Review: The Contract Of Mutual Indifference by Norman Geras

A book review from Black Flag #216 1999.

Submitted by Fozzie on August 9, 2020

Norman Geras, in this latest collection of essays, forces us to confront arguments too long avoided by all of us who seek a better world. Questions of whether, beyond the limitless exploitation of man by man under capitalism. indifference to suffering is the norm of humankind. Whether - given evidence of (particularly from the present century) atrocious human cruelty, murderous division and conflict and our species' aptitude for large scale organised bloodletting - human beings are capable of creating a democratic, egalitarian society.

It is Geras' contention that socialists have ducked the challenge of the Holocaust: that (and here he quotes the historian Ian Kershaw), "The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference" - and that the existence of this “mutual indifference" has to have consequences for the anti-capitalist project.

Geras examines a range of survivor testimonies from the Holocaust - the writings of. amongst others, Primo Levi, Terrence Des Pres and Elie Wiesel to chart that combination of barbarity and collusion which makes the fact of the Shoah weigh so heavily upon the revolutionary hopes of the generation who followed on. The essence of what is at issue can be conveyed through two examples drawn from the range of Geras' readings. The first, the more familiar. is the observation of Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the Jews
I did not speak out because I was not a Jew
Then they came for the Communist
and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the trade unionist
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for me
and there was no-one left to speak out
for me.

Secondly, from Adina Swajgcr, from her writings on the burning of the Warsaw ghetto:

And the people?...For me they all had one face, an empty one. Because it was all far away. Behind the wall. It just did not concern them. In the same way we are not really concerned about children dying of hunger in Biafra, Ethiopia, or in India.

The conclusions Geras draws from the knowledge of the Holocaust, from the grim recognition of man's capacity for inhumanity is, simply, that "maximalist dreams of socialist utopias" and the perfectibility of man have to be put aside, that History can only support a ”limited notion of progress and of socialist utopia." In this, in light of the extent and content of the evidence, he is, I would contend, correct. Geras proposes that the

"hope of socialism has to be sustained on the basis of (the) assumption (that) the goal of a much better and a more just society is to be fought for not because human beings are by nature overwhelmingly or essentially good, but because and in spite of the combination in their nature of bad impulses with good ones. Because of the bad impulses this struggle is necessary. In spite of them, it is to be hoped. a socialist society may yet be possible."

This has to be the conclusion ultimately drawn for all that we can recognise “the injuries of class, race, gender and religion" in preparing the ground for the commission of atrocities, it is nevertheless beyond argument that such atrocities are within the capacity of “human nature."

Geras warns against accepting that "Auschwitz gives us the truth about human nature - not merely a truth, but the truth" against ignoring the "historicity and conditions'' of the Holocaust, such that "humanity's accumulating crimes live the shape of the thought that such is what we are and have to be.” Reluctantly (and it is with genuine reluctance given the moral courage Geras' book both embodies and pays tribute to) I would argue that it is precisely that historicity that Geras avoids in some of his more general conclusions.

One of the essays provides a critique of the Belgian Marxist Ernest Mandel 's attempts to identify the causes of the Holocaust. Mandel's starting point is that it is ”capitalism that is responsible for their (the Jews') tragic fate and for the impasse in which the whole of humanity finds itself." He contextualises the Holocaust by reference to

"the deportation of ethnic Germans from parts of east and central Europe at the end of the war, the callousness of the British towards mass suffering in India, or of the Americans in connection with the use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima".

Geras retorts that "The Holocaust is here turned into a more or less regular type of occurrence of our epoch, terrible as it may have been, it only anticipates much worse..." He finds this position crudely reductionist, that it takes away from the uniqueness of the Holocaust. He refers us to the example of the bloodlust demonstrated by German reserve policemen in Poland, their "elation and lust for killing". He refers us to the historian Saul Friedlander's notion of the "non-congruence between intellectual probing and the blocking of intuitive comprehension", to Isaac Deutscher's sense of the "huge and ominous mystery of the degeneration of the human character that will forever baffle and terrify mankind", and to Primo Levi's preference for "the humility of those historians who 'confess to not understanding'”. It is almost as if Geras accepts that to propose that the Holocaust is rationally explicable is to betray the memory of those who perished. Any attempt at context is condemned. Yet without an understanding of the socio-historic circumstances surrounding the Holocaust we are left with nothing more than ''elation and the lust for killing" as cause.

Between 1914 and 1990, 187 million have been killed in the course of war. The First World War marked a move away from any notion of “combatants and non-combatants". Barbarism became the norm. Inhumanity was underpinned by racial contempt, rooted in the ideology of imperialism. As Eric Hobsbawn has observed, [i]"Would General Dyer in 1919 have ordered his men to fire into a crowd killing 379 people, if the crowd had been English... and not Indian, or the place Glasgow not Amritsar? Almost certainly not. The barbarism of Nazi Germany was far greater against Russians, Poles, Jews and other people considered sub-human than against West Europeans..." (On History p258). The European ruling class that pretended abhorrence at the extermination of the Jews cheered the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, suppressed the Greek Resistance by force and contemplated nuclear holocaust as a rational response to any threat to its grand designs. It is not to reduce the specific horror of the Holocaust to suggest its roots lie in the sheer barbarism of capitalism itself. As Rudolf Hess asserted, ”The Third Reich was founded on an idea that came from the trenches."

Elsewhere Geras argues that, ”in the light of what humans can do and have done to one another, we have every reason to want to continue setting limits around the more harmful and menacing types of human potentiality. All the paraphernalia of the rule of law... follow. The realm of freedom is restricted". The collusion of substantial numbers of the German people in the Nazi project was predicated upon the smashing of the organised working class and as Goebbels put it, the establishment of propaganda as "an essential function of the modern state. No one else has brought to such a degree of virtuosity the art of dominating the masses". Fascism exploited the habit of obedience fostered by the rule of law under capital, under conditions where all meaningful opposition to the capitalist norm had been suppressed. To suggest that the lesson to be drawn from this is to maintain the repressive machinery of the state under socialism, not even as a means of securing the state against a resurgent bourgeoisie, but against the risk of our own bad conscience is to effectively abandon the liberatory project in its entirety. If socialism is our best hope against the barbarism inherent in capitalism, we would do well to remember Rudolph Rocker's warning that "Socialism will be free or it will not be at all."

The Contract of Mutual Indifference is troubling and provocative, as befits the import of its subject. If we wish to continue to believe in and fight for "the continued hope in the better possibilities of human nature" we cannot ignore the arguments Geras puts forward. No project for social transformation can seek to ignore the history of atrocity and resistance of the Shoah.