Arno Mayer Has Died. He Leaves Us an Unorthodox Marxism.

Historian Arno Mayer, who died this month at age 97, infused his work with a Marxism animated by attention to ideology, passion, and the open-endedness of history.

Arno Mayer in Paris, France, February 25, 2002. (Frederic Souloy / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The historian Arno Mayer has died at the age of ninety-seven, quietly in peace. Mayer was born in Luxembourg in 1926 into what he called a “fully emancipated and largely acculturated” Jewish middle-class family that had fled in their Chevrolet for France just minutes before the arrival of the Wehrmacht. He credited his father’s left-wing Zionism for recognizing the Nazis for what they were and preparing an escape in advance: Verdun, Marseille, Oran, Casablanca, Tangiers, Lisbon, and, finally, New York City — a “vast and varied commonwealth of refugees,” as Mayer described his family’s refuge, “trembling for the world that was ours.”

Mayer was part, as the Cornell historian Enzo Traverso writes, of that “extraordinary generation of German-speaking Jewish scholars” born between the world wars and exiled to the United States, among them Raul Hilberg, Peter Gay, and Fritz Stern. Mayer, though, was more explicitly left-wing, irreverent, and iconoclastic than others in this cohort, and, as time went by, more pointedly critical of Israel.

I first met Arno when he was well into his eighties, his mind and wit still sparking fire. He had retained a European graciousness but was easy with the profanities, and quickly made you feel as if you had known him your whole life.

He delighted in telling this story, more than once: in the late 1950s, he was teaching at Brandeis University, along with the radical philosopher Herbert Marcuse, with whom he was politically aligned. Also on campus, as undergraduates, were the future public intellectuals Michael Walzer and Martin Peretz, who, according to Mayer, had already made themselves known as left-liberal critics of the Left. And so each time Marcuse and Mayer saw them walk by, Marcuse would elbow Arno and say, “look, there go the Katzenjammer Kids,” after a popular comic strip at the time — especially funny for Arno since Katzenjammer in German means caterwaul, to wail in misery like a rutting cat. Mayer told that story as if he meant to capture the whole moral history of the postwar left in a childish taunt. The world in a grain of sand.

Earlier, Mayer had enlisted in the Army, where he worked with other Europeans, many of them Jewish exiles like himself, interrogating Nazis being processed through Operation Paperclip. Mayer said he served as the “morale officer” of the Nazi scientist Werner von Braun, who’d go on to make movies with Walt Disney and help run NASA’s Apollo program. Mayer, who lost family members, including his grandfather, in the camps, said he “wasn’t exactly in the mood to, I’ll say, frolic, with Wernher von Braun.” He witnessed racism and experienced antisemitism in the military, and his bunkmates dubbed the bookish Mayer “Intellectual Fuck,” a name he said would be the title of his long-promised memoir.

Arno left the Army and enrolled in the City College of New York and then, with the GI Bill, took his doctorate at Yale University. After Brandeis, he landed at Princeton University in 1962, where he’d spend the rest of his career. Soon, he’d join with students to protest the Vietnam war. I once asked Mayer how he came to his politics, and he cited not his father’s left-wing Zionism, fascism, the war, or the Holocaust, all of which were undoubtedly influential. Instead, the first thing he mentioned was a four-month trip, sponsored by the World Government Foundation, to India, where he’d spent most of his time talking with communists in the southern state of Kerala.

Arno also traveled several times to Israel, including a stint working on a kibbutz. His friendship with dissident Israelis, including followers of Martin Buber, turned him away from Zionism. “Their cosmopolitan humanity,” he said of the dissidents, “moved them to warn, on both moral and pragmatic grounds, of the unwisdom of first disregarding and disdaining Palestinian Arabs, and eventually condemning them as irreconcilable, benighted enemies.” Israel, he feared, would inevitably turn into a kind of Sparta, highly militarized and isolated. He liked to say, and he said it often, that “as a European Jew who hailed from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, I am singularly immune to the allure of all nationalisms.”

