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.)

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Capitalism knocks down all holy walls, Jerusalem copy

Letter on anti-Zionism

While I ponder whether or not to jot down some stray thoughts regarding “left antisemitism,” a contentious and theoretically overwrought subject, I figured I’d finally get around to publishing a revised translation of a text posted by the Italian editorial collective Il Lato Cattivo back in July 2014. At the time, the Israeli military was conducting airstrikes on Gaza, on which it would eventually launch a ground invasion. Several months later, the excellent journal Endnotes featured an article by the group on “the Kurdish question” rendered into English by fellow travelers. “Il lato cattivo” is of course taken from Karl Marx’s famous polemic against Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy, in which he maintains that “history advances by the bad side [of the dialectic].”

Generally, I feel this text raises legitimate points against the facile Manichaean narrative on the left which holds Zionism to be the latest embodiment of pure Evil in the world, while all who oppose it valiantly serve the cause of the Good. Moreover, though I am rigorously pessimistic when it comes to the possibility of revolutionary politics in the present, I do not share Il Lato Cattivo’s conviction that programmatic proletarian approach is historically obsolete moving forward, thanks to the post-1968 restructuration of capital. This thesis, which is chiefly inspired by the analysis of Théorie Communiste, seems to me to proceed from a false premise. Here is not the place to hash this out further. Suffice it to say, for now, that on the subject of anti-Zionism, Il Lato Cattivo more or less agrees with authors in the left communist tradition who do still uphold the proletariat as the identical subject-object of revolution. Consider how nicely it squares with some occasional ponderings by the Duponts, chief representatives of nihilistic communism (nihilcomm) in our time. For example, take their quaintly-titled “Knockabout begun in earnest atop Leigh Tor (site reference SX77SW 2; 2.2km NNE of Holne) some time towards the later afternoon on August 6th 2014, and before evening’s rain had closed in,” which appears on their Insipidities blog:

Why is it, of all the states in the world, that the actions of Israel have such exceptional power to enrage distant populations? Nobody, outside of Ukraine and Russia, is particularly concerned about Russian expansionism, and there is little comment on, let alone condemnation of, for example, atrocities committed in South Sudan. In general, faraway wars invite only the uncomprehending sentiment of, a pox on both houses. Why is it then that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is so immediately comprehensible? Why does political imagination so imbue Israel with the capacity for autonomous agency? Individuals of the left claim they are directing their hostility towards the policies of Israel and not against Israel’s existence and/or that of the Jews. They argue that they make a political distinction between Jews and Israel. Perhaps that is so but this begs two questions: a. by what process does this act of making a distinction emerge? b. why are the military actions of Israel so significant to the left?

For the sake of brevity, it is to be taken here as a given that the answer to both of these can only be grasped in terms of there being at work in leftist discourse an irrational but historically structured anti-Semitism that is of the same type as what I described as the “meant metaphor” of nationalism. There is within the arrangement of leftist awareness, a preconscious responsiveness to the subjective agency of Jews which is correlative with the tendency to anthropomorphize institutional power as the outcome of the conspiracy of the powerful. That is to say, even though individuals of the left are personally opposed to anti-Semitism, the inherited arrangement of their argumentation, the procedures, the propositions, the inferences, the deductions, is structured to find archetypical moral personifications at the heart of what it opposes, and one of these figures, perhaps the most discernible and significant, is the Jew.

Or their more substantive “Islands in a Sea of Land”:

Proletarian internationalism (no war but class war) discloses the rallying cry for a “Free Palestine” as a retreat from the possibility of human community. Leftist support for reactionary nationalism on the grounds of siding with the underdog is both preposterous and repugnant. It is a wanton irrationality. Whomsoever brandishes the Palestinian flag sustains the general category of nationhood. And yet this left sentimentalism is also intelligible. Of greater interest than ostensible popular frontist rationalizations around my enemy’s enemy, is the how of leftism’s pro-nationalism. It appears in protest form against the historical process of demolition and bulldozing of that which has been defeated. The Left perpetually seeks another means for returning to the historically obsolete modes of religion, nation-state, and sentimentalized cultural particularity. Indeed, this seeking out of ways back, is the Left’s political function.

Historically, it has been the task of communists to simply refute this backward drifting of the Left, hitherto understood as mere opportunism or blatant racketeering. The refutation has always taken the same form: there can be no dialogue (and still less common cause) with the nation, with religion, with class. In their approach to leftism, it has been conventional for communists to fall into line with the progressive historical lockout of obsolete forms in the name of proliferating past potentialities. Evidently, this policy is inadequate and implicitly assumes the absolute unworthiness of all of that which is no longer supported by the present productive apparatus. While it is true that all past social forms institutionalized themselves as a specific mode of inhuman violence, repression, and denial, they also recorded something of an eternally renewed “passion and will” for the human community. The Left has imperfectly sought out connection to that which is good but buried in the past. This is not to suggest that a “return” to that which is otherwise lost forever is a plausible or even desirable option. National liberation is untenable and in all cases incompatible with human community. The no state, no religion, and no class demands, which communism makes upon society, remain invariant. There can not be and must never be a “free Palestine.”

