Chauvinism or Anti-Semitism ?

Assimilationism is undoubtedly reactionary. A generous interpretation of its acceptance by the Left is simply that it is an inadequate resolution of the 'national question' under socialism. Being less generous, however, assimilationism is a classic case of national chauvinism. It is based on the assumption that minority cultures have only a transient historical validity and inevitably have to disappear into the 'mainstream'. For example, Lenin saw only the Yiddish and not the Russian language as being an historical remnant.

Nevertheless, it is true to say there is a real problem in determining the relationship between the classic anti-semitism of the conspiracy theory and assimilationism directed by the 'host' community at Jews. Assimilation, unlike classic anti-semitism is not necessarily derived from Jewish conspiracy theories of history. It can be more frequently traced to the essential nationalism and chauvinism of the nation state. This is usually the case with the Left—which is capable of manifesting chauvinism to any minority, not just Jews. It would be ludicrous to see, for example, Bolshevik opposition to Bundist separatism as being motivated by conspiracy theories. The point is that the Bolsheviks were explicitly against separatism by any group! Indeed Lenin complained of the accusation of singling Jews out and said:

"This is disseminating an outright falsehood for we have advocated denying representation not only to the Jews but also to the Armenians, the Georgians and so on" (The Position of the Bund in the Party).

There is, nonetheless, a living relationship between national chauvinism against Jews and anti-semitism as an ideology. This exists on various levels. In the most general, but profound, sense both are firmly rooted in Christian perceptions. This is as true of the conspiracy theory as it is of the development of what was a European (and therefore Christian) phenomenon—the growth of the nation state. Significantly, Isaac Deutscher spoke not of European civilisation but of 'Christian-European civilisation' ('Who is a Jew' in The Non-Jewish Jew). Indeed, dependent on its period of social, economic and ideological development, the state was able to advocate either ghettoisation or assimilation as a way of 'dealing with' its Jewish population.

Even on the Left there is a ruthlessness and explicitness about advocating Jewish assimilation that takes it beyond the 'normal' bounds of chauvinism. The vocabulary used to describe the daily life of Jews—'doomed', 'extinct'—reads like a post mortem. In fact, it is correct to say that the policy of Jewish assimilation becomes part of anti-semitism; ideology precisely at the point were conspiracy theories are used. to justify it. A classic case is the forced conversions of Marranos in Spain and Portugal as part of the relentless battle against Jewish devil-power. Nothing like this has occurred within Left anti-semitism, except perhaps the closing down of Soviet synagogues which is a step in this direction.

However, even in non-Stalinist sources, the conspiracy theory does sometimes raise its head in advocating assimilation. Occasionally this takes the form of crude anti-semitic imagery and analogy. Lenin could relapse into evoking the image of usury. He correctly criticised the Bund when they adopted two different constitutions—a minimum and a maximum programme (essay Maximum Brazenness and Minimum Logic). However, he expressed himself as follows to the Bund:

"This is the positive last price not 'last word'. Only is it really your last, gentlemen? Perhaps you've got a minimal minimum in another pocket? .. We very much fear that the Bundists do not quite realise all the 'beauty' of this maximum and minimum. Why, how else can you haggle than by asking an exorbitant price, then knocking off 75 per cent and declaring 'That's my last price'? Why, is there any difference between haggling and politics?"

He could hardly have been unaware of the anti-semitic stereotyping in this—echoing Marx's remarks "What is the secular cult of the Jew? Haggling".

There is, though, a more consistent way in which anti-semitic theory is used to justify assimilationism. There is a repeated reference to the notion that Jews are pleading a 'special case' in trying to retain their own autonomy—either cultural or organisational. This is the 'uppity-Jew' syndrome. For black people the equivalent abuse means going above their status as slaves. For Jews it means trying to gain an ascendancy over others. We see in the next chapter that the idea that Jews are trying to gain special privileges is a recurring theme of the Left.

In particular, it is alleged that Jews believe they are life's only victims. However, those Jews who oppose assimilationism are also branded as arguing a 'special case'. In Socialist Challenge John Nolan says, apropos of nothing, "in the fight against oppression there are no special cases". Likewise, Lenin accused the Bund of 'exceptionalism' for advocating the maintenance and development of Yiddish and other aspects of cultural life. (The Position of the Bund).

Perhaps the clearest practical illustration of this accusation occurred in the Austrian Social Democratic Party. Its 1899 Brun conference contained a resolution suggesting that legislative power should be given to national minorities on a non-territorial basis. By this scheme, minorities were to be given power to legislate on their own cultural affairs, run their own schools and decide their own language. Irrespective of the merits of this attempt to resolve the national question—it was never passed—it is interesting that Jews were excluded despite the fact the Galicia was one of the world's largest centres for Jewry. Hence "there are no special Jewish traits worth preserving. All retention of Jewish uniqueness is deleterious" and:

"We cannot accept the separation of the Jewish proletariat in the realm of social life, which far exceeds the limits of ordinary national differences and finds its basis in religious and social conflicts" (quoted in Wistrich—Socialism and Jews).

The idea that Jews who claim organisational and cultural autonomy are somehow claiming a special privilege, is a typical example of how Jews are put in a double-bind by the Left. Austrian social democracy shows that on the one hand the Left frequently does treat Jews differently from other groups, but on the other hand, when Jews dare point this out, they are accused of arguing a special case—that is they are accused of wanting different treatment! Indeed Lenin came close to asserting that in some ways the Bund's separatism was based on the belief that Jews were intrinsically superior to all other people—a classic anti-semitic jibe. He expressly accused the Bund of considering that "The Jewish nation ... occupies a special position amongst the nations" (The Position of the Bund).

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