Marxism, psychology and genocide: a reply to Andy Ridley

Issue: 144

Sabby Sagall

Andy Ridley’s review of my book on genocide, Final Solutions: Human Nature, Capitalism and Genocide, charges me with two principal errors: psychologism and, less centrally, a mistaken analysis of the social basis of Nazism. Taking the second one first, Ridley asks: “Was it just the German middle classes that harboured such murderous potential?”1 Numerous studies by sociologists and social theorists such as Hans Gerth, Arthur Schweitzer, Seymour Martin Lipset, Michael Kater, as well as Marxists, have identified the middle class as the section of society that experienced the kind of oppression that made them most prone to crisis and consequent membership of and support for the Nazi party.

Ridley makes an additional error in describing Adolf Hitler as Austrian. Hitler was born in Austria, but into a German family, members of a minority German community. As such, Hitler resembled other famous ultra-nationalist outsiders: Napoleon, born in Corsica, and Joseph Stalin, born in Georgia.

However, Ridley’s main criticism of my book is that its attempt to analyse the motivation of the perpetrators of the Holocaust is psychologistic. He backs this up by arguing that my use of psychoanalysis is wrong:

The psychology of the perpetrators is made over-determinant in the historical process… The Holocaust can only be fully understood in the complex, dynamic and changing context of imperialism, German military expediency and defeat…tensions between the Nazi leadership and German capital, profound economic crisis, a fractured German state and a weak and opportunistic ruling class.2

Ridley, furthermore, criticises the Marxist psychoanalysts Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich for failing “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”.3 Ridley thus rejects the contribution of the Frankfurt School (though Reich was not a member) who sought to reconcile Marxism with the insights provided by the psychoanalytical tradition.

My reply is threefold. Firstly, Ridley ignores the extensive historical, sociological and political analyses I provide as the main context within which Nazism arose: from the manner in which German capitalism developed at the end of the 19th century to the social and economic crises of the different sections of the German middle class following Germany’s defeat in the First World War and the economic impact of the Great Depression.4

Secondly, as I make clear, both Reich and Fromm locate the Nazification of the German middle classes in the context of the development and crisis of German capitalism. I quote Reich’s analysis: “The rapid development of the capitalist economy…the continuous and rapid mechanisation of production, the amalgamation of the various branches of production in monopolistic syndicates and trusts, form the basis of the pauperisation of the lower middle class merchants and tradesmen.” Fromm, moreover, writes: “Nazism resurrected the lower middle class psychologically while participating in the destruction of its old socio-economic position. It mobilised its emotional energies to become an important force for the economic and political aims of German imperialism”.5 Therefore, for both Reich and Fromm, class, and capitalist development and crisis, must be at the heart of any analysis of Nazism and the Holocaust.

Ridley argues, further, that Fromm and Reich fail to give enough weight to the “delusional and deranged” nature of Nazi ideology. This is certainly a feature of the Holocaust that I deal with in my book: “The adoption of the Final Solution reflected Nazism’s delusional notion of the Jews as the all-powerful masters of the world, a belief that was pathological in virtually a clinical sense.” I quote here the American psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut who described Hitler’s “grandiose fantasy [which] contains elements of a magical-sadistic control over the world”.6

Thirdly, and most importantly, I reject Ridley’s claim that my analysis is psychologistic. Indeed, he sets up a straw man: “Bad parenting was not the root cause or driving force of Nazi atrocity, nor was a supposed German middle class ‘authoritarian personality’”.7 My argument was never that family life and an authoritarian social character were the be-all and end-all of Nazism and the Holocaust, merely that they formed one link in the chain of explanation, that they played a role, one that psychoanalysis helps us understand and that Marxists should not ignore.

Are Reich’s notion of “character structure” and Fromm’s concept of “social character” psychologistic? According to Fromm, social character is “the essential nucleus shared by members of a group which has developed as the result of the basic experiences and mode of life common to that group…the specific form in which human energy is shaped by the dynamic adaptation of human needs to the mode of existence of a given society”.8 Ridley argues for concentration on a “materialist” analysis of the Holocaust. Surely it is clear that Fromm’s and Reich’s concepts are firmly rooted in material, social and historical conditions. They are useful tools enabling us to mediate between the external structures of exploitation and oppression and the minds of individuals and social classes.

I would, therefore, reject Ridley’s claim that my approach to the psychology of fascism is “abstract, essentialist and static”. It would possess those features if I had described a mentality that always remained the same, irrespective of the historical circumstances, and which had no historical referent. But it is precisely the concept of social character—with its corollary of predisposition and precipitation—that enables me to avoid those pitfalls.

But Ridley ignores this distinction between a psychological predisposition, consisting of an inner tendency, a set of emotional features such as anger, hatred, anxiety, depression, rooted in the historical experience of an individual or a class, which, however, is not active at all times, and the specific precipitating conditions that activate it. It is indeed a major social, economic or military crisis that precipitates such a predisposition into actual murderous acts. Both predisposing and precipitating factors are necessary if we are to provide a fully rounded explanation, one that is both theoretically valid and empirically plausible. As regards precipitating factors, in Final Solutions I argue that the Nazis came to power because of the deep crisis of German capitalism ushered in by the Great Depression, and that the decision to carry out the Holocaust was probably triggered by defeat on the Russian front.

