Jane Shallice reviews War and Revolution – Rethinking the Twentieth Century by Domenico Losurdo published by Verso Books, 2015, London.
With such a grandiose title it would seem that twentieth century history would be rethought. Instead this is an analysis of historical revisionism, and for which it is no beginner’s guide. Domenico Losurdo, and Italian historian, under the instigation of Sebastian Budgen, has welded together three texts: the main part translated from Italian, a chapter specially written for a British audience taking on Neil Ferguson and the final part on the Black Book of Communism.
Historical revisionists – Nolte, Furet and Pipes – did not distinguish between revolutionary movements demanding equality or liberation and the reactionary and repressive ideologies of fascism and Nazism. In the last forty years they have been “rethinking history”, as these reactionary historians have argued for an equivalence between communism and fascism. “Not only was the horror of the Third Reich a derivative phenomenon but its crimes “until 1941″ were incomparably less massive than those perpetrated in the name of the proletarian revolution in the Soviet Union” (Pipes). The progression of, in revisionist terms, the “revolutionary psychosis” of professional revolutionaries was set on the destruction of the established order, the undermining of society as we know it, the acceptance of bloody terror, in effect it was a world movement to undermine the market. In the face of this they led an ideological assault to undermine the revolutionary tradition from 1789 to the present day.
Foundational for these historians is Burke whose polemic against the French Revolution with its affirmation of the rights of man hinged on his belief that liberty was a hereditarily transmitted privilege. His writing was to target the revolution and in particular Robespierre, who stood against racism and colonial conquest, and whose ideas about the unity of the human race made a dramatic injection into political debates. However the key to historical revisionism was a critical rereading of the two world wars and their other central figure was Carl Schmitt, the crown jurist of the Nazis, who analysed any revolutionary project as responsible for the “absolute enemy” who engaged in war “without rules or limits” leading to massacres and an international civil war. For him Versailles and Nuremberg were the equivalent of the revolutionary tribunals, there being little hope for the accused to be able to establish their defence.
The revisionists analysed evolutionary cycles of violence and terror which for them was evident in the English revolution together the French and American. Opponents of these revolutions, whether Burke, de Toqueville or Taine, identified a virus of a new and unknown kind; for them the revolutionaries were establishing a “dangerous degree of independence” from those who held power; the contrast being between the “property owners intellectuals and the beggars of the pen”. Burke opposed the dangers of “Universalism” and the “supposed rights of man and the absolute equality of humans”. Whereas both Kant and Hegel defended the hopes of improving the world and for Hegel, whilst critical of the Terror, “celebrated the development of the abstract, universal concept of man, possessor as such of inalienable rights, as an epochal event.”
Losurdo’s discussion of the similarities and crucial differences between the three revolutions and assessments of their successes and their failures is an important section. For historical revisionists, the characterisation of the Russian revolution was that of a coup d’état which overthrew the Tsarist state and constituent assembly, and in Schmitt’s terms a global civil war lasting for most of the century was disastrously unleashed.
Throughout the work there is an emphasis on definitions and he draws out the lack of any differentiation for the revisionists between colonial wars and the fight for national liberation as they coalesced their thinking around the concept of the “international civil war”. For Schmitt the Italian seizure of Abyssinia was justified on the grounds of a civilising mission spreading western civilisation. Nolte argued that Hitler and the Nazi party led the international civil war in Germany, whilst Schmitt in the Theory of the Partisan wrote that ’36 to ’38 were the years “when Spain defended itself in a war of national liberation against the danger of falling into the hands of the international communist movement.”
Key is their attitude to colonialism and its rehabilitation (by Karl Popper and Paul Johnson) emerged through the 80s and 90s, to be followed by Niall Ferguson the apologist for imperialism. Ferguson considers many parts of the world would benefit from a period of American rule. He would prefer the US exercise sovereignty over countries that had been decolonised “in undue haste or were failed states”. Such arguments are salutary when we are aware in the last fifteen years many states have been affected by American political interventions and military actions and none appear to be flourishing. Losurdo’s chapter Nostalgia for Empire exposes Ferguson’s normative thinking with concepts like “path to modernity”, implying economic and political development, the “rule of law” and the affirmation and freedom of the individual. It is the assumption that capital with its accoutrements of private property and accumulation is the path to this loose concept – modernity. The colonial wars and seizure of lands, the suppression of national demands and ultimately the destruction of native or indigenous peoples like the native North Americans, the necessary smashing of the Chinese and the Indian cultures and states is all part of the celebration of the western culture and civilisation, which Ferguson refuses to criticise. He constantly distinguishes between “beneficent colonialism and imperialism from the maleficent variety”. Regardless of the terrible practices it often engaged in, colonial expansion is regarded as proof of the intrinsic permanent superiority of the west.
The Black Book of Communism published in 1999 had bundled together distinct and contradictory ideologies with an overwhelming collection of statistics. Whereas Hannah Arendt’s post-war writings identified colonialism as a central feature of European states and Fanon accused France of the most frightful work of extermination of modern times but “Not long ago Nazism transformed the whole of Europe into a veritable colony”. However for historical revisionists fascism and Nazism was seen as a replica of the horror of communism. They never acknowledged the franchise was a central demand for the French revolutionaries and the Bolsheviks, whereas the focus for the fascists was the identification of the Untermenschen, an established lower order, was fundamental the Nazis. While revolutionaries insisted on including all despite class gender or ethnicity, fascism’s focus was to dominate the world.(1) In revisionist eyes the original philosophical sin was located with the Jacobins, who conferred on each individual – regardless of race, property and sex – the dignity of a moral subject, of being an end in itself.
Losurdo finishes by acknowledging Marx’s invocation of a great social revolution which would bring about human progress, and thus “ceases to resemble that hideous pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.” That is the huge gulf that separates the revisionists from the progressives, they are the ones who still eagerly drink and create such “nectar”. This is a book that repays reading despite some of the complexities of its construction and defends revolutionary traditions in the face of increasingly concerted ideological onslaughts.
(1) Trotsky in an appeal to the Red army refused to view the enemy as “national”, when British intervention was a deadly threat to the Bolsheviks, “But even now, as you struggle bitterly against the British puppet Yudenich, I appeal to you; never forget that there is not only one Britain. As well as the Britain of profits violence and bloodthirstiness, there is also the Britain of labour, of strength of spirit, of great ideals, of international solidarity. Against us is the Britain of the stock market, an infamous Britain without honour. Working Britain and its people are with us”.