Marxism and the Holocaust

Dachau gates: Work will make you free

In this essay, I want to make, and elaborate on, three claims. First, that the Holocaust is a transformational event,(1) a qualitative break in the historical trajectory of capitalist civilisation; indeed, a break so great that, as Enzo Traverso has argued, the Nazi genocide `requires us to rethink the twentieth century and the very foundations of our civilisation.'(2) Second, that as a qualitative break in the trajectory of capitalism, the Holocaust poses a fundamental challenge to Marxist theory, such that, for Alex Callinicos, `[n]o human phenomenon can put a stronger demand on the explanatory powers of Marxism.' (3) However, it seems to me, that orthodox Marxism, at any rate, has been inadequate to that challenge, has failed to provide us with a coherent or persuasive explanation of the `Final Solution.' Third, no explanation of the Holocaust, of its origins or unfolding, that does not link it to the immanent tendencies of decadent capitalism, capitalism in its phase of social retrogression, one salient characteristic of which is the transformation of war into race war, can provide us with a purchase on what Traverso has termed this tear in the very fabric of history (L'Histoire déchirée).(4) In my view, it is necessary to forge a direct link between the Nazi genocide and the unfolding of the operation of the law of value; to recognize, with the German dramatist, cultural critic, and Marxist, Heiner Müller, that `Auschwitz is the altar of capitalism.' (5)

The Holocaust as a Break in History

The origins of the Holocaust must be sought in the unprecedented and ever-increasing violence that has accompanied the unfolding of capitalism from its phase of the primitive accumulation of capital and the brutal expropriation of the immediate producers from their means of production through the bloody colonial wars and orgies of mass murder that characterized the global expansion of capitalism, and that culminated in the mechanized slaughter of masses of conscript soldiers on the battlefields of the first world war. Within that bloodstained history, Auschwitz, understood as a symbol for organised and planned mass murder, marked the creation of a death-world in which the extermination of determinate groups of human beings had become the deliberate and systematic objective of the state. Thus, for Traverso, `[t]he “final solution” appears to us today, at one and the same time, as the culminating point in an uninterrupted sequence of violence, injustice, and murder that has characterized Western development and as an unprecedented break in historical continuity. In other words, it is only by setting Auschwitz in a larger context of racist crimes and violence that its uniqueness may be perceived and analyzed.' (6)

For Traverso, that uniqueness lies not in the numbers of those slaughtered, but rather in the fact that `for the first time in history an attempt was made to eliminate a human group for reasons of “racist biology.”' (7) What is at stake in the Holocaust is not simply race hatred, which has characterized capitalism since its very inception, but rather the project -- integrally linked to the development of science and technology brought about by capitalism -- to quite literally subordinate the biological realm itself to the logic of capitalist domination and control. The death-world, inaugurated by Auschwitz, had as its goal nothing less than a `biological reconfiguration of humanity' [remodelage biologique de l'humanité], devoid of any instrumental nature, conceived not as a means but as an end in itself.' (8) One aspect of that control of the biological realm lay in the ability to remove -- through planned extermination -- those segments or groups within the human species deemed superfluous, worthless, or dangerous. For the Nazis, the Jews were such a group, a bacillus that had to be extirpated, virtually as a matter of public hygiene, though mass murder was never conceived as being limited to them. This biologisation and racialisation of alterity, and its physical elimination through state organised politico-military means has become the veritable hallmark of the death-world.

And that death-world constitutes what the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch termed a novum in human history. In his open system, Bloch's category of the novum designates what is radically new in history. (9) It is intended to preclude any conception of a closed or completed world; any teleological vision of history, such as haunts orthodox Marxism. While in Bloch's philosophy of hope the category of the novum generally refers to the good novum of revolution or communism, as the Blochian alternative of Alles oder Nichts (the ontological compliment to Luxemburg's prescient vision of “socialism or barbarism”) indicates, there is also the possibility of a bad novum. The Holocaust and the death-world that it inaugurated constitute just such a novum. (10)

In the Holocaust the extermination of the racial Other proceeded along dual, though complementary, tracks, revealing two facets of the genocide perpetrated by the Nazi regime. One facet of the Nazi genocide, which has dominated the historiography of the Holocaust, is the rational, bureaucratically administered, industrial production of corpses, carried out in vast factories of death utilizing poison gas, such as Auschwitz, Sobibor, or Treblinka. As Enzo Traverso has explained:

There, the organisation of genocide was the responsibility of desk killers like Adolf Eichmann who could zealously administer a complex system of mass murder while outwardly displaying no particular hatred for his countless victims, no great ideological passion for his project, and no apparent sense that those whom he sent to the gas chambers were human beings and not things. An Adolf Eichmann, or a Rudolf Höss, the commandant at Auschwitz, is the high-level functionary in a vast bureaucratic organisation who does his killing from behind a desk, from which he rationally plans, organises, and administers, mass murder, treating it simply as a technical task, no different than the problem of transporting scrap metal or disposing of industrial waste. The desk killer is the quintessential bureaucrat, but functioning according to the imperatives of the death-world. As a human type, the desk killer is one more embodiment of the triumph of instrumental reason that shapes capitalism. Millions of human beings were murdered in the factory-like setting of the death camps, and it is the image of those camps, symbolised by the smokestacks of Auschwitz, that has come to define the singularity of the Holocaust.

Recently, however, Holocaust historiography has begun to pay attention to another facet of the Holocaust, to those other millions of human beings murdered by the Einsatzgruppen, the Order Police, the Wehrmacht, by the local auxiliaries of the Germans in occupied Eastern Europe, or by ordinary citizens of those occupied lands who slaughtered their Jewish or `Bolshevik' neighbors. Those killings -- face to face, by shooting at close range or burning or beating their victims to death -- were anything but cold, rational, bureaucratic, and without passion. They were marked by an orgiastic bloodletting, by a hot rage and hysteria, by what in German can only be termed Rausch, an intoxication and explosion of repressed emotional content. On the surface such killing seems to have more in common with the pogroms that periodically exploded in the villages and cities of pre-capitalist or early capitalist Europe than with the organised violence of a modern, technologically advanced, industrial state. However, these orgies of frenzied killing were not pogroms, spontaneous outbursts which have traditionally quickly run their course, no matter how violent they are, but rather an integral part of the systematic mass murder organised by a modern capitalist state. The shootings of more than thirty thousand Jews at the Babi Yar ravine in September 1941, no less than the murder of ten thousand people that Rudolf Höss claimed he had gassed in a single day at Auschwitz, proceeded from the same social conditions; different facets of the same project of mass murder, generated, as I will try to show, by the same capitalist civilisation.

It seems to me, that a Marxist theory of the Holocaust must account not just for the industrialisation and bureaucratisation of mass murder, and for the primordial role of the desk killer, but also for the Rausch, the unleashing of the orgiastic lust for blood exemplified by the Einsatzgruppen and their East European accomplices. Such a claim has nothing to do with the interpretation of the Holocaust as the violent and inevitable outcome of centuries of anti-Semitism peculiar to Germany, articulated by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. (12) While Goldhagen correctly points to the role of Rausch in the mass murder of the Jews, his inability to recognize the enormous abyss between the Holocaust and the violent manifestations of anti-Semitism that have characterized the whole history of the West, his failure to link the Holocaust to the trajectory of capitalism, and his insistence that its bases are to be found exclusively in a purported German Sonderweg, vitiate that insight.

The Failure of Orthodox Marxism to Comprehend the Holocaust

Thinkers working within the framework of orthodox Marxism have failed to grasp the singularity of the Holocaust. For the most part, orthodox Marxism has treated the Nazi genocide as a byproduct of fascism, itself conceived as a screen for the rule of the most reactionary and imperialistic factions of monopoly capital or as a means for big business to mobilize the petty-bourgeoisie behind it in its effort to crush the working class. The categorial arsenal deployed by orthodox Marxism is itself a formidable obstacle to any comprehension of the Holocaust. Orthodox Marxism's base/superstructure model of social reality, in which ideology is just an epiphenomenon determined by the economic base, its pronounced tendency to a kind of economic reductionism, a vision of history that equates `progress' with scientific and technological development; a failure to theorize the role of the irrational in human history, a disregard for the role of contingency in the social realm, and a tendency to see the Nazi genocide not as a novum in human history, linked to the immanent tendencies of decadent capitalism, but rather as an atavistic regression to an earlier stage of human development, all frustrate the efforts of orthodox Marxists to adequately confront the Holocaust. Thus, Ernest Mandel has argued that the actions of German imperialism in Eastern Europe were rooted in the same imperatives that motivated the crimes of colonialism/imperialism at the time of the African slave trade and the Spanish conquest of the Americas (`But it was precisely German imperialism's “manifest destiny” to colonise Eastern Europe'). (13) In addition, Mandel has sought to demonstrate the at least partial economic rationality of the use of slave labour in the concentration camps (`the costs of such labour can be reduced to almost nothing, a miserable pittance which rapidly reduces the labourer’s weight and health till he dies from starvation and deprivation'). (14) Both claims, in my view, attest to the inability of orthodox Marxism to grasp the singularity and the break in history represented by the Holocaust.

This failure of orthodox Marxism has been clearly grasped by Enzo Traverso, for whom `Auschwitz has shown once and for all that economic and industrial progress is not incompatible with human and social retrogression,' (15) and according to whom the racism of the Nazis cannot be reduced to a screen behind which the real economic interests of big capital hid. For Traverso, `[a]n element that strikes and disconcerts historians studying the Jewish genocide is its essentially antieconomic nature. Where was the economic rationality of a regime which, to kill six million men, women, old people, and children, created in wartime conditions, an administrative system, transport network, and extermination camps, employing human and material resources which would certainly have been put to better use in industry and on the increasingly depleted war fronts.' (16) Indeed, for Traverso, `[t]he Jewish genocide cannot be understood in depth as a function of the class interests of big German capital ....' (17) Alex Callinicos has also challenged the orthodox Marxist interpretation of the Holocaust: `[t]he primacy of Nazi ideology in the development of the Holocaust is critical to understanding that, even if economic pressures -- for example, food shortages in the occupied USSR -- may have helped motivate particular murder campaigns, the extermination of the Jews cannot be explained in economic terms.' (18), For Callinicos, biological racism is the key to the Nazi genocide, thereby providing a more sophisticated account of the orthodox Marxist relationship between economic base and ideological superstructure, and the task of Marxism is to explain `why this ideology assumed such centrality in National Socialism.' (19)

While Traverso and Callinicos reject orthodox Marxism's economic reductionism and its focus on the direct class interests of big capital as the basis for explaining the Holocaust, they remain committed to understanding the Nazi genocide as an expression of the immanent tendencies of capitalism. Norman Geras, by contrast, while also rejecting the orthodox Marxist interpretation of the Holocaust, has completely severed the link between the Nazi genocide and capitalism. In his attempt to grasp the Holocaust, Geras breaks with the orthodox Marxist vision articulated by Ernest Mandel in 1946, and subsequently only somewhat modified by him, according to which, as Geras explicates it, `the destruction of the Jews of Europe is rationally explicable as the product of imperialist capitalism, and as such is manifestly comparable to the other barbarisms which this socio-economic formation throws up.' (20) In challenging such a vision, however, Geras does not seek to explain the Holocaust by reference to the specific trajectory of late capitalism and its immanent tendencies, but rather to `something that is not about capitalism' (21) at all, something ensconced in what he terms `the subsoil ... of the human psyche,' (22) in a transhistorical human nature itself. Thus Geras is convinced that the radical evil instantiated in the Holocaust is an ineradicable potential embedded in an essentialised human nature; a free floating danger that has haunted, and will haunt humanity, quite apart from the historically determinate social relations it constructs or civilisations it establishes. Thus, for Geras, the Holocaust tells us virtually nothing about the specific lethal potential of late capitalism, but a great deal about the capacity of an a-historical human being for murderous violence.

The Categorial Bases for a Marxist Theory of the Holocaust

A Marxist theory of the Holocaust, I believe, requires a different categorial basis than that provided by orthodox Marxism; by the Marxism of the Second, Third, and Fourth Internationals, as well as by significant elements of the communist left. (23)

A Marxist dialectic comprehends the world as open, incomplete, unfinished, an experimentum mundi (24) , in contrast to the vision that prevails in so many orthodox Marxist conceptions of history in which human beings are subject to objective `laws of history,' to their implacable logic, and to a naturalistic causality. Thus, Ernst Bloch distinguishes between cause [Ursache] and condition [Bedingung], with causes, in this sense, understood as resting on the principle of ground, and implying necessity, while conditions `are the presuppositions of a possible realisation, that will not be brought about without the intervention of the subject.' (25) Conditions, therefore, are linked to what for Bloch is the primordial category of `objective-real possibility:' a possibility the conditions for which are developing within social reality; which exist in a state of what Bloch terms `tendency-latency.' The Blochian concepts of ‘condition’ and ‘tendency-latency’ provide an alternative to the mechanistic materialism, economic reductionism, and historical teleology, that has shaped so much of the Marxist discourse, and that has constituted a formidable obstacle to an understanding of the actual historical trajectory of capitalism. An understanding of that trajectory, including the tendency to race war in its decadent phase, requires liberating the Marxian categories from their imprisonment in the kind of metaphysical straight-jacket that led Marx himself to shout: “Je ne suis pas marxiste.” What Bloch seeks, however, is a new concept of causality [kausalität] that is shorn of the unilinear character of mechanical causality, a dialectical causality, in which the possibilty of discontinuity, `dialectical interruptions' [das dialektisch Unterbrechende] is always present. (26) While such a concept of causality makes it possible to envisage a revolutionary interruption of the trajectory of capital, it also permits us to grasp the transformations internal to capital as it responds to class struggle and to its immanent crisis tendencies. It is on the basis of such a dialectical concept of causality, in which contingency also plays a central role, that it is possible to understand the Holocaust.

Such an understanding also entails, in my view, the rejection of the base/superstructure model of social reality, and its pronounced tendency to economic determinism, that has characterized orthodox Marxism. In its place, what is needed is the concept of overdetermination, first adumbrated by Louis Althusser, and then developed by the Marxists of the Amherst School. Thus, for Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff:

Overdetermination does not mean that all social factors have equal weight. Indeed the complex “fitting together” of the various elements of the social totality, their specific “relational structure,” is different for each mode of production, each social formation. But overdetermination is a means of acknowledging the complexity of that relational structure, a means of avoiding the economic determinism that has plagued orthodox Marxism.

The concept of overdetermination thus permits us to appreciate how biological racism could play such a central role in the unleashing and unfolding of the Nazi genocide, even when the continuation of the Final Solution had become an impediment to the German war economy and to the actual military operations of the Wehrmacht.

The appearance of the desk killer, of the functionaries of the death camps, and also of the troops and mobs who slaughtered Jews or `Bolsheviks' in a state of Rausch, of rage and fury, and indeed of the countless bystanders whose silence or inaction were necessary for the Final Solution to be implemented, are all indicative of the need to confront the issue of philosophical anthropology, of a doctrine of an a-historical human nature, in Marxism. In contrast to such a vision, defended, for example, by Norman Geras, I believe that the modes of human subjectifiction are themselves historically variable; that the human subject has no `essence,' but is socially `constructed, ' the `product' of the social relations, the interaction of the complex causal chains and overdetermined contradictions, that shape a determinant social formation. Subjectification here means both the way that the human being is historically `constructed' as a subject, and the modes by which the human being is historically subjected to the prevailing social relations. This latter, as Antonio Gramsci pointed out, can take the form of coercion or hegemony. Hegemony is the way in which a dominant class instantiates its rule over society through the intermediary of ideology. For Gramsci, ideology is not mere false consciousness, but rather is the form in which humans become conscious; become subjects. The desk killer, the mass murderer in a state of Rausch, the bystander, as I hope to show, are all modes of subjectification produced by decadent capitalism, and its ideologies.

The Holocaust as a Refutation of the Equation between Technological Development and Human Progress

A number of thinkers on the margins of Marxism -- Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Günther Anders -- have challenged the orthodox Marxist equation of industrial, scientific, and technological development and the progress of the human species. (28) This equation represents the productivist element in Marxism, which celebrates unlimited industrial growth and technological development, conceives of capitalism as historically progressive so long as it assures such development, and insists that the same science, technology, and industrial labour, that propelled the global expansion of capitalism will serve as the basis of socialism. Even before the Nazi genocide, Walter Benjamin, in his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History,’ had grasped the danger inherent in the orthodox Marxist commitment to technological progress, and its concomitant fetishisation of industrial labour, as the standard by which to measure human development: ` [t]his vulgar-Marxist conception of the nature of labor bypasses the question of how its products might benefit the workers while still not being at their disposal. It recognizes only the progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society; it already displays the technocratic features later encountered in Fascism.' (29) Benjamin's recognition of the catastrophic side of capitalist progress, his anticipation of the death-world to come, was seconded by his friend, Ernst Bloch, who preferred `a dash of pessimism' to `the banal, automatic belief in progress as such,' because it would help avoid being surprised by catastrophes, `by the horrifying possibilities which have been concealed and will continue to be concealed precisely in capitalist progress.' (30 Surely, the Holocaust was one of those `horrifying possibilities,' as Herbert Marcuse clearly recognized: `[c]oncentration camps, mass extermination, world wars and atom bombs are no “relapse into barbarism,” but the unrepressed implementation of the achievements of modern science, technology, and domination.' (31)

I want now to briefly examine this catastrophic side of industrial, technological, and scientific progress, as it has been theorised by Adorno, Marcuse, and Anders, and to show its links to the death-world symbolised by Auschwitz. In his essay on `Society' (1965), Adorno pointed to the `totalitarian tendencies of the social order' inherent in the spread of the commodity-form to all aspects of social reality. (32) For Adorno, totalitarianism is not just a political system, but the culminating point of the subjugation of the totality of social existence to the imperatives of the commodity form. The autonomy of the various spheres of life, that still characterized early capitalism, is destroyed as the category of exchange value invades all realms of existence, even the aesthetic, the erotic, and the psychological. Thus, as Adorno claimed in his essay on `Late Capitalism Or Industrial Society?' (1968): `Material production, distribution, and consumption are jointly administered. Their boundaries -- which once really separated the distinct spheres, in spite of their mutual dependence within the total process, and thereby respected their qualitative differences -- dissolve. All becomes one.[Alles ist Eins]' (33) While Adorno's vision of the totalitarianism of late capitalism seemingly leaves no space for opposition or resistance, and thereby leaves Marxism no basis for the revolutionary optimism or hope which is its hallmark, he nonetheless has grasped an important dimension of its historical trajectory. This vision of the totalitarian tendencies of late capitalism also shapes the work of Adorno's friend Herbert Marcuse, who, in his One-Dimensional Man, argued that science, technology, and rationality, all possessed a definite, capitalist, social content:

This science, technology, and rationality, historically generated by capitalism, and inextricably linked to its social relations, and immanent tendencies, what Marcuse designates as `the Logos of technics' has, in late capitalism `been made into the Logos of continued servitude.' (35) And this same Logos of technics constituted one of the pre-conditions for the unfolding of the project of industrialised mass murder in the Nazi death camps.

Günther Anders illuminates several of the other causal chains, whose interaction provided the necessary conditions for `the transformation of humans into raw material [Rohstoff]' for the factories of death. (36) For Anders, the very technology generated by human beings, and brought to perfection within the framework of capitalism, risks rendering its creators -- humankind -- superfluous, obsolescent; this is the claim of Anders' two volume magnum opus, the Obsolescence of Man [Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen]. Not only have man's own creations, technologies and their accompanying social relations, assumed a life of their own, become things which seem to escape human control, the phenomenon of reification, first adumbrated by Georg Lukács in his History and Class Consciousness, but -- according to Anders -- they now threaten the very annihilation of the human species itself. Thus:

Indeed, for Anders, this tendency inexorably leads to an outcome in which technology becomes the subject of history. One feature of this impending `obsolescence of man' as a result of his own technological prowess, according to Anders, is the new mode of human existence that it has wrought: being a means, `mediality' [Medialität]. (38) This mode of existence is characterised by an extreme conformism, in which the human being executes his/her assigned tasks without question. This behavior, so typical of a business office or state agency, reappears in Auschwitz, where `the employee [Angestellte] of the death camp has not `acted' [gehandelt], but, as strange as it seems, done a job.(39> Action entails decision, thought, and conscience; doing a job, performing an assigned task, means asking no questions, especially about purpose or goal, demanding no reasons for the prescribed task, other than the order to do it. It is capitalism that generates this `medial' existence, a mode of subjectivation integrally linked to an economy based on the law of value, and necessary for the appearance of the desk killer, that essential functionary of the death-world.

These meditations on the totalitarian tendencies of late capitalism, on the integral links between science and domination, technology and annihilation, and the medial existence of contemporary humans, raise two important problems for the kind of Marxist theory that is adequate to the task of understanding the Holocaust. First, there is the possibility that Adorno and Anders, however prescient their analyses of certain determinate tendencies of capitalist social development may be, risk propounding a sort of negative teleology, in which the meaning or goal of history lies in totalitarianism or in nihilistic destruction. For example, such a negative teleology seems inherent in Anders' vision of technology as the subject of history, culminating in an `Endzeit' in which `humanity as a whole is eliminatable [tötbar].' (40 Such a vision appears to leave no room for a revolutionary alternative to capitalism; for the overthrow of a system based on the commodity form and the law of value. Second, these meditations need to be connected to Marx's own vast manuscripts of 1857-63, from which only volume one of Capital was published in his lifetime, and from which Engels then crafted volumes two and three. The bulk of these manuscripts, including Marx's reflections on technology and automation, and his analysis of the transition from the formal to the real subsumption of labour under capital, have only recently become widely known, and did not directly shape the theoretical work of Adorno or Anders, and their analyses of late capitalism and its immanent tendencies. Indeed, I believe that the link between late capitalism and the death-world, requires a clear understanding of both the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital, and of the sharpening of the contradiction between value and `real wealth,' also adumbrated in Marx's economic manuscripts -- developments that have transfigured the history of the twentieth century, and to which the Holocaust is linked.

From the formal to the real domination of capital

Marx links the formal subsumption of labour under capital to the extraction of absolute surplus-value, whereas the real subsumption of labour under capital is linked to the extraction of relative surplus-value. This transition accompanies the whole history of capitalism, and while the extraction of absolute surplus-value never ceases, an ever-greater reliance on the extraction of relative surplus-value asserts itself, and becomes increasingly dominant in the course of the twentieth century. With the formal domination of capital, the commodity form and the law of value remain largely confined to the immediate point of production: the factory and the direct extraction of surplus-value. The real domination of capital, by contrast, is characterized by the penetration of the law of value into every segment of social existence. Thus, from its original locus at the point of production, the law of value has systematically spread its tentacles to incorporate not just the production of commodities, but their circulation and consumption too. Moreover, the law of value also penetrates and then comes to preside over the spheres of the political and ideological, including -- besides the modes of subjectivation of human beings -- science and technology themselves. This latter occurs not just through the transformation of technological and scientific research (and the institutions in which it takes place) into commodities, but especially through the infiltration of the value form into reason itself (the triumph of a purely instrumental reason), and the reduction of all beings, nature and humans, to mere objects of manipulation and control. While the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital begins in the industrial metropoles in the nineteenth-century, its triumph, consolidation, and global spread, is a twentieth-century phenomenon.

While the transition from the formal to the real subsumption of labour under capital entails an increasing reliance on the fruits of science and technology to raise the productivity of labour, and thereby extract relative surplus-value, no matter how many changes occur in the forms and techniques of production, according to Marx, capitalism remains a mode of production whose `presupposition is -- and remains -- the mass of direct labour time, the quantity of labour employed, as the determinant factor in the production of wealth.' (41) However, the historical trajectory of capitalism produces a growing contradiction between its unsurpassable basis in the expenditure of living labour to produce exchange value, on the one hand, and the actual results of its own developmental tendencies on the other: `But to the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose “powerful effectiveness” is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production.' (42) This disjunction between exchange value and ‘real wealth,’ the former dependent on the direct expenditure of living labour, and the latter increasingly dependent on the overall productive power of society, and its cultural and technological development, creates the pre-conditions for the supersession of value production and the commodity form. In Marx's words: `[a]s soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth ....' (43)

Therefore, when the perpetuation of value production, with its insurmountable basis in the extraction of surplus-value from living labour, has become an obstacle to the continued production of material wealth, capitalism as a mode of production and civilisation becomes the site of social retrogression. At that point in its historical trajectory, only a social revolution, the abolition of the law of value, and a qualitatively different science and technology, one no longer bound to instrumental reason, quantification, and the logos of domination, can prevent the catastrophes that the perpetuation of value production will entail. In the absence of such a social revolution, the continued existence of capitalism, bound as it is to the extraction of surplus-value from living labour, and yet confronted by the tendential fall in the rate of profit, by the fact that the rate of growth of surplus-value tends to fall even as the level of surplus labour rises, compels it to accelerate the development of the productive forces and technology at an ever-more frenzied rate and tempo. Marx clearly grasped this imperative:

However, this very contradiction increases the pressure on every capital entity, on every business, to expand the forces of production, develop and implement new technologies, increase its productivity, in a desperate attempt to escape the downward course in the average rate of profit, and to obtain a surplus-profit by producing commodities below their socially average value. Therefore, the faster the rate of profit falls, as a result of the rising organic composition of capital, i.e., the growth of the productive forces, the greater the pressure on each capital entity -- nation or firm -- to accelerate the development of those self-same productive forces in the endless quest to get a jump on its competitors, and to grab a surplus-profit. One result of this frenetic growth of the productive forces in an epoch of social retrogression is the inevitable creation of a surplus population for which capital can find no profitable use. (45)

Surplus Population and Mass Murder

While each stage of capitalist development entails demographic displacements, what typically occurs is a shift of labour-power from one sector to another, from agriculture, to industry, to tertiary sectors. While such shifts continue to occur as the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital takes place, a new and unprecedented development also makes its appearance when capitalism, as Marx shows, `calls to life all the powers of science and nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it.' (46) The result is the tendential ejection of ever-larger masses of labour from the productive process; the creation of a population that from the point of view of capital is superfluous, no longer even potentially necessary to the creation of value, and indeed having become an insuperable burden for capital, a dead weight that it must bear, even at the expense of its profitability. The existence of such a surplus population -- at the level of the total capital of a national entity – can create the conditions for mass murder, inserting the extermination of whole groups of people into the very `logic' of capital, and through the complex interaction of multiple causal chains emerge as the policy of a capitalist state.

