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The Dialectic of the Revolution and the Genesis of Abstract Universalism


Domenico Losurdo

Translated using the Portuguese edition of the book, often consulting the Spanish edition, not the original Italian edition.

Translated by David Ferreira

The Dialectic of the Revolution and the Genesis of Abstract Universalism

But how to explain the emergence of an outlook and a purism that, at first glance, is so naive and detached from reality? It wouldn’t be less naive or unrealistic to assign blame to one individual or another. In reality, there’s an objective dialectic at work here. In the wake of the struggle against inequality, privileges, discrimination, injustices―and against the oppression of the old regime and its particularisms and exclusivism, with the old ruling class condemned for its pettiness and  egoism―the most radical revolutionaries are driven to express a strong, inspiring and high-sounding vision of the principles of equality and universality. It is a vision that, on the one hand, carries the energy and enthusiasm that facilitate the overthrow of the old social relations and the old political institutions; and on the other hand, it makes the construction of the new order more complex and difficult.

Will the new order live up to the hopes, promises and ambitions which preceded its birth? Does it not run the risk of reproducing under a new form the injustices so passionately denounced under  the old regime? This is an especially delicate question for the fact that the most radical revolutions cultivate ambitious projects of political and social transformation, while precisely because of this unfamiliarity and distance to the existing order they bring to power a leadership group without solid political experience behind them. Moreover, they need to construct and even invent not just a new political order, but a new social order as well. In these circumstances, the thin lines separating an ambitious political project from high-sounding yet empty rhetoric become evident; separating a concrete utopia (a certainly distant horizon, but which orients and stimulates the real process of transformation) from an abstract and deceptive utopia (in the last analysis, a synonym for escaping and avoiding reality).

To be victorious, not only in the short term but in the long term as well, a revolution must be able to give concrete and lasting content to the ideals of equality and universality that have accompanied it  in attaining power. And to do it, the new leadership group is called upon to let go of those naive ideas which they tended to hold on to in the moments of enthusiasm; and they are called upon to accomplish such a task not in a vacuum, but in a historically charged space where those ideas weigh upon economic and political limits, the relation of forces, and have their presence felt in the contradictions and the conflicts which inevitably emerge. It’s in journeying through this difficult passage where the revolutionary front, which up until this moment has at least appeared united, starts showing its first internal cracks and fractures, and where disillusionment, discontent and accusations of betrayal make their appearance.

It’s a process and dialectic which Hegel analyzes with great clarity and depth with regards to the French Revolution.365 It develops while waving the banner of the “universal subject”, “universal will” and “universal self-consciousness." In this phase, in the moment of the old regime’s destruction, one witnesses the “abolition of different spiritual masses and the limited lives of individuals”; “therefore all social strata are abolished, which are the spiritual essence in which Everything is articulated." It’s as if society, dissolved of all intermediary governing bodies, had broken down completely into a myriad of individuals who, rejecting all traditional authorities now left without legitimacy, demand not only liberty and equality, but also participation in public life and in all phases of decision-making. In the wake of this enthusiasm and exuberance, in a situation in which it is as if authority and power as such have been suspended into nothingness, emerges an anarchistic millenarianism, that demands “absolute liberty”, that is prepared to denounce as treason all contamination and restrictions, real or presumed, on universality.

A new order assumes a reorganization of individuals within the “spiritual masses”, in social organizations, intermediary bodies, although constituted and organized according to new and different arrangements that respect the principles of the revolution. However, for the anarchistic millenarianism, society’s new formulation, whatever it may be, is seen as the negation of universality. In fact, “their activity and the personality’s state of being find themselves restricted to one subsection of Everything, limited to just one type of activity and state of being." Therefore, “limited to the element of being, the personality would thus take on the meaning of a determined personality and would in truth cease to be a universal self-consciousness." It’s an analysis that sheds light on the dialectic that plays out for the duration of the French Revolution, but is even more clearly evident in the October Revolution, when the Pathos of universality is felt even more strongly, both in its more naive forms and in its more mature forms. In the situation of exalted universalism, which presides over the toppling of the old regime, all divisions of labor, no matter their form, become a synonym for exclusivity and the sequestering of “universal self-consciousness” and “universal will” by a bureaucratic and privileged minority.

