Sabby Sagall’s new analysis of the causes of genocide, from a Marxist and psycho-analytical perspective, is welcomed by Neil Faulkner

Saggal cover


Sabby Sagall, Final Solutions: human nature, capitalism, and genocide: A Psychohistorical Re-examination of the Holocaust (Pluto 2013), 320pp.

Why do human beings, in certain historical circumstances, commit acts of genocide? Are the perpetrators a selection of individuals or entire social groups? Are all of us potentially capable of genocide? What is the relationship between the social and the psychological causes of history’s greatest crimes against humanity?

Sabby Sagall, a former senior lecturer in sociology at the University of East London and a lifelong revolutionary activist, was prompted to write Final Solutions by the approaching sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in 2005. He was persuaded to expand the remit to genocide in general, and the result, seven years in the writing, is a comprehensive survey of relevant Marxist and Freudian theories along with four excellent case-studies covering the Native American, Armenian, Nazi, and Rwandan Holocausts.

What is the nature of the relationship between Marxism and psychoanalysis? The short answer is fraught. The very possibility of a useful relationship is contested by some Marxists on the basis that reference to psychoanalytic explanations involves a retreat from politics into ‘psychologism’; it is social conditions, collective action, and political ideologies that determine history, they argue, not the inner mind of the individual.

Sagall is ready with an answer. Freud is necessary, he explains, because classical Marxism lacks a theory of subjectivity – ‘of the way external, material conditions become translated into the psyche of the individual, not just as ideology but as their overall emotional life’ (p.5). Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, provides ‘an account of subjectivity which links the “external” structures of the social world with the “internal” world of each individual … [it can] help us understand how external structures of exploitation and oppression are internalised in the mind of the individual’ (p.6).

This is undoubtedly correct. Alienation is created by class society and becomes part of routine everyday experience, much of it fully conscious, as in the crushing boredom most people endure in the workplace. But alienation is also internalised, becoming part of the personality, hollowing out its substance from the inside, leaving even the worker’s own leisure-time drained of meaning and purpose.

Sagall writes about the almost uncanny parallelism that links the work of Marx and Freud, both of whom were profoundly dialectical in their thinking, the one analysing society as a mass of contradictions and conflicts, the other delving into the darkest places of the human mind to discover a clash of primal forces.

The mind of the killer

Much of the first half the book comprises a magisterial survey of psychoanalytical theory as it has been interpreted by Marxists and other radicals. Sagall pays particular attention to the work of Wilhelm Reich, a student of Freud, a practising psychoanalyst, and an active member of the German Communist Party in the interwar period, and also to various members of the ‘the Frankfurt School’, including Herbert Marcuse, who became a guru of the student revolts of the late 1960s, but above all to Erich Fromm, who wrote a series of major psychoanalytical works.

The critical concept, for Sagall as for Reich and Fromm, is ‘social character’. Sagall argues, for example, that rising social classes engaged in constructing a new social order have to create a new social character, that is, a new mind-set, one appropriate to the tasks in hand, just as they have to create a new ideology. Equally, classes occupying different social positions will have different social characters. And classes under pressure, especially classes which have experienced major defeats, are likely to develop social characters with distinctly pathological characteristics; or, more accurately, an existing ‘predisposition’ to pathology might then come to the surface and find expression in human action.

An instance of particular historical importance is that of the German middle class between 1848 and 1945. The failure of the 1848 revolution meant that German bourgeois civilisation never flowered into a fully fledged liberalism; the German Enlightenment was, in a sense, still-born. German unification – the Prussian-dominated ‘bourgeois revolution from above’ – created a single national market and a framework for the rapid growth of capitalism. But it left the German middle-class in a subaltern role and in thrall to Prussian militarism. Sagall argues that the German middle-class family was, in consequence, a particularly extreme example of the patriarchal family, with many children raised in authoritarian, brutal, loveless homes.

The defeat of 1918, the victors’ peace imposed on Germany at Versailles, the great wave of working-class revolution that swept across the country, the ravages of inflation in the early 1920s, and then the economic collapse of the early 1930s, all conspired to drive the German middle class to despair and madness. Nazism was fuelled by the ‘narcissistic rage’ and ‘authoritarian-destructive character’ that had been formed inside the repressive middle-class family.

