I have just finished reading Enzo Traverso’s The Origins of Nazi Violence (The New Press, 2003), which seeks to set us straight about the vexed questions raised by the “historians’ debate” of 1986. Traverso takes on Ernst Nolte (the rightist who blames Nazism on the Soviet revolution), Francois Furet (the liberal who uses the word “totalitarian” to equate Nazism and Communism), in favor of such fashionable figures as Norbert Elias (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Civilizing_Process), Max Weber, Adorno, Horkheimer, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, and Zygmunt Bauman.
Traverso, an Italian Trotskyist now teaching at Cornell University, fits perfectly into the academic Left in America, for (unlike Marx who favored the progressive bourgeosie), he pushes the Leninist line influenced by the antisemitic journalist J. A. Hobson (but also early Marx, as in “On The Jewish Question”), but with a twist. Whereas Hobson (like Marx) blamed the rule of money, specifically an international cabal of Jewish financiers and their seizing of mass media for modern wars, Traverso follows the Max Weber/Frankfurt School/cultural studies analyses that pin modern antisemitism on the Enlightenment, the all-controlling machines and division of labor initiated by the Industrial Revolution, and the brutalizing imperialism that it spawned. Traverso’s imagination contains an anti-Promethean Frankenstein fantasy populated by imperialists of Europe who flocked into Africa to swipe all their raw materials, open markets, massacred millions of “inferior” natives, and because of their rivalries initiated the Great War that further brutalized humanity and nationalized the masses. Enter Nazism and the steel helmet, symbol of the demise of the noble ancient warrior.
But wait! There is more. As a postmodernist and fierce opponent of science in service to the monsters, Traverso focuses on the biological metaphors applied to hapless victims. These images take on a life of their own, impelling the mass murders of Jews. Representations rule, ignoring the material interests that motivate leaders and the led. In the process, Traverso claims that the antisemitism of medieval or antique societies was entirely displaced in favor of scientific racism/social Darwinism. Thus the reader must not consider the lingering effects of Christian antisemitism in the 20th Century. (Or by extension, Muslim antisemitism today.)
Maddening science itself is to blame, but of course not the “science” of dialectical materialism. Or the pseudo-science of “social engineering” that explains Lysenkoism. For Traverso entirely discounts any role of heredity: all is environment in the shaping of human character.
I find it interesting that Traverso, a highly educated Europeanist, can utterly ignore the roles of the Germans Herder, Kant, and Fichte, in his intellectual history that nails the “Western” 19th century to the wall. For it was they who started the war on the “mechanical materialism” of the French Enlightenment, disempowering the all-too empirical, increasingly literate masses with their German Romantic notions of national character and the superiority of the Greek-influenced Germanic culture: a culture that celebrated the “rooted cosmopolitan” and laid the groundwork for today’s multiculturalism and cultural relativism. (See http://clarespark.com/2010/10/18/the-dialectic-of-multiculturalism-helvetius-herder-fichte/, and http://clarespark.com/2010/07/20/german-romantic-predecessors-to-multiculturalism/.
If it is difficult today to separate out progressive capitalists in the Democratic Party from hard-core communists, it may be their shared optimism that explains this strange alliance that is mis-educating our children. Taking heredity into account spoils their fun in demolishing the positive material and moral achievements of “civilization.” (For early Marx’s view of industrialism, technology, and the progressive bourgeoisie see http://clarespark.com/2014/06/07/marx-vs-lenin/.)
Oh, did I mention that the subjugation of women in non-Western countries elicits not a peep from the esteemed cultural historian from the Trotskyist Left?