Scholars of Europe can speak better to Mayer’s contribution to the continent’s history, to his arguments about the world wars, the Holocaust, and the French and Russian Revolutions. To me, what appealed was his method. Historian Samuel Moyn has recently noted the failure of critical theory (as represented by the Frankfurt School and its heirs) to elaborate useful theories of topics that most concern younger intellectuals, such as post–Cold War US militarism and neoliberalism, pushing them “in droves to more or less economistic and materialist critiques of capitalism.”

An engagement with Mayer’s work could be a bridge back, if not to the Frankfurt School as such than to a kind of Marxism leavened by attention to ideology, instinct, passion, and contingency. Arno never proffered an analysis of Washington’s drive toward global supremacism. But I’ve found that trying to think the way Arno Mayer thought helps make sense of, to use a favorite phrase of Mayer, our “general crisis.”

Mayer’s Work

To revisit Arno Mayer’s scholarship today — especially his writings on right-wing radicalization and social breakdown — is bracing, both because much of it continues to be relevant and because one realizes how badly we’ve been served, since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, by most of the scholarly and public commentary on fascism.

At Yale in the early 1950s, Arno trained as a diplomatic historian and then wrote a two-volume dissertation that shattered the first premise of diplomatic history: that to be a diplomatic historian, you needed to study diplomacy. Arno said no, to understand the interstate system, you need first to look at the internal crises of individual nations.

Mayer had wanted to write his dissertation on the negotiations that resulted in the 1919 Versailles Treaty and the creation of the League of Nations. But he realized that to understand the nature of the peace, he first had to make sense of the war. And to make sense of World War I, one had to look not at international relations — not at the breakdown of Europe’s balance of power or the activation of the continent’s alliance system — but at the Innenpolitik, the domestic politics, of the belligerents.

“When the examination of the causes and objectives of war centers on decision making in one of the belligerent countries,” Mayer would later write, “the analytic and explicative weight falls on its domestic and political rather than on its external and diplomatic life.” “Status quo parties,” Mayer wrote, confronted fast accumulating grievances and fears, aggravated by general strikes, anarchist and feminist bombings, ever-more strident demand for greater democracy and, for subjugated peoples, self-determination. With social distemper cresting and legitimacy collapsing, “acutely beleaguered power and governing elites” opted for war to shore up their authority.

Europe’s rulers, he writes, were “intensely alive to the internal political uses and abuses of war.” Mayer, though, had an eye for the berserk, on how action taken to buttress stability hastens instability. Traditionalists, for instance, often fall captive to radicals in their own coalition: “The ultras locked the entire ruling and governing class into a crisis of over-reaction,” Mayer wrote, “whose main expression was the politics of unreason and domination at home and the diplomacy of confrontation and war abroad.”

And the war that elites got was not the war they expected. In the absence of clearly defined war aims, fighting intensified and politics spun out of control, leading to revolution in Russia and threatening the same in Germany. Woodrow Wilson feared the conflict would “overturn the world we had known,” triggering a redistribution of power within nations and challenges to Anglo-Saxon dominance from the remoter, darker precincts of the globe.

Mayer pivoted off his dissertation with two books — Wilson vs. Lenin: Political Origins of the New Diplomacy, 1917–1918 (1959) and Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking: Containment and Counterrevolution at Versailles, 1918–1919 (1967) — and a string of programmatic essays that built out his argument on the “primacy of domestic politics.” He soon was describing World War I as a “preemptive” counterrevolution, led by reactionaries who would go on to determine the conservative nature of the peace settlement.

The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War, published in 1981, rendered Mayer’s argument that it is Innenpolitik that drives foreign war more complex, arguing that, contrary to orthodox interpretations of history, Europe up until the eve of World War I was neither modern nor liberal. Culturally, the aristocratic manners prevailed; economically, the great feudal classes held sway; politically, the titled classes controlled much of the state, including its repressive apparatus.

Confronted by crisis at home, “aggressive ultra-conservatives” launched a relentless drive, ever-more fanatical, more intent on destruction. The ferocious push was meant to “harden the established order,” but its consequences were the opposite: “two world wars and the Holocaust” finally broke “feudal and aristocratic power,” along with the myths, rituals, and incantations that justified that power.