This is true for social relations as well as for political institutions. There’s no order that could satisfy anarchistic millenarianism’s aspiration for direct and unmediated realization of universality. The manner in which anarchistic millenarianism acts is clarified again in the memorable pages of Phenomenology of Spirit:
“Not to be fooled by either the comedy (Vorstellung) of obedience to laws that pretend to be the expression of self government, and to which are assigned only a part, or for the fact of enjoying representation in legislation and universal activities, self-consciousness won’t be deprived of the reality which consists of the writing of its own laws and its completion of not individual work, but more precisely a universal work. In fact, when found only in the form of representation and theatrical representation, the individual isn’t real; where there’s someone who is the representative of the individual, there is no individual.”
We are reminded of the definition that The Workers’ Opposition gives to the bureaucracy in Soviet Russia: “someone else decides your destiny." Against this inadmissible expropriation, they demand a “leadership” that is “collective” in each phase of decision making, with the subsequent condemnation of all representative organization. Moreover, any drafting of a constitutional order and even juridical regulation is labeled a priori as an attempted confinement of or rupture with universality, and therefore as the expression of an old regime that’s hard to kill.

To come into “action”, to become real and effective and to transform into the “true will”― Hegel continues―universality must find expression in concrete individuals, it must “place at the top an individual self-consciousness." Here millenarianism and anarchism cry out against that scandal: “In that approach, the remaining individuals are excluded from the totality of action and play only a limited role; therefore, the action wouldn’t be an action of effective universal self-consciousness." The tragedy of the French Revolution (but also, on a greater scale, the October Revolution) is this:  if one wants to avoid reducing it to an empty phrase, the pathos of universality must be given a determined and concrete content, but it’s precisely this determined and concrete content that is seen as a betrayal. In fact, it’s particularity as such that is labeled as an element of contamination and negation of universality. While this vision prevails, the liquidation of the old regime can’t be  followed by the construction of a new and solid order: “Universal liberty, therefore, can’t produce any work or any positive action, only negative action. Universal liberty is only the rush to erase."

365. Hegel (1969-1979), vol. 3, pp. 431-41

Abstract Universalism and Terror in Soviet Russia

In Hegel’s analysis, to the degree that terror is the result not of the objective situation, but of an ideology, then it’s primarily the responsibility of anarchistic millenarianism and abstract universalism that, in their flight from any particular or determined elements, are only able to express themselves through their “rush to erase." With regard to the Bolshevik Revolution, one must not lose sight of the permanent state of emergency provoked by imperialist intervention and siege. Yet the most properly ideological component of the terror relates to the cult of universality and abstract utopia, which hinders the action of the new leadership group and ends up provoking its division. It’s interesting to see the way Trotsky, in the middle of the 1930s, casts aside his wise critiques of Kollontai and mocks Stalin’s rehabilitation of the family:
“Since the State had been entrusted with the education of the younger generation, political power, far from concerning itself with supporting the authority of those who are older, the father and mother in particular, has instead concentrated in separating the children in order to isolate them from old customs. Also, done openly in the period of the first five-year plan, schools and the communist youth had frequently appealed to children with the aim of denouncing the drunk father and the religious mother, in order to shame them and to attempt to ‘reeducate them’. It’s another matter to know to what success. In any case, this method has shaken family authority itself.”366
In participating in the spread of the “old customs”, and therefore of the ideology and particularism of the old regime, the family is identified as one of the obstacles that the forward march of universality is called upon to strike at or topple. The denunciation of “family authority” causes not a reduction of violence, but an increase of it. The condemnation of the Constitution and of law as instruments of bourgeois domination has the same result. Working from these conclusions, it becomes impossible to put form to and even think of a socialist state and law. Naturally, there’s a contradiction between the reverence to the ideal of the withering away of  the State and the appeal  to the State to intervene as well in the sphere of family relations, but it’s a contradiction that invariably manifests itself in the anarchistic rhetoric of abstract universalism and the  violent practices it ends up encouraging.

At this moment, we are obligated to raise another consideration. This tendency, to see the particularities themselves as a disruptive element that contaminates the universal, manifests itself far beyond the Bolshevik leadership group. We can think of the distrust or the hostility with which Rosa Luxemburg generally viewed nationalist movements, whose neglect of the international cause of the proletariat is denounced. After the October Revolution, the great revolutionary, on the one hand, criticizes the Bolsheviks for their lack of respect for democracy and its liquidation, yet on the other hand, she encourages them to “to crush with an iron fist any nationalist tendencies” arising from the “peoples without history”, “rotten corpses that arise from their secular graves."367
And now let’s see how Stalin describes the effects of the “socialist revolution” on the national question:
“Shaking the lowest stratum of humanity and driving them into the political scene, it brings new life to a whole series of new nationalities, previously unknown or poorly known. Who could have thought that the old Czarist Russia represented nothing less than fifty nations and national groups? However, the October Revolution, in breaking the old chains and putting on stage a whole series of nationalities and forgotten peoples, gave them a new life and new development."368
We now reach a paradoxical conclusion, at least from the point of view of the usual historical evaluations and the ideological stereotypes dominant nowadays. In relation to the peoples who “emerge from their secular graves”, according to Luxemburg’s wording, or the “forgotten peoples”, according to Stalin’s wording, it’s the first who reveals a much more threatening and repressive attitude. Naturally, with regards to the judgement on those who actually wielded power, it’s a matter of seeing if, and up to what point, praxis corresponded to theory. It remains true that Luxemburg’s abstract universalism is shown to be potentially more loaded with violence, for in the course of her evolution she has tended to read national demands as a deviation from the real path of internationalism and universalism.