Jacob Blumenfeld’s “Negation of the Diaspora,” from which the cover image above is taken, is also worth reading. Blumenfeld is a contributor to the Communists in Situ project in Germany, influenced by the anti-national Marxism that cropped up in that country following reunification in 1991. Pay no attention to the idiotic spectacle going on in Britain right now. Enjoy the translated Il Lato Cattivo text below.

A seldom-remembered historical fact: Stalin's USSR backed the foundation of Israel as a Jewish state, precisely under the rationale of national liberation

The perils of national liberation

Letter on anti-Zionism

R.F. (pseudonym)
Il Lato Cattivo
July 19, 2014

Dear comrades,

Let me give you my opinion about what happened around the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and forgive me if I am forced to dwell on this question. So-called anti-Zionism — with the alibi of staying in the concrete — changes more and more the present events into a metaphysical question. On the one hand, this is normal: it is characteristic of the “anti” to have an absolute enemy, compared to which the other enemies become relative enemies. At the moment it is Israel’s turn to be the target, and in my opinion it is necessary to distinguish oneself from that. It’s not the assault on the synagogues during the demonstrations of Saturday July 19th in Paris that ought determine this necessity, even if it makes it stronger in some measure. It is not necessary to exaggerate the importance of the uncontrolled behaviors that occurred; it is certain however that they are symptomatic of something — of a drift — whose possibility is consubstantial to anti-Zionism. The confusion between Jews, Zionism and Israel, the fluidity with which these different terms become interchangeable, if they do not appear in the public speeches and in the programmatic slogans, can nevertheless be noticed in the informal conversations that can be heard here and there in the demonstrations, and are on the other hand obvious enough. It is absolutely not the point to operate the slightest defense of the state of Israel — which would be merely absurd — but merely to replace the Israeli-Palestinian question in history, as the transformation of the enemy into absolute enemy sustains itself on myth and reproduces it. Similarly, the point is to escape from two equally unsustainable positions for a communist: on one side, the “solidarity with Palestinian resistance,” on the other side the proletarian internationalism as abstract principle. On this last point, I first want to say that what the ant-Zionists misunderstand is that — if some margins of pressure on the Israeli government exist — they lie on the side of those who live in Israel. The demonstrations that occurred in Israel against the slaughter in Gaza are encouraging, and forcefully more significant than those which occurred elsewhere; but they are in any case only few things, especially if we think that they rather spring from an impulse of moral indignation or from the affirmation of principles than from anything else, as it generally happens for the present pacifist movements; they are the most fertile field for the petty bourgeoisie with leftist sympathies and a cultural level, with all their generous feelings (some can remember the great demonstrations in Italy against war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the flags for peace hanged from the windows… and how it all ended). Concretely, a general strike striking the Israeli economy would be necessary (or at least the menace of this) to provisionally make Israeli government draw back. On the other hand, it is not surprising that this does not happen. It’s useless to launch general appeals to class struggle and solidarity among exploited peoples. The Israeli working class and the Palestinian working class can with difficulty unite in any common struggle, simply because they do not live in the same conditions. It is not a question of “class consciousness,” rather an objective situation: we can be the best comrades in the world, but this changes nothing if your situation is objectively in your advantage. I quote a passage from the book by Théorie Communiste on Middle East that seems to me particularly appropriate to this subject:

It is an illusion to hope within a predictable future in any junction between the struggles of Israeli proletariat and the struggles of the Palestinian proletariat. The major changes of Israeli capital have aggravated the situation of Israeli proletariat and this worsening is deeply linked to the transformations of the management of the territories and to the use of the Palestinian workforce. The disappearance of historical Zionism in those transformations is equivalent to the weakening of all the enterprises of the public sector and of the sector in the hand of the Histadrut [General Organization of Workers in the Land of Israel, Israel’s organization of trade unions]. Above all, the use of Palestinian workforce exposes the Israeli working class to the competition of the low wages of this workforce and of the still lower ones practiced beyond the frontier in the surrounding Arab countries. A great deal of Jewish workers of the public sector today are employed under a fixed-term contract, mostly the young people, the women and the new immigrants. The rallying of precarious workers or the new “radical” little unions that appeared during strikes, like the ones in the railway (2000) have the greatest difficulties to get recognized by the Histadrut (Aufheben, “Behind the Twenty-First Century Intifada” No. 10, 2002). The worsening of the situation of the Israeli proletariat and the reduction of the Palestinian proletariat to a “fourth-world” condition belong in fact to the same mutations of Israeli capitalism, but this nevertheless does not provide in any way the conditions of the slightest “solidarity” between both proletariats, quite the reverse. For the Israeli proletarian, the Palestinian with low wage is a social danger, and more and more a physical one, for the Palestinian proletarian the advantages the Israeli can retain rest on his own exploitation, his increased relegation and the seize of the territories. (Théo Cosme, Le Moyen-Orient, 1945-2002, Senonevero, Marseille 2002, p. 259)

