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