Le Prolétaire – Again on “Auschwitz or the Great Alibi”: anti-Marxist “Mouvement Communiste”

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“Mouvement Communiste” (M.C.: group resulting from the GCI – Groupe Communiste Internationaliste -, itself a former division of the ICC) propose, in the last issue of their magazine of the same name[1], to “open up reflection” on our text “Auschwitz or the Great Alibi”. If, “in view of the extravagant nature” of the accusation of being one of the theoretical foundations of “negationism”, M.C. say that they considered it “interesting to republish it so that, as Marx wrote, they could ‘make shame more shameful by exposing it to publicity’” (?), they preceded it with a long introduction that aims to refute the fundamental points of the analysis developed in it. In a note to this presentation, “Mouvement Communiste” write: “It is not our intention here to polemicise with Programme Communiste. However, we cannot ignore the fact that the many misconceptions contained in Auschwitz or the Great Alibi are not entirely due to chance, but to ideological sclerosis based on the ‘principled’ refusal to sift through theory with concrete analysis and then practical validation. This positioning has transformed the Bordigist groups – and with them all those who have striven to ‘proclaim’ the existence of the party without the class – into sects[2].

Given this emphasis on concrete analysis, and the theoretical assumptions of M.C., who like to multiply quotations of Marx, Engels, Lenin or Bordiga, one might have expected a solid, fact-based criticism with arguments from a Marxist point of view. But on reflection, the reader quickly notices that he is faced with a simple mirror image of the anti-Marxist attacks unleashed by our text, a reissue barely retouched and sometimes aggravated by the criticism of some Alain Bihr! Although we have already responded to the gist of these types of attacks (see issue no. 440 of this journal), we believe that it is not pointless to return to them for reasons of political clarification, given that M.C. do not carry them in the name of democracy, but in the name of communism. And, by dispelling the confusion that M.C. are trying to spread, we will see that, as with all “concretists” and “anti-sectarians”, their purported communism is thoroughly… moving[3].

M.C. begin by giving an interesting clarification on the meaning of the publication of our text in their columns, while revealing to us in passing what “Programme Communiste” had wanted to do by publishing this article in 1961: “Auschwitz or the Great Alibi, let us recall, constituted only a punctual polemical position, and was not in any way an exhaustive theoretical work about the Second World War and the extermination of Jews [here a note is inserted, where it is said that accusing Auschwitz etc. of negationism of the extermination of the Jews is “crazy” because the text “is precisely intended to be a ‘Marxist’ analysis of this extermination“. Understand who can! – Editor’s note]. Therefore, we defend it only for what it is, without attributing any programmatic character to it” (underlined in the text).

Let’s appreciate the confession: For M.C. therefore, there would be “occasional polemical positions” that would be defensible even though their theoretical and programmatic foundations are erroneous and indefensible. On the contrary, we unrepentant “sectarian” people maintain that total coherence between positions, activity in a word, and theoretical and programmatic principles is the indispensable condition for defining a proper policy, for resisting the pressures and multifaceted suggestions of the opponent. The disconnect between theory and practice, between programme and political position, as well as theoretical and programmatic deviations open the door wide to the influences of enemy political and social forces: they inevitably lead to deviations in political and practical activity. Engels did not say anything else with his famous formula: “at the root of any error in politics, there is an error in theory” (repeated by Trotsky in the following form: “reality does not forgive a single theoretical mistake“). M.C.’s inconsistency makes them reverse the formula: at the basis of a proper position in politics, there can be a mistake in theory!

The theoretical “errors” that M.C. note in the text they claim to defend are not in fact secondary since, according to them, “they are also the expression of the weakness of the theoretical analysis of the revolutionary workers movement on these subjects” (a note indicates that this is about the “Jewish question”)! Striking parallelism with Bihr, for whom our text revealed “certain shortcomings of Marxism in general, in particular (…) its traditional blindness towards the ‘Jewish question’ and antisemitism“, the only difference being that Bihr, more frank, designated the guilty not by a whole periphrasis – “the theoretical analysis of the revolutionary workers movement” – but by a single word: Marxism

So what are these errors? M.C. identify four of them, which we will review.

First “error”: our assertion that “because of their previous history, Jews today are essentially in the middle and petty bourgeoisie“. M.C. first object that antisemitism developed in Germany, well before the crisis of the 1930s, from the beginning of the century onwards due to the emigration of Eastern Jews, who came “essentially from the proletariat and poor craftsmen“. In reality, antisemitism developed in Germany (as in France) towards the end of the last century, i.e. before this emigration, as evidenced by the positions taken by Engels and the German socialists. This was the time when the latter described antisemitism as “socialism of fools“: instead of seeing that it was the capitalist system that was responsible for their miseries, peasants and other petty-bourgeois driven to ruin, under the influence of antisemitic propaganda, blamed financiers, pawnbrokers and speculators, all supposed to be Jews, or the “unfair” competition of Jewish traders.

