By Donny Gluckstein
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Final Solutions by Sabby Sagall

This article is over 8 years, 6 months old
Published by Pluto, £22.99
Issue 387

The conventional view of genocide is that such events are the product of pure evil, or of the collective insanity of individuals or entire peoples.

Sabby Sagall’s Final Solutions: Human Nature, Capitalism and Genocide is an ambitious book which challenges this simplistic approach.

It looks at four examples of genocide (native Americans, Armenians, the Jews and Rwandan Tutsis) and seeks to explain them in a novel way.

The book suggests, in part, that such events have a social basis linked to the workings of capitalism. Thus far most readers will have no problem with that core Marxist argument.

It can be applied to many inhuman phenomena in our society – such as the savaging of the welfare state, the whipping up of racism against immigrants, or the creation of famines.

However, Sabby goes further. He argues that a critique of capitalism may be insufficient. There are, he says, examples of ‘rational genocide’ in which brutal means are used to achieve certain benefits for the perpetrators, However, some genocides go beyond this to include acts such as the extermination of valuable workers, which involve huge efforts and high costs for no visible return, and exhibit such inhuman cruelty that there is an element of irrationality inexplicable in purely Marxist terms.

Therefore psychoanalysis, which seeks to understand irrational human behaviour, must be part of an understanding of genocide.

There is an apparent gulf between these two levels of explanation. Marxist analysis begins at the level of society and works down to the individual; psychoanalysis begins at the level of individual personality and works upwards. Sabby crosses the divide in a number of inventive ways.

Using the notion developed by Marx that human beings make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing, he shows how capitalism was a precipitating factor (take for example the 1930s Depression and the sudden rise in votes for the Nazi party) that created the circumstances for genocide.

However, for irrational genocide to occur, certain people must be predisposed psychologically to make history in that particularly appalling way.

Following Erich Fromm and others, he believes it is possible to go beyond individual psychology to talk about the shared personality characteristics among large groups, even of entire social classes.

This is “social character”, and Sabby identifies the middle class as a key element in the genocides he investigates.

It takes quite a leap to use Freudian terminology and see the ruling class as a “super ego” conscience, controlling a working class cast in the role of the “id” based on basic desires and the pleasure principle, yet the meticulous uncovering of very varied genocides is fascinating both in terms of their differences and their links.

Sabby’s daring search for an over-arching theory which encompasses both social and psychological aspects is akin to the physicists’ search for a “‘general theory”, including all matter macro- and microscopic. Whether he has succeeded is something that the reader will have to decide.

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