Mayer’s Method

Long before the term polycrisis came in vogue, Mayer had offered a vision of history nearly synonymous with crisis. “The word-concepts of stability and equilibrium — of normalcy — are highly problematical,” he wrote, “because of their normative implications.” “Since every equilibrium is constantly in flux,” the task of a subtle historicist is to “determine the conditions in which the inherent disturbances of a moving but ultimately stable equilibrium converge to produce an unstable equilibrium” — to identify the overlapping and nonsynchronic chronologies, the multiple chains of cause and effect, that produce social breakdowns. Yet the task is difficult, for the word-concept “crisis” was no less complex than normalcy; “there is no litmus test to indicate when the scope, intensity, and pattern of disturbances produces a shift” toward breakdown and radicalization.

Mayer was an inveterate timekeeper, pouring forth an endless sequence of crisis epochs. There was Europe’s “general crisis,” with floating start- and end-dates. There was the crisis that preceded World War I and longer cycles of upheavals, dating from the Paris Commune or 1848. And he was a mad typologist, giving us at least seven kinds of counterrevolutions, along with many subvariants. The “disguised counterrevolution,” for example, entailed using top-down reform to pacify and divide popular mobilization. Only one of the seven, the “posterior counterrevolution,” is a response to an actual revolutionary threat. The rest are various “preemptive” or “anticipatory” counterrevolutions, launched by traditional elites and backed by foreign powers, mobilized either to shore up fragile legitimacy, or, in the case of fascism, destroy what legitimacy remained to install extremism in power.

Arno conceptualized, typologized, and compared to give explanatory meaning to the history he was narrating. At times he reads like he’s part social-science positivist, part continental metaphysician. In one sentence he might be discussing the need to create comparative “constructs” so as to identify casual variables. In another, he’s citing Ernst Bloch on capitalism’s “non-simultaneity,” the idea that societies are structured by antagonistic modes of production and that individuals experience their present as bricolage — that any given historical moment was comprised of multiple conjunctures nested within multiform structures.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed when confronted by Mayer’s programmatic exhortations and comparative leaps. By the time Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?: The “Final Solution” in History (1990) launches into a comparison of the “general crisis” of the seventeenth century to make sense of the “general crisis” of the twentieth, one starts to think of Mayer as Walter Benjamin did the Angel of History, as a being whose vision of the past is so capacious it takes everything in at once, seeing nothing but an undifferentiated cataclysm (something like those aerial shots of Gaza’s rubble).

But then Mayer effortlessly transforms the chaos into the concrete, giving us vivid portraits of anxious diplomats, vengeful peasants, revanchist Nazis, aggrieved Zionists, and delirious Jacobins panting for regicide, all narrated with a close attention to timing and detail. Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? displays a Tolstoyan mastery of time and space, providing readers a tactile feel for how field battles and the extermination of Jews kept pace. This wasn’t narrative for narrative’s sake. Mayer, in this book, was determined to fuse the Holocaust to the war, to index the killing rate of the death camps to the intensity of the campaign on the eastern front against the Red Army.

Mayer’s other concern was to embed Nazi eliminationism in Europe’s centuries-long history of religious zealotry — not to render it as something emerging from time immemorial but to intertwine antisemitism with other strains of fanatism, to show that the war Berlin waged on Moscow had the dimensions of a crusade, the First Crusade to be exact, 1095–1099, where the “zealots of Christ” massacred Muslim and Jew alike “without regard for age, sex, health, and status.”

The Furies is the most complete expression of Mayer’s method and its application; the first half provides a lexicon of “word-concepts” including “violence,” “terror,” “religion,” and “vengeance,” and the second a comparative close reading of the unfolding of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary terror in the French and Russian revolutions. By the time the book was published in 2000, a decade after the Cold War had ended and at the apex of neoliberal triumphalism, it had become commonplace to argue that revolutionary terror inhered in the revolutionary idea, in the drive to impose utopia — a premise extended by some beyond Jacobinism and Stalinism to any effort to challenge market democracy.