It is on this ground and on this tradition that mass antisemitism will develop, on a completely different scale, during the great economic crisis of the 1930s, after the proletarian revolutionary alternative has been discredited by the heavy defeats of the workers and the serious political errors of the communists (a small fact that our critics are superbly ignoring).

M.C. further write that, in the 1930s, the “allegation of the predominance of German Jews in the traditional middle classes appears more ‘realistic’ [than the belief, also “universally shared” at that time, that Jews controlled non-industrial capital] and therefore deserves to be taken seriously and examined in the light of concrete analysis“. So we’ll see what we’re going to see! Well, let’s have a look:

This statement is partly (sic!) contradicted by the data of their social affiliation“. And M.C. quote a historian who said that “more than 60% of Jews with paid employment were concentrated in the commercial sector and an overwhelming majority in the retail sector. Similarly, Jews in the industrial and craft sectors were most often owners of small businesses and shops or craftsmen“. It is easy to deduce, triumphantly concluded by M.C., that at least one third of German Jews were not small traders or craftsmen. This deduction may be correct from an arithmetical point of view, but, unless one considers that small and middle bourgeoisie do not exist outside trade and crafts, it does not change the fact that the quotation in reality supports what is written in “Auschwitz…”:

M.C. try to reinforce their thesis by writing that: “Moreover, working in the commercial sector does not necessarily imply smallholder status, the statistics provided by Arno Mayer [another historian] even showing that 50% of Jewish merchants and craftsmen did not own their company, which is to say that they were wage workers“. M.C.’s nerve goes beyond all limits here, because Mayer’s quotation illustrates in an enlightening way the overwhelmingly petty and middle-class composition of Jews in Germany: “almost three-quarters of the Jewish population lived from trade and crafts, liberal professions and banking, whereas these professions represented only a quarter of the active population among non-Jews” and in trade and crafts, “more than half ran their own businesses there“. As for the fact that traders and craftsmen do not own their own companies, it does not necessarily mean that they were wage earners or proletarians: what about managers or members, even distant ones, of the family who are employed without being wage-earners, etc.? Similarly, while M.C. repeatedly cite the work of the Israeli-American historian Saul Friedlander (and draw inspiration from it even more often), they “forget” the passages in which he describes the importance of German Jews in what he calls “sensitive” sectors: “trade and finance, journalism and the cultural domain, medicine and law[4]

The least we can say is that the famous concrete analysis leaves something to be desired, yet this is the only place in their text where M.C. have at least tried to make an effort to support their criticisms, as we will see in the following points.

Second “error”: it is the thesis “that the extermination of Jews and racism in general is the fruit and product of a struggle within the petty bourgeoisie“; and M.C. cite a passage from “Auschwitz… “: “Tormented by capital, the German petit-bourgeoisie had thrown the Jews to the wolves to ease its burden… this same petit-bourgeoisie took charge of the liquidation“, to exclaim with indignation: “Here a part of the intermediate classes is attributed the concrete realisation of the extermination. It is an obvious absurdity that underlies another one: the one that would like the Nazi party (…) not to be a modern bourgeois political expression, but the representative of a social fraction condemned and ‘harassed’ by capital itself. If that were the case, how could it have come to power? A moment of inattention or weakness of the dominant classes perhaps…. Let’s not joke.

Here M.C. attribute positions to us that are not our own. The sentence in our article that M.C. omitted above in parenthesis was already quite clear: “This was certainly not done in a conscious way, but this was what lay behind its hatred of the Jews and of the satisfaction it derived from the closing down and pillaging of Jewish shops“. In accordance with the classical analyses of Marxism[5], we recall in “Auschwitz…” that antisemitic sentiments have their very specific material basis in the desperate economic situation of many of the petty-bourgeois masses. This does not mean in any way that the petty bourgeoisie had become capable of historical initiative and that it had seized state power. On the contrary, we say in plain language a few lines above the passage quoted by M.C.: “the petit-bourgeoisie (…) is a condemned class, and as a result it is condemned never to understand power, and is incapable of struggle; all it can do is merely flounder about blindly, crushed from both sides“.

