Are the Jews a People-Class ?

The most articulate expression of this determinism is to be found in Abram Leon's book—The Jewish Question. Leon was a Jew and a Trotskyist who perished in Auschwitz at the age of twenty six. His book is a major attempt at a Marxist study of the history of world Jewry and, incidentally, of anti-semitism. It purports to provide a materialist explanation to both the existence and the 'inevitable' disappearance of Jewry. Its central thesis is, however, untenable. Leon addressed himself to the question of "the miracle of the Jew," that is the question why Jewry had survived so long in spite of persecution and martyrdom. His answer was that Jews had survived because of their economic role as traders and usurers and will disappear with the disappearance of those functions. As he said:

"Above all, Jews constitute historically a social group with a specific economic function. They are a class, or more precisely a people-class".

There are many basic flaws in Leon's argument which have been pointed out by Maxine Rodinson in his preface to the French edition and by David Reuben (Socialist Register, 1982). Firstly, it is extremely Euro-centric As Reuben points out, Leon fails to consider Jewish communities where trade was not a significant feature, such as Jewry

" the Byzantine Empire, the Yemen, the Falashim of Ethiopia, the Jewish farming communities of Daghesten and Kurdistan, the Jews in Babylon under Persian rule who were an agriculturally based community and the Jews of Cochin in India".

Even assuming that Leon was correct, at least with respect to Europe, and that he could prove his assertion that "the overwhelming majority of Jews in the diaspora engaged in trade", this would still leave unexplained the social situation of Jews which confined them to mercantile enterprise.

Moreover, Leon was historically incorrect even about Europe. European Jewry throughout its history seems to have been involved in occupations shared by the surrounding populations. For instance (at least at the start of the Middle Ages) land ownership was widespread amongst Jews in Western Europe. A further argument against the people-class theory is that even if some Jews were traders or usurers it is fantastic to reduce the survival of Jewry, as an identifiable grouping, to the role of a miniscule minority amongst them. Finally, Reuben emphasises that the idea of the survival of a people-class owing to its economic function only makes sense if that function was unique to it, and to no other group. In no sense, however, was either trade or usury a particularly Jewish preserve. The Church's opposition to usury was never strong enough to control it effectively amongst Christians, who were far more important economically than Jews. James Parkes has written (The Jew in the Medieval Community) that:

"Compared with the effectiveness and ubiquity of Italian credit that of the Jews appears a very small affair and the part which they played in the Middle Ages has been much exaggerated".

"Throughout the period the chief moneylenders were Christian and apart from short periods and particular localities the Jews never played more than a subordinate role".

In fact the only historical period—and this is debatable—when some Jews performed any unique economic function was that of international traders between 700-1100 A.D. These merchants (Radanites) may have had a particular advantage, being neither Christian nor Muslim, during a period in which the Moorish control of the Mediterranean cut off normal trade routes between Western Europe and Asia. It was also in this period that there developed the vast Jewish empire of the Khazar Kingdom, stretching from the Volga delta to Kiev—the strategic importance of which was that it separated Christianity and Islam. In any event, the trading activities of the Radanites is hardly a persuasive explanation for the existence of world Jewry.

The excessive determinism of Leon's thesis can be appreciated when it is understood that it was an attempt to refine an even cruder version of the people-class found in Kautsky's Are the Jews a Race? Kautsky took the notion of 'survival of Jewry as a result of economic function' to its inevitable conclusion by arguing that Jews had become 'genetic' traders. He wrote:

"They must have developed emphatically those abilities needed by merchants and this great capacity must, in the course of many generations of such activities within the same families, have produced hereditary aptitudes and traits".

So this is the view of a 'leading Marxist': Jewish culture has survived because of Jewish genes!

The conclusion that Leon draws from his thesis is as deterministic as its premise. He views assimilation as inevitable, precisely because the transition from feudalism to capitalism caused the alleged people-class to lose their functional role. He argues that:

"Capitalism destroyed feudal society and with it the function of the Jewish people-class. History doomed the people-class to disappearance".

According to Leon the only reason Jewry remains a distinct entity is because of anti-semitism (which was also Lenin's position). Leon sees anti-semitism as a pre-capitalist caricature of Jews as usurers, which has survived into capitalism, in spite of the fact that Jews are 'no longer' usurers. He states that:

"Historically the success of racism means that capitalism has managed to channelise the anti-capitalist consciousness of the masses into a form that antedates capitalism and which no longer exists except in a vestigal state; this vestige is nevertheless still sufficiently great to give a certain appearance of reality to the myth".

What Leon is saying here is that the existence today of some Jewish financiers is sufficient to evoke folk-memories of a time when the world was overrun by Jewish loan merchants—a time which, in fact, has never existed. According to his analysis, capitalist society needs a 'diversion' from the class struggle and this is provided by anti-semitism which, as well as facilitating assimilation, also needs to 'resurrect' the Jews. This is seen in his telling phrase, "The Jewish masses find themselves wedged between the anvil of decaying feudalism and the hammer of rotting capitalism".

Abram Leon, as a Jew and a Trotskyist, had an absolute feeling for anti-semitism. He paid the highest price in the struggle against it when most of Europe had given up that struggle. But the deterministic conclusions in his book are just as erroneous as the deterministic premise on which they are based. We shall see later that anti-semitism cannot be viewed merely as a 'diversion' from capitalist crisis—rather it is a constant in daily life. Nor can it be viewed in any way as emanating from Jewish behaviour, if only retrospectively, as Leon suggests. It emanates from anti-semites. It does no justice to the richness and diversity of Jewish culture to suggest that it has continued and developed only as a result of anti-semitism.

The fundamental difficulty with Leon's work is that the original question he sets out to answer—what is the reason for the 'miracle' of Jewish survival?—is a strange one. A similar interrogative is not normally asked about any other people or group. No-one usually asks why the English, who have state power, or the Irish, who live in an occupied state, or the Romany gypsies, who have no territorial state, have survived. These could well be important and interesting questions, but why is the question asked only of Jews? The fact is that it is usually only religious Jews who ask Leon's question, and they naturally arrive at a theological solution—namely it was a miracle. It was to avoid such a conclusion that Leon appears to have adopted an ultra-materialist and deterministic analysis.

However, a materialist understanding of the world does not need to deny the intrinsic value of particular cultures. A proper study of Jewish survival would examine those aspects of Jewish culture which act as a positive and sustaining force, the very diversity of such culture being one main element. Indeed the diaspora—which many Jews understandably view as a negative experience—was in this respect a powerful force for expansive development. Hopefully, such a study would show that Jewish culture (or rather its progressive aspects) far from being doomed, has a role to play in socialist reconstruction. Unfortunately, the final conclusion of Leon's thesis is that socialism will have no place for Jewry or its culture, since its two supposed pillars—its economic function and anti-semitism—will have disappeared.

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© 1984 Steve Cohen, edited and produced by Libby Lawson and Erica Bunnan.
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