Marxism and the Fate of the European Jews

Against the Current, No. 65, November/December 1996

Peter Drucker

The Marxists and the Jewish Question:
The History of a Debate (1843-1943)
by Enzo Traverso, trans. Bernard Gibbons.
New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1994, $18.50 (paperback).

THE ASSOCIATION BETWEEN Jews and the left is the stuff of legend: in particular, the legends of the extreme right. “Jewish Marxism” was one of the bogeys that the Nazis conjured up in order to whip up support and ultimately used as a pretext (second of course to “racial inferiority”) for the Holocaust. The historical link between Jews and socialism has in fact been nowhere near as universal or consistent in reality as in paranoid, right-wing fantasies.

In some European countries like Britain and France, where Jews attained civil equality by the early 19th century and often prospered as capitalism developed, Jews were closely associated (in Britain) with the Liberal and Conservative Parties (Benjamin Disraeli was a prominent Jewish Conservative prime minister) or (in France) with bourgeois republicanism.

Centuries-old traditions of law, obedience to authority and indifference to non-Jewish politics, as Arthur Liebman notes in his Jews and the Left, encourage conservatism among Jews at least as strongly as anything in Judaism encourages radicalism. Even in countries with significant Jewish socialist traditions, Jewish socialists have usually been a minority among Jews.

The majority of Russian Jews supported mainstream Zionist groups rather than any socialist current in communal elections well into 1918. The majority of the U.S. Jewish electorate has usually voted Democratic since 1928, when it ended its longstanding pattern of support for the Republican Party.

But the association between Jews and the left is far from mythical. Particularly in Russia and the United States, the appearance of large Jewish working classes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries gave rise to a substantial socialist base among Jews.

In Germany and other Central European countries that did not have large Jewish working classes, middle-class Jews were disproportionately represented among social democratic and communist leaders. Farther afield, Jews were once prominent in Communist Party leaderships in Arab countries such as Iraq.

There have been pockets of Jewish socialism even in Western Europe, as in London’s East End before 1914 or in Paris before 1940. In the Netherlands, Jewish diamond workers played a central role in the rise of the trade union and socialist movement. The weight of these historical memories may help explain why Jews were prominent in leading the far left as late as the 1960s and 1970s (as Patrick Rotman and Herv Hamon showed for France in their book Generation), when neither a substantial Jewish working class nor institutionalized anti-semitism remained as contributing factors.

The Failure of Progress

There have been some good books on Jewish socialist movements, such as Nathan Weinstock’s Le Pain de la Misere and Nora Levin’s While Messiah Tarried. But curiously enough given Jews’ prominence on the left, in a century that has seen the Nazi genocide of European Jews and the Stalinist assault on Jewish culture in the USSR, the destruction of European Jewry has not been central to postwar Marxist debates.

Some socialists reacted to the Holocaust by arguing that anti-semitism constructs a purely imaginary adversary that has no relation whatsoever to real Jews. Analyses of anti-semitism by (for example) the Frankfurt School and Jean-Paul Sartre have treated it mainly as a side-effect of reactionary ideologies. The Holocaust is cited as proof as the evil of fascism, and indirectly of the capitalism whose crisis gave rise to fascism; but post-war discussions of the Holocaust have rarely been linked to prewar Marxist analyses of Jews’ position in capitalist societies.

Fortunately, an excellent book on the subject has been translated into English and published. Enzo Traverso’s The Marxists and the Jewish Question; is valuable not only for what it says about Jews in one region or one period, though it is particularly strong on Eastern European Jews and their role in the workers movement in the early 20th century. It is the first attempt at a comprehensive survey of what Marxists wrote about Jews and anti-semitism up until the mid-20th century.

Traverso gives his own clear and cogent analysis of the issues at stake. This in itself makes his work important. But it offers more. Traverso points to overall weaknesses in the Marxist tradition that are revealed by weaknesses in Marxist analyses of “the Jewish question,” and particularly by Marxists’ difficulty in coming to terms with the Holocaust. Overcoming these weaknesses, Traverso argues, could contribute to a profound, much-needed renewal of Marxism.