We have never claimed or implied (or even insinuated) that the Nazi party was the representative of this condemned social class. Already in the early 1920s, our current was fighting the widespread conception among the leaders of the Communist International (and which was at the base of the disastrous National Bolshevik orientation) according to which Nazism represented the self-organisation of the petty-bourgeoisie against big capital, while on the contrary it represented the mobilisation and organisation of the petty bourgeoisie by big capital against the proletariat.

The Nazi party recruited mainly from the petty (and middle) bourgeoisie threatened with economic ruin by the capitalist crisis; but its acknowledgement and use by ruling bourgeois circles was only possible because they had proof that Hitler’s party was acting and would act in their interests and that it represented the best chance of putting an end to the social threat once and for all; so that it was not the representative of the interests of a condemned social class, but, in its particular way, the vector, the agent, of fundamental capitalist interests in the particular environment in which it was recruiting.

A quote from a bourgeois historian brought forward by M.C. shows this quite clearly: “It was not on antisemitism, but on a combination of anti-communism and ultra-nationalism that the unnatural collaboration between Nazism and conservatism was built in civil and political society. At this turning point in history, the years 1932-1933, the ‘Jewish question’ was not at the centre of their common concerns.” This collaboration may seem “unnatural” to the historian because the bourgeoisie agreed to entrust political power to a party whose base was petty-bourgeois and whose leaders had a reputation for being adventurers; but the Nazi party had already demonstrated for years its anti-proletarian capabilities by directing the anger of the petty-bourgeois or unemployed against the working class and its organisations; and this is why it had received significant subsidies from the big capitalists[6] right at the start. However, after the Nazis established their regime in 1933, they still had to sacrifice their “extremist” wing, the one that tended to take too seriously the slogans “anti-plutocrats” and anti-bourgeois: the Sturmabteilung (S.A.) was dissolved and its leaders shot in 1934. As Trotsky explains: “German fascism, like Italian fascism, raised itself to power on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie, which it turned into a battering ram against the organisations of the working class and the institutions of democracy. But fascism in power is least of all the rule of the petty bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it is the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital.[7]

Some disenchantment emerged among the petty-bourgeois supporters of the Nazis, following statements that the “revolution” was over and after promises had not been fulfilled; about the wave of more or less “spontaneous” anti-Jewish attacks and measures in early 1935, the Gauleiter of Cologne-Aachen wrote that more action was needed against Jews to “raise the rather low morale of the petty bourgeoisie[8]. This report is instructive: by refuting M.C.’s gratuitous assertion that “Most often [the petty-bourgeois masses] remained indifferent” to Nazi antisemitism, it shows that the leaders of the Nazi party were not mistaken about the class meaning and social role of this antisemitism…

Third “error” that offends M.C.: it is the assertion that, unlike the petty bourgeoisie, “racism in the proletariat occurred only at the worst moments of demoralisation, and tended not to last long. From the moment when they enter the struggle, the proletariat sees clearly and concretely who the enemy is.” This is a “children’s tale” according to M.C., citing against us the social basis of the F.N. and the contamination of certain working strata, “including those influenced by leftist parties, in particular Stalinist ones“, in Germany by antisemitism. “Secondly, the sentence shows a blissful optimism that (…) is not really appropriate these days. Moreover, the authors do not reveal to us either what makes the class move from the state of no struggle, torn apart by racism, to that of struggle where racism would miraculously have disappeared“.

It is unfortunate that M.C. did not seek further information. Having read in Friedlander that there were no more Jews among communist deputies in 1932 and that the CP did not hesitate to use antisemitic slogans to bring voters back, it is boldly deduced that part of the working class was contaminated by antisemitism. The question of the CP flirting with the Nazis in the early 1920s to try to reach the petty-bourgeois masses, or, in the early 1930s, its nationalist orientation and its rapprochement with the Nazis to undermine the influence of the social democrats, deserves to be treated seriously, which we do not have the room here to do. But it has nothing to do with supposed antisemitism in the proletariat anyway. The example of Germany shows us, on the contrary, that the working class was largely free from antisemitic influence, not only because of the petty-bourgeois nature of this ideology, but above all because, despite mistaken policies, defeats and difficulties, this class had years and years of struggle against the class enemy to its side. We can also cite the example of the Russian Empire where Tsarism had made antisemitism one of its favourite weapons against the workers’ struggle. This is not a miracle, but the work of the proletarian vanguard combined with the experience of class struggle practically demonstrating the necessity and effectiveness of the union of the proletarian ranks to fight the capitalists that undermines racism in the working class.