We will reach a similar conclusion, again on the topic of the national question, if this time we compare Stalin and Kautsky. Against the theory formulated by the German social democratic leader, on the basis of which, with the victory of socialism in a country or group of  countries, and even  just with the development of bourgeois democratic society, national differences and particularities would disappear, or tend to disappear. The former objects: Such a vision, that superficially ignores the “stability of nations”, ends up opening the door to a “war against national cultures”, national minorities, oppressed peoples, and to a “policy of assimilation” and “colonization”, to a policy desired, for example, by the “Germanizers” and “Russiafiers” of Poland.369 In this case as well, it is a universalism unable to accept the particular that encourages violence and oppression. Still in the context of comparing different theories, this abstract universalism is closer to Kautsky than to  Stalin.

Similar to the German social democratic leader, Luxemburg also strongly criticizes the Bolsheviks for their “petty-bourgeois” agrarian reform, which conceded land to the peasantry. To this outlook, one can counterpose Bukharin, according to whom, in the conditions of Russia at that time, with a monopoly on political power solidly in the hands of the Bolsheviks, it is precisely “private interests” and the drive of the peasantry and others to enrich themselves that could contribute to the development of the productive forces and, in the last analysis, to the cause of socialism and communism.370 A significant transformation occurred with Bukharin: if during Brest-Litovsk, with regard to the national question, he had shown an abstract universalism, here in relation to NEP and the agrarian question, the process of building universality must also advance through the opportune utilization of particular interests. We are witnessing a learning process and self-critical reflection of extraordinary interest, and that helps us understand what has happened in countries like China and Vietnam in our time. Bukharin goes on:

We imagined things in the following form: we take power, we take nearly everything into our grasp, we immediately put into motion a planned economy, it doesn’t matter if difficulties arise, some we eliminate, others we overcome, and the whole thing has a happy ending.
Today we clearly see that the question is not solved this way.

The aspiration to “organize production coercively, by way of orders”, leads to catastrophe. In overcoming that “caricature of socialism”, communists are obligated by experience to take into account the “enormous importance of private individual incentive” with the development of the productive forces in mind, and of course a “development of the productive forces that leads us to socialism and not to a full restoration of a so-called ‘healthy’ capitalism."371 To protest, however, like Trotsky and the opposition would do, against the “degeneration” of Soviet Russia due to the persistence of the private economy in the rural areas and of a “class collaboration” by communists with the peasantry (and with the bourgeois strata tolerated under NEP), would have led to the end of “civil peace” and an enormous “Saint Bartholomew's night."372

Was Bukharin’s defeat crucial only because of the need to accelerate the country’s industrialization as much as possible in preparation for war, or did the stubborn hostility to all forms of private  property and the market economy also contribute to it? It’s a question that we will deal with later. For now, we can have one point of reference: the concentrationary universe reaches its peak during the forced collectivization of agriculture, and with an iron fist treatment of bourgeois and petty- bourgeois tendencies within the peasantry, generally members of the “peoples without history”, to use the unfortunate language that Luxemburg borrowed from Engels. Aside from the brutality of this or that political leader, there can be no doubt about the fatal role played by a universalism incapable of integrating and respecting the particular.

The pages that we’ve used from Hegel (the author in whom Lenin identifies the “roots of historical materialism”)373 are like a refutation in advance of the explanation of “Stalinism” contained in the so-called “Secret Report” of 1956, presented at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of  the Soviet Union. It would be, of course, dishonest to pretend that Khrushchev was at Hegel’s level, but it’s curious that the tragedy and the horror of Soviet Russia continued to be the responsibility of a single figure, in fact, of a single scapegoat, as if the extraordinary analysis that the Phenomenology of Spirit dedicates to “absolute liberty” and the “terror” had never existed.

What it Means to Govern: A Painful Learning Process

Let’s return to the Hegelian analysis of the French Revolution’s dialectic (and of the great revolutions in general). Starting from the concrete experience of the disastrous consequences to which the “rush to erase” leads, individuals understand the necessity of giving concrete and specific content to universalism, putting an end to universalism’s mad pursuit of immediate realization and purity. Renouncing absolute egalitarianism, individuals “again accept negation and difference”, that  is “the organization of the spiritual masses in which the multitude of individual consciences express themselves." These, moreover, “return to a particular and limited work, but precisely for this, they return to their meaningful reality." In other words, it’s understood now the unproven and disastrous myth of a “universal will”, or to use language from someone other than Hegel (used by no small number of Russian revolutionaries): of direct democracy, of “collective leadership” that, without mediation and bureaucratic limitations, expresses itself directly and immediately in the factories, in work places, in political organizations.

As one can see, aside from Jacobinism, the target of Hegel’s criticisms are anarchistic radicalism and millenarianism. This is confirmed by his reflections on the other great revolution, namely the puritan revolution that breaks out in the middle of the seventeenth century. Putting an end to an unsuccessful and pseudo-revolutionary period of religious exaltation, and offering a positive political conclusion to years of work, Cromwell demonstrates that “he knew very well what it means to govern." “Taking firm control of the reins of government, he dissolved the parliament that had  been consumed by prayer and he commanded the throne with great splendor, as Protector."374 To know how to govern means to be able to offer concrete content to the ideals of universalism that inspired the revolution, for example: distancing itself from the first English Revolution, from the followers of the “fifth monarchy”, the hollow utopia of a society that didn’t have or need juridical norms, for the fact that individuals are enlightened and allow themselves to be guided by grace. To the degree that he knew how to distance himself from a failed abstract utopia, Robespierre also showed that he in some ways knew the art of governing, or sought to learn it.

After a great revolution, especially when its protagonists are from ideological and political strata deprived of property and the political experience connected to the enjoyment of property, to learn how to govern means to learn how to give concrete content to universality. But it’s above all else a process of learning by experience. With regard to the socialist revolution, that process doesn’t begin or end with Stalin. Rather, the most serious limitation of this statesman (but also, to a different degree, of other statesman of our time associated with socialism) is having left incomplete, or even gravely incomplete, that learning process.

Let’s take the national question. In Lenin, we can read the thesis according to which the “inevitable fusion of nations” and of “different nationalities”, including with regard to language, passes through a “transitory period” of full and free development of nations and their different languages, cultures and identities. At least in relation to the “transition period”, here it’s evident the awareness that the universal must know how to embrace the particular. A significant learning process had already begun: we are already past the abstract universalism that is expressed, for example, in Luxemburg, for whom the particular nationalities are in themselves a negation of internationalism.

Yet Lenin, in speaking of the national question, appears to grasp the unity between the universal and the particular only in relation to the “transition period." Stalin is sometimes more radical:

Some, Kautsky for example, speak of creating a single language for all humanity under socialism and doing away with all other languages. I don’t really believe in this theory of a single language for all of humanity. In any case, experience doesn’t speak in its favor, but against this theory.375

Judging by this passage, not even communism should be characterized by a “single language for all of humanity." It’s as if Stalin was afraid of his own courage. Moreover, he prefers to delay the “fusion of nations and national languages” to the moment in which socialism has triumphed on the world stage.376 Maybe only in the last years of his life, when at that point he had indisputable authority within the international communist movement, does Stalin prove to be more daring. He doesn’t limit himself to stressing that “history shows a great stability and an enormous resistance by languages to forced assimilation."377 Now his theoretical elaboration goes yet further: “language is radically different from a superstructure”; it “isn’t created by any single class, but by a society as a whole, by all the classes of society, thanks to the efforts by hundreds of generations”; therefore, it’s absurd to speak of a “language’s ‘class nature’."378 But then why should national languages disappear? And why should the nations as such disappear, if it’s true that “the language community represents one of the most important signs of a distinct nation”?379 However, despite all this, orthodoxy ends up coming out on top: communism continues to be thought of as the triumph of the “common international language”, and ultimately as a single nationality.380 At least with regard to that mythical final stage, the universal can again be thought of in its purity, free of the contamination of the particularities of languages and national identities. It’s not solely an abstract problem of theory. The attachment to orthodoxy certainly didn’t contribute to the understanding of the permanent contradictions between nations that aimed for socialism and considered themselves committed to the construction of communism. It’s these contradictions that played a primary role in the process of crisis and dissolution of the “socialist camp."
In other fields of social life we again see Stalin take part in a difficult struggle against an abstract utopia, but stopping half-way, to avoid compromising traditional orthodoxy. In 1952, therefore on the eve of his death, he feels obligated to criticize those that want to liquidate the  “market economy” as such. In a polemic on this, Stalin wisely observes:
“They say that market production in any condition must necessarily lead to capitalism. That’s not true. Not always, not in any condition! One cannot identify capitalist production with market production. They are two different things.”
There could very well be “market production without capitalists." However, again in this case, orthodoxy proves to be an insurmountable barrier: the disappearance of the market economy is delayed until the moment in which “all the means of production” are completely collectivized, with the surpassing, therefore, of cooperative property itself.381

