Erzo Traverso Understanding the Nazi Genocide: Marxism After Auschwitz (International Institute for Research and Education/Pluto Press,1999)
Unsurprisingly, such a slim volume does not fulfil the promise of its ambitious title. Also, as a collection of essays, the clarity of its main thesis is obscured. That said, this book punches well above its weight and is a valid contribution to an IIRE series which promotes new models of resistance to the neo-liberal world order.
Traverso presents the horror of Auschwitz as a 'paradigm of twentieth century barbarism'. This, and other exemplary forms of barbarism - the Kolyma gulag and the atomic bombing of Japan - far from indicating human regression, are an inherent characteristic of the 'instrumental rationalism' of modern industrial society. Auschwitz undermines the whole concept of progress as the foundation of modernity and specifically challenges the failure of Marxists to realise that Socialism must involve a 'deep, radical break with bourgeois civilisation.'
Traverso argues that Auschwitz demands 'a necessary reassessment of the Marxist intellectual tradition' although his discussion is limited to some writers of the Frankfurt School and Ernest Mandel. At least some reference to the wider tradition of humanist and 'green-marxism', represented by people such as Fromm and Bahro, may have helped Traverso develop his thesis but they receive no mention. A less understandable omission is the absence of any reference to Ronald Aronson's The Dialectics of Disaster - A Preface to Hope, (1983), which has a more contextual historical analysis of the holocaust and other twentieth century barbarisms, including Vietnam and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Like Traverso, Aronson invokes the esoteric historical materialism of Walter Benjamin with its motifs of a Socialism of hope, human 'redemption' and reconciliation with nature. For some readers, the most heretical aspect of Traverso will be his questioning of the 'historical role of the proletariat'. In its place he poses Auschwitz's opposite - the Warsaw ghetto uprising, 'an image of our times of what should impel us to rebel - not a sense of inevitable victory but an ethical imperative.' However, this stark dialectic, joining 'catastrophe with deliverance', will require more elaboration to convince most 'classical' Marxists of the need for 'tearing up mythologies of progress and teleological visions of history'.
Traverso's work, on his own admission, suffers from what Perry Anderson dubbed the 'pervasive melancholy' of the Frankfurt School. However, Traverso claims that this does not lead to resignation, but is 'the foundation of hope and of combat impregnated with memory.' Such stirring, but vague, evocations provide no real alternative. Traverso appears only to substitute pure voluntarism for deterministic Marxism and advocate desperate heroism as the agent of revolutionary change. Inspiring as the uprisings in Warsaw and Treblinka are, they serve more as a warning for our own time of the inevitable failure of ghettoised resistance.
Although Traverso's optimism rests on little more than millenarian hopes, this reviewer shares his view that we must be aware of the power of Marxism's utopian dimension if it is to retain relevance as a philosophy of liberation. But this should be firmly rooted in practical action, which seeks to support and link every struggle, (however tangential they may seem to our own experience), resisting exploitation, oppression and alienation in the sphere of the economy, the state, civil society, culture or nature.
The century closed with a clear demonstration that the Auschwitz paradigm is a reality. The barbarity of modern technological society, and its corollary of revanchist nationalism, is apparent in the persistence of 'ethnic cleansing' in all its forms and the high-tech onslaughts on Iraq, Yugoslavia and Chechenya. Arendt's 'banality of evil' grows more banal, as functionaries and apologists, ever further removed from the consequences of their acts, execute the imperatives of 'globalisation'. Traverso's book may not provide many answers, but it is a worthwhile contribution to that leap of the imagination required by the left if Socialism is to become a viable force in the 21st century.
The reviewer, Alan Brooke, is a member of the (UK) Socialist Labour Party.