The Nature of Anti-Semitism

Howie Chodos howie at
Tue Jul 4 10:28:42 MDT 1995

What follows starts as a brief comment on Leo's post on anti-semitism and
then tries to link it in with the discussion on the nature of Stalinism and
the ex-USSR. I think that Leo is right to note the qualitative difference
between persecution based on religious beliefs (which can be avoided by
reliogious conversion) and genocide based on race. This shift does appear to
coincide with the consolidation of "modernity". What is less clear to me is
that this primarily political analysis warrants the conclusion that he
reaches at the end of his post, which is that all examples of state
repression can be understood as the mission of the modern state to eradicate
difference. Thus he wrote:

>Once one sees the logic at work, it becomes clear that the great divide
>between the Holocaust and the mass murder of Stalinist states is illusory --
>in different national contexts, they simply sought out different expressions
>of social and cultural difference. Thus, the fact that the Khymer Rouge would
>target the Vietnamese and Chinese ethnic minorities and the literate does not
>make them a species separate from the Nazis.

Despite his desire to escape from "essentialist" views of oppression, it
seems to me that by indiscriminately lumping together all forms of modern
oppression as being attempts at the suppression of difference, Leo comes
very close to espousing another kind of essentialism. In this sense his
conclusion seems to undermine his own historicised and politicised
understanding of the changes brought about by modernity. (I wonder if this
is what Justin was referring to when he aggressively slammed Leo for
embracing an end to history).

I, like Leo in another post, think that there is at least some merit to
Hannah Arendt's arguments concerning the commonality of certain features
shared by Nazism and high Stalinism. The destruction of the social fabric,
the indiscriminate use of terror, the cult of the personality, and so on,
are features that warrant comparison. At the same time, as a number of
recent posts have argued, neither Marxism, nor any emancipatory discourse,
can offer definite guarantees against its appropriation in the name of evil.
I think that this is a clear lesson from the history of Marxism in our
century. Just because people claim to be fighting for freedom does not mean
that they really are, either in terms of their individual intentions or,
even when they are sincere, in terms of their ability to have events turn
out as they would wish. But it does strike me that there remains a
difference between liberation movements (of whatever kind) gone astray, and
dictatorships whose self-image and program from their inception embody
racist and genocidal ideals. And I have the impression that Arendt misses
this point.

One other feature that the two systems shared, and that has been noted in
various ways in recent posts, is their "irrationality" from the point of
view of their own survival. People have noted Stalin's eradication of the
general staff at a time when policy was geared to fending off Nazi or other
imperialist attacks on the USSR, and the pursuit of the final solution by
the Nazis despite the diversion of resources that could have been used in
the war effort. My own interpretation of these events is that
"totalitarianism" (used to refer to systems of virtually unlimited state
terror a la Nazism or high Stalinism) comes about as the result of a radical
separation between the political and the economic dimensions of social
reproduction. In both cases the logic of a certain type of politics becomes
the determining factor, which generates a volatile and instable situation.
(Jane Caplan makes this argument in a collection of essays called "Radical
Perspectives on the Rise of Fascism in Germany" published by Monthly Review).

In this sense, I side with those who would see a difference between
Stalinism as such and the Soviet sytem as a whole. Despite continuities, the
abolition of the terror with Stalin's death, marks a radical break, just as
the onset of the Great Turn at the end of the twenties initiates the period
of Stalinism, which then reached a peak in the mid to late thirties. The
answer to the question as to how far the similarities go depends in part on
the characterization one makes of Soviet-style socialism. I favour
approaches which see it as neither capitalist nor socialist, though I can't
say there is yet a completely satisfactory answer. One of the better
attempts I have heard recently was by Michael Lebowitz who called it "the
vanguard mode of production", highlighting the centrality of the vanguard
party in defining actual social relations.

Howie Chodos

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