Final Solutions: Human Nature, Capitalism and Genocide

Final Solutions: Human Nature, Capitalism and Genocide

by Sabby Sagall


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Final Solutions: Human Nature, Capitalism and Genocide by Sabby Sagall

Final Solutions offers a ground-breaking and genuinely unique analysis of modern genocide. Sabby Sagall draws on the insights of the Frankfurt school and Wilhelm Reich to create an innovative combination of Marxism and psychoanalysis. He argues that genocide is a product of an ‘irrational’ destructiveness by social classes or communities that have suffered major historical defeats or similar forms of extreme stress.

Sagall shows how the denial of human needs and the ensuing feelings of isolation and powerlessness propel groups to project their impotent rage, hatred and destructiveness engendered by these defeats on to the 'outsider' and the 'other'.

The book applies this theoretical framework to four modern genocides – that of the Native Americans, the Armenians, the Jews and the Rwandan Tutsis. This is a truly pioneering contribution which adds to our understanding of some of the darkest hours of humanity – and how we can stop them from happening again.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745326535
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 10/20/2013
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 9.30(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Sabby Sagall is a former senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of East London. He writes regularly for Socialist Review.

Read an Excerpt


Why Do People Kill People?

What impels one human being to kill another, not because the latter has harmed him in any way, but simply because s/he is a member of a certain ethnic, religious or national group? I would argue that no explanation of human action is complete unless it adduces, not only its causes or the conditions under which it occurs, but also its reasons or motives. Experts from different fields, academic and clinical, have offered diverse explanations. In this chapter I shall, firstly, outline some of the theoretical approaches to the question of genocide and ethnic cleansing – those of political sociology, sociology, history and social psychology, including the non-psychoanalytical version of the authoritarian personality. I don't mean to suggest that the exemplars I quote deal fully with the contributions of these disciplines, merely that they represent good examples of their different approaches. I shall attempt to assess the extent to which they fulfil the criterion of providing reasons for genocidal behaviour. Secondly, I shall suggest, where possible, how insights arising out of these diverse methods might be integrated organically into a psychoanalytic Marxist view of history.

Towards Understanding Genocide

Political sociology

To what do we ascribe human destructiveness on such a scale? Recent work in the field of political sociology offers us one kind of answer. Michael Mann's book, The Dark Side of Democracy (2005), on ethnic cleansing and genocide, suggests eight general theses that purport to give us a collective explanation of these murderous phenomena. To summarise briefly the main points:

Firstly, murderous cleansing is a modern phenomenon: conventional warfare has increasingly targeted civilian populations; moreover, amid the multi-ethnicity of modern societies, the ideal of rule by the people or 'demos' has often been entwined with 'ethnos' to produce the dominance of a particular group.

Secondly, ethnic hostility arises 'where ethnicity trumps class as the main form of social stratification'. In the past, ethnic conflict was rare since most big societies were divided along class lines, dominated by an aristocracy or other elite that rarely shared a common culture with the people. Where the modern struggle for democracy involved an entire people struggling against rulers defined as foreign, an ethnic sense of identity arose, for example in Ireland or Poland.

Thirdly, ethno-nationalism is strongest where it becomes enmeshed with a sense of exploitation: for example, the Nazis felt exploited by the Jews, the Turks by the Armenians, the Hutus by the Tutsis. The danger zone of murderous cleansing is reached when movements claiming to represent two ethnic groups both lay claim to their own state having all or part of the same territory, as in colonial genocides. The brink of murderous cleansing is reached when the stronger side believes it has overwhelming military power and ideological legitimacy, as in Yugoslavia. Going over the edge into murderous cleansing occurs when the state exercising sovereignty over the contested territory has been factionalised and radicalised in an unstable geopolitical environment that usually leads to war.

Of course, ethnic mass murder is not usually the initial intention of the perpetrators of violence, not even in the case of Hitler. When they reach that point, it is usually Plan C, Plan A being a compromise or straightforward repression, Plan B 'a more radically repressive adaptation to the failure of Plan A'. Plan C, involving murderous cleansing, is adopted after the failure of A and B. Genocide is certainly deliberate but not premeditated. Moreover, there are three main levels of perpetrators: the radical elites running the party and state; the bands of militants forming the violent paramilitaries; and the core constituencies providing mass if not majority popular support.

Finally, it is ordinary people living in normal social structures who carry out murderous cleansing. Mann quotes the psychologist Charny: 'the mass killers of humankind are largely everyday human beings – what we have called normal people according to currently accepted definitions by the mental health profession'. Indeed, in Bosnia, some of them were psychiatrists! Placed in similar situations, anyone might commit ethnic murder. 'To understand ethnic cleansing, we need a sociology of power more than a special psychology of perpetrators as disturbed or psychotic people – though some may be.'

