Archive for the ‘socialism’ Category
Three days ago it was Yom HaShoah, the Jewish Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a solemn occasion, one that should not be politicized. On this next day, however, I’d like to address a political pet peeve of mine, namely the view that fascism, specifically Nazism, was somehow an ideology of the Left. It was not.
People often make this mistake by lumping Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia together as two sides of the same totalitarian coin. Both regimes were responsible for monstrous crimes, yet the ideological underpinnings behind them should be distinguished and understood, rather than inaccurately melded together. Fundamentally, fascism and its Nazi manifestation were ideologies of the extreme Right, that advanced not only a racist populism but also a socially Darwinistic, hierarchical individualism that celebrated competition and allowed for for some capitalist industry to coexist alongside and in league with a powerful state.
I was spurred to write this post after listening to right-wing talk radio, where the announcer described fascism as an ideology of the left, the result of the expansion of Big Government. These scare tactics are used to form a slippery slope argument, namely that the welfare state leads to the gas chambers. Friedrich Hayek advanced a version of this argument in his famous and erroneous work, The Road to Serfdom, particularly in his chapter “The Socialist Roots of Nazism.” It is certainly true that fascism represents the worship and expansion of state power. Yet it can and did exist alongside capitalism, as was the case in Nazi Germany. Though Adolf Hitler led the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi), Hitler was not a socialist.
The reasons for this are manifold. First is the obvious: socialist and communist parties existed in Weimar Germany alongside the Nazi party and indeed were its bitter enemy (though Communists and Nazis occasionally colluded too). Second, and equally obvious, Nazism divided Germans along racial rather than class lines. Jews and other enemies of the state were enemies regardless of class, and the Aryan ideal could be achieved at any socioeconomic level.
Third, the Nazi regime did not completely take over all large businesses and industries, but rather colluded with them, most famously with chemical company I.G. Farben. This is a crucial mistake people make about fascism: businesses in fascist states like Hitler’s Germany are not necessarily government owned, and can to some degree function within a market-oriented capitalist framework subject to the laws of supply and demand. Fascism, in this totalitarian form, functioned occasionally with brute force, like on Kristalnacht, but often through more subtle means. Fascism more frequently used coercive force like that at play in Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault’s Panopticon, a prison that exerted social control through fear of being watched rather than naked displays of state power. This, along with Hitler’s popularity, rendered capitalist business compatible with Nazism, so long as those involved with it were Aryans who obeyed the regime.
Most important, we know Nazism was an ideology of the far right because of the very logic behind it. Unlike socialism, Nazism was a hierarchical, Socially Darwinistic vision that encouraged competition, and showed disdain for the masses, who Hitler called “mentally lazy.” Most crucially, it did not denigrate individualism, but in fact celebrated it. This is evident in Hitler’s major work, Mein Kampf.
I’m not simply referring to Hitler’s attacks on “Jewish” Marxism and Bolshevism, which he argued was a “comrade” to the equally Jewish “greedy finance capital.” Hitler believed that “the stronger must dominate and not blend with the weaker.” Hitler extrapolated from individual achievement, “true genius,” to racial achievement. Indeed, to ignore racial hierarchy led to an “underestimation of the individual. For denial of the difference between the various races with regard to their general culture-creating forces must necessarily extend this greatest of all errors to the judgment of the individual.” Hitler celebrated the “free play of forces” that enabled both individual and racial advancement in Darwinian struggle. He loved sports, especially boxing, as they served “to make the individual strong, agile and bold.”
Hitler’s individualism and elitism emerged most strongly in his chapter on “Personality and the Conception of the Folkish State.” Hitler distorted Nietzschean philosophy to elevate certain individuals, like himself, above all others. He hoped to organize society that placed “thinking individuals above the masses, thus subordinating the latter to the former.” This would be true of economic life as well. “in all fields preparing the way for that highest measure of productive performance which grants to the individual the highest measure of participation.”
I could go on. My point here is not to politicize, but to de-politicize. Hitler was of course not a pure capitalist, and Nazi Germany not a purely capitalist state. Nazi Germany’s economy relied on considerable amount of state control and even some Keynesian economics. Many socialists showed similar disdain for the masses. But, and this is crucial, Hitler was not really interested in economics, nor was economic policy central to the Third Reich. Expansion of government and state power was less important to the regime than socially Darwinistic racial competition.
To conclude, I’ll simply say this: socialism and the welfare state should not be advanced by criticizing Nazi Germany and invoking the spectre of the Holocaust, but they should not be attacked that way either.
While Peter was participating in (and ably chronicling) the Occupy Chicago’s protest of the American Economic Association’s (AEA) annual conference, I stayed behind at the American Historical Association’s (AHA) annual meeting to attend a panel commemorating the late historian Tony Judt.
The similarity and contrast between the two events is revealing. Before succumbing to ALS in 2010, Judt became an intellectual leader to the left, most notably in his moving 2009 NYU address, “What Is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy,” later expanded into a book called Ill Fares the Land. Had he lived, I think Tony Judt would have found a lot to admire in the broader Occupy movement and in this specific protest, for as Peter notes, he was an ardent critic of “economism,” the American cult of efficiency, and he howled against the decline of the welfare state and rising rates of inequality.
On the other hand, a central theme of the Judt retrospective, and of the latter half of Judt’s life, was his militant, strident anti-Marxism. All four panelists, John Dunn (Judt’s professor at King’s College), Marci Shore (eastern European historian at Yale), Peter Gordon (European intellectual historian at Harvard and my undergrad professor), and Timothy Snyder (also an eastern European historian at Yale) made this a major focus on their talks, particularly the last three presenters. Judt would have had no use for the Marxist and anarchist platitudes of the protesters.
I went to protest with Occupy Wall Street yesterday. I was not alone. Peter, a veteran of protests, came too. In fact, he helped organize the NYU student walk out yesterday, and has written about the protest eloquently here. Read him, and also Ezra Klein, who’s been doing a good job of covering OWS.
It’s easy to be cynical about big public protest movements. It’s also easy to overly romanticize and glorify them. It’s true that some conspiracy theorists and 9/11 truthers are tarnishing the movement’s good name. It’s true, the protesters don’t represent 99% of Americans. It’s true that they are targeting oil companies, and prisons, and military efforts that many not be directly associated with Wall Street. But the people who wore “I am Troy Davis” shirts weren’t all Troy Davis. “We are the 99%” is a slogan. It refers to the top 1% of American earners, but that should not be read literally. It simply implies that many people, people on the left, are angry. Wall Street is not their only target. But Wall Street is a convenient symbol, and not an inappropriate one, for their ire.
It’s true that the protests have radical, anarchist roots. I don’t consider myself a radical, or an anarchist. I’m not even one of the 99%, because I’m Canadian. But from what my friend and fellow protester and I saw, the bulk of the protesters aren’t after radical change. Of course, change is a funny word. It was the big tent mantra of “Change” that saw radicals, progressives, liberals, moderates and even some conservatives unite behind Barack Obama in 2008, never knowing what the word really meant to the campaign. These protesters also have disparate demands. But they are different. They are moving the conversation to the left. That is a good thing. The question is: how far left?
I met Tony Judt in his office in the fall of 2006. That was the only time we met. It was my first semester as a doctoral candidate in History and Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, and I was eager to meet him. I knew little of his work then, but I had read his now infamous article in The New York Review of Books, provocatively titled, “Israel: The Alternative,” where he called Israel, like all ethnic nation-states, an “anachronism,” and seemed to advocate a single, bi-national state as the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I didn’t agree with him then, and I don’t agree with him now. Nonetheless, the article impressed me immensely. This paragraph in particular inspires much of my own work, even if I constantly question its validity:
In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry at will; where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed; where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them; in such a world Israel is truly an anachronism.
I’m obsessed with the dreaded “I” word; that is, “identity.” Judt’s journalistic writing, more than his scholarship, has helped frame numerous questions in my mind. Furthermore, though my focus is on American Jewish history, I also study intellectual history more broadly, with a particular interest in French intellectual history, more specifically, a comparison between French and American reactions to the Dreyfus Affair. Professor Judt seemed an ideal man to talk to. When I applied to NYU, I listed him as one of the professors I hoped to work with.
