An undated archive photograph shows Auschwitz II-Birkenau main guard house which prisoners called "the gate of death".  An undated archive photograph shows Auschwitz II-Birkenau's main guard house which prisoners called "the gate of death" and the railway with the remains of abandoned crockery. The railway, which was built in 1944, was the last stop for the trains bringing Jews to the death camp. REUTERS/HO-AUSCHWITZ MUSEUM

“Everyone’s a victim”: Relativizing Auschwitz with Adorno

Aus­chwitz was lib­er­ated 72 years ago today. In hon­or of In­ter­na­tion­al Holo­caust Re­mem­brance Day, I am re­post­ing a re­cent art­icle by Ingo Elbe on a new book by Marc Nich­olas Som­mer. Elbe is au­thor of the ex­traordin­ar­ily thor­ough over­view Marx im West­en: Die neue Marx-Lek­tü­re in der Bun­des­rep­ub­lik seit 1965. The first chapter of this book has been trans­lated and pub­lished over at View­point, which every­one ought to read. He con­tac­ted me about this short re­view, and en­cour­aged me to re­pub­lish it.

Some brief com­ments of my own, be­fore pro­ceed­ing to Elbe’s art­icle. First of all re­gard­ing the act­ors. Read­ers of this blog will doubt­less be fa­mil­i­ar with Theodor Wiesen­grund Ad­orno, a mu­si­co­lo­gist and lead­ing crit­ic­al the­or­ist of the In­sti­tut für So­zi­al­for­schung. Günther An­ders, ali­as Stern, like­wise con­trib­uted to the In­sti­tut’s journ­al from time to time, though he was nev­er a mem­ber. An­ders was also the first hus­band of the fam­ous Ger­man-Amer­ic­an polit­ic­al philo­soph­er Han­nah Aren­dt. Like her (as well as Her­bert Mar­cuse, an­oth­er mem­ber of the Frank­furt School), he was a one­time stu­dent of the in­flu­en­tial Nazi pro­fess­or Mar­tin Heide­g­ger. In 1948, An­ders up­braided his former mas­ter in a scath­ing po­lem­ic “On the Pseudo-Con­crete­ness of Heide­g­ger’s Philo­sophy.”

Jean Améry, pseud­onym of Hanns Chaim May­er, was an Aus­tri­an es­say­ist based in Brus­sels, Bel­gi­um. Un­like either An­ders or Ad­orno, he sur­vived the Aus­chwitz death camp. Between 1962 and 1966, he wrote a series of re­flec­tions on his ex­per­i­ences there, com­piled un­der the title At the Mind’s Lim­its. It is a haunt­ing, angry col­lec­tion, not­able for its ab­so­lute un­will­ing­ness to for­give any­one com­pli­cit in per­pet­rat­ing the Judeo­cide. Philo­soph­ic­ally Améry in­clined to­ward Sartrean ex­ist­en­tial­ism rather than crit­ic­al the­ory. He was gen­er­ally un­im­pressed by Ad­orno, whose 1964 study of The Jar­gon of Au­then­ti­city he lam­pooned in his own 1967 tract, Jar­gon der Dia­lek­tik. Con­tem­por­ary the­or­ists who draw in­spir­a­tion from both Améry and Ad­orno — such as Gerhard Scheit, of the hard anti-Ger­man ISF and sans phrase — have at­temp­ted to re­con­cile the rift in rather tor­tur­ous fash­ion, seek­ing to es­tab­lish com­mon ground.