Thus, if we look closely, the way the thing are is that the movement against war that was the basis of the demonstrations in Israel has been in any case the most dignified thing, as far as it has been something in the frame of the present hodgepodge. Vice versa the anti-Zionists — if it were not for the troubles they to generate — seem almost tender for their blessed ignorance of the things of this world. Particularly the “anticapitalists” ones: moreover their problem — as collectors of anti-isms — is that having an absolute enemy means forcefully that one can have only one at a time …. and have to choose between capitalism and Israel, they usually choose Israel. They usually do so also for convenience, as it is easier to be simply against individuals than against the social relation that determines their social function and position. I said before that we must in any case replace the Israeli-Palestinian question in history. Then let us start from a banal fact. Let us consider the geographic map of the area and the different evolutions of the territories from the end of the Second World War until today: starting from a few settlements — mainly situated on the coast and in the north — out of which was constituted its proto-state in 1946, Israel has appropriated in 60 years almost the totality of historical Palestine. To the Palestinians, very few is left from what Gaza and the West Bank still represented in 1967 (these frontiers are claimed today by the Hamas). In this sense, the problem of determining the frontiers that would delimit a “legitimate” Israeli state is irrelevant, so trivially impossible it is to solve: the logic of the seizing of the territories has revealed itself inseparable from its existence as national state. From this undeniable fact, the anti-Zionists deduce the illegitimate character of Israeli state, defined by them as “Zionist” — as if this adjective already said everything per se. This implicitly means that some states have a right to exist, and other not. But to ask the question of the legitimacy of Israeli state compared to other states simply means to ignore how the nation-states constitute themselves as homogeneous areas. It would be enough to look at the history of the Italian state: internal colonization promoted by the previous reign of Savoy, persecution of the “brigandage” in the South, Italianization of Trentino-South Tyrol and Istria under fascism, centrifugal surges and “national liberation” movements in Sicily and Sardinia, etc.. What is then a legitimate state? And what is an illegitimate state? We will say the same about the so-called “right to the land.” Who has a “right” to the land? According to what may one argue that a given geographic area “belongs” to a given population? According to passed history? And first, who had settled there, who was living there? It is the accomplished fact that establishes the “right,” and that’s all… at least in the world as it exists today. It is absolutely vain to participate (or sustain) the controversy over “who came first.” In facts, any reasoning over this point must resort to juridical formalism. In the fact that somebody may drive me out of my home, the real problem lies in the fundamental question, in the fact that there is something mine and something not mine…. And in the fact that what is mine may arouse the lust of somebody else, insofar as to be ready to resort to the abuse of his power to seize it. With some luck and adequate economic and military means, I will perhaps to seize back my home. If I am less lucky, I will not succeed to do that. In any case, the essential of the whole thing is that it doesn’t contain a dynamic that would go beyond itself — beyond the resentments and reciprocal accusations of suffered wrongs. The “reason” may be on my side or not, it is a conflict of typically military nature: action calls for reaction, and thus until the weakest is worn out . To come back to it and try to find in it something more, it is necessary that the concerned usurper represents the interests of the absolute enemy (the USA, pressure groups, or “Jewish finance”: we’ll come back to that). What’s more, it is simply stupid to contest — as the ridiculous [Roger] Garaudy does, following the ultra-orthodox Jews, in The Founding Myths of Modern Israel — the character of nation of Judaism, arguing that it is merely a religion: this only consists in opposing the idea to history, or to get lost in useless investigations that look back into the past since the dawn of time in order to affirm the authenticity, true or presumed, of one or other nationality. Similarly, to reproach to Israel — as, conversely, the Marxish professor Bertell Ollman does in his Letter of Resignation from the Jewish People — to have betrayed the universalist tradition of the Judaism of the diaspora, leads to make of this Judaism an essence which would be at safe from historical becoming. It is enough for us to know that everybody lives and relives his own past according to his own present. The experience of the present continuously selects and reworks the existing historical material. No national identity is produced ex nihilo; but the internal coherence and the times of incubation required are less important than one may think. As far as a given “feeling of national belonging” — for reasons we could consider as more or less good — appears in history and succeeds in consolidating itself, it becomes effective in reality. No nation is “legitimate” in itself, its legitimacy simply depends on its ability to unite, maintain and transform itself in history without disappearing. Exactly the way it happens for certain social movements that always have minority origins and a completely unpredictable future trajectory. The PKK — official embodiment of the Kurdish nationalist movement, previously “Stalinist” and today advocating a “democratic confederalism” — was constituted at the moment of its creation in the beginning of the seventies by a handful of students living in Ankara. To insist on the exceptional character of the denominational nature of the Israeli state, then, it is merely taking at face value what the Likud likes to tell about Israel. Continue reading