Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon: “Parasite”
By Anders M. Gullestad
Read the complete paper on our Ideologies of War website.
Read a condensed version below on the left, and a summary of key points below on the right.
What is the meaning of this term “parasite”—that seems to have played such a significant role in generating the Final Solution? In his essay, Anders Gullestad observes that this is a key term for understand the “exclusionary mechanisms at the heart of modern Western societies,” helping to create and secure borders by “separating Inside from outside,” as well as marking that which is spatially located inside the orders, but thought “not properly to belong.”

A parasite, in short, is attached to a body politic (lies within it), but is conceived as acting destructively rather than productively.

Gullestad observes that the word brings to mind “nasty little creatures” such as lice or tapeworms, living off (or in) others, all the while “giving nothing in return.” The outcome is that the parasite drains the energy of the host, or in the extreme case, causes its death, as the host is “devoured by its sponging guest.”

The word also suggests human beings acting in a similar manner, trying to “get more of society than they give back.” Typical candidates for this role are greedy capitalists (according to those on the left), or lazy good-for-nothing (according to those on the right). Each of these classes of people is imagined to be consuming society’s resources, but not producing anything.

Reflecting on the case of the Jew in Nazi Germany, Gullestad (like Musolff) observes that the parasite metaphor existed in a “vague borderland,” sometimes perceived as a figure of speech, sometimes as a description of reality.

The word parasite brings to mind nasty little creatures such as lice or tapeworms, living off (and in) others, all the while giving nothing in return. In some cases the outcome of this unequal relationship might only be a minor loss of energy to the host, in others it will be its death, devoured by its sponging guest.

No matter which of the two is the case, though, as long as a relationship is parasitic – as opposed to mutualistic or commensalistic – it implies a fundamental unfairness and inequality.

The word might also bring to mind humans acting in a similar manner, trying to get more out of society than they give back. Candidates for this role are legio, be they greedy capitalists (according to those on the political left) or lazy good-for-nothings (according to those on the right).

Two examples will suffice. First a quote from Irish socialist James Connolly, later to be executed for his role in the Easter Rising of 1916. In 1899, arguing for independence from the British, he touches upon the topic of what exactly those owning the means of production can be said to contribute to society:

The capitalist, I say, is a parasite on industry; as useless in the present stage of our industrial development as any other parasite in the animal or vegetable world is to the life of the animal or vegetable upon which it feeds. The working class is the victim of this parasite – this human leech, and it is the duty and interest of the working class to use every means in its power to oust this parasite class from the position which enables it to thus prey upon the vitals of labour.

For our second example, let us have a look at a talk given by Ayn Rand on February 9, 1961. In addition to condemning those trying to reform society in such a way as to help the poor, she here had the following to say about the worth (or rather lack thereof) of people receiving welfare:

these very benefits indicate, delimit and define what kind of men can be of value to one another and in what kind of society: only rational, productive, independent men in a rational, productive, free society. Parasites, moochers, looters, brutes and thugs can be of no value to a human being – nor can he gain any benefit from living in a society geared to their needs, demands and protection, a society that treats him as a sacrificial animal and penalizes him for his virtues in order to reward them for their vices, which means: a society based on the ethics of altruism. No society can be of value to man’s life if the price is the surrender of his right to his life.

From this we might tentatively conclude that about the only thing the two positions have in common is the view that the parasite – no matter if in animal or human shape – is a useless creature whose only contribution is of a negative kind, draining the health of its host organism. The fact that the opposite poles of the political spectrum are here in complete agreement, says something about how common this extremely low opinion is.

Reflections on the Jewish parasite

The second metaphorical transfer exists in a vague borderland, where it is sometimes perceived as a figure of speech and sometimes as a description of reality. In other words, as a metaphor it is neither entirely “alive” nor “dead”, but is somewhere in between. In those instances where it comes the closest to being taken for literally true, this circular detour from man to animal and back to man can even be said to have led to the creation of a new being: a homo parasitus, the less than human man not entitled to the same basic rights as others.

