A Topic Too Hot to Handle

Colin colin at SPAMcogg.demon.co.uk
Mon Feb 5 09:02:03 MST 2001


There are a lot of interesting aspects to the response to Finkelstein in
Britain which are probably similar to what is happening now in Germany.
First of all was the hysteria of most reviewers, pretending not to know
that Finkelstein states in the book that his argument is against the
'holocaust' as idological construct not the real event. Once that is
ignored, his argument is torn apart for something he isn't saying which is
always easy to do.
Other arguments against him are based on what effect he will have on
boosting the confidence of holocaust deniers. If arguments were reined in
to prevent them being used by the 'wrong sort of people', nothing would
ever be said.
Finally, the attitude of the left is worth looking at. Here's an article
from the weekly worker, 21st December 2000 which gives a good overview of
what is at stake.

Colin


            Weekly Worker 365 Thursday December 21 2000

            Witch-hunters, censorship and the holocaust

            Norman G Finkelstein The holocaust industry: reflections on the
exploitation of Jewish
            suffering Verso 2000, pp150, £16.00

            If success can be measured by the sheer level of furious
condemnation which your work generates, then
            Norman Finkelstein's punchy little polemic has without doubt
been a roaring triumph. For his critics, who are
            legion, all semblances of balance and rationality seem to go
right out of the window when it comes to
            approaching The holocaust industry.

            Thus we read of this book that it "provides considerable
comfort to every holocaust denier, neo-Nazi and
            anti-semite on the face of the planet" (Tobias Abse New
Interventions autumn 2000). Apparently, Finkelstein
            comes "dangerously close to giving comfort to those who dream
of new holocausts" (Alex Callinicos Socialist
            Worker July 22). To others, Finkelstein is "a Jew who doesn't
like Jews" and who "does the anti-semites' work
            for them" (Jonathan Freedland - The Guardian July 14), while
some go so far as to say that, "He's poison,
            he's a disgusting self-hating Jew, he's something you find
under a rock" (Leon Wieseltier, Zionist intellectual and
            literary editor of New Republic).

            Finkelstein does appear at first to be an unlikely candidate
for such vilification - which has come thick and fast
            and in equal directions from the anti-Zionist left, the liberal
(non-Zionist) centre and the pro-Zionist right. Both
            his mother and father were survivors of the Warsaw ghetto and
the Nazi concentration camps. Apart from his
            parents, every family member was exterminated by the Nazis. In
the words of Finkelstein, "My earliest
            memory, so to speak, of the Nazi holocaust is my mother glued
in front of the television watching the trial of
            Adolf Eichmann (1961) when I came home from school" (p5).

            He is also the co-author, with Ruth Bettina Birn, of the
extended polemic, A nation on trial: the Goldhagen
            thesis and historical truth. This work, enthusiastically
championed by the SWP before it did its volte-face
            and decided that Finkelstein was too much of a political hot
potato to keep on board, was a scathing attack on
            the author of Hitler's willing executioners, David Jonah
Goldhagen, who argued that the German people
            were (and still are?) inherently anti-semitic and so therefore
the holocaust was an event just waiting to happen.
            History has always had it in for the Jews and always will - to
say otherwise is to slip inexorably into
            anti-semitism. In the now infamous words of Abraham Foxman,
head of the Anti-Defamation League,
            responding to Finkelstein and Birn's assault on Hitler's
willing executioners, "The issue is not whether
            Goldhagen's thesis is right or wrong, but what is 'legitimate
criticism' and what goes beyond the pale" (p66) - a
            sentiment which, unfortunately, some on the British left seem
to share.

            The ironic thing is that Finkelstein's project is eminently
moderate - all he wants to do is make the holocaust a
            subject of rational inquiry. This entails rescuing real history
from the clutches of "holocaust correctness" (p65)
            and so-called 'holocaust awareness', which, to use the words of
the Israeli writer, Boas Evron, is actually "an
            official, propagandistic indoctrination, a churning out of
slogans and a false view of the world, the real aim of
            which is not at all an understanding of the past, but a
manipulation of the present" (p41).

            Finkelstein's project is to strip away all the self-serving
myths and falsehoods which envelop the holocaust,
            which can only mean stepping on a lot of very sensitive toes -
some powerful, some just desperate for a crumb
            of ideological absolutism in an uncertain and disturbingly
relativistic world. As he clearly puts it in his mission
            statement, "In this text, Nazi holocaust signals the actual
historical event, The Holocaust its ideological
            representation ... Like most ideologies, it bears a connection,
if tenuous, with reality. The Holocaust is not an
            arbitrary, but rather an internally coherent, construct. Its
central dogmas sustain significant political and class
            interests. Indeed, The Holocaust has proven to be an
indispensable ideological weapon" (original italics - p4).
            In other words, Finkelstein wants to understand how the Nazi
holocaust became "the Holocaust" - a
            "categorically unique historical event" which "cannot be
rationally apprehended ... Indeed, The Holocaust is
            unique because it is inexplicable, and it is inexplicable
because it is unique" (pp41-45).

