Dark thoughts: psychology and genocide

Issue: 143

Andy Ridley

Sabby Sagall, Final Solutions: Human Nature, Capitalism and Genocide (Pluto Press, 2013), £20.50

In Final Solutions Sabby Sagall analyses the nature and the role of the subjective and irrational in determining genocidal mass murder. The book poses the question as to what underlying psychological and historical conditions and processes are necessary to cause groups of people to kill other groups of people en masse, out of the context of immediate military engagement. This is a big and important subject and one that Leon Trotsky and other great Marxist thinkers have written and argued about. And since it is a subject that draws on broader questions of historical and social determinants and political agency, it is also a subject that has been discussed and debated in this journal and other publications of the Socialist Workers Party.

Sagall neatly divides the book into two parts. In the first he looks at influential psychoanalytical thinkers and schools of thought. He discusses their relevance and usefulness in understanding irrational violence and genocide but also their shortcomings. Marxists start from the premise that we are primarily social beings. Starting with Sigmund Freud, however, much psychoanalytical theory assumes that we are naturally and individually oriented towards, for example, self-preservation and/or self-destruction and that these instinctual and individualised drives tend to override our socially conditioned characteristics. This kind of theory fits neatly within a capitalist economy and a liberal worldview where individuals, rather than classes and social movements, determine history through their ingenuity and passion.

But not all psychoanalytic theory excuses or ignores capitalism, and some influential theorists (at least in psychoanalytic circles) have considered themselves Marxist. One such psychoanalytic school of thought—“closer to Marx than Freud”—is attachment theory, proposed by the psychoanalyst John Bowlby. Bowlby starts with the premise that newborn infants naturally seek proximity and attachment to other human beings. This happens initially with the infant’s “primary caregiver”, normally the mother. It is the nature of our early relationships that lay the psychological basis on which our later relationships are made (formed and re-formed). Other psychologists such as Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich from the Frankfurt School wrote of “social character”, “social types” and “mass psychology” and attempted to reconcile Marxist notions, such as commodity production, class and alienation, with psychological phenomena.

But what has all this got to do with genocide? And how much weight should we give to psychology in a materialist history of mass killing? Sagall tries to answer this in the second part of his book where he examines four examples of “genocide”—that
of Native Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries, Armenians between 1915 and 1922, Nazi Holocaust victims and Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. In this short review I will only discuss Sagall’s section on the Holocaust. Of the four examples given it is the Holocaust and its causes that have created perhaps the most debate on the left in Britain. This book is likely to create even more debate.

But first, how do Marxists explain fascism? We start with a class analysis. Fascism derives its core leadership and support from the petty bourgeoisie or middle classes. Trotsky, in an article called “What is National Socialism?” said: “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.”

The middle classes, the self-employed, shopkeepers, middle managers, etc, are sandwiched between the two great contending classes, the working class and the ruling class. Weyman Bennett explains:

The middle classes necessarily occupy a contradictory position in society. Whereas workers are linked into organisations that organise collectively, the middle classes are individualised and isolated. When working class struggle is winning, the middle classes identify with progressive aims. But in periods of crisis, unable to turn to the collective struggle of the workplace, they are drawn to organisations with a radical rhetoric against the system whose focus of organisation is the street. Hitler said, “Mass demonstrations must burn into the little man’s soul the conviction that, though a little worm, he is part of a great dragon.”

Again Trotsky wrote that fascism “raises to their feet those classes that are immediately above the working class and that are ever in dread of being forced down into its ranks; it organises and militarises them…it directs them to the extirpation of proletarian organisations, from the most revolutionary to the most conservative” (in What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, written in 1932).

Fascists, therefore, aim to build a counter-revolutionary mass movement led by the middle classes on the streets and in parliament against all forms of democracy. The fascists promise the middle classes power and glory but it is all delusional. It is the ruling class that holds real power. Hitler and the Nazis (and Benito Mussolini in Italy), despite all their anti-capitalist rhetoric, could only come to power with the support and money of the ruling class.

In 1930s Germany, after the defeat in the First World War and with the profound economic crisis, the German middle and officer classes had very quickly become economically and ideologically impoverished. The German workers’ revolution had been lost and the German ruling class and their parliamentary representatives had no solution to economic despair. The German middle classes, therefore, had no obvious class to align themselves to. So long as the left failed to take the initiative and offer a socialist alternative to capitalist crises and unite against racist scapegoating, the conditions were ripe for the rise of Hitler. And once in power, he and his Nazi cohorts could act out their sociopathic delusions of superiority. They professed themselves to be the master race.

Following the work of Fromm, Reich, the Frankfurt School and other psychoanalytic theorists, Sabby Sagall attempts to explain Nazi atrocity by introducing a psychological interpretation to a Marxist historical framework. He suggests that the German middle classes, for particular historical reasons, “developed within the family a typical social character” with “an authoritarian personality…which took the form of moral rigidity and patriarchal authoritarianism”. Within the German middle class family of the inter-war years existed “the simultaneous presence of sadistic and masochistic drives” and “the tendency towards persecution… Nazi killers revealed an extreme example of this general class psychology”.

