Wednesday, 5 March 2008

More Marxist musings on history

The Netherlands, by all accounts, is a tolerant place - if you is so inclined, you can get stoned and indulge in a little bit of commercial sex without having to go through the messy business of breaking the law. Historically, given its position between mostly-protestant Germany and mostly-Catholic-but-with-Potestant-bits France, and the country's own historical, ethnic and religious bifircation, it has been a tolerant place.

Even in times of repression, it has been less interested persecution than in finding ways that everyone can live together. In the sixteenth century, Holland experienced one of its occasional fits of religious prejudice and proscribed Catholicism. The ban was only a fa├žade and adherents of the Roman faith could worship in private, as long as they did not make any public advertisement of the fact. The most significant of these semi-clandestine chapels is now the museum called the Amstelkring (1), also known as ‘Ons Lieve Heer Op Solder’ which translates literally as ‘Our Dear Lord in the Attic’ which is situated on Oudezijds Voorburgwal.

Here Catholics could meet discretely to worship. The similarities with the story of Anne Frank, and her family’s doomed attempt to elude the Nazi butchers are immediately striking, a grim parallel with the older tale. Here, Marx's observation that history reoccurs first as tragedy, then as farce seems inverted: farce is reworked as tragedy. The token proscription of Catholicism was farcical, but the story of the Jews of Amsterdam, represented by the annihilation of the Frank family, was tragic.

But Marx's commentary is more subtle than that. The element of farce derives from bourgeois society seeking to clothe itself in the old rags left over from previous revolutions and present itself in the guise of the past:

Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian colossi disappeared and with them also the resurrected Romanism – the Brutuses, the Gracchi, the publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself. Bourgeois society in its sober reality bred its own true interpreters and spokesmen in the Says, Cousins, Royer-Collards, Benjamin Constants, and Guizots; its real military leaders sat behind the office desk and the hog-headed Louis XVIII was its political chief. Entirely absorbed in the production of wealth and in peaceful competitive struggle, it no longer remembered that the ghosts of the Roman period had watched over its cradle.

But unheroic though bourgeois society is, it nevertheless needed heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and national wars to bring it into being. And in the austere classical traditions of the Roman Republic the bourgeois gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions, that they needed to conceal from themselves the bourgeois-limited content of their struggles and to keep their passion on the high plane of great historic tragedy. (2)

The Dutch, blessed or cursed with a situation that made merchantilism a virtual necessity, were bourgeouis long before the rest of the world. The proscription of Catholics in the 17th century - at a time when Catholics in Britain might expect execution - was a farcical, "bourgeois-limited" imitation of what was going on around them in Europe. It was the farce that followed the tragedy. Then, in May, 1940, the tragedy followed farce, when the German Army swarmed over Holland, conquering the country in six days. From 1942 onwards, Jews and various other . By 1946, about 30,000 Jews (3) - 20 per cent of the pre-war population - remained.

What happened in the 1940s was not a tragic re-enectment of the farcical religious bigotry of 300 years before, but a grim recrudescence of the chauvanistic nationalism that Willaim Golding identified, "ugly nationalism raising its Gorgon head." (4):
it is a dead thing handed on,, but dead though it is, it will not lie down. It is a monstrous creature descending to us from our ancestors, producing nothing but disunity, chaos. Disorder and war prolong in it the ghastly and ironic semblance of life. All the marching and counter marching, the flags, the heroism and cruelty, are mere galvanic twitches induced in its slaves and subjects by that hideous parody thing. (5)
The second world war and the Holocaust were such galvanic twitches, an outpouring of vicious bigotry resulting from the struggle in Germany between the rising bourgeois and the old feudal-imperialists. Given modern means of inflicting misery on a much wider scale than before, it was inevitable that all those around would suffer as Germany's internal tensions manifested themselves in the reactionary forms of cultural nostalgia, militarsm, anti-Semitism, paranoia and wilful ignorance in the face of evil.
1 - The Amstelkring Museum website can be visited at http://www.museumamstelkring.nl/onslieveheeropsolder/eng/home.php, as at the 5th of March, 2008.
2 - From the first chapter of 'The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,'by Karl Marx, 1852. Reproduced on marxists.org (
http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm)\
3 - 'The Virtual Jewish History Tour - Netherlands,' by David Shyovitz, published on the Jewish Virtual Library website. (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/netherlands.html#modern)
4 - Golding, discussing Lord of The Flies, in an essay called 'Fable,' contained in the collection The Hot Gates.
5 - ibid.

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