Determinism and Fatalism

Behind Left orthodoxy there is a crude historical determinism which is not only chauvinistic but also quite defeatist. This is the determinism which claims not only that assimilation is necessary to avoid anti-semitism, but that it is in any case historically inevitable. It was with specific reference to Jews that Lenin talked about:

"Capitalism's world historical tendency to ... assimilate nations… which is one of the greatest driving forces transforming capitalism into socialism" (Critical Remarks on the National Question).

In similar vein, a Stalinist soviet scholar, Iosef Braginsky, has written that:

"The Marxist cannot view assimilation from the narrow standpoint of 'dos pintele yid'. One has to realise that assimilation is a natural historical process" (quoted by Lumer in his introduction to Lenin's writings).

The political consequences of this are predictable—namely a complete fatalism and defeatism in the face of the projected disappearance of Jewish culture. What is the point of struggling for something which some pre-determined historical law has deemed to be doomed? In fact, Otto Bauer, the Austrian Marxist active at the turn of the century, stated this explicitly when he wrote:

"Where a whole nation are doomed to extinction by economic development it is petty-bourgeois, reactionary, utopian to oppose this inevitable course of events" (quoted in Robert Wistrich—Socialism and the Jews).

A central feature of Lenin's writings is his hopelessness and defeatism about the survival, let alone development, of Jewish culture. As a renowned revolutionary activist, he nevertheless exhibited a passive acceptance of the status quo as he saw it—namely the disappearance of Jewish culture. It is scarcely believable that he was, in the last resort, prepared to allow 'market forces' to determine cultural progress. This was most evident in his attitude towards the survival of Yiddish as a language. In Critical Remarks on the National Question he argued, correctly, that revolutionaries in pre-revolutionary Russia should be exposing the privileged status of the Russian language as chauvinistic, since it was the language of all official state documents and transactions. He suggested that Russia should have several official languages on the model of Switzerland. Beyond that, he was prepared to leave everything to capitalist anarchy. He wrote that:

"The requirements of economic exchange will themselves decide which language of the given country is to the advantage of the majority to know in the interests of commercial relations. This decision will be the firmer because it is adopted voluntarily by a population of various nationalities and its adoption will be the more rapid and extensive the more consistent the democracy and as a consequence of it the more rapid the development of capitalism".

This shows a touching faith in capitalist 'democracy' and its economic system. Completely lacking from this schema is any notion of struggle to preserve, popularise and validate a minority culture amongst the majority. There is no recognition of the fact that, for example, the disappearance of Yiddish within a generation in this country (capitalist 'democracy' par excellence) was not to be the result of any 'natural process', but was, rather, a political victory for cultural imperialism.

Finally, Lenin does not even consider the political option of members of a cultural and economic majority taking the initiative and learning about the cultures of other people—not as an academic exercise but in order to enrich themselves and communicate with others. In the absence of this, the struggle against anti-black racism by white people and against anti-semitism by gentiles, can never be more than a liberal and patronising platitude. The only sort of assimilation that socialists should be campaigning for is the assimilation of the majority into the minority, and not the other way around.

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