Plumbing the Depths: Marxism and the Holocaust
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The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.2 (2001) 385-414



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Plumbing the Depths: Marxism and the Holocaust

Alex Callinicos


Nothing challenges Marxism more directly than the Holocaust. 1 As at once heir and critic of the Enlightenment, Marx sought to expose the social limits of its aspiration to universal emancipation through the power of reason by tracing the material roots of its ideals to what he called the "hidden abode" of production. At the same time, he radicalized these ideals into the ethical and political drive to rid the world of all forms of exploitation and oppression--what as a young man he proclaimed to be "the categorical imperative to overthrow all conditions in which man is a debased, enslaved, neglected and contemptible being." 2 The Holocaust is--for good reasons I need not rehearse here--generally held to be the most extreme case of human evil. All the different kinds of domination fused together in Auschwitz--racism, directed at Jews, Slavs, and Roma; the economic exploitation of slave labour; the oppression of gays and women; the persecution of dissenting minorities such as Communists and Jehovah's Witnesses. No human phenomenon can put a stronger demand on the explanatory powers of Marxism. Indeed, it might be reasonable to doubt whether any social theory can throw light into the darkness of Auschwitz.

Explanation and Silence

Some of course think that it is wrong even to try. For the Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust "negates all answers," "lies outside, if not beyond, history," "defies both knowledge and description," is "never to be comprehended or transmitted." 3 Similarly any attempt to compare the Holocaust with other atrocities is denounced. Thus, according to Deborah Lipstadt, casting doubt on the uniqueness of the Holocaust is "far more insidious than outright denial. It nurtures and is nurtured by Holocaust-denial." 4

This attitude seems to me profoundly mistaken. It should be obvious that any serious attempt to demonstrate the uniqueness of the Holocaust can only proceed by, if only implicitly, drawing comparisons between the Nazi genocide and other cases of mass murder. 5 Often the refusal to compare conceals less a religious respect for the victims than more mundane ideological and political motives. Thus in 1982 the Israeli government persuaded Wiesel and other prominent [End Page 385] American Jews to withdraw from a major international academic conference in Tel Aviv because a session on the Armenian genocide of 1915 would embarrass that good ally of Israel and the United States, the Turkish state. 6

More fundamentally, the point of Holocaust commemoration is surely not only to acknowledge the suffering of the victims but also to help sustain a political consciousness that is on guard against any signs of the repetition of Nazi crimes. But any informed judgement of the probability of such a repetition depends on an understanding of the forces that produced it in the first place. The slogan of the Anti-Nazi League--"NEVER AGAIN!"--is meaningless unless we have some idea of the nature of what we want to stop happening again. W.G. Runciman has drawn a useful distinction between the explanation and the description of a social event. The first seeks to identify the causal mechanism(s) responsible for that event; the second, by contrast, seeks "to understand . . . what it was like for the agent to do" the actions in question--to reconstruct the experiences of the participants. 7 Describing the Holocaust in this sense--showing what it was like to be a victim, or indeed a perpetrator or a bystander--is perhaps best left to autobiography of different kinds and to art (though there is, of course, a major debate over the ways in which it is appropriate to represent it). 8

That social theory can help to explain how Auschwitz was possible is shown by a few distinguished works, perhaps most notably Zygmunt Bauman's Modernity and the Holocaust. But it must be said that the direct contribution that Marxism has made to this body of work is very limited. On the whole the...