In the realm of unreason

This is not ‘psychologism’; it is a psychoanalytically informed understanding of how social crisis and fascist ideology can work at the level of the individual mind to turn people into Nazis. And such an understanding is required, because, as Sagall, stresses, genocide is often irrational, not just in the generic sense that it reflects a world of human alienation, but in the specific sense that it may not serve the immediate interests of the perpetrators.

Sagall’s point here is that, in a class society, genocide can be rational for the system. The Armenian Holocaust was a mixture of both: the Armenians living in eastern Turkey were a real and present danger to the Ottoman state fighting a war against the Russians in the Caucasus in 1915; on the other hand, the scale and savagery of the killing surpassed any conceivable ‘military necessity’, implying that pathological psychic forces had been activated. Neither the exigencies of imperialist war nor the derangement of the collective psyche constitute ‘justifications’ for genocide. The point is merely that they are different, the one rational in terms of the system, the other only explicable in relation to some inner psychic disorder.

The Nazi Holocaust was of the latter kind. It destroyed potential workers and consumed industrial resources which were desperately needed for the war effort as the tide turned against the Nazis after 1941. Nor can Auschwitz be explained simply in terms of politics or ideology: the killing was kept secret – because the Nazis knew it would not be supported by most Germans – and they did not commence systematic genocide until they faced defeat. In these circumstances, Sagall’s analysis is compelling:

‘The image of the Jews as omnipotent can … be interpreted as a projection of the Nazis’ fantasy wish [to control the world], which, in turn, expressed their own narcissistic rage at their secret fear of helplessness … while the decision to exterminate the Jews was sparked by the first portent of defeat on the Russian front, in the end it was rooted in the pathology of Nazism, whose seeds were planted several decades earlier: in the objective historical defeats of the German middle class. These were in turn translated into their subjective family and childhood experiences’(pp.220-21).

The future of genocide?

The sexual revolution of the 1960s and the advances made in women’s rights since the 1970s have transformed the character of the family across much of the developed world. Much family experience remains fraught and oppressive, but the excesses of the patriarchal-authoritarian model that provided – quite literally – the breeding-ground of Nazism in the early twentieth-century Germany are much reduced. Most relationships between partners are more equal, and most relationships between parents and children more permissive. Does this mean that the predisposition to genocide is less?

This would be the case only if Eros (Freud’s term for libido – the basic instinct, the sex drive, the life force) had indeed been set free and enabled to achieve full gratification in modern society. But this is not the case. In place of repressed sexuality there is commodified sexuality. Unlike early twentieth-century imperialist capitalism, early twenty-first-century neoliberal capitalism is content to allow its subject people sexual freedom of a sort; indeed, it encourages it, for individualism – a competitive, commodified, self-destructive form of individualism – is an essential feature of the neoliberal social order. Just as economically we are all supposed to be ‘entrepreneurial selves’ selling our skills on the labour market, so we all encouraged to create a commodified lifestyle, image, body, and sexuality, and then to sell ourselves to others on a sexual market in return for erotic gratification. Capital has endorsed sexual libertarianism because the body beautiful is a mass market.

But Eros remains frustrated. People transform themselves into sexual commodities, and then experience others only as commodities. They focus on preening the commodified exterior, allowing the inner being to be drained of content, only to find that others have done the same. Sexual encounters become hollow – a succession of desperate scrambles to be wanted, to be had, to have – leaving a gnawing emptiness. Interpersonal relations become impersonal relations. Bodies are in contact, but persons are not. There is physicality, but it is a surface without substance.

Eros is no longer in revolt against an authoritarian father and his repressive sexual mores. He is now in revolt against the generic frustration inherent in a world of alienated relationships and commodified sexuality. There is the same narcissistic rage, but it is less object-focused, more diffuse, more prone to random violence – or to being directed against whatever convenient target is held up for opprobrium by those who run the system at any particular moment.

Freud’s ‘discontents’ remain. They have been reconfigured as class society evolves. But they continue to provide the psychic seed-bed of reactionary politics, and, at the worst of times, should they recur, the psychic material for genocide. This is a brilliant book of Marxist-Freudian synthesis and analysis. It offers a cutting-edge explanation of genocide. And it provides a grim warning of the immense destructive forces that lie latent in a collective psyche made sick by capitalism.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.