In the specific case of Nazi Germany, Götz Aly and Susanne Heim have argued that the extermination of the Jews was the first stage of a far-reaching demographic project in the service of economic modernisation. Germany's attempt to confront Anglo-American domination of the world market entailed the creation of a vast economic space (Grossraumwirtschaft), continental autarky for Europe, under German hegemony. But such a project was not simply based on geographical expansion; it also necessitated vast demographic changes, especially in Eastern Europe. There, the German planners, demographers, and economists, whose projects Aly and Heim have investigated, confronted a problem of economic backwardness linked to overpopulation. (47) A vast agricultural population, with small landholdings and extremely low productivity, was a formidable obstacle both to German hopes for autarky in food production for the European continent, and for industrial development, economic modernisation, in the East, so as to make the German economic space competitive with Anglo-American capital. The Jews in Eastern Europe, both as a largely urban population, and as the owners of small, unproductive, businesses, constituted a particular obstacle to the migration of Slavs from the overpopulated countryside to the cities, such that their elimination was seen as a pre-requisite for economic development. Moreover, for these planners, such processes of economic transformation could not be left to `market forces,' which in England, the US, and in Western Europe, had taken generations, but, given the exigencies of imperialist competition and war, had to be undertaken by the state on the quick. The Generalplan Ost, within which the extermination of the Jews was the first stage, envisaged the elimination, by `resettlement' (beyond the Urals), death by starvation and slave labour, or mass murder, of a surplus population of perhaps fifty million human beings. (48)

While emphasising the economic `utilitarianism' and rationality of this project of mass murder, and ignoring the sadism and brutality of so much of the killing, Aly and Heim have nonetheless attempted to incorporate the role of biological racism into their analysis of the Holocaust: `[s]election according to racist criteria was not inconsistent with economic calculations; instead it was an integral element. Just as contemporary anthropologists, physicians and biologists considered ostracizing and exterminating supposedly “inferior” people according to racist and achievement-related criteria to be a scientific method of improving humanity and “improving the health of the body of the Volk,” economists, agrarian experts, and environmental planners believed they had to work on “improving the health of the social structure” in the underdeveloped regions of Europe.' (49) What seems to me to be missing in the work of Aly and Heim, is the link between racism and science constituted by their common source in a logos of technics based on the absolute control of nature and humans, right down to the most elementary biological level of existence. And that logos, as I have argued, is the product of the spread of the capitalist law of value into the sphere of reason itself; the transformation of reason, which once included critical reason, into a purely instrumental reason, means-end rationality, the veritable basis of modern science and technology. However, Aly and Heims' research, particularly if it is linked to the operation of the capitalist law of value, and treats the demographic problems that German planners confronted in Eastern Europe as a manifestation of the specific tendency of decadent capitalism to create a surplus population, the extermination of which can become an imperative, can help us to grasp one of the causal chains that led to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Massification and the Nazi genocide

If we are to understand the role played by fanatical anti-Semitism, and by the orgiastic character of so much of the killing, in the Final Solution, then, it seems to me, we must also grasp another causal chain linked to the immanent tendencies of late capitalism: that unleashed by the phenomenon of massification.

One of the most dramatic effects of the inexorable penetration of the law of value into every pore of social and individual existence has been the destruction of all primitive, organic, and pre-capitalist communities. Capitalism, as Marx and Engels pointed out in The Communist Manifesto, shatters the bonds of immemorial custom and tradition, replacing them with its exchange mechanism, and contract. The outcome is the phenomenon of atomization, the subjectivation of the person as an individual monad, animated purely by self-interest. Moreover, that very tendency produces an ever-growing mass of rootless individuals, for whom the only human contact is by way of the cash nexus. But, those who have been uprooted -- geographically, economically, politically, and culturally -- are frequently left with a powerful longing for their lost communities (even where those communities were hierarchically organised and based on inequality), for the certainties and `truths' of the past, which are romanticised the more frustrating, unsatisfying, and insecure, the world shaped by capital has become.

These longings can take the form of the constitution of a mass. In a work written in 1939, Emil Lederer analysed the formation of the mass as one of the dominant features of the epoch. In contrast to a class, this is how he described it:

According to Lederer, ‘usually the crowd will act only if there is a leader.’ (51) And when the mass acts, its members `cease to think: they are moved, they are carried away, they are elated; they feel united with their fellow members in the crowd, released from all inhibitions .... Psychological descriptions of this phenomenon by individuals who have experienced it concur in this respect: they say they were “carried away”; that they only felt; that it is similar to intoxication.' (52)

What is missing in Lederer's account, however, is the connection of the phenomenon of massification to the developmental tendencies of decadent capitalism. Indeed, Lederer explicitly links the formation of the mass to the end of class society; for him, the `state of the masses' arises on the ashes of capitalism, not as one of its possible political forms. I want to refunction Lederer's concept of massification by linking it directly to the trajectory of capitalism, and by showing how this phenomenon is connected to the orgiastic features of the Nazi genocide. It is the very longing for community that sociologically underlies the formation of the mass, a longing that the capitalist state under determinate conditions, such as those prevailing in Germany on the eve of Hitler's seizure of power, could utilize in the interests of a mass mobilisation -- even as those same longings powerfully affected segments of the ruling class itself. In that sense, the Nazi vision of a `racially pure community,' a Volksgemeinschaft, was directly linked to the effects of capitalism's destruction of all genuine communal bonds, and to the void that it left in its wake. The powerful impact of such an ideology, its modes of subjectivation, and its deep roots, escaped the orthodox Marxist opponents of the Nazis, both Stalinist and Trotskyist, though they were clearly understood by Ernst Bloch. (53)

No matter how intense this longing for community may be, it cannot be satisfied so long as the law of value regulates social existence. The organic communities of the pre-capitalist past can be neither preserved nor recreated; their destruction is irreversible. Moreover, no new communities, no human Gemeinwesen, can be created within the historico-economic space occupied by capitalism. The condition of massification, spawned by the very development of capitalism itself, leaves only the prospect of a `community' in which a racial, ethnic, or religious identification is merely superimposed on the existing conditions of wage-labour. Yet, as Lederer points out, this identification is necessary to the constitution of the crowd or the mass out of the multitude of a given population:

The formation of the mass both provides a substitute gratification for the genuine longing for community felt by the multitude of the population, and a basis upon which the ruling class can establish its hegemony.