To describe this homo parasitus, it is helpful to begin by looking at what is probably the most effective and well-orchestrated application ever of the term “parasite” to a group of people, playing an important part in legitimizing the Nazi’s Endlösung. A 1944 manual issued by the “nationalsozialistischer Führungsstab der Wehrmacht”, for example, tells us that

The Jew wants us to be forced into a life of slavery so as to live among us as a parasite who can suck us dry. Our people’s sound way of life opposes the parasitic Jewish existence. Who can believe it possible […] to reform or convert a parasite (a louse for example)? Who can believe in a compromise with the parasite?

We are left with one choice only, either to be devoured by the parasite or to exterminate it. The Jew must be exterminated wherever we meet him! We do not commit a crime against life acting like this; on the contrary, we serve the law of life by fighting against all that is hostile to a sound existence. Our fight serves, indeed, the preservation of life.

As Alex Bein argues in a thorough and important contribution to the topic – “The Jewish Parasite. Notes on the Semantics of the Jewish Problem, with special Reference to Germany” (1964) – this and similar contemporary statements can be said to stand as the crowning achievements of a long process, having its origin in the popular demonic images of Jews in the Middle Ages.

As he sees it, an important step on the road leading up to the Nazi’s extermination camps is the intermingling of German Romanticism’s emphasis on the “organic” with insights and terms from natural science, which led to images such as that of the “Volkskörper” (“racial body”) acquiring “in the course of time more and more the meaning of a genuine biological term.” 

Bein argues that the same process can be said to apply to different epithets used to describe Jews, including “canker” and “parasite” (the latter “very likely the most fatal word in this context”): what was originally used and perceived as an analogy – as was the case when Johann Gottfried Herder, in 1784, likened Jews to parasitical plants – over time ended up as “understood solely as a biological term derived from natural science.” Once this happens, and once the image of the parasitic (and therefore less than human) Jew has been widely circulated – as the propaganda machinery of the National Socialists duly ensured it was – the road to genocide lies open.

Exterminating the parasite

Under the National Socialists, on the other hand, what little hope of reform for the parasite was found in Nordau had been thoroughly extinguished. Neither were they content to leave to nature the weeding out of those thought not fit to live, but instead took the job upon themselves. One important aspect of this project is the choice of tool of extermination.

Edmund P. Russell III offers us an even more precise description. As he has shown in his “'Speaking of Annihilation': Mobilizing for War Against Human and Insect Enemies, 1914–1945” (1996), there is a horrible biopolitical irony behind the fact that Zyklon B – the hydrogen cyanide used for gassing the inmates of Auschwitz and other concentration camps – was in fact a pesticide previously used for combating lice; or, as he puts it: “Metaphor and ‘reality’ blurred in Nazi rhetoric: Jews were exterminated as deliberately, and literally, as insects.”

These “shared metaphors”, Russell claims,

helped military and civilian institutions shape and express the way people experienced both war and nature. […] publicists described war as pest control, pest control as war, and the two endeavors as similar. On the one hand, describing war as pest control transformed participation in war from a potentially troubling moral issue to a moral virtue. […] On the other hand, describing pest control as war helped entomologists portray nature as a battlefield, elevate the status of their profession, and mobilize resources.

While Nazism and the Final Solution constituted an extreme case, all societies need ways of drawing the boundary between inside and outside, between what (and who) should and should not be let in. More specifically, since borders are notoriously permeable, and influx of unwanted elements to some degree is unavoidable, all societies – the most modern and democratic ones not excluded – also need ways of separating those elements which are deemed not to belong from those that do inside their own territories.

It is here that the parasite – with all its connotations of a selfish intruder and an unwanted guest, of a danger to the health of its host organism – has served, and continues to serve, a special role, functioning as a powerful rhetorical tool for the creation of a class of subhumans which are not entitled to the same treatment and the same basic rights as ordinary citizens.