At last, the problem that’s perhaps decisive. We saw Stalin theorize a “third function” in addition to repression and class struggle at the national and international level. A prominent jurist was right to point out that the report to the Eighteenth Party Congress of the CPSU had put before us “a radical change in the doctrine developed by Marx and Engels."382 It was a change that Stalin had reached from his experience in government, from a concrete process of learning that had already left its traces in Lenin’s final thoughts and political decisions, but that had now taken another step forward. Trotsky had argued very differently. He had hoped to synthesize the positions of Marx, Engels and Lenin in the following form: “The generation that had conquered power, the old guard, began the liquidation of the State; the following generation will complete this task."383 If this miracle did not come to pass, who could be blamed if not the traitorous Stalinist bureaucracy?

It may seem misleading to use these philosophical categories to explain the history of Soviet Russia, but it’s Lenin himself who legitimizes this approach. He cites and supports the “excellent formula” in Hegelian logic, according to which the universal must be able to embrace “the richness of the particular."384 In expressing himself in that way he’s thinking, above all else, of the revolutionary situation, that is always determined by and reaches its point of rupture at the weakest link, in a particular country. Nevertheless, this “excellent formula” was not considered for the phase following the seizure of power by either Lenin or the Bolshevik leadership group. When they are confronted with the problem of building a new society, these efforts to bring “the richness of the particular” into the universal run into the accusation of betrayal. It’s well understood that that accusation is aimed at Stalin in particular. Having governed the country born out of the October Revolution for more time than any other leader, it’s precisely from this experience in government that he realized the emptiness of the millenarian expectations for the disappearance of the state, nations, markets, and money; and he also directly experienced the paralyzing effect of a universalist vision that tends to classify as a contamination the attention given to the particular needs and interests of a state, a new nation, a family or a determined individual.

If it’s true that ideology plays a significant role in the prolongation of the Second Time of Troubles, it’s necessary, then, to point out that Stalin’s antagonists are particularly guilty of this. Stalin, thanks also to his concrete experience in government, seriously committed himself to the learning process through which, according to Hegel’s teachings, the leadership group of a grand revolution is forced to pass through.

The Complex and Contradictory Course of the Stalin Era

366. Trotsky (1988), pp. 845-46 (=Trotsky, 1968, p. 141).

367. For the analysis contained in these pages of the positions taken by Rosa Luxemburg, refer to Losurdo (1997), ch. 7, § 2.
368. Stalin (1971-1973), vol. 7, p. 120 (= Stalin, 1952-56, vol. 7, pp. 159-60).

369. Stalin (1971-1973), vol. 11, pp. 305-11.

370. Bukharin (1969a), pp. 160 and 168.

371. Bukharin (1969a), pp. 159, 161.

372. Bukharin (1969b), p. 113; Bukharin (1969a), p. 169.

373. Lenin (1955-1970), vol. 38, p. 313.

374. Hegel (1919-1920), pp. 896-97.

375. Lenin (1955-1970), vol. 22, p. 151 and vol. 31, p. 82; Stalin (1971-1973), vol. 7, p. 120 (=Stalin,
1952-1956, vol. 7, p. 160).

376. Stalin 1971-1973), vol. 11, p. 308.

377. Stalin (1971-1973), vol. 15, p. 218 (=Stalin, 1968, p. 52).

378. Stalin (1971-1973), vol. 15, pp. 193, 195 and 204 (=Stalin, 1968, pp. 18, 21 and 34).

379. Stalin (1971-1973), vol. 15, p. 206 (=Stalin, 1968, p. 36).

380. Stalin (1971-1973), vol. 15, p. 252 (=Stalin, 1968, p. 101).

381. Stalin (1971-1973), vol. 15, pp. 263-70 (= Stalin, 1973, pp. 18-29).

382. Kelsen (1981b), p. 171; cf. also Kelsen (1981a), p. 62.

383. Trotsky (1988), p. 853 (= Trotsky, 1968, p. 148).

384. Lenin (1955-1970), vol. 38, p. 98.

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