However, the basis upon which such a mass is constituted, the identity upon which the pure community is established, necessarily entails the exclusion of those who do not share the common historico-cultural bases of the mass. Those excluded, the Other, racial, ethnic, or religious minorities for example, though they inhabit the same territorial space as the mass, become alien elements within the putatively `homogeneous' world of the pure community. The Other, the Jew within the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft, for example, then becomes the scapegoat for the inability of the pure community to provide real communal bonds between people, to eliminate the alienation generated by capitalism. The more crisis ridden a society becomes, the greater the rage of the mass against alterity; the more urgent the need of the ruling class for a mobilisation of the crowd behind its projects (including war), the more imperious the necessity to channel anger onto the Other. Thus racism and xenophobia are inseparable from the constitution of the mass in decadent capitalist society. In an extreme situation, that rage against alterity can become one of the bases for a genocidal project directed at the Other, whose very existence is seen and felt to be a mortal danger to the pure community.

One outcome of that rage against alterity can be seen in the orgiastic bloodletting that characterised so much of the killing during the Holocaust. One example, from the war diary of Felix Landau, a member of one of the Einsatzkommando, active in Lemberg in 1941, can serve as an illustration:

The `cold,' rational, organisation of the factories of death and the transport networks that served them, administered by desk killers like Adolf Eichmann, must be linked to the `hot' rage and uncontrolled lust and aggression witnessed by Landau, in order to have a comprehensive picture of the unfolding of the Nazi genocide. The source of both these facets of the Holocaust, as I have argued, is to be found in the trajectory of late capitalism, and one vital task of Marxist theory is to expose the bases for this modern barbarism.

The Futural dimension of the Holocaust

The Holocaust opened a door into a death-world, and so long as capitalism exists that door will remain open. The horrors of the past few decades, the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda, the concentration camps filled with starving prisoners, the mass rape of Muslim women, and the mass killings by beating and shooting of Muslim men and boys in Bosnia, the ethnic cleansing, first by Serbs and then by Albanians in Kosovo, the Russian army's reduction of Grozny to a pile of rubble, beneath which are buried tens of thousands of Chechen civilians, deliberately killed by the most sophisticated modern weapons, the mass murder in Darfur, the deaths of literally millions in the Congo, all bear witness to the fact that the death-world remains an objective-real possibility on the front of history. Alex Callinicos has argued, that `... 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.' (55) That political consciousness requires a recognition that key causal chains that came together to unleash the Nazi genocide, the logos of domination that shapes science and technology, the tendency to create a vast overpopulation, a multitude that cannot be profitably exploited by capital, the racism, and hatred for alterity, attendant on massification, are integrally linked to the trajectory of decadent capitalism, and decisively shape the contemporary socio-economic landscape. The narrative of the Holocaust cannot be written in the past tense, so long as the world created by the real domination of capital remains intact.

Mac Intosh


Adorno, Theodor 1978 [1951], Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, London: NLB.

Adorno, Theodor W. 1979, Soziologische Schriften I, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Aly, Götz and Susanne Heim 1995, Vordenker der Vernichtung: Auschwitz und die deutschen Pläne für eine neue europäische Ordnung, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag.

Anders, Günther 1961, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen: Über die Seele im Zeitalter der zweiten industriellen Revolution, München: Verlag C.H. Beck.

Anders, Günther 1981 [1972], Die atomare Drohung: Radikale Überlegungen, München: Verlag C.H. Beck.

Anders, Günther 1986, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen. Band II: Über die Zerstörung des lebens im Zeitalter der dritten industriellen Revolution, München: Verlag C.H. Beck.

Benjamin, Walter 1968 [1955], Illuminations, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

Bloch, Ernst 1975, Experimentum Mundi: Frage, Kategorien des Herausbringens, Praxis in Ernst Bloch, Gesamtausgabe Band 15, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Bloch, Ernst 1986 [1959], The Principle of Hope, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Bloch, Ernst 1990 [1962], Heritage of Our Times, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Callinicos, Alex 2001, ‘Plumbing the Depths: Marxism and the Holocaust’, The Yale Journal of Criticism 14, 2: 385-414.

Geras, Norman 1998, The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy after the Holocaust, London and New York: Verso.

Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah 1996, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Heim, Susanne and Götz Aly, 1994, ‘The Holocaust and Population Policy: Remarks on the Decision on the “Final Solution,”’ Yad Vashem Studies XXIV: 45-70.

Klee, Ernst, Willi Dressen and Volker Riess (Editors) 1991 [1988], ‘The Good Old Days’: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders, New York: Konecky & Konecky.

Lederer, Emil 1967 [1940], The State of the Masses: The Threat of the Classless Society, New York: Howard Fertig.

Mandel, Ernest 1986, The Meaning of the Second World War, London: Verso.

Marcuse, Herbert 1964, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, Boston: Beacon Press.

Marcuse, Herbert 1966 [1955], Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, Boston: Beacon Press.

Marx, Karl 1973 [1939], Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Milchman, Alan and Alan Rosenberg 2003, ‘The Need for Philosophy to Confront the Holocaust as a Transformational Event,’ Dialogue and Universalism XIII, No.4.

Müller, Heiner 1991, ‘Jenseits der Nation’, Köln: Rotbuch Verlag.

