book reviews

Book Review: “The Jewish Question” by Abram Leon

Antisemitism (which is not the same as anti-Zionism) is reviving as the far right, including outright fascism, develops. There were over 2,000 antisemitic attacks in 2020 compared with 751 in 2013. These include verbal and physical assaults on Jews and desecration of Jewish synagogues and graves. There are also the more subtle forms

Number of antisemitic incidents

of antisemitism, the dog whistles such as continually pointing to Jewish financier George Soros or continually talking about the role of the Jews in Hollywood. These play on the stereotypes of Jews. In the United States, antisemitism cannot play the same central role that anti-black racism does, but it still is central to the fascist ideology. Critical to understanding and combating it, therefore, is an understanding of the 2000+ year history of the Jewish people. The profound book, The Jewish Question, written by the Marxist Abram Leon is vital for that understanding. (Leon was murdered at the age of 28 in Auschwitz.)

Jewish Diaspora
Leon explains that the Jewish diaspora occurred because of the limits placed on agriculture due to the mountainous terrain of the original Jews. It was exactly because of this diaspora that the Jewish people retained their character as expressed through their religion. Had most of them remained in Palestine, they would have just been one more group that was absorbed into the conquering nation.

Like many such diasporas, the Jewish people who were spread out around the Mediterranean devoted themselves to trade; they were merchants in economies that were primarily based on production for consumption. This was true both for the ancient slave societies like the Roman and Greek empires as well as for the following European feudal system.

Jews as a “people-class”
Operating in economies that basically produced for consumption rather than for exchange, the Jewish merchants also served as the money lenders, but it was lending for consumption not for production (that is to say it was not financial capital). Leon defines this sort of lending as usury. So the economic life of the Jewish people revolved around trade and usury. As such, the Jews were a “people-class”, meaning that they as a people played a distinct economic role as a class. They were both a people and a class, and their role was vital for the nobility, the royalty (kings), but it was one that was on the fringe of feudal economy, essential to consumption (of luxury goods) but not to production.

A feudal manor.
It was a more or less self-contained economic unit.

In other words, unlike capitalism, feudal production was mainly for the consumption by the serfs and their lords. As such, there was very little circulation of money since the goods did not circulate very much. But the nobles and the royalty needed money for the purchase of luxury goods like spices and silk. Also, the kings needed money in order to raise an army. The Jewish people-class maintained a near monopoly in providing that money.

The capitalist system is entirely different. Production is almost entirely for sale on the market. As such, money is absolutely necessary. It measures the relative value of different goods – their “exchange value”.

Rise of Merchant Capitalism
As trade expanded, merchant capitalism developed in Western Europe and a native (gentile) merchant class arose. This native class was in competition with the Jewish merchants. Also, as money became more in use (due to increase in trade), the serfs tended to be freed from the land and paid money rent to the landlords. As such, when they were in need, they went to the Jewish usurers. The Jewish people-class was thrown into conflict with the nobility, the royalty, the peasants and also the rising native merchants. This was the basis for the pogroms in Western Europe and the driving of most of the European Jews into Eastern Europe, where capitalism had not yet begun to arise.

By the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries, a similar but not identical process occurred in Eastern Europe. The Jews were driven out of rural areas and into the major cities throughout Europe and also driven around the world, especially to America.

Rise of Working Class
At the same time, production for exchange (vs. for consumption of the producer) started to increase. In the peasant-based economy, one early such producer, one early such artisan, was the blacksmith. He produced for further production, such as producing horse shoes. In the Jewish communities, which revolved around trade and usury, such artisans were not necessary in the main. One of the main artisans was the tailor, who produced for consumption.

As industrial (vs. merchant) capitalism took hold, the blacksmith became the machinist. Similar with the weaver, who went from his own private shop into the giant cloth producing factories. These workers and those that followed were overwhelmingly non-Jews and they became the backbone of workers in heavy industry – production for further production or for creating the “means of production”. On the other hand, the Jewish artisan and those who followed him tended to go into light industry and production for consumption.

Thus, the old division between the Jewish people as a people-class and gentile society was in a way reproduced even within the new proletariat (working class). However, the special role of the Jews as a people-class had disappeared, which is to say that the economic function that Jews played as a people-class disappeared as capitalism arose. In other words, the economic foundation for the existence of this people-class was gone. As a result, the condition of the Jews as a distinct people-class disappeared. and the Jewish people started to assimilate into the wider gentile society.

Hunger in Germany in the 1930s. This crisis of the capitalist system plus the failure of the working class leadership are what opened the door to Hitler.