The foremost weakness that Traverso highlights is the 19th-century ideology of continuous inevitable historical progress, which tainted the Marxism of the Second International.

Specifically, theorists like Karl Kautsky and Otto Bauer not only celebrated capitalist progress for emancipating and assimilating Jews in Western Europe, but assumed that Jewish assimilation would be quickly and easily completed under socialism. They failed to see the very different turn history was taking, in the West as well as the East.

In the Russian empire as well as in Austrian Galicia and Romanian Moldavia, capitalist development led not to Jewish assimilation but to crystallization of a Jewish nationality. The Jews, who made up four percent of the pre-1917 Russian population, were traditionally artisans and petty traders. But capitalism undermined the basis for artisans’ and petty traders’ survival in Russia.

From 1881 on, pogroms threatened Jews’ physical survival. At the same time, in a country where state intervention was crucial for capitalist development, official anti-semitism was a major stumbling block to growth of a Jewish bourgeoisie. As a result Jews huddled together in the cities of the Pale of Settlement where they were allowed to live—making up thirty-eight percent of these cities’ population by the turn of the century—and twenty-five percent of them became wage workers, mostly in the garment industry.

Geographical and economic concentration fostered a common, distinctive culture founded on Yiddish, the mother tongue for ninety-seven percent of Russian Jews. Educated Jews, barred from most professions, became “organic intellectuals” of the working-class movement–the great majority of them not Bolsheviks or Mensheviks, but active in separate Jewish working-class milieus and organizations.

Theorists like Kautsky and Bauer expected capitalist progress and socialist progress between them to erase the differences between Western and Eastern Europe. They dismissed anti-semitism in Central and Eastern Europe as either a medieval holdover or a confused form of anti-capitalism. They also failed to appreciate that “progress” was unraveling even in the West, with the rise of a new anti-semitism linked to rising imperialism and racism.

“Classical Marxist thought was not capable of understanding the nature of anti-Semitism,” Traverso sums up, “nor of recognizing the Jewish aspiration to a distinct separate identity.” (232)

Trotskyism’s Contributions and Limits

Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky broke with the Second International’s evolutionism in many ways, but not so clearly on Jewish issues. Traverso credits Luxemburg with at least understanding the thoroughly modern barbarism of the anti-semitism revealed in and after the Dreyfus Affair. But even she failed to recognize the Jewish nationality forming in Eastern Europe. She insisted that “for the disciples of Marx and for the working class a Jewish question as such does not exist.” (9)

Unsurprisingly perhaps for a supporter of the Fourth International, Traverso finds Trotsky better than most on Eastern European Jewry. While Lenin tended to expect territorially compact, homogeneous nation-states to form in Eastern Europe more or less on the West European model, Traverso says, Trotsky held a more “dialectical, open, and undogmatic theory of the nation,” which he did not expect to mesh neatly with nation-states in an era of capitalist crisis and socialist revolution. (141)

As a result Trotsky was more consistently open than Lenin to the idea that East European Jews constituted a full-fledged nationality, which he concluded by the 1930s might need political expression even under socialism.

Trotsky’s strengths and weaknesses were both reflected in Belgian Trotskyist Abram Leon’s 1943 work The Jewish Question. Leon argued that a Jewish mercantile “people-class” existed and flourished under feudalism, but lost its function under capitalism. As a result Jews tended to assimilate when capitalism prospered, and to be attacked, expelled or killed in times of crisis.