            Does this sound like a book which could provide "comfort" and
nourishment to your average
            holocaust-denying, neo-Nazi, anti-semitic, no-brain nutter?

            As a graphic example of the "sacralisation of the holocaust",
as the liberal scholar Peter Novick dubs it, some
            have been infuriated by Finkelstein's blunt statement that
"much of the literature on Hitler's 'final solution' is
            worthless as scholarship. Indeed, the field of Holocaust
studies is replete with nonsense, if not sheer fraud"
            (p55).

            This prompted the SWP's Alex Callinicos to ask, "How different
is [Finkelstein's] assertion that 'the field of
            Holocaust studies is replete with nonsense, if not plain
fraud', from the holocaust revisionist David Irving's
            rantings ... ?" (Socialist Worker July 22). Well, actually,
Alex, all the difference in the world. Irving's well
            researched "rantings" are motivated by a combination of
undeclared anti-semitism and Hitlerite apologetics.

            Finkelstein's remit, on the other hand, is to explain the way
in which the ruling class and reactionary forces in
            general have managed to expropriate the 'memory' and discourse
of the holocaust - to the extent that the
            almost unimaginable suffering endured by the victims of Nazi
rule has become the virtual political-moral
            property of the reinvented, post-World War II bourgeoisie,
which never tires of parading its new-found
            anti-racism/fascism. Also, can comrade Callinicos inform us of
a field of scholarship that is not "replete with
            nonsense" - especially one where there are so many different
and at times competing vested interests at stake?
            Comrade Callinicos's innocent outburst betrays an instinctive
uneasiness about anything which might upset the
            tenets of 'holocaust correctness' and hence alienate that pool
of 'respectable' opinion which the SWP is so
            often desperate to tap into and feed off ... and sometimes
inflame.

            Finkelstein's brave work should act as a wake-up call to those
sections of the left which have been seduced by
            the cosy nostrums of official anti-racism/fascism - inducing a
state of moral and intellectual stagnation. The
            working class needs answers, not the politically correct horror
stories concocted by the servants of bourgeois
            liberalism and hence the capitalist-imperialist system as a
whole.

            But this is not the view of Tobias Abse, whose New
Interventions review, 'Finkelstein's follies: the dangers of
            vulgar anti-Zionism', I have already referred to.

            Comrade Abse's piece is shallow and disingenuous. He labels
Finkelstein "a truly pathological example of
            Jewish self-hatred" who employs "deeply anti-semitic"
phraseology - although comrade Abse's quoted
            examples are hardly convincing. He even argues that,
"objectively", the "very title" of the book "echoes the
            rhetoric of holocaust denial rather in the way that the phrase
'race relations industry' is a hallmark of all British
            racists".

            And Tobias Abse uses the views of Finkelstein as a stick with
which to take a wild and almost comical bash at
            the CPGB.

            During the course of his emotive piece, which shamelessly
plunders the now 'rich' politically correct lexicon at
            will ("Jewish self-hatred", etc), comrade Abse sneakily
comments: "With ever increasing frequency, the overall
            tone of Finkelstein's work becomes increasingly reminiscent of
a neo-Nazi tract; no non-Jewish, anti-Stalinist,
            leftwing opponent of anti-Zionism would ever dare to indulge in
such blatant anti-semitic stereotyping, at least
            in Europe and the USA, although such a discourse would be
widespread in the Communist Party of the
            Russian Federation, and might find an echo in one strange
British sect originating in the Stalinist milieu
            (whose rentier theoretician was once the youth organiser of the
ultra-Stalinist New Communist Party)
            that has become notorious for its convoluted apologias for
Irving and Le Pen."

            One can only presume here that comrade Abse is making a Delphic
reference to the CPGB/Weekly Worker:
            i.e., one of the six principal Socialist Alliance
organisations. Now, most regular readers will probably find
            themselves scratching their heads when confronted by this
seemingly inexplicable statement. The Leninist
            CPGB comparable to the red-brown CPRF? The Weekly Worker just a
few notches above your average
            "neo-Nazi tract"? Has Tobias Abse made some sort of terrible
mistake? What on earth is he talking about?
            Actually, the answer is quite straightforward ... and at the
end of the day does not reflect too kindly upon
            comrade Abse.

            The CPGB did indeed become "notorious" amongst some individuals
in the Socialist Alliance - and beyond -
            when it took a clear and principled stand against an article in
Socialist Worker which called for the works of
            the British historian, David Irving, to be banned from public
libraries. Not that anybody should have been
            surprised by the militant stance the CPGB took over this issue.
The Weekly Worker has had a consistent
            history - as did its predecessor, The Leninist - of opposing
censorship and defending the principle of free
            speech. In this spirit the Weekly Worker had condemned the view
expressed by some SWPers - in 'private'
            conversation with CPGB members - that Hitler's Mein Kampf
should only be made available to bona fide,
            duly-accredited students. Similarly, the CPGB has always
opposed the idea - heavily flirted with in the past by
            the SWP and bashed about by others, such as Ken Livingstone -
that the British National Party should be
            banned, or that German-style 'holocaust denial' laws should be
introduced in the UK.