My description of the German middle class authoritarian social character means that this group broadly shared a set of personal characteristics that made them, because of their history, and under certain historical circumstances, more predisposed to respond in a destructive manner than was the case with other social classes, eg the German working class. This also answers the question Ridley poses: “Why hadn’t the German middle classes acted on these impulses earlier?”9

Hence my analysis of the psychology of fascism is not “static” or “essentialist” since I show how it changed under changing historical conditions. Nor is it “abstract” since it is backed by empirical data. Psychoanalyst Henry Dicks undertook a chilling study of the mentality of a group of SS killers. Klaus Theweleit provided a fascinating analysis of middle class pathology in his analysis of the writings of members of the Freikorps following Germany’s defeat in the First World War. And I quote the psychiatric tests on Adolf Eichmann carried out by I S and S Kulcsar and L Szondi.10

The logic of Ridley’s position is that the only valid approach to the subjective aspect of Nazism is at the level of ideology, ie conscious ideas. Feelings, conscious and unconscious, shared by large numbers of the German middle class in the 1920s and 1930s, which later culminated in the enormous destructiveness on the part of a minority, are not part of a legitimate analysis of Hitler’s support.

Nor is my analysis “deterministic”. I argue that “the concept of social character, in both social theory and psychoanalysis, was developed in an attempt to bridge the gap between structure and agency, between society and individuals or groups, to see human behaviour as both determined by and in turn determining social structures”.11

Moreover, I reject Ridley’s charge that I give “class conflict and changing social and political conditions” secondary importance.12 At the heart of my analysis is the notion that it was the historical crisis of the German middle classes that was, potentially, the root of their Nazification, and that it was the crisis of German capitalism that activated this potential. I also make it clear that “the disastrous failure of the left to unite against Hitler abandoned Germany to the Nazis”.13

Ridley seems not to accept that a multi-dimensional analysis is required—one that attempts to identify the many facets of a highly complex set of historical phenomena, including the subjective elements, and to link them in an organic whole. This is surely what a dialectical approach involves. He concedes that “psychology has its part to play in any Marxist historical analysis”,14 but he offers no clue as to what this might be, so it seems more formal deference than real commitment to understanding the mentality of the perpetrators.

In contrast, my argument is that:

psychoanalysis—because of its dynamic approach, its appreciation of the way the past casts its shadow over the present, its materialist focus on the family and hence on society, and because of its understanding of unconscious sources of motivation—is the psychological theory best equipped to dealing with the subjective factors at the heart of political and social action, in this case genocide.15

We cannot comprehend psychic or emotional phenomena such as feelings and motives through the application solely of economic, political or even ideological concepts. This is true both at the individual and the collective level. In other words, there is an area of human existence that is irreducibly subjective, that cannot be flattened out by the weight of our objective social relations or understood simply as their mirror image. Some of the greatest Marxist historical writers such as Edward Thompson and Leon Trotsky showed a very good understanding of this.

The attempt to unite the objective socio-economic historical processes with their subjective emotional aspect is the essence of the Frankfurt School. But the subjective dimension is one link in the chain, not the whole explanation. Ridley argues that “the deranged views and violent fantasies of the Nazis were born of irrational and racist ideology”.16 Now, does he believe that “deranged views and violent fantasies” are solely an ideological or intellectual phenomenon? Are they not, in addition and more precisely, expressions of a pathological emotional life? In other words, are they not expressions of feelings, many unconscious, factors to be explained in the first instance by psychological rather than purely ideological factors? If so, then again we need a psychology, albeit one that fits into a Marxist analysis of history and society, that explains how large groups of people, perhaps the majority of the members of a social class, came to share such feelings of hatred and anger towards other groups.

The logic of Ridley’s position seems to be that we can develop an analysis of Nazism and the Holocaust without a psychological element in the explanation. He charges me with psychologism but does he not risk slipping into economic determinism, implying that we can proceed directly from socio-economic crisis to racism and genocide without a mediating link such as “social character”? In my view, British Marxism has often mistakenly tended to ignore the subjective, psychological element in the historical process. Sadly, Ridley’s review perpetuates this error.


1: Ridley, 2014, p208.

2: Ridley, 2014, pp207, 208.

3: Ridley, 2014, p207.

4: Sagall, 2013, pp186-200.

5: Sagall, 2013, pp201, 200.

6: Sagall, 2013, p220.

7: Ridley, 2014, p208.

8: Sagall, 2013, p67.

9: Ridley, 2014, p208.

10: Sagall, 2013, p204.

11: Sagall, 2013, p64.

12: Ridley, 2014, p207.

13: Sagall, 2013, p200.

14: Ridley, 2014, p208.

15: Sagall, 2013, p5.

16: Ridley, 2014, p208.


Ridley, Andy, 2014, “Dark Thoughts: Psychology and Genocide”, International Socialism 143 (summer),

Sagall, Sabby, 2013, Final Solutions: Human Nature, Capitalism, and Genocide (Pluto).