A militant and a scholar. Remembering Domenico Losurdo (1941-2018)

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Not only can fate be cruel, but it is often ironic. When I heard of the passing of Domenico Losurdo (born in Sannicandro, Puglia in 1941), I had been expecting such news. But my mind turned to the Socratic philosopher Antonio Labriola. He had no love for writing and most of all trusted his erudition to the spoken word rather than text fixed on paper. He died of throat cancer, which stopped him speaking even before it took his life. Losurdo, a historian and philosopher, a communist militant, a teacher and very high-level scholar, a prolific writer and, in short, what we call a ‘great mind’, died of a brain tumour. It quickly took him from us, leaving us stunned. His brain which had seemed so unstoppable, as generous as it was rigorous, a real war machine, was defeated by a stupid illness.

He was always ready for his near-frenetic activism – whether this meant writing an article, working on some research project or giving a talk. He would get on a train with a small bag, with his striped shirts (and never a tie) and mid-season clothes, covering miles and miles to bring his vision of the world around Italy, around Europe, and around the world. There are few countries where Losurdo was never invited for conferences, lectures, or presentations of translations of his books. And there were a lot of such books, all of them rich or even overloaded with doctrine. It would be impossible to provide an even incomplete digest of these works, here. The fact is that Domenico – Mimmo to his friends – was truly a man of many interests, from philosophy to political doctrines, with his boundless erudition able to cover vast fields of knowledge.

A philosopher by training, Losurdo differed from a good part of his colleagues not only on account of his paramount respect for history – including the biographical dimension of the authors he studies – but also because he fed each of his writings on historicity. He was well aware – to again cite Labriola –that  ‘ideas do not fall out of the sky’. He always looked behind, under the ideas to seek out their structural bases and their ideological context. As an authentic and well-versed historical materialist he sought to shed light on the connections between economics and ideology, and between social interests and cultural debates. Losurdo was a convinced Marxist, both in terms of his political ideals and in terms of the precise methodological choice he made. He was convinced that it was impossible fully to grasp political ideas without bringing these connections to light and looking into the backstage that stood behind these ideas,

An unrepentant communist, Losurdo embraced the initiative made by the small party he joined, the PdCI, to give rise to a new and possibly great Italian Communist Party. When upon its first electoral tests it secured rather modest results, and I remarked on this to him with a little malice, he replied unfazed: ‘We are working on the long term’ and reiterated his invitation for me to join. Naturally I did not accept this invitation, and nor did I share all of Losurdo’s positions or approach. That, even though I reviewed and presented several of his books, and, most importantly, waged many battles in common with him, first of all the fight against the Zionist rhetoric which is ready to brandish the taboo of anti-Semitism in order to marginalise and isolate whoever criticises Israel’s rulers.

Discussing some of his works, I did not stop short of criticism. I always highlighted his prodigious productive capacities and the originality of many of his analyses, which could never be taken for granted, though sometimes they were indeed predictable for those who know how Losurdo thought. One of his cornerstones was anti-imperialism, and he fought for the theoretical category ‘imperialism’ and the closely related category ‘colonialism’ to be given their proper place in geopolitical analysis in general. He was a critical (and far-from-pig-headed) admirer of Stalin as a great protagonist of the global struggle against Nazi-fascism (though we disagreed significantly, here) and in recent years he was very concerned with China, becoming an expert analyst of the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology. But till the end he remained a militant, a fighter, and in his public interventions he never gave up on a certain tone, the stuff of the public rally. A tone able to capture the audience and keep it listening, even if not always to convince it.

Long a lecturer in the History of Philosophy at Urbino University, and then an Emeritus Professor, he took up various prestigious scholarly posts at the international level, especially in the world of studies of Hegel, Marx and Engels.

His vast bibliography includes titles such as – and here I am choosing arbitrarily – Heidegger and the Ideology of War: Community, Death and the West (Humanity Books, 2001), perhaps his most fascinating work; War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century (Verso, 2015), a theoretical cornerstone of the fight against historical revisionism; Nietzsche, il ribelle aristocratico (Bollati Boringhieri, 1997 – out soon with Brill), a real masterpiece notwithstanding its vast bulk; Liberalism: A Counter-History (Verso, 2011), a landscape that revealed the ‘dark side’ of liberal pseudo-democracy; Il linguaggio dell’Impero (Laterza, 2007), an analysis that is all the more valuable today in the face of ‘Trumpism’; Class Struggle: A Political and Philosophical History (Routledge, 2016), an original reading of the eternal clash between oppressed and oppressors; and Un mondo senza guerre (Carocci, 2016), a book that combined an erudite analysis of a world at war with a perspective for a radical alternative. And the last was his Il marxismo occidentale (Laterza, 2017). Its telling subtitle ‘How [Western Marxism] was born, how it died, how it can revive’ perfectly grasped the author’s dual nature as a scholar and militant. His passing comes as sad news for the world of scholarship, but also the world of political activism. In this regard, too, it is hard to see how we could replace Domenico Losurdo. His passing is very grave news.

Originally published in La Repubblica. Translated by David Broder