The Guardian • Issue #2061

Book Review

Stalin: History and Critique of a Black Legend

by Domenico Losurdo

Stalin: History and Critique of a Black Legend – BOOK COVER

Historian Isaac Deutscher described Stalin as a “huge, grim, whimsical, morbid, human monster,” reflecting a widespread, if simplistic view. However, this view becomes perplexing when one considers the widespread admiration he garnered during and immediately after World War II for his indisputable role in Nazi Germany’s defeat. Notably even some of Stalin’s adversaries and critics expressed a considerable degree of appreciation for his leadership. Winston Churchill referred to him as “Stalin the Great” and expressed admiration by saying “I like that man,” and Trotskyists like Deutscher himself, acknowledged that Stalin “found Russia with the wooden plough and left it with atomic weapons.”

The transformation of “Stalin the Great” into a “human monster” raises compelling questions. How, why, and when did this shift occur? Are these conflicting portrayals the product of objective philosophical and historical investigations, or do they instead serve ideological interests? These questions form the basis for an alternative and more balanced analysis of Lenin’s successor, as advocated by the late lamented Italian Marxist philosopher Domenico Losurdo in his book, Stalin: History and Critique of a Black Legend. Published in 2008 by the Italian publisher Carocci, this comprehensive 382-page work remains unavailable in English in print, but can be found online. An English version is soon to be published by Iskra books.

According to Losurdo, scholars confronted with extreme attitudes of either demonisation or veneration towards Stalin should strive to maintain a more neutral perspective, avoiding a one-sided stance. While he does not directly engage with scholars like Ludo Martens or Grover Furr, who hold a more apologetic view of Stalin, Losurdo implicitly invites readers to discern any divergences between his approach and theirs. Instead, Losurdo focuses his efforts on deconstructing the “black legend” surrounding Stalin – an assemblage of false simplifications and derogatory stereotypes that have permeated prevailing historical interpretations. His book aims to dismantle these misconceptions and offer a more nuanced understanding of Stalin’s legacy.

Losurdo traces the dramatic shift in Stalin’s popularity and reputation, which occurred during the onset of the Cold War and the dissemination of Nikita Khrushchev’s “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences’’ in 1956. Another crucial step towards demonisation, was what Losurdo calls the reductio ad Hitlerum applied to Stalin. Lev Trotsky had already characterised Stalin’s regime as a “totalitarian dictatorship” reminiscent of fascism and Hitlerism. However, it was Hannah Arendt in her seminal work “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (1951) who drew parallels between Stalin and Hitler, paving the way for the myth of the twin monsters. She also equated the Gulags with Nazi concentration camps, further solidifying the negative perception of Stalin’s regime.

The book meticulously analyses and challenges these prevailing notions through an accurate and innovative use of historical sources. It offers an unconventional and multifaceted perspective on Stalin, Soviet Russia, and communism, encompassing reflections that extend from Marx to Mao and even Pol Pot. Moreover, Losurdo employs a comparative method that critically questions the colonial tradition and crimes often overlooked or belittled within the liberal West. By denouncing uncomfortable analogies between Nazism and the darker aspects of liberalism, he exposes how the myth of the twin monsters is perpetuated to reinforce liberalism’s claim of moral superiority, and advance its ideological agenda.

For instance, while Losurdo firmly condemns the Gulags, he distinguishes them from Nazi camps, highlighting that Soviet prisoners were held based on political ideas and behaviour, with a possibility of redemption. Inmate deaths in Gulags resulted in severe punishment for guards and were primarily influenced by societal crises and resource scarcity. Conversely, Nazi camps aimed to degrade and eliminate “races” considered biologically inferior. A comprehensive comparison reveals the dark side of the Western genocidal and concentration practices, including the suffering of Indigenous peoples and the high death rates of enslaved Black individuals during US railroad construction. These Western crimes cannot be dismissed as unintentional or crisis-driven. Notably, influential figures like John Locke, John Stuart Mill, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, who are often revered for their liberal ideals, were directly involved in Indigenous genocides and slavery.

Therefore, the comparison of Hitler, Stalin, Nazism, and communism falls short when considering the numerous parallels between liberalism and Nazism. Both ideologies promote racism and dehumanisation. Marxist-Leninists, on the other hand, advocate internationalism, fighting against racism, colonialism, slavery and war, and for equality and brotherhood. Stalin aligns with this tradition, appreciating Lenin’s efforts in breaking “down the wall between whites and Blacks, between Europeans and Asians, between the ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’ slaves of imperialism,” and translating this theory into practice by, for example, implementing progressive and groundbreaking affirmative action policies for national minorities in the Soviet Union.

In conclusion Domenico Losurdo’s work challenges the prevailing narrative surrounding Stalin by thoroughly analysing historical sources and critically examining the crimes of liberalism. By employing a comparative approach, Losurdo aims to debunk misconceptions and provide a nuanced understanding of Stalin’s era. This alternative perspective urges us to question the motives behind the shifting reputation of Stalin and the ideological biases that have influenced dominant historical interpretations. In essence, Losurdo’s work encourages us to embrace a broader and more discerning perspective when approaching the complexities of Stalin and his historical context.

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