The subtitle of Domenico Losurdo’s book promises an investigation into ‘how Western Marxism was born, how it died and how it can be reborn’.footnote1 Leafing through its pages, however, we would be hard pressed to find any trace of calls for Western Marxism’s ‘rebirth’. Losurdo prefers to assume the stance of a doctor faced with an ailing patient, telling the worried relatives why they may as well turn off the life support. The book’s combative tone will come as no surprise to readers of Losurdo’s work so far available in English. This is a library that extends from a critique of Heidegger and the Ideology of War (2001) through Hegel and the Freedom of the Moderns (2004), to Liberalism: A Counter-History (2011), War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century (2014) and Non-Violence: A History Beyond the Myth (2017), with an intellectual biography of Nietzsche: The Aristocratic Rebel due to appear early next year. These form only a small part of Losurdo’s prodigious output in his native language, which comprises some thirty-five books and numerous co-authored volumes, making him one of the most prolific Italian thinkers of his generation. Holder of a chair in the history of philosophy at Urbino, few have rivalled his combination of energy and erudition. Born in 1941 near Bari, he belongs to the generation radicalized in the sixties, when he was a youthful militant in the small wing of Italian communism that rallied to Chinese positions in the Sino-Soviet dispute and hailed the Cultural Revolution, before splitting into different groups that faded away after the death of Mao in 1976. In the eighties he was a contributor to the pages of the pci’s daily l’Unità, and became a member of the party. When it abandoned its name in 1991, he threw in his lot with those who left it to create Rifondazione Comunista, in turn reduced to a wraith after its participation in the Prodi government of 2006–08. Since 2016 he has joined the attempt to recreate a second pci, under the party’s old name, an organization currently claiming some 12,000 members.

Il marxismo occidentale offers, without question, an original construction of its subject. Losurdo’s key move is to contrast ‘Western Marxism’ systematically with an ‘Eastern Marxism’, presented as its productive antithesis. The Western variant, Losurdo agrees with other accounts, was born out of a reaction against the slaughter of the First World War, and the magnetism of the revolution in Russia. The outlook of its earliest thinkers—Bloch, Lukács, Benjamin—was, however, from the outset impregnated with a set of themes that went back to the anarchism of Bakunin’s time: notably a hostility to science, associated with capitalism, and to the state of any kind, associated with tyranny. To these it added a messianic streak of eschatological expectation, inherited from a judeo-christian past, that looked forward to salvation for humanity in communism, conceived as the proximate coming of a classless society in which money and the state would disappear. Such utopian hopes vested in a beleaguered ussr were bound to be disappointed. The Western Marxism they generated, unable to come to terms with the realities of building a state capable of withstanding the pressures of imperialism, was condemned to impotence and involution. The ensuing theoretical and political blindness had its roots in the formative reaction of the generation of 1914 to the catastrophe of the Great War itself, which instilled in them a detestation of nationalism, held responsible for the mutual massacre of the peoples of Europe, an aversion to technology which had enabled killing on an industrial scale, and a simplistic belief that the path to socialism could therefore come from class struggle alone.

The outlook of what crystallized as Eastern Marxism after the October Revolution was altogether distinct. In Europe, the collapse of the masses into chauvinism, Social Democracy’s betrayal on 4 August, and the splintering of the Second International led Western Marxists to see the Russian Revolution as the antidote to this scourge, and to hope for a general overcoming of ‘social patriotism’ with a rapid spread of proletarian revolution across the continent. Even when this failed to materialize, the European Left remained imbued with a strong anti-militarist and—in Losurdo’s term—‘anarchoid’ contempt for the nation. In Asia, on the other hand, World War I was not the unique cataclysm it was in Europe. For Chinese or Vietnamese revolutionaries, as Ho Chi Minh pointed out, colonial blood-letting had long predated 1914; if anything, the Great War had weakened the grip of European empires on the peoples of Asia. For them, the appeal of the Russian Revolution lay not in the image of an ‘anti-war’ or ‘anti-national’ revolt but, on the contrary, in its ‘national’ inspiration for an anti-imperialist struggle. In 1919–21, the Bolshevik-led state had proved able through its own resources to free itself from the imperialist powers who attempted to subdue it. It was this that allowed the Soviet Union and the new Communist International to win not only the allegiance of Ho—who explained that ‘what first drove me to believe in Lenin and the Third International was not communism but patriotism’—but even the favour of non-Marxist yet anti-colonial militants such as Sun Yat-sen. So, too, for Eastern Marxism there could be no question of any hostility to science or to the state. Asian struggles for national liberation urgently required the use of science, to build both a modern economy capable of lifting the masses from misery and a strong state able to defend the independence of the nation from foreign attack. Eastern Marxists had no illusion that a socialist revolution could deliver all this overnight. Far more people had died during the Taiping Rebellion in China than on all sides of the Great War in Europe, inoculating revolutionaries against any such messianism, and preparing them in advance for decades of the harshest struggle first to win power, and then to consolidate it with the creation of a powerful state capable of fending off imperialist counter-revolution.

In Russia the Bolsheviks were initially infused with still greater political expectancy than Marxists in the West, believing that they were merely erecting a bridgehead for revolution in the advanced industrial societies of Europe, and even briefly experimenting with a barter economy under War Communism. But sobriety soon prevailed, as the hard task of building socialism in one country, with maximum use of scientific knowledge and modern technology, to develop the economy and arm the state against invasion, took over. This was a fundamental alteration. But if the needle of the compass could swing as it did, it was because Lenin had insisted throughout his career, and never more sharply than during the First World War, that revolutions of national liberation in colonized countries were inseparable from those against capital in colonial states—as early as 1913, he was writing of ‘Backward Europe and Advanced Asia’. When the Second World War began, and Operation Barbarossa launched Hitler’s bid to enslave the peoples of the ussr, the battles to defeat the Wehrmacht in Russia and the Imperial Army in China resulted in victory for the Red Army and the pla over the colonizing assaults of Germany and Japan.

With this epochal development Western Marxism, a left-wing sensibility born of the failure of revolution to spread across Europe after 1917, never came to terms. Defeats in Germany, Italy, Hungary and Austria impacted not ‘socialism in one country’, which continued to build up its strength, but European currents now detached from any real process of construction. The Soviet experience initiated a worldwide anti-colonial revolution, while Eurocentric tendencies became marginalized. Where the Eastern Marxists took seriously the problems of building socialist states and defending them militarily, their counterparts in the West could at most appreciate revolutionary experiences in a messianic mood, supporting Eastern revolutions at their initial moment of seizing power, then finding distasteful the decisions necessary to protect them from internal subversion and foreign attack. Judging the real achievements of the Soviet Union by an unfair standard that lay beyond the material possibilities of the time, they then failed to see that, rather than being an embodiment of their own visions of a grand resolution of all differences, the Soviet Union was bedeviled by poverty, the masses’ low cultural level and the difficult tasks of stabilizing itself in the face of foreign encirclement.