Resnick, Stephen A. and Richard D. Wolf 1987, Knowledge and Class: A Marxian Critique of Political Economy, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Traverso, Enzo 1995 [1992], The Jews and Germany: From the ‘Judeo-German Symbiosis’ to the Memory of Auschwitz, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Traverso, Enzo 1997, L’Histoire déchirée: Essai sur Auschwitz et les intellectuals, Paris: Les Éditions Du Cerf.

Traverso, Enzo 1999, Understanding the Nazi Genocide: Marxism after Auschwitz, London: Pluto Press.

Traverso, Enzo 2002, La violence nazie, une généalogie européenne, Paris: La Fabrique- editions.


1. The concept of the Holocaust as a transformational event was first articulated by Alan Rosenberg, and subsequently elaborated in a series of essays, most notably Milchman and Rosenberg, 2003.

2. Traverso 1999, p. 4. Traverso is one of those rare Marxist thinkers who has seriously grappled with the implications of the Holocaust for Marxist theory; who -- in a series of books -- has sought to utilize Marxism to understand the Nazi genocide and its singularity.

3. Callinicos 2001, p. 385.

4. This is the title of one of Traverso’s volumes on the Holocaust.

5. Müller 1991, p. 40.

6. Traverso 1995, p. 105.

7. Traverso 1995, p. 105.

8. Traverso 2002, pp. 9-10.

9. See Bloch 1986, pp. 200-05.

10. See Bloch 1975, p. 141.

11. Traverso 1999, p. 15.

12. See Daniel Jonah Goldhagen 1996.

13. Mandel 1986, pp. 90-1. In a work of over 160 pages, Mandel devotes a mere five pages to the Holocaust! Decades before Mandel sought to assimilate the Nazi genocide to the crimes of colonialism, Theodor Adorno pointed to the dangers of such analogies: `[t]he statement that things are always the same is false in its immediateness, and true only when introduced into the dynamics of totality. He who relinquishes awareness of the growth of horror not merely succumbs to cold-hearted contemplation, but fails to perceive, together with the specific difference between the newest and that preceding it, the true identity of the whole, of terror without end.' Adorno 1978, p.235.

14. Mandel 1986, p. 93. Here Mandel links the behavior of the SS to that of ancient Roman latifundists and to early nineteenth-century Southern planters in the US. Beyond the highly questionable nature of such historical analogies, Mandel completely ignores the fundamental distinction between the latifundia and plantations, which were devoted to the production of commodities, and the Nazi death camps, the exclusive function of which was the production of corpses.

15. Traverso 1995, p. 110.

16. Traverso 1995, p. 127, my emphasis. This is indicative of what Traverso terms the `counter-rationality' of the Nazi genocide.

17. Traverso 1999, p. 60.

18. Callinicos 2001, p. 403.

19. Callinicos 2001, p. 404.

20. Geras 1998, pp. 144-45.

21. Geras 1998, p. 164.

22. Geras 1998, p. 157.

23. Space permits only a brief exposition of the Marxist categories adequate to an understanding of the Holocaust.

24. This is the title of Ernst Bloch's last work, a Marxist Kategorienlehre.

25. Bloch 1975, p. 129.

26. Bloch 1975, p. 141.

27. Resnick and Wolff 1987, pp. 49-50.

28. In his L'Histoire déchirée, Traverso has both elucidated the contributions of Benjamin, Adorno, and Anders, and explicitly linked them to an understanding of the Holocaust.

29. Benjamin 1968, p. 261.

31. Marcuse 1966, p. 4. Marcuse's linkage of Auschwitz and Hiroshima has been seconded, and elaborated, in the work of his friend Günther Anders.

32. Adorno 1979, p. 16, my emphasis.

33. Adorno 1979, p. 369.

34. Marcuse 1964, pp. 158-59.

35. Marcuse 1964, p. 159.

36. Anders 1986, p. 22.

37. Anders 1981, p. 199.

38. Anders 1961, p. 287.

39. Anders 1961, p. 291.

40. Anders 1961, p. 243.

41. Marx 1973, p. 704

42. Marx 1973, pp. 704-05, my emphasis.

43. Marx 1973, p. 705.

44. Marx 1973, p. 340.

45. Besides its tendency to create such a surplus population, clearly present in the 1930’s, and even more so today, I might add, capitalism also produces excess constant capital as well. The imperative of the destruction of both variable capital (living labour) and constant capital (factories, machines, etc.) shapes the very course of decadent capitalism, though in an analysis of genocide it is the destruction of human beings that is at issue.

46. Marx 1973, p. 706.

47. Aly and Heim 1993, pp. 102-24.

48. Aly and Heim 1993, pp. 394-440.

49. Heim and Aly 1994, p. 50. In addition to a tendency to a mono-causal analysis of the Holocaust, based on utilitarian factors, only partially modified in this and subsequent texts, Aly and Heim fail to account for the primordial role of anti-Semitism, of fanatical Jew hatred, and of the Rausch, the orgy of bloodletting, in which so much of the killing was carried out.

50. Lederer 1967, pp. 30-1.While, in my view, emotions can and do play a significant role in the constitution of a class, and in the development of class consciousness, it is the absence of reason, especially of critical reason, and the exclusive role of emotions, that Lederer believes characterizes the state of the masses.

51. Lederer 1967, p. 39.

52. Lederer 1967, pp. 32-3.
br> 53. See Bloch 1990, especially pp. 37-185, for an insightful analysis of this phenomenon, first written in the 1930's. While Bloch grasps the significance of this longing for community, and the success of the Nazis in mobilising it for their own purposes, he does not explicitly link it to the process of massification in late capitalism.

54. Lederer 1967, p. 31.

55. Klee 1991, p. 91.

56. Callinicos 2001, p. 386.

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