argue the same or similar points! As such, we can begin to see that the exceptionalizing of Losurdo’s Stalin is itself an operation of the process of ideological formation that the text describes.

By refusing to touch the Losurdo's critical engagement with specific aspects of history, selective publishing reinscribes one particular image of Stalin—someone incontestably other, forever untouchable by the progressive movement. No contextualisation is allowed: liberal historiography has declared Stalin a "huge, grim, whimsical, morbid, human monster" and thus he will forever remain. The intellectual reinforcement is thereby completed. By arguing that Stalin diverges from Losurdo’s methodology and is thus forfeit, a 'fabrication' of history is committed. By refusing to publish and by denying the readership important contextual information, historical 'omission' is reinforced. When the managing director of a leftist publishing house says “[t]he essential job of a publishing house is curation," [8] believe them. Consider to what ends such curations serve. The genesis of Iskra’s Losurdo project, translated by Hery Hakamäki and Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, was driven by a desire to rupture an entrenched and now-hegemonic ideological terrain—as I’m sure were the previous grassroots, communal efforts at translation, such as David Ferreira's excellent work. This latter work, as many know, was translated via existing official Portuguese and Spanish translations, bringing into relief the narrower ideological range of Anglophone left publishing.

With this in mind, Iskra is honoured to finally make the authorized English translation of this important work available, translated directly from the original Italian—and, moreover, to make a free high quality PDF available at the time of release, alongside affordable and appealing print versions. With the aim of, in Federico Losurdo’s words, contributing to the "dissemination of [Domenico Losurdo]’s thoughts, ideas, and categories," Iskra joins the many voices of organizers and scholars in celebrating the long-overdue release of this necessary and important work.

These are the problems that provoked among the Bolsheviks first a bitter ideological conflict and then civil war; and it is to these problems that we must respond, if we want to restore credibility to the revolutionary communist project and avoid the tragedies of the past. It is in this spirit that I first wrote … [Stalin]. If we do not confront these problems, we will be able neither to understand the past nor project the future. [9]


[1] Horne, G. (2014), The Counter-Revolution of 1776. NYU Press.

[2] One current example being the closure of the Masters by Research (MRes), History of Africa and the African Diaspora course at Chichester University, UK. Professor Hakim Adi recently was a guest on a Guerilla History episode to discuss this——and there is a petition calling for the course to be reinstated:

[3] “Foreign and Military Intelligence, Book 1: Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activites” (1975), 193. Cited in Allday, Louis

[7] Losurdo, D. (2011), Liberalism: A Counter History, Verso Books



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