Crisis of Capitalism
Had the development of capitalism continued unchecked, this assimilation would have been nearly complete. What stopped and reversed it was the capitalist crisis of the 1930s. This was a crisis of the collapse of the rate of profit, the forces of production (factories, banks, etc.) outgrowing the capitalist market and the nation states themselves. Germany was hit particularly hard by the economic crisis as well as the crisis of the nation-states/inter-imperialist rivalries. The small business owners (“petit bourgeoisie”) were ruined. A whole layer of the working class lost their jobs and had no prospect of finding another one. Under “normal” circumstances, this would be the perfect perscription for the working class to take the reins and take over society. That is to say a working class socialist revolution. However, the class was divided between social democracy, which tried to maintain capitalist stability (an impossible task), and the Stalin-controlled Communist Party, which vacillated between something similar and labeling the social democratic workers as the enemy and at times even physically assaulting social democratic workers’ meetings.

As a result, the gentile small business people were open to the sirene song that the real problem was their Jewish rivals – the Jewish petit bourgeois. They brought along with them the unemployed or “lumpen”. That is how the Nazis/fascists rose to power. The Jews were also labeled as being synonymous with a foreign “threat” – Communism. The Nazis not only moved to physically wipe out the Jewish people (and others like gypsies); they also crushed the workers’ organizations. Blood letting and the most extreme barbarism ruled the day.

The historic diaspora of the Jewish people meant that they were not and are not a nation nor a national grouping. This is what makes Zionism so unjustified in any way.

Rise of Zionism
Cut off from a revolutionary alternative, for the first time hundreds of thousands of Jews turned to Jewish nationalism – Zionism. For over 2000 years, including when the Jews were actually a more or less distinct people-class, the idea of Jews being one nation, the idea that they should all return to their “homeland”, was rejected by the overwhelming majority of Jews. Only now, in this moment of mortal crisis with no working class alternative on the horizon, did this false prophet gain a mass following.

Since that era, even after capitalism overcame that particular crisis (the Great Depression and WW II), Jewish nationalism retained a hold, because of the establishment of the “Jewish state” – Israel, which US imperialism and its allies saw as representing its interests in that part of the world. Despite that, antisemitism receded and the assimilation of the Jewish people resumed and lasted decades.

Present Capitalist Crisis
Now, however, a new capitalist crisis is deepening. It is not only an economic crisis; it is a crisis of the nation-states themselves. Capital flows around the world at the push of a computer button. This leaves national governments vastly weakened in regulating the capitalist economy. Meanwhile, millions of refugees are driven from country to country. It is accompanied by an even worse failure of the working class leadership. (We are referring to the union leadership in the U.S. for example.) This is causing similar confusion within the working class.

All of this leaves millions with a yearning for some mythical past, and of course there is never a shortage of myth makers in capitalist society, especially at a time of crisis. An essential part of the myth they must sow is about some glorious yesteryear. In Scandinavian countries it parades under “Odinism” – the pre-capitalist Norse god. In Italy fascism romanticizes the old Roman empire and in Germany the ancient “aryan” society. This is combined with glorifying “the soil” and those who work the soil and also the manual worker, the worker in the factory.

But the Jewish people-class of the past never were a major part of that. They were not peasants (in the main), nor did they go into heavy industry when industrial capitalism developed. So the world view based on this mythical past must necessarily see the Jews as outsiders.

But if we are going to yearn for and romanticize those good old days, then this must include seeing the Jews as the quintessential outsiders. Antisemitism must be a part of this.

In the United States things are slightly different because the US never experienced feudalism. Because of this, and because of the history of slavery and the racism that followed, it has been mainly black people who have been the focus of US fascism. But US fascist ideology also owes a lot to European fascism, where antisemitism is a necessary ingredient.

Zionism and Antisemitism
Ironically, Zionist ideology meshes perfectly with antisemitism. Whereas antisemitism stereotypes the Jews, whereas it sees the Jews as some international historic cabal, Zionism also romanticizes and falsifies the actual history of the Jews. In both cases, they misrepresent the actual real history for present-day political goals, rather than basing their present day views on the actual history. In both cases they picture the Jews as being a united people whose characteristics (mainly their past economic role as a people-class) flows from their religion, as opposed to the fact that the material conditions of the Jewish people created the people-class and the fact of that existence allowed the continued ideology as represented by the Jewish religion. Had it not been for the rise of Nazism and the creation of the racist State of Israel, Jews would have long ago more or less assimilated into gentile society. Just as it is no accident that Zionism has historically collaborated with antisemitism, so today it is no accident that some of the strongest supporters of the racist State of Israel are the antisemitic fundamentalist churches in the United States.

To repeat: antisemitism will not be the central driving force in either US or European fascism. In both cases, refugees are a much more important target. In addition, in the US racism against black people will remain central. However, fascist and semi-fascist ideology must be seen as a whole; it cannot be taken up as separate ideas. Antisemitism is and must remain an important ingredient of that whole. Therefore, combating antisemitism must be included in the struggle against fascist ideology. In order to combat it, we must understand the history of the Jewish people and how that history is linked with antisemitism.

We hope that this summary will encourage people to read the more in-depth article as well as Oaklandsocialist’s pamphlet, The New Apartheid, which explains the rise of Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel.

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