That desire was not borne out. Even in 2006, when he seemed the picture of health, he warned me in that very meeting that he would be “frequently away,” with speaking engagements across the country and globe. Other NYU faculty members warned me of this possibility as well. When NYU president John Sexton introduced professor Judt at a brilliant lecture on Israel at the law school in December of 2006, he applauded Judt’s commitment to teaching, especially to teaching undergraduates, and the pronouncement made me bitter. In my first three years as a graduate student, when I was required to do coursework, Judt taught undergraduate courses frequently, but only one class at the graduate level, in the spring of 2009, a joint venture with his wife Jennifer Homans, that focused more on art than intellectuals. I chose not to take it, and so I was never his student.
Of course by that point, he had fallen ill, tremendously ill, and looking back at it now I feel stupid and selfish for my own bitterness, my misplaced anger towards him, and indeed my error in not studying with him in that final opportunity I had to do so.
In that time, between my first and only encounter with him and his death, I came to appreciate his writing, and his arguments, more and more. He turned his focus to the inequality in our modern world, the promise and peril of social democracy, most brilliantly in a lecture he delivered in October of 2009 at NYU, titled “What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy.” I was in the audience that day, and though I’m an atheist, I swear Judt seemed like a prophet, addressing a few thousand people from his wheelchair, with a device to help him breathe attached to his face. His speech was a rallying crying to the non-Marxist, social democratic left, preaching to the choir for sure, but inspirational nonetheless. The lecture became the basis for an article in the NY Review of Books, and later a full-length book, Ill Fares the Land, published earlier this year.
I haven’t read the book. I have, however, read Kristen Loveland’s excellent commentary on it. She agrees with much of Judt’s economic analysis, as do I. What “infuriates” her, and me, is “his disparagement of identity politics surrounding race, gender, and sexuality as ‘selfish individualism’ [which] suggests that he himself is not willing to give non-strictly-economic injustices their full weight.” She is also annoyed when Judt criticizes Jewish and African American and other students who go to college and “study themselves,” eat by themselves, live in dorms together, and isolate themselves more generally. This impetus, in his mind, fosters social division, rather than cohesion.
This of course hits home. I’m a Jew studying Jews. I didn’t know I would get here, but here I am. And sometimes I feel stupidly parochial about this, and what Judt says rings true. And yet I wonder if Judt’s own struggles with his identity were playing out in his very words. For in addition to turning to social democracy in the last few years, Judt also turned inward, in a brilliant series of essays for the NY Review of Books. He identified with the “edge people,” on the margins of different communities, without a single, stable identity. In an essay on his Jewishness, he wrote that his Judaism “is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling: the dafka-like quality of awkwardness and dissent for which we were once known.”
I’ve written about this before in regards to Judt, and I’m never quite sure what to make of his self-reflections, be they about Judaism, academia, or anything else. In his most recent (and possibly last) published NY Review piece, he wrote that at Kings College, Cambridge in the 1960s he acquired an “abiding respect for teachers who are indifferent to fame (and fortune) and to any consideration outside the supervision armchair.” That was not Tony Judt. He always seemed to fancy himself an intellectuel, a modern-day Dreyfusard, a preeminent “public intellectual” (the term “public” being redundant) who would speak truth to power on the most serious issues of the day, question authority and the accepted truths and dogmas of the intelligentsia, on Israel or anything else. He frequently courted controversy, calling out liberal supporters of the recent Iraq war (such as myself) as “Bush’s Useful Idiots.” In a recent New York Magazine profile, he said “I’ve always been willing to say exactly what I think,” and he’s been both loathed and admired for it.
I admired him. Judt may not have been “indifferent to fame,” but through his powerful speaking and magnificent writing, his brilliant expository essays, his rigorous scholarship, and his touching and insightful personal reflections, he was our teacher, and an excellent one at that. The world’s greatest living historian is now dead. He will be missed.