These theses certainly provide significant insights insofar as they shed light on the conditions under which acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide have occurred in the modern world. However, in the end, they are a series of descriptions of factors, some of which, though not all, have been present in each of the events. Moreover, they refer exclusively to external factors – political, economic, territorial, and so on. Mann's analysis remains incomplete in that his theses do not offer us an explanation of genocide that includes the internal reasons or motives that drove groups of people to commit such crimes. And surely we need to understand what forces of hatred and destructiveness are unleashed by the various precipitating factors. The perpetrators of genocidal violence may well be 'ordinary people', and not clinically diagnosed homicidal psychotics, but at the very least certain situations have produced drastically altered mental states, characterised by a high level of destructiveness. Mann identifies necessary conditions, but these do not contain, in addition, sufficient conditions: a complete explanation requires both.

Furthermore, Mann writes as though pathology were a purely individual phenomenon. Yet surely we can legitimately posit the notion of social pathology, a situation in which a high proportion of members of a society or of certain groups or classes display identifiable symptoms of emotional malfunction, of being severely out of touch with reality. The middle class in Nazi Germany – and currently Israeli society – arguably fall within this category. If so, then individuals would not stand out from the pathological group to which they belong. As group psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion described it: 'no individual, however isolated in time and space, can be regarded as outside a group or lacking in active manifestations of group psychology'. Or again: 'diseases manifest themselves in the individual but they have characteristics that make it clear that it is the group rather than the individual that is stricken'.

This is the position espoused by Erich Fromm in his much-admired The Sane Society (1956) in which he argues that 'many psychiatrists and psychologists refuse to entertain the idea that society as a whole may be lacking in sanity: the problem of mental health is that of "unadjusted" individuals, not ... of a possible unadjustment of the culture itself'. He proposes, therefore, to deal 'not with individual pathology but with the pathology of normalcy ... the pathology of contemporary Western society'.

Fromm invokes the authority of no less a figure than Freud himself, who wrote: 'would not the diagnosis be justified that many systems of civilisation – or epochs of it – possibly even the whole of humanity – have become "neurotic" under the pressure of the civilising trends'. Freud underpinned this view with an insistence on the social nature of human beings, a challenge to the common interpretation of Freud as irredeemably individualistic. I will return to this argument in Chapter 2.

Psychoanalytic Marxist Michael Schneider offers a further example of group pathology. He argues that the traditional bourgeoisie, that of the pre-imperialist, pre-monopoly capitalist era, once it lost its independent, entrepreneurial role as the creator of new, revolutionary means of production, became prone to specific forms of mental illness. This collective neurosis expressed the loss of its historical role and its new powerlessness, its inability to defeat the emerging depersonalised structures of corporate power and its state ally.

By destroying its social and economic foundation, developing monopoly capitalism not only transformed the classic bourgeois family into a breeding ground of psychic crises and disturbances; but through its elements of immanent social and political crisis, it created a social 'atmosphere' which favoured the massive creation of neurosis.

Mann's theses are useful insofar as they refer to the sum of necessary external conditions for the occurrence of genocide. But, as already suggested, explanations both of natural phenomena and of human behaviour need to identify sufficient conditions as well. Moreover, Mann's necessary conditions refer to certain indispensable precipitating factors. But again, we need in addition to know if there are any predisposing factors, an inner proclivity or receptiveness, that becomes activated under the right precipitating conditions. Both predisposing and precipitating factors are necessary if we are to provide a fully rounded explanation, one that is both theoretically valid and empirically plausible. In other words, we need to establish the existence of the following historical situation: the presence of subjective predisposing factors which, however, lack precipitating factors such as economic crisis or social breakdown, intensifying military or territorial conflict between rival ethnic or national groups, favourable strategic moments, and so on. The converse would be historical situations which contain such precipitating factors but which do not slide into murderous cleansing. Can we establish that these situations do not result in genocide because of the absence of the necessary predisposing, subjective factors? Clearly, in both these situations, it would be hard to draw conclusions in the absence of relevant historical or empirical research.

Taking the second category first – the presence of objective precipitating factors with no genocidal outcome – there have, of course, been many such situations in the post-war world, for example, the numerous conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa in which hundreds of thousands have perished but which fall short of a Rwandan-type exterminatory genocide. The conflict in Bosnia in the 1990s would perhaps be another, despite the Srebrenica massacre. Eight thousand men and boys were murdered but women and girls, around 16,000, were escorted to Tuzla by the Bosnian Serbs. But clearly such war zones do not provide fertile ground for conducting the kind of scrupulous research necessary to establish the presence of the subjective factors that are an essential ingredient of irrational genocide.


As we saw in the Introduction, Martin Shaw aims to restore Lemkin's original sociological definition of genocide by seeing it as involving more than the physical extermination of a group. Important though this is – and genocide always involves mass killing – the core meaning of the term refers, in addition, to the use of legal and military power to destroy a group's social, economic, political and cultural life and institutions.

Shaw therefore criticises the proliferation of concepts intended to refer to 'other forms of violence' – for example, ethnic cleansing, but including the many '-cides' of genocide, such as ethnocide, classicide, politicide, etc. These are taken to refer to phenomena separate from 'full-blown genocide', in particular situations in which there is cultural or political suppression of a group but no attempt to physically destroy it. But Shaw insists that where 'deep, extensive cultural and linguistic suppression leads to violent attacks on a group ... this tips over into genocide'. So the concept of 'ethnocide', often used to distinguish 'cultural genocide' from exterminatory genocide, is misleading, since it refers to the 'cultural dimension of genocide', a process integral to every genocide. Shaw prefers the terms 'cultural suppression' for the pre-genocidal denial of culture, and the 'cultural dimension of genocide' for suppression that is 'part of a broader genocidal process'.

