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Book Review: Domenico Losurdo’s “Stalin: History and Critique of a Black Legend”

By J. Sykes

Cover of "Stalin: History and Critique of a Black Legend" by Domenico Losurdo

The publication of the new English translation of Domenico Losurdo’s book, Stalin: History and Critique of a Black Legend, is a major event for Marxists, as well as for scholars of Soviet history in the English speaking world. Originally published in Italian in 2008, Iskra Press has just released the first authorized translation into English, thanks to the translation work of Henry Hakamäki and Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro.

The late Domenico Losurdo was a first-rate philosopher, historian and scholar, and the author of many important works such as Liberalism: A Counter-History (2005) and Class Struggle: A Political and Philosophical History (2003). One of the most significant studies of Stalin ever written, English-speaking activists and scholars have long hoped that this important book on Stalin would be translated from Losurdo’s native Italian, but left-leaning publishers of Losurdo’s other books, such as Verso, refused to touch it.

It is noteworthy, as a bit of history about the translation, that when Henry Hakamäki wrote to Verso Books requesting that they publish Losurdo’s Stalin, Verso senior editor Sebastian Budgen responded, calling the book “one of Losurdo’s worst books” and insisted, “We will continue to publish the books by him that have intellectual merit and are based on real and serious research, but not these kinds of texts.” Hakamäki has noted, however, that the book contains at least “346 works cited in it, and has well over 1000 points of citation within the text.” Indeed, Losurdo is a world renowned scholar, whose research methodology in Stalin mirrors that of his other works. We can only assume, then, that by “these kinds of texts,” Budgen means that Verso will not publish books that challenge the anti-Stalin paradigm in scholarship, no matter how well researched.

Interestingly, this controversy regarding the book’s publication really cuts to the heart of what the book is about. The title of the book refers to the idea that a “black legend” has been constructed around Stalin with the intent of discrediting communism. This “black legend” regarding Stalin is the subject of the book. What does this mean? In historiography, which is the study of historical writing and research, a “black legend” refers to a sustained trend of fabrication, exaggeration, decontextualization, and distortion which aims to paint the subject as monstrous and without redeeming qualities.

In this sense, the book isn’t a biography. Losurdo’s book is a “history and critique” of the demonization of Stalin rather than a summation of the period of Stalin’s leadership in the Soviet Union, or an analysis of the figure of Stalin himself. The book breaks down this “black legend” in a systematic way, based on rigorous and well documented research. It shows how the history of Stalin and the Stalin era has been decontextualized, distorted, fabricated and exaggerated, in order to manufacture a political mythology of Stalin as a villain.

Stalin is a major figure in the history of the international communist movement, and both his theory and practice deserve careful study and summation, not just by scholars, but also by socialists and activists who are interested in building a better society. The demonization of Stalin has always been a cornerstone of anti-communism in the United States, and this demonization has been repeated by academics and even “socialists.” Some of these are indeed anti-communists, while others simply lack the courage to stand up to the anti-Stalin propaganda. Others still simply need to become better informed, which this book can help with.

But outside of the imperialist countries, Stalin is widely regarded as a great figure, who accomplished incredible things. Stalin is recognized for transforming the Soviet Union from a backwards, semi-feudal country to a world power, and for defeating Nazi Germany and saving the world from fascism. During the period of Stalin’s leadership of the USSR, the Soviet Union abolished illiteracy, did away with unemployment, provided universal healthcare and housing, and put an end to the cycles of economic crisis and famine that had plagued Russia for centuries prior to the Bolshevik Revolution.

While the Trotskyites had long shrieked impotently about “Stalinism,” the true origin of Stalin’s demonization in the West, according to Losurdo, is Khrushchev’s so-called “secret speech” to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, “On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences.” The first chapter of Losurdo’s book, entitled “How to Cast a God into Hell: The Khrushchev Report” deals with dissecting the claims made against Stalin by Khrushchev in his “secret speech.” From there, Losurdo goes through the many charges against Stalin from then to now, looking at the historical, political and social context as a whole, and helps the reader to come to a fair conclusion about what really took place in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s leadership. Through the course of Losurdo’s work, the picture we are left with is very different from the one we are usually taught.

Losurdo notes that as scholarship has progressed. “On the whole,” he writes, “the caricatured portrait of Stalin drawn first by Trotsky and then by Khrushchev no longer enjoys much credit.” He also explains that “it now becomes clear that the Secret Speech is entirely unreliable. There is no detail in it that is not contested today.” And yet it still remains a cornerstone of the anti-Stalin paradigm.

As the Communist Party of China wrote shortly after Khrushchev’s secret speech, “the question of how to evaluate Stalin and what attitude to take towards him is not just one of appraising Stalin himself; more important, it is a question of how to sum up the historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat and of the international communist movement since Lenin’s death.” This is why Losurdo’s Stalin is an important and valuable book. It is a work of scholarship destined to shake up the predominant, anti-communist history that is taught at every level of U.S. society. It is also important for activists and revolutionaries to read.

Stalin himself once said, “Theory is the experience of the working-class movement in all countries taken in its general aspect.” Losurdo has made an important contribution to our understanding and summation of that experience, and this translation helps to make it more accessible to readers in the United States and other predominantly English speaking countries. Today, people in the U.S are taking up socialist and revolutionary ideas in a way not seen in a very long time. Everyone who is interested in socialism’s history or its future should read this book.

This book is available from the Iskra Books website: J. Sykes is the author of “The Revolutionary Science of Marxism-Leninism”. The book can be purchased by visiting

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