Elbe sides, some­what sur­pris­ingly, with Améry in this par­tic­u­lar dis­pute. That is to say, he be­lieves Améry is bet­ter able to grasp the spe­cificity of Aus­chwitz. Ad­orno is con­victed by Elbe of the very “iden­tity-think­ing” [Iden­ti­täts­den­ken] de­cried at length in Neg­at­ive Dia­lectics, set­ting up a false equi­val­ence between the de­lib­er­ate murder of European Je­w­ry by the Nazis at Aus­chwitz and the in­dis­crim­in­ate mas­sacre of Ja­pan­ese ci­vil­ians by the Amer­ic­ans at Hiroshi­ma. One aimed at an­ni­hil­a­tion, the oth­er at ca­pit­u­la­tion. Here I cer­tainly ac­know­ledge the valid­ity of the dis­tinc­tion Elbe is try­ing to make, but am less bothered by Ad­orno’s in­clu­sion of Hiroshi­ma along­side Aus­chwitz (one could men­tion any num­ber of oth­er at­ro­cit­ies) as an ex­ample of the un­par­alleled bar­bar­ism of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, fol­low­ing the fail­ure to tran­scend cap­it­al in its open­ing dec­ades. Stal­in’s GU­Lag ar­chipelago dis­turbs me just as much, if not more, des­pite the fact they were nev­er meant to ex­term­in­ate the in­mates. For they rep­res­en­ted the be­tray­al of com­mun­ism, which was at least sup­posed to prom­ise a bet­ter world, as Primo Levi poin­ted out, where­as with fas­cism the con­cen­tra­tion camps fol­lowed from first prin­ciples.

Per­haps this is in­dic­at­ive of a broad­er dis­agree­ment between Elbe and my­self, and by ex­ten­sion Améry. While I am awake to the dangers of left an­ti­semit­ism, I do not be­lieve that any and all op­pos­i­tion to Is­rael is an­ti­semit­ic. Améry’s charge that anti-Zion­ism had be­come “the re­spect­able an­ti­semit­ism” by the 1970s may ring true in some in­stances, and he provides sev­er­al com­pel­ling ex­amples where this is the case. (Just a couple weeks ago, a Ger­man court ruled that torch­ing a syn­agogue near Düsseldorf is a le­git­im­ate form of anti-Zion­ist protest). Yet I be­lieve that it is pos­sible to op­pose the Zion­ism with­in an anti-na­tion­al­ist frame­work which does not view it as ex­cep­tion­al, the his­tor­ic­al pe­cu­li­ar­it­ies not­with­stand­ing. However, I do share Elbe’s dis­may at the cheer­lead­ing that fre­quently goes on among West­ern left­ists for Is­lam­ist groups that spout some brand of anti-im­per­i­al­ist rhet­or­ic. So there is prob­ably a great deal we’d agree on. En­joy his art­icle.

adorno-sitting-copy jean-amery-foto

“The world as a concentration camp”

Ingo Elbe

…re­du­cing tor­ment­or and tor­men­ted to the com­mon de­nom­in­at­or “vic­tims,” by means of a dia­lect­ic­al pi­rou­ette.

— Jean Améry1

In his book The Concept of Neg­at­ive Dia­lectics,2 Marc Nich­olas Som­mer claims to re­con­struct Theodor Ad­orno’s neg­at­ive philo­sophy of his­tory as a “philo­sophy of his­tory from the view­point of the vic­tims” (294). Som­mer sug­gests, fol­low­ing Ad­orno,3 that “since World War II every sub­ject” has be­come “a po­ten­tial vic­tim of his­tory” (295). “Every single one” could now “po­ten­tially” ex­per­i­ence him­self as a vic­tim of “the ut­most ex­treme” [„des Äu­ßers­ten“] (295). Con­cur­ring with Ad­orno, Som­mer defines “the ut­most ex­treme” as “‘de­lu­sion­al pre­ju­dice, op­pres­sion, gen­o­cide, and tor­ture.””4 Also in ac­cord­ance with Ad­orno, Som­mer some­times uses the phras­ing the “ever-present cata­strophe”5 (325) in­stead of the ut­most ex­treme. In­deed, Som­mer read­ily con­cedes “that not every single one ac­tu­ally ex­per­i­ences him­self as a po­ten­tial vic­tim” (325) and in­so­far per­haps people liv­ing in more or less func­tion­ing con­sti­tu­tion­al states have bet­ter pro­tec­tion against “the ut­most ex­treme” than those liv­ing in au­thor­it­ari­an states and un­der dic­tat­or­ships, but — and this is his main ar­gu­ment — “with the nuc­le­ar bomb a new power has ap­peared,” mak­ing the “ut­most ex­treme” pos­sible for every per­son. In agree­ment with Günther An­ders he refers to his dia­gnos­is that “‘the threat of nuc­le­ar war […] trans­forms the world in­to a hope­less con­cen­tra­tion camp‘“6(325). Som­mer uses the term “con­cen­tra­tion camps” for be­ing at the mercy of the “ar­bit­rar­i­ness of the guards,” for the ir­rel­ev­ance of one’s own be­ha­vi­or re­gard­ing the ques­tion of wheth­er one be­comes a vic­tim or not, and for a not fur­ther spe­cified ex­term­in­a­tion. Fur­ther de­tails are not giv­en. Else­where, he uses the term “Aus­chwitz” in­stead of “con­cen­tra­tion camp” (or simply “camp”). Som­mer defines the term Aus­chwitz — once again in ref­er­ence to Ad­orno — as “‘ad­min­is­trat­ive murder of mil­lions.””7 With the nuc­le­ar bomb the “ex­per­i­ence of camp in­mates” has been gen­er­al­ized, “that the dis­aster of the ar­bit­rar­i­ness of the guards can be­fall them at any giv­en time, re­gard­less of their be­ha­vi­or.” The nuc­le­ar bomb trans­forms the world in­to a con­cen­tra­tion camp be­cause it con­stantly threatens us with the pos­sib­il­ity of total ex­term­in­a­tion — re­gard­less of how we be­have.” (295f.)