Today when the proletariat as a whole does not fight, except in a punctual and defensive way, when it no longer has any experience of its class force, when it cannot seriously defend itself even on the immediate level against exploitation, it cannot but be subjected to the ideology of the ruling class; seeing no other way out than withdrawal into itself and flight into individualism, how could the masses of the proletarians not be infected by racism, democratism and pacifism?

But how can people who claim to be communists forget that a certain Marx once wrote that the proletariat is revolutionary or it is nothing? How can they find it miraculous or incomprehensible that the working class will in the future be forced inexorably into open struggle by no one other than capitalism itself? In the heat of the struggle, the proletariat will have to overcome its divisions, its weaknesses and break the paralysing ties forged during decades of collaboration between the classes. There is no certainty that the proletarians here or elsewhere will find in time the methods, means and objectives of the class struggle to emerge victorious from the decisive confrontation between the classes, but this struggle will inevitably be fought again.

Fourth “error”: M.C. saved the best for the end; this error would indeed constitute “the essential part of the demonstration” to be attacked. So here it is: “In Auschwitz or the Great Alibi one reads: ‘…German capitalism… has spread the liquidation of Jews to all of Central Europe’.

Basically, after having conquered the state through the intermediary of the Nazi party, for our apprentice Bordigist historians, the petty bourgeoisie would have in a way used the capitalist apparatus for a programmed extermination of the Jews (!!!).

It goes without saying that they are not apprentices at “Mouvement Communiste”! Basically and in a way, they manage to make us say an absurdity that is the opposite of what we write…

***

Let’s conclude. M.C.’s claim to highlight our “mistakes” by a confrontation with concrete reality is nothing more than a pure and simple bluff. Not only are they unable to provide any real argument against what we have written, but in fact they do not even try to find any, ultimately preferring to distort our analysis in the most outrageous way.

If we summarise their criticisms, we see that M.C. reject our class analysis of the German Jewish population, our analysis of the class meaning of antisemitism and the ability of the proletariat to free itself from racism, in short that they reject the fundamental axes of the materialistic, Marxist analysis of this historical period. Let us therefore see what their explanation of the liquidation of the Jews is; or rather their explanations, because there are “two types” (we underline): “One is the armed ideology (ideology as a material force) of the Nazi state (…).

The other is the weakening of the economic determination power of the German capitalist formation over its own state and policy [!!!] (…) it would be wrong to exaggerate the role of economic determination to find an exhaustive rational explanation for the final solution. (…) Men are prisoners of their ideas, and can sometimes incarnate them and apply them without any limitations, for a short time. At the risk of sounding somewhat hermetic, we will say that the final solution in its most bestial phase is one of the possible manifestations (…) of the autonomy that the economy grants to politics and the military.

It is within this extremely narrow framework that we can affirm that the extermination of Jews by the Nazis is both unique in its specific course and reproducible, due to the mechanisms and social relations specific to capitalist society.

Even if Mouvement Communiste claim not to question Marxist determinism, nor to “invalidate the general sense of political analysis” of our text, this pirouette cannot hide the fact that this explanation, which exonerates German imperialism from the action of its state, is idealist, anti-materialist and anti-Marxist. “Auschwitz or the Great Alibi” was written precisely to fight this type of explanation that is part of current bourgeois ideology, and that is exactly why M.C. cannot digest it, while not having the courage to reject it en bloc. Refusing on “anti-sectarian” principle to go against the current, oscillating between the ostentatious hats off to Marxist theory and the “concrete” criticism of this theory, Mouvement Communiste have condemned themselves to adapt to the bourgeois ideas that quite concretely dominate everyday reality.

Proof? M.C. were inspired almost exclusively by Saul Friedlander’s recently published book. He explains quite clearly that he wrote his book to oppose many current historians who, in the study of the Nazi regime, tend to favour the analysis of major objective trends, the continuity of German state policy and even analogies in social policies with “democratic” countries, in a word to more or less materialist historians (as much as bourgeois historiography allows) – so the opposite objective of our “Auschwitz…”. As a consequent anti-Marxist, Friedlander wants to re-emphasise the central role of antisemitic ideology and Hitler’s personal action. He thus concludes the presentation of what he calls his “thesis”: “The persecutions and exterminations of the Nazis were perpetrated by ordinary people who lived and acted in a modern society no different from ours. (…) But the regime, ideology and political culture (…) had nothing ordinary about them. It is the relationship between the exceptional and the banal, the fusion of the destructive potentialities (…) of a world that is still ours with the very particular fury of the Nazis’ apocalyptic plan against the mortal enemy, the Jews, that gives both its universal significance and its historical uniqueness to the Final Solution of the Jewish question.[9]

In other words, capitalism is not guilty; the struggle between classes is unknown; it is ordinary “people” but under the influence of bad ideas who have committed the crimes: it is ideology, political culture, an evil plan that is responsible. No more materialism! It is ideas that guide the world. With a good ideology, a good policy, good intentions, we will avoid that the destructive potentialities are realised and we will only know the beneficial potentialities of the bourgeois mode of production…

Not only do Mouvement Communiste consider this book “essential” and recommend it to their readers without reservation, but they have the courage to quote this passage in a note to support and illustrate their conclusion which, it is true, is only a left-wing paraphrase of it!