Traverso cites Maxime Rodinson and others in order to criticize Leon’s oversimplification of Jewish history, which tended “to reduce the `people’ to an overdetermination of the `class.'” (213) Traverso’s overall judgment is that Leon “developed to its fullest the traditional Marxist approach to the Jewish problem–assimilation as historic tendency and culmination of `progress’–at a time when Auschwitz marked the end of a century of Jewish assimilation.” (228)

Jewish Radicalism in Central Europe

The Marxists and the Jewish Question sheds some light on another world destroyed by the Holocaust, the world of Central European Jewry (also the setting for Traverso’s The Jews and Germany, recently published in English by University of Nebraska Press, and Michael Löwy’s Redemption and Utopia, reviewed by Alan Wald in ATC 52).

The social basis for Jewish involvement in the left in Central Europe was different from in either Eastern or Western Europe. Unlike in Eastern Europe, there was no substantial Jewish working class in Germany or Austria-Hungary; unlike in Western Europe, German Jews had not been fully emancipated by the rise of capitalism and a bourgeois constitutional order.

Although they were relatively prosperous, made up ten percent of the German university student body, and were well represented in some business and liberal professions, they were excluded from the German civil service, university teaching, judgeships and the military. Culturally they were assimilated Germans. Socially and politically they were marginalized.

The social marginalization of young, middle-class German Jews pushed them toward universalist, internationalist and radical world views. In some cases they became socialists: Jews were estimated at ten percent of prewar German social democracy. Others, like Martin Buber and Franz Kafka, were attracted to anarchism. In 1905-23, and particularly in 1917-21, some Jews became communists.

Expressions of Jewish identity were rare in communist circles, however. Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe like Rosa Luxemburg gladly turned their backs on the mysticism and superstition they had left behind. Native Central European Jewish communists like Paul Levi, Ernst Thalheimer and Ruth Fischer were also steadfast rationalists and assimilationists.

Ernst Bloch and Gyorgy Lukacs, who had explored Jewish as well as Christian mysticism together in the Max Weber circle in Heidelberg, retained only a few specifically Jewish elements in their thought during their first years as communists (Bloch hailed the Jewish messianic idea in the 1918 edition of his Spirit of Utopia, and Lukacs continued corresponding with Martin Buber until 1921), which they gave up in any event in the 1920s.

Traverso, like Michael Löwy, is attracted to the minority of Central European Jews who reached revolutionary politics by way of anti-capitalist romanticism. Löwy has described how some of these Jewish romantics, finding Christian romanticism, German nationalism and political Zionism all unappealing, drew on the Jewish idea of tikkun (redemption, healing).

In the Jewish tradition, redemption must be historical and public, universal and radical: in Löwy’s words, it shows a “structural homology, an undeniable spiritual isomorphism” with socialist visions of a revolution creating a new world of freedom and equality. Traverso, while emphasizing social and material causes of radicalization among middle-class Central European Jews, contrasts Jewish-inspired utopianism favorably with the uninspired ideology of progress of the Second and Third Internationals.

Stalinism impoverished Marxism, in Traverso’s view, not only through its hostility to revolutionary romanticism but also through its suppression of what he calls the “Judeo-Marxists”: the Bundists and Labor Zionists of pre-`1917 Russia.

The Bund, founded in 1897, had 40,000 organized supporters at its 1906 peak. Balancing between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, it demanded autonomy in organizing Jewish workers (which it was granted during the brief period of Bolshevik-Menshevik unity in 1906-11) and advocated “national-cultural autonomy” for Jewish communities.

“Internationalist culture is not anational,” Bundist Vladimir Medem argued. “Internationalist ideas can only exercise an attraction on the working class if they are adapted to the language spoken by the worker and to the concrete national conditions in which he lives.” (7) While Traverso’s overall sympathies in the Russian workers movement are with the Bolsheviks, he is far more sympathetic to the Bund’s program for the Jewish community than the Bolsheviks were.

Traverso also recognizes useful insights in Labor Zionist Ber Borochov’s theories, for example that Jews were caught in an “inverted pyramid”-shaped class structure that kept them out of key industries and limited the effectiveness of Jewish workers’ organizing. But Traverso rejects Borochov’s dogmatic insistence on a territorial solution for Jews, and his racist argument that while Jews could not become assimilated Russians, Palestinian Arabs would naturally assimilate to superior Jewish culture.

From Bolshevism to Stalinism

Judeo-Marxists’ programs ironically found their most finished expression among their ideological adversaries, the Bolsheviks who ruled the Soviet Union in the 1920s. As Traverso shows (relying in part on Zvi Gitelman’s useful Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics, this was not as paradoxical as it may seem at first.

Since the Bolshevik Party had almost no presence in the Jewish community in 1917, it relied by the early 1920s on former Bundist leaders who were born-again as Bolshevik leaders of the Jewish community. The results reflected the Bundists’ commitment to Yiddish culture as well as the Bolsheviks’ commitment to the rights of non-Russian nationalities. Yiddish became an official language in Soviet Ukraine and Belarus, and thousands of Yiddish-language libraries, periodicals, publishing houses, theaters and schools were founded and funded.

By contrast with the Bundist program of “national-cultural autonomy,” however, Soviet Jewish institutions were never independent from the party/state apparatus. Traverso rightly criticizes the Bolsheviks’ suppression of all autonomous Jewish currents, including those that supported the revolution, as well as their subordination of surviving Jewish institutions to an increasingly bureaucratic regime.

Soviet rulers insisted from the beginning that Soviet Jewry be “cut off from its traditions and even its history,” for example through the repression of Hebrew.(155) Disagreements were dealt with not through lively debate, as before 1917, but by administrative fiat.

But Traverso is on shaky ground in arguing that the alternative to the Bolshevik Party’s “enlightened despotism” of the 1920s would have been complete cultural autonomy for Soviet Jews. In the context of full-fledged, multinational Soviet democracy, a balance would still have had to have been struck between Jewish autonomy and more centralized democratic decision-making about education and culture.

In any event, Jewish cultural life enjoyed more official support in the Soviet 1920s than it ever has anywhere before or since. Stalin destroyed this rich cultural life from 1930 on, shutting down the last Jewish institutions and executing major Yiddish writers in 1948.

Traverso may go astray in suggesting that Soviet Jewish culture would ultimately have withered in any event, as its social basis was undermined by industrialization and the disappearance of the Jewish shtetl. Industrialization from above and the Second World War dispersed millions of Jews from their Ukrainian and Belarussian homes to industrial Russia and even to the ludicrous “Jewish autonomous region” of Birobidzhan on the Chinese border.

But a different kind of industrialization, conceived and carried out from below by the existing communities–and a revolution in Germany that could have prevented the Holocaust–might have enabled Jewish communities and Yiddish culture to survive in a multinational Ukraine and Belarus. There is no way of knowing now.

Visions of Walter Benjamin

The tragedy of the European Jews’ fate in this century is best summed up for Traverso, as for Michael Löwy, in the work of Walter Benjamin. Benjamin was unique in fully fusing Jewish messianism and Marxism. His distinctive intellectual trajectory was made possible by the fact that he never accepted the ideological guidance of the Communist Party. He considered joining in 1926, particularly under the influence of Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness, but was dissuaded by what he saw on a visit to the Soviet Union.

In 1933-35, in part under Brecht’s influence, Benjamin again converged somewhat with Communist orthodoxy in a brief quasi-Popular Front period, seeing the USSR as a bulwark against fascism. But the 1936-37 Moscow trials fed his doubts once more, and the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact turned him decisively against Stalinism.

In fusing his non-Stalinist Marxism with an abiding Jewish messianism, Benjamin broke decisively with any notion of socialism as the culmination of capitalist progress. On the contrary, under the shadow of rising fascism, he saw socialist revolution as the only hope of escape from catastrophe.

“Before the spark reaches the dynamite, the lighted fuse must be cut,” he wrote. The fuse was not cut in time to save most European Jews.

ATC 65, November-December 1996