Continue reading

“Workers_and_Peasants-_Don’t_let_them_destroy_what_was_created_over_10_years”_–_Russian_and_Uzbek,_Tashkent,_1927_(SCMCHR) copy

Notes on ideology and Islamophobia

Several salient points are made in Alexandra Pinot-Noir and Flora Grim’s jointly-written article, which I reposted, “On the Ideology of ‘Anti-Islamophobia’.” For example, the authors are onto something with their brief genealogical sketch of the derivation of “decolonial” theory from Third Worldism. Many efforts have been made to form ideological blocs with religious groups over the last fifteen years or so, ever since the start of the global war on terror. Provided that the groups in question belong to the religion of the oppressed, of course. All this would fall squarely under the rubric of what Loren Goldner has dubbed “reactionary anti-imperialism,” conceptualized in his brilliant essay on its origins in Turkey nearly a century ago. Considering Houria Bouteldja cites Gamal Abdel Nasser as a heroic decolonial thinker, or that “revolutionaries of color” at UC Davis in 2013 would approvingly invoke Sayyid Qutb just proves their point further. (Nevermind that Nasser had Qutb killed; this matters just as little as the fact the International Pan-Islamic Communist Party lists Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev alongside Stalin as an influence, despite the latter having purged the former in 1924. Regardless, it seems consistency is not decolonial theorists’ strong suit).

One of Grim and Pinot-Noir’s most startling insights has to do with the virtual symmetry between “culturalist” conceptions of race put forward by groups claiming to be on the Left and the ethnocultural arguments advanced by groups belonging to the Right. “New Right leaders like Alain de Benoist go so far as to defend anti-imperialist struggles in the Third World,” Grim and Pinot-Noir point out, “and thus deny the racist character of their own ‘defense of European identity’.” Indeed, New Right intellectuals are enthusiastic in their support for Third World nationalists such as Muammar Gaddafi and Hugo Chávez, as well as earlier strongmen like Nasser and Perón. Gregory Hood gave “Two Cheers for Chávez” following his death in 2013, while Greg Johnson eulogized Gaddafi after his ignominious “decline and fall” in 2011. Eugène Montsalvat likewise asserts “The Necessity of Anti-Colonialism,” writing that “anti-colonialism must be a component of any ideology which attempts to defend rooted identities, necessary against the uprooting of peoples in pursuit of power and wealth… Colonialism has warped both the colonist and colonizer — mixing, diluting, and even annihilating entire cultures and peoples.” He praises Nasser and Gaddafi for their anti-Zionism and resistance to “America’s Zionist New World Order.” (Bouteldja might even agree with Montsalvat on the topic of miscegenation, since she opposes interracial marriage in the name of race war).

