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 Jews hard to absorb, hard to connect up into a unified picture of comprehensive genocide, hard to believe; and this applied to wide sections of the Jewish population itself. Then, after the event, its enormity has seemed to many difficult to grasp. It has seemed to be in some measure beyond understanding and explanation. We have the evidence of such a reaction from none other than Trotsky’s great biographer. Referring to ‘the absolute uniqueness of the catastrophe’, Isaac Deutscher would later write:

The fury of Nazism, which was bent on the unconditional extermination of every Jewish man, woman, and child within its reach, passes the comprehension of a historian, who tries to uncover the motives of human behaviour and to discern the interests behind the motives. Who can analyze the motives and the interests behind the enormities of Auschwitz?. . .we are confronted here by a huge and ominous mystery of the degeneration of the human character that will forever baffle and terrify mankind.footnote2

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 out of place on the occasion, devoted as it is to registering and honouring Mandel’s achievement.footnote3 Let me just say three things about this. First, like other participants here I held, and I hold, Mandel’s life’s work in the highest regard, and nothing in what follows affects that. Second, in the proper place I have recorded my own debts to him. In particular, his work helped me to an understanding of something centrally important in the thinking of Rosa Luxemburg, as also in any rounded conception of emancipatory socialist struggle.footnote4 (I refer by this not only to what he wrote specifically about Rosa Luxemburg but also to his political writings more generally.) Third, Mandel himself, I believe, would not have been happy with anything less: anything less than the frankest appraisal on whatever question, and if frankly critical, then so be it.

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

This is not, however, the response that Mandel for his part wants to recommend. The fate of the European Jews he firmly situates, as being explicable by it, in the broader context of the mortal crisis of capitalism; and in the context, a product of this crisis, of the other horrors of the Second World War. It is ‘capitalism [that is] responsible for their [the Jews’] tragic fate and for the impasse in which the whole of humanity finds itself’.footnote6 The Nazi genocide against the Jews is also ‘contextualized’ by the young Mandel by reference to certain actions and attitudes of the Allied powers: 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; the responsibility borne by the whole capitalist order, by ‘all the governments of the world’, in not coming to the aid of the Jewish people. And next to 5 million murdered Jews (the figure Mandel gives), ‘one finds the 60 million victims of the imperialist war’. The general spirit of this assessment is captured by formulations like the following: