A popular understanding of history in today’s world involves blaming the most radical revolutionaries of France in the late 18th century and Russia in 1917 for many of the modern ills. This trend is espoused in intellectual and popular culture and is the foundation on which much of modern politics is based. For the wealthy and the currently powerful, it is a self-serving and incredibly useful understanding. Hence, any popular attempts to alter this view are ruthlessly belittled and denied. It was exactly this that took place in the 1960s and the 1970s when colonized peoples, young people, workers and others reconsidered their role in history and took to the streets, forever changing the political/cultural landscape we live in.
In the years since, however, it is the historical understanding that serves the powerful that has been on the ascendant. Most commonly known among historians as revisionism, this understanding not only blames revolutionary forces for humanity’s murderous excesses, it also urges a return to a semi-feudal situation that stratifies people in terms of class, race and gender, allowing different levels of economic and political freedom according to a hierarchy designed by those in power. In effect, it wishes to legally create the political world already being formed economically through neoliberalism.
Revisionism is a liberal approach to history. It equates the colonialism, racism and anti-Semitism of Nazism with the anti-colonial, anti-racist and liberationist foundations of communism. In doing so, it also ignores essential indisputable facts of western capitalist development. Foremost among these denials are the role the African slave trade played in every European nation that was involved, its fundamental role (along with slavery itself) in the United States, and colonialism. By ignoring colonialism’s essential role—and because of the racism inherent in the revisionist analysis—wars against colonized peoples are not even considered wars. In other words, unless Europeans are dying on a massive scale, there is no war. This is especially the case in those situations (for example, the massacre by German settlers of the Herero and Nama peoples in southern Africa or the US in Grenada, Panama and the first Gulf War) where the number of dead at the hands of the victor far outweighs the number of the victorious army’s dead.
In the conduct of war, all governments involved are more alike than different, more genocidal than peace seeking, more authoritarian than rights protecting. Total war means total mobilization and imprisonment or even death to those who disagree. God forgive the soldier unwilling to participate: Losurdo writes of an Italian general during World War One who “carried out trench inspections with an execution squad in tow” to save time. The battle is the most important thing, after all. The unwilling cannon fodder had best be aware.
The end of the 1970s did not mean an end to the non-revisionist understanding of history made popular by the masses in the streets. It did, however, signal a renewed effort to stifle that particular strain. This was in line with the times. Thatcher and Reagan were presiding over neoliberal capitalism’s opening salvos on the Keynesian economic state and re-arming their already powerful militaries. The Soviet Union was heading towards a demise fostered by political and economic miscalculation intensified by a war against its 1917 revolution that began before the revolution had the means to solidify. In the face of the neoliberal attack, socialist and social democratic governments in Europe were beginning to become their opposite, remaining socialist or social democrat in name only. Ever since then, the Left has been either fighting to regain a sense of possibility or signing up with the neoliberal offensive pretending it can still be leftist while embracing monopoly capitalism’s most inhumane incarnation to date.
Domenic Losurdo is an Italian Marxist and philosopher. He is also one of today’s most acute critics of liberalism. His latest work to be translated into English, War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century, is an intellectual rebuke to the revisionist historians masquerading as objective arbiters of the past when in reality their words serve finance capital and its ravaging of the planet. Losurdo rejects the West’s portrayal of itself as civilized and humane in contrast to Russia and the East. Philosopher by philosopher, historian by historian, he dissects those western intellectuals’ attempts to mythologize these lies cleverly and decisively. Losurdo takes the attempts by various revisionist historians to blame the Bolsheviks and French Jacobins for the history of terror and turns them on their head. Instead, he writes, It is the reactionary and liberal capitalist regimes whose policies of total war and forced removal of populations (the Native Americans and the Africans, most notably) which created the reaction of the revolutionary governments. In other words, it was not the revolutionary forces as represented by the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks who brought mass murder, ethnic cleansing and slavery into this world, but the governments against which they revolted. Furthermore, Losurdo includes the phenomenon of twentieth-century fascism in the western colonial tradition. In other words, Hitler’s plans to colonize Eastern Europe were not outside of the West’s previous colonialist endeavor. In fact, as Losurdo repeatedly mentions, Hitler admired the totality of the American settlers’ eradication of the indigenous peoples whose land they stole and saw it as a model for his brand of fascism.
Losurdo argues that in the reactionary system there is no war but “racial” war. He cites the propaganda used by the capitalist nations to mobilize the citizens in their respective states, turning the twentieth century wars against communism into wars against foreign, “Asiatic,” even Jewish ideologies. One finds a similar scenario in the twenty-first century where wars against nations with large Muslim populations have become “racialized” wars against the Muslim world itself. As Losurdo makes clear, this racialization has helped create a mindset allowing for what he calls “the rehabilitation of colonialism.” In other words, the powers that be promote their self-serving idea that there are parts of the world—mostly non-white—that could benefit from being colonized by those powers. In what can only be described as an ironic instance, I heard this sentiment expressed by two African-American men in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park on September 11, 2001 while the smoke from the burning Twin Towers scraped the nostrils and throats of every one present.
War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century is a relentless document. It is dense and disconcerting. This is precisely why it should be considered one of the most important history books written since the events known as 9-11. After all, it was those events which took the revisionist project already underway since the late 1970s and put it into hyperdrive. By intention, there has not been a day of peace since. This fact is not an accident. That is the essence of Losurdo’s text.
Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series. All the Sinners, Saints, is the third novel in the series. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground . Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by Counterpunch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.