Junge Linke has already thoroughly dissected Islamism as “heir to and rival of frustrated Arab nationalism,” so this is one more step. Grim and Pinot-Noir perspicaciously observe that “[t]he position of far-left ambivalent at best. They want to prohibit any criticism of the Muslim religion, a practice which they say is racist.” Back in 2009, the British journal Aufheben made an analogous point vis-à-vis the Socialist Workers Party and the antiwar coalition Respect. “So as not to put Muslims off, the SWP insisted Respect eschew such left-wing ‘shibboleths’ as women’s and gay rights. Echoing the arguments of more radical Islamists, they went into the mosques and proclaimed that Bush’s ‘global war on terror’ was in fact a war on Muslims — both abroad, with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also at home with the passage of anti-terrorist legislation — that should be opposed by Muslims as Muslims. Like the radical Islamists, they denounced New Labour as Islamophobic and racist.” Arya Zahedi also discerns the ideological source of leftist ambivalence toward, if not outright support for, jihadist forces in the disastrous legacy of “Third World populism,” together with the imperative of anti-imperialism at any cost. Zahedi contends that, beginning in the 1980s, “the Left was theoretically disarmed by the fact that it was now confronted with a new state formation [i.e., the Islamic Republic] that was at once anti-imperialist and deeply reactionary.” Continue reading


Je suis Bezbozhnik

Just over a week ago, I published a series of antireligious images from the early Bolshevik journal Bezbozhnik u stanka along with an article by Leon Trotsky from 1925 on the subject of atheistic propaganda. In it, he praised “the satirical journal Godless, where there are a great many cartoons, sometimes quite effective ones, by some of our best cartoonists…Issue after issue one finds in its pages an ongoing, tireless duel being conducted with Jehovah, Christ, and Allah, hand-to-hand combat between the talented artist [Dmitrii] Moor and God. Of course, we are to a man on Moor’s side completely.” Many of the images are every bit as offensive as the ones printed by the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, the offices of which were recently the target of a brutal assault by reactionary Islamists. Eleven were killed that day, executioner-style. Several hostages at a printing house and a kosher market in Paris were murdered along with the gunmen in the standoff a few days later.

There was obviously no way of knowing this tragedy would take place when I uploaded the aforementioned post. Like everyone else, I followed the drama that unfolded and watched with dismay the flailing attempts by various leftists to spin the story to fit their own preexisting narratives. Richard Seymour’s article over at Jacobin, which largely framed subsequent debate, was exemplary in this respect. While he condemned violence against civilians, he nevertheless felt it necessary to add that “there’s a critical difference between solidarity with the journalists who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that [they] are somehow ‘legitimate targets,’ and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication.” Appended to this was the condescending suggestion: “If you need to be convinced of this, then I suggest you do your research, beginning with Edward Said’s Orientalism as well as some basic introductory texts on Islamophobia.”

Der Stürmer, Sonderausgabe 1934

Islamophobia has been Seymour’s main concern for some time now. Other issues occasionally show up, such as austerity and intersectionality, but these are few and far between. Wasn’t always so: back in 2004 you could still find him defending revolutionary universalism against the idiocy of left-liberal multiculturalism. Take this entry, “Jihad Chic,” from 2004 (back when Seymour was just a poor man’s Christopher Hitchens). Anyway, going from his description of Charlie Hebdo above — i.e., “frankly a racist publication” — one could easily get the mistaken impression that it’s some latter-day Der Stürmer. Surprisingly, Seymour seems totally oblivious to the context in which this imagery appears. His old buddy Sebastian Budgen, on whom he relies for most of his gossip about the French Left, came much closer to getting this right:

There is a silly debate about whether Charlie Hebdo is a “racist” publication or not. Clearly not, in the sense of its origins lying in a left-wing, post-′68, highly transgressive vulgarity and its opposition to the far Right. It is part of the mental furniture of much of the French Left, radical included (think of a mash-up between Private Eye, Viz, Oz, Ben Elton, and The Young Ones), and most people will have affectionate memories of it prior to the 2000s. Charb himself illustrated Daniel Bensaïd’s Marx for Beginners books not so long ago.

