Ishall begin here from an astonishing fact. In December 1938, in an appeal to American Jews, Leon Trotsky in a certain manner predicted the impending Jewish catastrophe. Here is what he wrote: ‘It is possible to imagine without difficulty what awaits the Jews at the mere outbreak of the future world war. But even without war the next development of world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews.’footnote1 This was just a few weeks after Kristallnacht and it was one month before Hitler’s famous Reichstag speech of 30 January 1939 in which he ‘prophesied’ the annihilation of European Jewry in the event of a world war.
I call Trotsky’s prediction an astonishing fact. For it is a common and well-grounded theme in the literature of the Holocaust that the disaster was not really predictable. It was outside the range of normal experience and of sober political projection or indeed imagination. Even once the tragedy began to unfold, many people found the information on what was being done to the
How are we to account for Trotsky’s prescience in this matter? Was it perhaps just some sort of stray, dark intuition? Or was it rather a hypothesis founded on the forms of knowledge which he brought to trying to understand the realities of his time? I shall in due course propose as an answer that it was something in between. But I will come to this answer by way of a critical review of Ernest Mandel’s thinking on the same subject. This is the main purpose of what I want to present here, though my aim will be as well, through it, to offer some more general reflections on Marxism as a body of theory in relation to the Nazi genocide against the Jews.
I say a critical review of Mandel’s thinking on the subject and critical is what it will be; although it will be somewhat less so in relation to his later views as compared with the earlier ones, since there was an internal development and enlargement of these. Still, overall, it will be critical. And I am bound to observe, therefore, that so critical a review may seem
An early effort by him to take the measure of the Jewish tragedy is an article of 1946, ‘La question juive au lendemain de la deuxième guerre mondiale’. Please keep in mind that it was written by Mandel at the age of 22 or 23, and also (in light of that date, 1946) how much difficulty in general people have had, over several decades, in facing up to the implications of this catastrophe. Mandel begins by evoking the horrors of it, and he then gestures towards the sort of uncomprehending response I have already illustrated with the words of Isaac Deutscher. The human imagination has trouble grasping the significance of the experience, Mandel writes; the misfortune of the Jews seems ‘absurd’. The mind ‘refuses to admit that material interests could have determined, in cold logic, the extermination of these innumerable defenceless beings’.footnote5