Enzo Traverso, Understanding the Nazi Genocide: Marxism After Auschwitz, Pluto/International Institute of Research and Education, London, 1999, pp152
ENZO Traverso is an Italian Jew who has been teaching for some years in French universities, and has written several books on Jewish history and the Holocaust from a Marxist perspective, including The Marxists and the Jewish Question: The History of a Debate (Atlantic Highlands, 1994; reviewed in Revolutionary History, Volume 6, no 2/3, pp269-73). Politically, he is aligned with the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, and one assumes that the appearance of this new work under the imprimatur of the USFI’s International Institute of Research and Education means that his views on these matters meet with the broad agreement of the USFI.
This latest work is not a monograph, but a selection of essays on related themes, all six of which have already been published in a variety of journals or collections between 1993 and 1998, but only one of which, ‘The Blindness of the Intellectuals’, a discussion of Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, has previously been translated into English. Despite the varied provenance of the chapters, the newly-written ‘Introduction’ and ‘Conclusion’ manage to pull most of the threads together in a fairly convincing way, although I am not persuaded that the chapter on what is now one of Sartre’s more neglected works (published in 1946) will have anything like the same appeal to political activists (or indeed readers with a general interest in the twentieth century) as the two general essays on the significance of the Holocaust, or the more specific essays on Ernest Mandel’s changing views of the Holocaust, on the Warsaw Ghetto and on the Goldhagen affair.
Traverso argues that Marxists have tended to neglect detailed discussion and analysis of the Holocaust, or, as he prefers to label it, ‘Auschwitz’, using the largest and most infamous of the death camps as a symbol of the genocide as a whole. Although Traverso’s objection to the use of the term ‘Holocaust’ because of its theological implication, of a human sacrifice bringing purification through fire, seems in principle to be well-founded, in practice its everyday use is so widespread and so devoid of religious subtexts that it strikes me as preferable to ‘Shoah’, which Traverso uses more frequently, since the latter word’s Hebrew meaning — ‘destruction’ — is more straightforward and materialist, its regular employment by Zionist polemicists has unfortunately given it a political implication that transcends its literal meaning.
Whilst in no way denying the links between capitalism and Fascism, and between European Fascism (and not just European Fascism) and the Holocaust, Traverso argues that ‘the Jewish genocide cannot be understood in depth as a function of the class interest of big German capital’ (p60). Traverso believes that whilst Mandel’s later works, written in 1985-95, dealing with the Second World War, the Holocaust and the Historikerstreit were much more nuanced than his youthful ‘Postface’ on 1946 to Abram Leon’s The Jewish Question, even he remained imprisoned within too economistic a conception of the Final Solution. Traverso’s discussion of the Goldhagen controversy, whilst showing no mercy towards Goldhagen’s ‘extensive intentionalism’ or his minimisation of gas chambers as distinct from the mobile killing squads, shows an awareness of the weaknesses of Finkelstein’s position that some Marxist commentators with a less detailed knowledge of Holocaust scholarship have lacked. Traverso adopts a very balanced approach to the debate about the uniqueness of the Holocaust, suggesting that in certain respects it is unique, but that this does not give it some sort of sacred or mystical character that rules out any comparison with other genocides or massacres.
More generally, Traverso argues that a Marxism that takes full account of Auschwitz cannot maintain a linear positivist conception of progress of the type he ascribes to both the Second and the Third Internationals. He maintains that the barbarism that characterised the twentieth century cannot be adequately explained in terms of regressions or archaic survivals, but must be linked to the essential nature of industrial society under late capitalism. Therefore, he suggests that the Trotskyist tradition must adopt some of the insights of Water Benjamin, and that, despite its detachment from the workers’ movement, the work of the Frankfurt School has enhanced our understanding of the current epoch. Whilst this strikes me as a perfectly legitimate, albeit controversial, position reminiscent of some Red-Green thinkers, I am sure that I will not be alone in finding the constant and largely uncritical references to the work of Hannah Arendt, who appears in the index more frequently than Marx, Trotsky, Mandel or Benjamin, to be somewhat offensive. Those who lay some claim to the legacy of the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising need to keep some distance from a thinker who, whatever insights she might have had on particular issues, will go down in history as the long-time lover of the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger and the originator of a theory of totalitarianism that served the purposes of American imperialism during the Cold War.