Mayer, naturally, didn’t agree, and The Furies is his effort to historicize revolutionary extremism, in a manner not unlike his historization of Nazi fanatism. The book’s starting premise is contingency. Because history is open-ended and indeterminate, because nothing about the passing of time is inevitable, revolutionaries operate in “an open, not closed history,” in a social system that is not unilaterally determinant but something to be transformed through political action.

If anything, revolutionaries tend to underestimate the entrenched and intransigent nature of the forces aligned against a more equitable distribution of resources and power. Confronted with such intractability, “revolutionaries accelerate their lunge into an imperative but uncontrollable and hazardous future.” It is this open contingency, and not a fixed ideological template — one coded into ideology from having read Plato, Marx, or Lenin — that propels militants to act in an unfamiliar present.

As politics polarize, coalitions form. Revolutionaries seek to establish sovereignty over a social terrain that they themselves shattered. Violence and terror are often part of this centralization, as leaders attempt not only to neutralize opposition but incorporate popular demands for justice and revenge into new state structures. This is one reason why red terror is often public and incessantly theorized while white terror can do its work quietly and covertly, through death squads. Yet revolutionary leaders often take the resistance to their program to be more coherent than it often is, opening up an ever-intensifying friend-enemy schism.

Mayer draws on the French Marxist existentialist Maurice Merleau-Ponty to argue that during revolutionary moments, “history is suspended and institutions verging on extinction demand that men make fundamental decisions which are fraught with enormous risk by virtue of their final outcome being contingent on a largely unforeseeable conjuncture.” “History,” Merleau-Ponty writes, “is terror because there is contingency.” Readers of The Black Jacobins may recognize a similar relationship between terror and contingency in C. L. R. James’s observation that “in a revolution, the revolution comes first” — meaning that it is the imperatives of maneuvering through the intricacies of immediate revolutionary politics rather than an insistence on holding true to ideological rigidity that determines action.

Mayer’s Historical Materialism

Over the years, Arno would be challenged by fellow Europeanist historians on his details. Still, it is hard to look at today’s general crisis and not think that many of his “constructs” are sound. We live in a world battered by preemptive overreactions to perceived threats, by class struggles neither experienced as class struggles nor reducible to specific class determinants, by wars driven more by domestic instability than strategic global interests, by the unleashing of vengeful furies across an unbounded historical field, by hatreds that seem atavistic but are as modern as “the Gospel” (the artificial intelligence program used by Israel to pick it bombing targets in Gaza), by an “upper cartel of anxiety” — elites who have no clue how to rebuild legitimacy or restore equilibrium.

Mayer mostly focused on Europe and, later in his life, Israel, remaining largely silent about the United States. But the preface to a small theoretical book, Dynamics of Counterrevolution in Europe, 1870–1956: An Analytical Framework, does hint that his method could apply. Writing in the summer of 1970, after Richard Nixon’s spring invasion of Cambodia, Mayer devoted a few lines to what he called the “unfolding situation in America.” “Any student of counterrevolution,” he said, “must halt before the upsurge of the far right in a callous imperial polity and society whose disaggregation is simultaneously being stayed and quickened by a formidable military-industrial complex and its concomitant international truculence.”

Pause a moment and appreciate the imagery of domestic unraveling at once stayed and quickened by foreign war. Mayer here is swimming in the dialectic. He goes on to say that, when it comes to the United States, there’s not much to say. The “words and deeds” of men like Ronald Reagan and George Wallace, along with their supporters and financial patrons, “are so unambiguous that they explain themselves.” Note that Mayer doesn’t mention the then president, Richard Nixon, but the worse one to come.

Mayer’s nuanced historical materialism may not be clairvoyance, but it did allow him to see in 1970, when many of the successors to the Frankfurt School were still focusing on corporate managerialism, the horrors ahead. Meanwhile, the “unfolding situation in America” continues to unfold.

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Greg Grandin is a professor of history at Yale University. He is the author of seven books, including The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, which won a Pulitzer Prize, and Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Making of an Imperial Republic, rereleased in a new and updated paperback edition in 2021.

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