Similarly, 'politicide', or the killing of political groups, appears to be different from the genocide of ethnic, national or religious groups insofar as membership of the latter is ascribed (one is born into them), whereas one chooses to join the former. However, since genocide usually develops out of military conflict – a precipitating factor – rather than just prejudice – a predisposing factor – political elites are often the first target of genocidal killers. There are two famous examples in which the destruction of a political group actually defines the mass slaughter: the massacre of half a million Communist Party members by the Indonesian army in 1965, and Stalin's murder of thousands of political opponents in the 1930s. In general, however, politicide is a variant or sub-category of genocide, and political targeting should be seen as a 'general dimension of genocide' in which 'political enemies are targeted alongside ... ethnic, class or other social enemies'.

Similarly, 'classicide' is a term invented by Mann to refer to the liquidation of peasant classes by despotic state-capitalist regimes such as Stalin's Russia and Mao's China as part of the creation of powerful centralised industrial economies. In Russia between 1929 and 1933, the kulak class of rich peasants was destroyed as a class through deportations, killings and state-induced 'terror-famine', in preparation for the collectivisation of agriculture. Some 10 million peasants died. In China's Great Leap Forward between 1959 and 1961, over 30 million died under similar circumstances. However, for Shaw, the idea that entire social classes were enemies that had to be liquidated is only a variation on the more common theme of destroying ethnic or national groups. And it is not really separate: 'anti-peasant "classicides" were combined with and followed by similar murderous campaigns against other social groups – both other classes and ethnic or national groups'. So Stalin's terror-famine was not simply intended to destroy the peasants as a class: focused on Ukraine, its secondary target was Ukrainian national identity.

In sum, Shaw disagrees with Mann's attempt to view these various forms of political oppression and violence as different kinds of phenomena. While it is necessary to adopt 'flexible language' to analyse the various forms of genocide, Shaw argues that the invention of new terms risks distorting reality by viewing as separate certain types of action that in fact belong to the same category. He concludes that 'we need concepts and theories that link them rather than set them apart'. However, there is the opposite danger in Shaw's approach, namely that we lump together phenomena that do contain important differences, so that we obscure the social-historical contexts within which they occur, and fail to grasp the different kinds of motives that impelled the perpetrators. So, in the first case, the concept of genocide can usefully be taken to describe completely irrational acts of destruction, ones that actually set back the interests and goals of the perpetrators; whereas, in the second case, 'classicide' describes acts of violence that did advance those goals and interests. Hence the Nazi genocide of the Jews actually made their military defeat more likely, as we shall see in Chapter 7. On the other hand, Stalin's massacre of the kulaks, and the consequent forced implementation of the collectivisation of agriculture, did facilitate the rapid industrialisation of Russia (though, of course, Trotsky was right to oppose Stalin's strategy and to put forward his alternative internationalist and democratic path to socialism).

Shaw follows Weber in wanting to provide explanations of social action based on two criteria: any explanation must include the actor's intentions, taking into account the meaning the action has for him or her, but it must also analyse the structure of social relations of which the action is a part. In other words, an adequate sociological explanation must both grasp the subjective meaning of actions, how they appear or feel to the actor, understanding their intentions, but also be 'causally adequate', that is, place these actions in a wider context of social relations. Now, the first stage – understanding subjective intentions – leads to the second – elaborating a broader sociological framework that explains them in terms of certain key concepts or model. This model is created by extracting the most crucial or pure elements from the actors' meanings, a model that Weber called an 'ideal-type'. Shaw provides such an ideal-type or 'generic concept' of genocide: 'violent conflict, in which the armed, organised side engages in intentional social destruction of the unarmed group side'. He criticises contemporary genocide studies for 'its overriding concern with establishing intentionality' and for being stuck at this first stage. A genuine sociology of genocide must include analyses of the interaction between perpetrators, victims and bystanders. Only such a 'relational' approach can provide us with an account of the social structure of genocide, the 'general "structuring of social relations across time and space" in which recurring patterns of social action are reproduced'. In the case of genocide, this is a structure of conflict, primarily the 'qualitatively asymmetric conflict of armed power and unarmed civilian society, but also entailing the possibility of armed resistance and alliance with other armed powers'. Genocide is therefore best understood in relation to other structures of conflict, that is, from its distinctiveness visible through its differences from these other types – especially war, with which it shares many common features. In sum, genocide, for Shaw, is 'a structural phenomenon ... a recurring pattern of social conflict, characterised by particular kinds of relationships between actors, and with typical connections to other conflict structures in society'.


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Copyright © 2013 Sabby Sagall.
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Table of Contents

1. Why Do People Kill People?
2. Killers On The Couch
3. What Makes Killers Tick?
4. Killing ‘Things’
5. Native American Genocide
6. The Armenian Genocide
7. The Nazi Holocaust
8. The Rwandan Genocide
Summary And Conclusion

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