If M.C. had criticised us in order to defend Marxist orthodoxy, the misunderstanding would have been easy to dispel and the interest of a criticism of their criticism would have been nil. But the reality is that M.C., despite, or rather thanks to their truly cheeky statements of fidelity to Marxist principles and solidarity with our text, want to make anti-communist positions borrowed from the worst idiocies of bourgeois ideology pass as “communist”: it is no longer the class struggle, but the struggle of “ideas” that is at the root of great historical events; the current situation would be comparable to that of the 1930s, which saw the victory of fascism; and above all: fascism is no longer the supreme form of bourgeois reaction, but a movement that “relies on all classes of society“, even on the proletariat; and even “in certain circumstances (….) fascist movements can become the spokespersons of a disoriented and weakened part of the proletariat seeking to defend – violently if necessary – its condition, etc…[10]!!! To crown fascism as the spokesman for certain layers of the proletariat, perhaps disoriented but combative (!), is what is called erasing with a stroke of the pen the entire Marxist historical record of counterrevolution and rallying the most coarse democratic positions that qualify as “fascist” all the uncontrolled actions of the proletariat. For people who call themselves – for how long? – communists, that’s strong stuff!

It is obvious that it is impossible for “Mouvement Communiste” to seriously argue their positions, or even, for the time being, to express them in a completely open way and to draw the political and practical consequences. However, they had to try, if not to refute the Marxist analysis that “Auschwitz…” illustrates, at least to discredit it by falsifying what we write. But in the adventure they dropped the mask…

Source: Le Prolétaire, No. 444, March-April-May 1998

[1] “Mouvement Communiste”, Winter 1997-98, supplement to No. 7.

[2] p. 46. M.C. use the notes to say the most important things, sometimes to correct or even contradict the text itself. This one is strangely signed: Brussels, Paris 25/12/97. Was it written in the TGV linking the two cities? Or its authors, too busy with Christmas holidays, had no other resource, between two turkey bites, than the phone or fax to finish it? Nevertheless, its tinkered, patched-up character gives it a particular touch of incoherence.

[3] Punning on the name of the group, here meant in the sense of mutability, change.

[4]  Jews represented 1% of the Reich’s population at the time of the Weimar Republic, or about 500,000 people (before the Nuremberg racial laws officially increased the number of Jews and assimilated to 1.5 million). Limiting ourselves to the figures provided by the book praised by our critics, Friedlander’s “Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution“, Ed. du Seuil, the proportion of Jews reached 23% among lawyers; they were also numerous among doctors. The press sector was “marked by a strong Jewish presence“; “Jews occupied a very prominent and influential place in the financial circles of imperial Germany“, and this phenomenon was even more marked in Austria-Hungary; they were also very present in cultural circles, the intelligentsia, etc.: all these sectors are neither trade nor crafts, but nevertheless belong to the petty and middle (or even big) bourgeoisie.

[5] Contrary to what M.C. write, we did not base ourselves on the work of the Trotskyist A. Léon, “The Jewish Question – A Marxist Interpretation” (Ed. EDI) – a very interesting book – but on Engels as can be seen from the references we make in the text. But Engels is too big a piece and M.C. find it more prudent to attack Léon…

[6] As early as 1923, the Nazi party received important contributions from reactionary bourgeois circles, both German and foreign; the army supplied it with weapons and vehicles. The most well-known support is that of the great steel manufacturer, Thyssen. cf. Karl Dietrich Bracher, “Hitler and the German dictatorship“, Ed. Complexe, p. 147-148.

[7]  cf. “What is National Socialism?“, in L. Trotsky “How to defeat fascism?“; Ed. Buchet-Chastel, p. 358.

[8] cf. “Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution” op. cit., p. 146. The Nuremberg racial laws were passed in September 35, after Nazi leaders decided to stop the disorderly and uncontrolled outbursts against Jews.

[9] cf. “Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution“, op. cit., p. 18.

[10] cf. “Mouvement Communiste”, op. cit., p. 9.

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