Left Orthodoxy

Assimilationism has today reached the status of a tenet of faith on the Left. Like most faiths this 'gospel' is simply assumed and is normally made explicit only when challenged, when it is then stated as dogma. Thus the editor of Socialist Challenge, Geoff Sheridan, made the stark statement in relation to Jews that "assimilation is not a process socialists would wish to halt" (13.11.80). This immediately begs the question—assimilation into what? The only culture that Jews can assimilate into in this country is a racist, sexist, capitalist and anti-semitic one. If the revolutionary Left exists to promote this then it need not bother—British imperialism is possessed of far greater resources and experience. Support for assimilation is support for British chauvinism. In reality, socialist practice in the U.K. is simply to ignore, and therefore be complicit in, the fact that this is a WASP¹ country. Christian culture is somehow assumed dead and is in any event believed to stop at the church door. It is considered unremarkable that the leading 'revolutionary' press should have seasonal Christmas editions whilst the festivals of non-Christian cultures are ignored or regarded as opiates. Indeed, it is a spurious and peculiarly Christian atheism which allows British socialists to welcome public holidays (holydays) within the Christian tradition, but tolerates a system where members of other religions are compelled to work or take unpaid leave during their own festivities.

Within the Left there is the rhetoric of 'support' for national and cultural minority rights. However, the idea that there may be anything positive within Jewish culture is simply dismissed. Socialist practice extends only as far as liberal patronage. Lenin is the most obvious example. His writings on these matters are collected in Lenin on the Jewish Question edited by Hyrnan Lumer and where all subsequent quotations can be found. Lenin wrote:

"It is the Marxist's bounded duty to stand for the most resolute and consistent democraticism on all aspects of the national question" (Critical Remarks on the National Question).

However, he immediately followed this by stating, "This task is largely a negative one". In other words, Lenin seemed to regard the substance of most minority cultures as being either reactionary or non-existent. For instance, in referring to the Jews of Russia and Galicia (half the Jews in the world), he said that "Jewish national culture is the slogan of the rabbis and the bourgeoisie" (On the National Question). For Lenin the only alternative to ghettoisation was assimilation. A proper socialist position on these matters would permit and encourage a struggle within minority cultures against their own oppressive elements, whilst simultaneously waging a struggle against the chauvinism of the host culture. Lenin, however, established Left orthodoxy by his advocacy of assimilationism combined with patronising toleration of Jewish culture. Thus John Nolan in a letter to Socialist Challenge talks about the existence of sexual oppression within 'Judaism' and states that:

"This is not incompatible with our defence of oppressed groups—even if they hold views incompatible with our views of socialism" (1.1.81).

There is no recognition of anything beneficial within Jewish life—which is merely reduced to a matter of religion. In particular, there is no acknowledgement that there may be elements within Jewish culture which are in opposition to oppressive attitudes. It is interesting to know why John Nolan wants to 'defend' Jews—as he believes everything we stand for is incompatible with his views of socialism. Actually all he is willing to defend (if anything) is, apparently, the physical existence of Jews—our identity he will let rot.

To be specific, socialist practice disparages virtually everything to do with Jewish culture. Karl Kautsky, the leading Marxist theoretician of his period, wrote in 1914 of Polish Jewry that:

"They have preserved to this day a peculiar language, the so-called Yiddish, a corrupt German—the only Jewish population in the world that has not assimilated the language of its environment" (Are the Jews a Race?, all further quotations from Kautsky can be found in this book).

Such a statement revealed a profound ignorance of other Jewish communities who had preserved their own languages. Most prominent were the Ladino-speaking Jews of the Mediterranean, whose great centre until the 2nd World War was Salonika. Ladino is still in use today in areas of the Balkans.

Moreover, completely lacking from Kautsky's observation was the fact that for several hundred years prior to the holocaust, Yiddish was the autonomous and rich language of daily communication for virtually all of East European Jewry. It was a wonderful vehicle for the expression of Jewish imagination—through poetry, prose and drama. Fundamentally, Yiddish was not simply a language. It was the basis of a whole cultural life—Yiddishkeit. Kautsky reduces all such vital manifestations of communal life—a life split as in every community by class conflict—to German dialect.

Lenin—who likewise seemed to think that Jews lived only in Europe—was even more pernicious. In Critical Remarks on the National Question he divided Jewry into two groups—those from the East of Europe who were 'rabbis' and those from the 'civilised world' of Western Europe where:

"The great world-progressive features of Jewish culture stand clearly revealed, its internationalism, its identification with the advanced movements of the epoch".

This is glib and patronising. Not only was the Marxist movement in Eastern Europe itself heavily composed of many Jews, not only is it left unexplained how 'rabbis' migrating West suddenly became proletarian internationalists, but Lenin displays complete ignorance in defining progressive elements within a culture exclusively in terms of its overt political expression. There is more to European Jewish culture than socialist thought—though this was certainly one of its achievements.

¹WASP—White Anglo-Saxon Protestant

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