Sagall discusses one “extreme example” through the work of German sociologist Klaus Theweleit who wrote about the psychopathology of the Freikorps. The Freikorps were drawn almost exclusively from the German middle classes and, according to Theweleit, their murderous violence towards women and children was symptomatic of the poor weaning and lack of maternal affection particularly prevalent in German middle class family life. The inability of the middle class infant to reach healthy separation from its mother created a psychotic child with a pathological “fear and hatred of women”. In another example, Sagall refers to the work of psychiatrist Henry Dicks who studied the “authoritarian personalities” of SS members and concluded that “these individuals from middle class backgrounds grew up with paranoid, sadomasochistic personalities, deep rage and hatred rooted in early childhood experience.”

To conclude the chapter Sagall examines the irrationality of the Holocaust by looking at the debates in the 1970s between “intentionalist” and “functionalist” historians. The intentionalists are essentially those historians of the Nazi Holocaust who assert that the mass murder and persecution of Jews and other “alien” races were the acting out of predetermined desires long held by the Nazis before they came to power. And even if there had been some diversions and delay on the way, for the intentionalists, all roads in the minds of the Nazi perpetrators led to this genocidal “Final Solution”.

The functionalist historians, on the other hand, “argued that [the Nazis] arrived at the Final Solution in a pragmatic way, as a result of external events, or the outcome of changes in the Third Reich’s power structures, specifically the rivalry between the top Nazi officials competing with each other to be the best Jew exterminator”. For the functionalists, the Holocaust was the result of a “cumulative spiral of radicalisation”, where contingent factors, notably the failure of Hitler’s armies to defeat Russia, gave rise to changing Nazi “solutions” to the “Jewish Question”, solutions that went from expulsion to ghettoisation and, ultimately, to industrial murder.

Sagall, following the “moderate functionalist” historian Christopher Browning, argues for a synthesis of these two positions, “one that shows how the external expression of the Nazis’ ‘genocidal attitude’ towards the Jews shifted in the context of changing circumstances”.

For me, however, all three positions are limited, as is the work of Fromm and Reich. They all fail (to varying degrees) to give enough weight to the class conflict and the changing material, social and political conditions underlying the rise of fascism and the road to the Holocaust. Nor do they give enough importance to the specific, if delusional and deranged, nature of Nazi ideology. Instead the psychology of the perpetrators is made over-determinant in the historical process. And because class conflict and changing social and political conditions are given secondary importance, in their place there is often a kind of abstract, essentialist and static view of the psychology of fascism. In the book it often seems the link between psychological attitudes and mass killing are speculative and distinct from the changing historical circumstances. Were all the Freikorps psychotic “mother hating” killers from infancy? Did the “social character” of the German middle classes make them all uniquely prone to genocidal murder? Were middle class female children prone, too, to extreme violence? Was it just the German middle classes that harboured such murderous potential? Wasn’t Hitler Austrian? And why hadn’t the German middle classes acted on these impulses earlier?

Although initially critical of overly psychological interpretations of history, Sagall’s analysis of atrocity still gives too much importance to it. Psychology can help explain the rise of fascism and the Holocaust (and the resistance to them) but as part of a broader historical explanation of the process of social and political conflict and the material conditions in which this conflict takes place.

The Holocaust can only be fully understood in the complex, dynamic and changing context of imperialism, German military expediency and defeat, political rivalry and fragmentation within the Nazi regime, tensions between the Nazi leadership and German capital, profound economic crisis, a fractured German state and a weak and opportunistic ruling class, and the defeat of the Russian and German workers’ revolutions.

In A People’s History of the World Chris Harman shows how irrationality and barbarity are inherent in the capitalist class system and even more so with a capitalist system in crisis and a Nazi state embroiled in imperialist war. It is worth quoting him at length:

In terms of the economic or war needs of German capitalism, none of it made sense. Many of those murdered were skilled workers or members of professions who could have contributed to profit-making or the war economy… Where anti-Semitism was crucially important was in holding together and motivating the inner core of the Nazi party, the SA and the SS… For them…even when defeat was close at hand, in late 1944 and in early 1945, killing off the Jews could seem like a victory. The German ruling class had needed people with such deranged views to deal with the crisis in the early 1930s. Their derangement provided it with a force which could conquer working class organisations and then sustain its drive towards European supremacy. In return, the Nazis were allowed to act out their deranged fantasies by exterminating over six million Jews, Gypsies and disabled people.

Bad parenting was not the root cause or driving force of Nazi atrocity, nor was a supposed German middle class “authoritarian personality”. The deranged views and violent fantasies of the Nazis were born of irrational and racist ideology and racist scapegoating and given organisational form and legitimacy in the context of capitalist crisis and the defeat of the German and Russian revolutions. A dialectical and materialist class analysis helps us understand this, not a predominantly psychological or sociological one.

Sabby Sagall asks important questions of psychology, fascism and genocidal murder. Despite my criticisms, there is much to be gained from his book, particularly his synopses of psychoanalytic thinkers and schools of thought. Psychology has its part to play in any Marxist historical analysis. However, there is a rich Marxist tradition that puts class and class struggle at the heart of historical and political analysis, all the better not just to understand atrocity and the motivations of those who perpetrate it but also to fight to ensure it doesn’t happen again.