[Marxism] No, He’s Not Hitler. And Yet ...

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jun 5 08:50:06 MDT 2016

NY Times Op-Ed, June 4 2016
No, He’s Not Hitler. And Yet ...
by Justin E.H. Smith

We are supposed to find some solace these days in the assurance that 
Donald Trump is “not Hitler.” One reasonable response is this: Of course 
he isn’t. Only Hitler is Hitler, and he died in a bunker in 1945. There 
is no such thing as reincarnation, and history is nothing more than a 
long, linear series of individual people and events that come and go. It 
is, as the saying goes, “just one damn thing after another.”

This quip is in part a rejection of the idea that history is, or might 
someday be, a sort of science in which we subsume particular events 
under general laws. This idea motivated Hegel to conceptualize human 
history as a law-governed dialectical process of the “unfolding of 
absolute Spirit.”

Marx in turn eliminated the ghost from Hegel’s system, and conceived the 
process of history as one of material relations between classes. But it, 
too, remained bound by general laws, so that when any historical actors 
did this or that (crossed the Rubicon, repealed the Edict of Nantes, 
etc.), they did so not so much as individuals, but as vessels of a 
historical process that would be unfolding even if they had never existed.

Even when Marx facetiously riffs on Hegel’s claim that historical facts 
and personages always appear twice — by adding that they do so the first 
time as tragedy and the second time as farce — he is still perpetuating 
the very serious idea that individual people and happenings in history 
are instances of something more general.

But what would it mean for the “same event” to happen again? What are 
the criteria of sameness? How alike do two individuals have to be in 
order to be paired? How much does this repetition depend on the 
individuals themselves, and how much on the similarity of external 
circumstances? Can we really compare the United States at present to the 
late Roman Empire or to the Hittites just before their collapse, given 
how much we know to have changed in human societies since antiquity?

With the depressing confirmations of Godwin’s Law that can be found 
every day in the comments sections of news outlets (surely, this article 
will be no exception), one often senses that “Hitler” is not so much a 
historical figure as a mythological one, that the war of 70-some years 
ago has already become something like the Trojan War had been for the 
Homeric bards: a major event in the mythic past that gives structure and 
sense to our present reality. As in myth, that great event’s personages 
can appear and reappear not in the exact form they took back then, but 
as avatars, in new forms, under new names.

History seems to present us with a choice between two undesirable 
options: If it is just one singular thing after another, then we can 
derive no general laws or regularities from it, and so we would seem to 
have no hope of learning from it; but when we do try to draw lessons 
from it, we lapse all too easily into such a simplified version of the 
past, with a handful of stock types and paradigm events, that we may as 
well just have made it up. History seems to be a pointless parade of 
insignificant events until we shape it into something that has 
significance for us, until we build myths out of it, until we begin 
using it to make up stories.

This is what makes it so easy and tempting to weaponize history, to 
forgo any interest in “how it actually was” — to use the 19th-century 
historian Leopold von Ranke’s definition of the true goal of the study 
of history — and to bend it toward our own present ends.

Today Donald Trump excels at treating the past as raw material to be 
sculpted into whatever claims serve his interests — for example, when he 
shifts President Obama’s birthplace from Hawaii to Kenya. But the idea 
that history is infinitely malleable is by no means the exclusive 
property of xenophobic populists. Until very recently it was common to 
hear from skeptics (in academia and elsewhere) that history is a 
“narrative,” and that we must not expect the facts themselves to dictate 
to us what version of history we ought to adopt. The facts are 
inaccessible, it was said, so let us tell stories, and create our reality.

By the early 2000s, as announced in an influential article by the French 
theorist Bruno Latour, this skeptical attitude had produced some 
unintended consequences. For one thing, it had fallen into the hands of 
“the enemy”: Creationists were invoking skeptical arguments to undercut 
the epistemological basis of evolutionary theory; neoconservatives were 
openly declaring themselves free of any obligation to what was now 
mockingly called “reality,” as they had taken it upon themselves to 
create a new reality of their own liking by, for example, invading Iraq 
and, so they had hoped, planting the seeds of Jeffersonian democracy 
there. And after Sept. 11, 2001, as Latour quickly began to notice, 
people of all political stripes were rushing to attribute responsibility 
for the attacks to whatever party or supernatural force best indulged 
their fantasies about how the world works.

The degeneration of which Mr. Trump is a symptom is by no means limited 
to American political life. If Trump is not a reincarnation of Hitler, 
he is most certainly one head of the same global Hydra that has already 
given us Vladimir V. Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Narendra Modi. For 
all of them, the past is not something to study and to attend to, but 
something to sculpt.

The leader of India, Mr. Modi, for example has brought about, through 
support of the ideology of Hindutva, a political climate in which Indian 
nationalist academics can claim that airplanes are described in the 
millenniums-old Vedas without being ridiculed or marginalized. Mr. Trump 
is seeking to bring about a climate in which equally false claims may go 
unchallenged, in the name, purportedly, of something much more important 
than mere empirical fact: making America “great again.” The invocation 
of the past in this slogan is obviously mythological. No one will ever 
call on him to cite any dates or figures to back it up.

History has always been prone to such deformations. In the 16th century 
the Spanish Jesuit Jerónimo Román de la Higuera forged a cache of 
documents meant to prove the antiquity of Christianity in the Iberian 
Peninsula. Far from falling into notoriety when his inventions were 
uncovered, he instead went on to even greater fame as the author of the 
“falsos cronicones,” the false chronicles, which were only the more 
glorious in that the claims they made were not dependent on mere factual 
truths of history, but spoke of a “higher truth,” coming directly from 
God. There is a long tradition in fact of the so-called pia fraus: the 
pious fraud.

Mr. Trump is banking on the American public’s willingness to revert to 
such a conception of truth that does not require any basis in fact. And 
it is here that a bit of von Ranke’s hardheadedness can serve as a 
corrective. We can worry later about drawing significant lessons from 
history, about finding meaning for our lives in the past. For now what 
is crucial is to insist that the past can be known — that Mr. Obama was 
not born in Kenya, that climate change was not made up by the Chinese 
and that anyone who pretends the opposite, as part of a larger plan to 
make America great again, is, as a matter of simple historical fact, an 
impious fraud and a liar.

The task that faces American voters at the present moment is enormous: 
to save the United States from the same post-democratic order to which 
parts of Europe and most of Asia has already fallen. Our relationship to 
history will play no small role in this. History may be rooted in 
storytelling, but we can summon it to be something more — the arbiter of 
truth against lies told in pursuit of power.

Mr. Trump himself appears indifferent to history, as well as to the 
grave significance of the comparisons of him to Hitler. It’s true that 
Donald Trump is not Hitler. But the fact that the comparison has any 
traction at all, that it is a recognizable part of our new political 
dialogue, and that the man at its center is not actively seeking to 
prove it wrong, shows how severe the current crisis is, and hints at how 
dark the future might get.

Justin E. H. Smith is a professor of philosophy at the University of 
Paris 7–Denis Diderot, and the author, most recently, of “The 
Philosopher: A History in Six Types.”

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