            As the Weekly Worker patiently explained, and will continue to
do so until the sun goes supernova, all these
            anti-democratic and fundamentally Big Brotherish proposals are
underpinned by the assumption that the
            working class consists of ignorant and potentially wayward
sheep who must be shielded from corrupting and
            confusing 'bad ideas' - and therefore need the all-wise SWP
priesthood to tell them what they should and
            should not be thinking at any one time. Naturally, the SWP
central committee needs to be on permanent guard
            duty. On the other hand, the CPGB view is that the working
class can become a universal ruling class only if it
            masters politics and scientific discourse in general - which in
turn requires access to the most advanced theory
            available. Without the free, full and open clash of different
and contending ideas such theory - so necessary for
            our self-liberation - can never truly emerge. Very orthodox in
terms of classical Marxism, yet so very
            blasphemous to many on the British left.

            With specific regards to oddball Hitler fan David Irving, the
CPGB - like Finkelstein in The holocaust
            industry - also made the additional point, surely
uncontroversial for any Marxist, that merely because a
            scientist/academic has a generally obnoxious or reactionary
world view, that does not invalidate the results of
            his or her research, some of which may have been the product of
many years of painstaking and possibly
            ground-breaking work - and thus has the potential to enrich and
advance the collective knowledge of all of
            humanity. Or do the politically correct left believe that in
the realm of ideas (or philosophy, if you like) all the
            really important disputes have more or less been settled and
therefore it is just a question of 'hitting the streets'
            and 'getting down to it'?

            As for the ultra-chauvinist Le Pen, the Weekly Worker just made
the simple observation that his
            oft-misquoted/misunderstood remark that the holocaust was just
"a detail" of World War II when applied to
            the war aims and objectives of the democratic imperialist
bourgeoisie obviously contains a kernel of truth
            - to say otherwise would effectively be to argue that Winston
Churchill et al fought the war out of a
            progressive-humanitarian desire to 'save the Jews' and make the
world safe for peace and democracy. Clearly
            not true. Pure fantasy, in fact. The objective fact of
capitalist general crisis propelled the imperialist powers
            towards war. Neither ideology nor the brutality of any of the
combatants was the fundamental cause of the
            bloodbath. So what is so wrong with actually saying this? What
is there to be so scared of? You cannot help
            but think some leftists have a world view based on sand. They
do not really believe - deep down in their
            hearts - that Marxism is true.

            But whatever the exact psycho-political diagnosis, the fact
remains that for uttering such basic Marxist home
            truths some thought the CPGB had gone way beyond the pale.
Enough was enough. Time for a crackdown.
            Sort of. In response to its utterly outrageous position on Le
Pen, a furious letter to the Weekly Worker from a
            certain Toby Abse suggested that that the CPGB was a de facto
pro-fascistic organisation whose members
            and supporters would need Irish National Liberation Army
bodyguards to protect them from the anti-racist
            fury of the Asian, black and Jewish community, outraged at the
contents of the Weekly Worker. Toby also
            promised at the time to do his utmost to see that such pro-Le
Pen vipers were expelled from the Socialist
            Alliance.

            History also repeated itself at the Lewisham and Greenwich
Socialist Alliance. A miserable motion was tabled
            stating that unless the CPGB publicly "apologised" for the
"offensive" Weekly Worker article opposing
            Socialist Worker's attack on the principle of free speech -
part of which would involve sending copies of its
            tear-stained retraction to mainstream newspapers like The
Jewish Chronicle and The Voice - then moves
            would be made under the left's 'no platform' shibboleth to kick
the pro-David Irving CPGBers out of the
            alliance.

            The author of this hysterical resolution, which thankfully came
to nothing, was once again Toby Abse - who, it
            should not be forgotten, fraudulently added the name of the
South London Republican Forum/Green Party's
            Terry Liddle to his anti-CPGB witch-hunting motion (strangely
enough, comrade Liddle has himself now
            become the victim of a bizarre anarchist-cum-Trotskyist witch
hunt which brands him a "fascist collaborator").

            In response to all this censorious twaddle, the "notorious"
CPGB has steadfastly maintained that backward or
            reactionary ideas and sentiments are best defeated by being
dragged into the open - not by bans and
            prohibitions. Bureaucratic decrees and paternalism will only
create more Irvings and Le Pens, not fewer. Not
            that we are afraid in the meantime to use physical force,
either for defence or attack

            Finally, two direct questions to comrade Abse. Does he favour
the removal of David Irving's works from
            public libraries - i.e., censorship? Does he think that the
western powers in World War II were fighting a noble
            anti-fascist/Nazi crusade which is somehow above criticism -
whether from the Irving/Le Pen nationalist right or
            the communist internationalist left? If the answer to both
these questions is 'no' - and I cannot believe for a
            minute that it would not be - then comrade Abse is to all
intents and purposes in agreement with the "strange"
            CPGB and "its convoluted apologias for Irving and Le Pen". In
which case, Tobias's sly innuendo in New
            Interventions can only have been motivated by a fanatical
anti-CPGBism which seems solely based on a
            unhealthy desire for political-ideological uniformity and
conformity.

            Eddie Ford







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