Not just that, either. Cabu, one of the staff cartoonists, got his start as a kind of avant la lettre Oliver North. He’d served as a colonial soldier in Algeria, but later publicly lampooned French militarism in numerous comic strips. Virtually everyone involved in the magazine had campaigned on behalf of immigrants and mocked right-wing nationalists like Marine Le Pen. (There is cruel irony in the fact that she’s now cynically using their memory for political gain). Regardless, Seymour’s brief characterization is highly misleading. Perhaps certain cartoons in the magazine could be construed as racist or antisemitic, and several clearly are, but to smear the entire project and those involved in it as virulent racists is grossly unfair. One comrade even went so far as to compare the victims of the attack to “Nazbols.”

Bob from Brockley posted a response to Seymour written by Contested Terrain on his blog. The rest of Seymour’s argument is boilerplate; Contested Terrain parries its thrusts with relative ease. Seymour, he contends, “portrays the attacks in an extremely general way, as if they are somehow a natural (though too violent) response to anti-Muslim racism in France and Europe, rather than being the specific strategic actions taken by specific actors.” This weakness is compounded by an overall reticence to entertain that it might have origins in Islamist ideology. “In [Seymour’s] account, even pointing out the specific radical Islam linkages behind this amounts to supporting state repression against Muslims in general.” He’s since posted a rejoinder to the criticisms he’s received, which more or less states that he thought some things went without saying. Continue reading


Marx on the history of “the Eastern question” (1853)

MECW, vol. 13
Pgs. 102-104

In order to understand…all the actual complications in the East, it is necessary to cast a retrospective glance at its past history and development.

The Koran and the Mussulman legislation emanating from it reduce the geography and ethnography of the various people to the simple and convenient distinction of two nations and of two countries; those of the Faithful and of the Infidels. The Infidel is “harby,” i.e. the enemy. Islamism proscribes the nation of the Infidels, constituting a state of permanent hostility between the Mussulman and the unbeliever. In that sense the corsair-ships of the Berber States were the holy fleet of Islam. How, then, is the existence of Christian subjects of the Porte to be reconciled with the Koran?

According to the Mussulman legislation,

If a town surrenders by capitulation, and its habitants consent to become rayahs, that is, subjects of a Mussulman prince without abandoning their creed, they have to pay the kharatch (capitation tax), when they obtain a truce with the faithful, and it is not permitted any more to confiscate their estates than to take away their houses…In this case their old churches form part of their property, with permission to worship therein. But they are not allowed to erect new ones. They have only authority for repairing them, and to reconstruct their decayed portions. At certain epochs commissaries delegated by the provincial governors are to visit the churches and sanctuaries of the Christians, in order to ascertain that no new buildings have been added under pretext of repairs. If a town is conquered by force, the inhabitants retain their churches, but only as places of abode or refuge, without permission to worship.

Constantinople having surrendered by capitulation, as in like manner has the greater portion of European Turkey, the Christians there enjoy the privilege of living as rayahs, under the Turkish Government. This privilege they have exclusively by virtue of their agreeing to accept the Mussulman protection. It is, therefore, owing to this circumstance alone, that the Christians submit to be governed by the Mussulmans according to Mussulman man law, that the patriarch of Constantinople their spiritual chief, is at the same time their political representative and their Chief Justice. Wherever, in the Ottoman Empire, we find an agglomeration of Greek rayahs, the Archbishops and Bishops are by law members of the Municipal Councils, and, under the direction of the patriarch, [watch] over the repartition of the taxes imposed upon the Greeks. The patriarch is responsible to the Porte as to the conduct of his co-religionists: Invested with the right of judging the rayahs of his Church, he delegates this right to the metropolitans and bishops, in the limits of their dioceses, their sentences being obligatory for the executive officers, kadis, etc., of the Porte to carry out. The punishments which they have the right to pronounce are fines, imprisonment, the bastinade, and exile. Besides, their own church gives them the power of excommunication. Independent of the produce of the fines, they receive variable taxes on the civil and commercial lawsuits. Every hierarchic scale among the clergy has its moneyed price. The patriarch pays to the Divan a heavy tribute in order to obtain his investiture, but he sells, in his turn, the archbishoprics and bishoprics to the clergy of his worship. The latter indemnify themselves by the sale of subaltern dignities and the tribute exacted from the popes. These, again, sell by retail the power they have bought from their superiors, and traffic in all acts of their ministry, such as baptisms, marriages, divorces, and testaments.

It is evident from this exposé that this fabric of theocracy over the Greek Christians of Turkey, and the whole structure of their society, has its keystone in the subjection of the rayah under the Koran, which, in its turn, by treating them as infidels — i.e., as a nation only in a religious sense — sanctioned the combined spiritual and temporal power of their priests. Then, if you abolish their subjection under the Koran by a civil emancipation, you cancel at the same time their subjection to the clergy, and provoke a revolution in their social, political, and religious relations, which, in the first instance, must inevitably hand them over to Russia. If you supplant the Koran by a code civil, you must occidentalize the entire structure of Byzantine society.

Having described the relations between the Mussulman and his Christian subject, the question arises: What are the relations between the Mussulman and the unbelieving foreigner?

As the Koran treats all foreigners as foes, nobody will dare to present himself in a Mussulman country without having taken his precautions. The first European merchants, therefore, who risked the chances of commerce with such a people, contrived to secure themselves an exceptional treatment and privileges originally personal, but afterward extended to their whole nation. Hence the origin of capitulations. Capitulations are imperial diplomas, letters of privilege, octroyed by the Porte to different European nations, and authorizing their subjects to freely enter Mohammedan countries, and there to pursue in tranquillity their affairs, and to practice their worship. They differ from treaties in this essential point that they are not reciprocal acts contradictorily debated between the contracting parties, and accepted by them on the condition of mutual advantages and concessions. On the contrary, the capitulations are one-sided concessions on the part of the government granting them, in consequence of which they may be revoked at its pleasure. The Porte has, indeed, at several times nullified the privileges granted to one nation, by extending them to others; or repealed them altogether by refusing to continue their application. This precarious character of the capitulations made them an eternal source of disputes, of complaints on the part of ambassadors, and of a prodigious exchange of contradictory notes and firmans revived at the commencement of every new reign.

The real point at issue is always Turkey in Europe: the great peninsula to the south of the Save and Danube. This splendid territory has the misfortune to be inhabited by a conglomerate of different races and nationalities, of which it is hard to say which is the least fit for progress and civilization. Slavonians, Greeks, Wallachians, Arnauts — twelve million men — are all held in submission by one million of Turks, and up to a recent period it appeared doubtful whether, of all these different races, the Turks were not the most competent to hold the supremacy which, in such a mixed population, could not but accrue to one of these nationalities. But when we see how lamentably have failed all the attempts at civilization by Turkish authority — how the fanaticism of Islam, supported principally by the Turkish mob in a few great cities, has availed itself of the assistance of Austria and Russia invariably to regain power and to overturn any progress that might have been made; when we see the central, i.e. Turkish authority weakened year after year by insurrections in the Christian provinces, none of which, thanks to the weakness of the Porte and to the intervention of neighboring States, is ever completely fruitless; when we see Greece acquire her independence, parts of Armenia conquered by Russia (Moldavia, Wallachia, Serbia, successively placed under the protectorate of the latter power) — we shall be obliged to admit that the presence of the Turks in Europe is a real obstacle to the development of the resources of the Thraco-Illyrian Peninsula.


Herr Naphta


Image: A recent photo
of Herr Naphta


“Herr Naphta” somehow manages to outdo even Herr Vogt in terms of his sheer buffoonery.

Striking the gravest pose of which such a buffoon is capable, Herr Naphta gleefully announces:

I don’t get denounced by pompous racist asshats every day, but when I do, I buy a bunch of beers and celebrate. [italics mine]

Those unfamiliar with Herr Naphta’s collected works might at first mistake this for a just a passing counter-denunciation, improvised on the spot. Looks can be deceiving, though. “Pompous racist asshats” has a precise — nay, a scientific — meaning within his sublimely banal blog of Marxist marginalia. Continue reading