The excerpt below is from chapter one of The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation by Abram Leon, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for January. Leon was won to Marxism from Zionism by supporters of Leon Trotsky. He led the communist movement in Belgium, up to and during the second imperialist world war. His history of the Jews and anti-Semitism was written as the crisis for the capitalist rulers in Germany and elsewhere led them to turn to fascism and anti-Jewish terror. It was completed while he led underground resistance against the Nazi occupation. The fate of the Jews and all humanity, he wrote, was tied to the victory of proletarian revolutions against imperialist war and fascism. In 1944, he was arrested and sent to Auschwitz where he died in the gas chambers, aged 26, along with over a million others. Copyright © 1970 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
BY ABRAM LEON
Only a study of the economic role played by the Jews can contribute to elucidating the causes for the “miracle of the Jew.”
To study the evolution of this question is not exclusively of academic interest. Without a thorough study of Jewish history, it is difficult to understand the Jewish question in modern times. The plight of the Jews in the twentieth century is intimately bound up with their historical past. …
In the sphere of Jewish history, as in the sphere of universal history, Karl Marx’s brilliant thought points the road to follow. “Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.” Marx thus puts the Jewish question back on its feet. We must not start with religion in order to explain Jewish history; on the contrary, the preservation of the Jewish religion or nationality can be explained only by the “real Jew,” that is to say, by the Jew in his economic and social role. The preservation of the Jews contains nothing of the miraculous. “Judaism continues to exist not in spite of history, but owing to history.”
It is precisely by studying the historical function of Judaism that one is able to discover the “secret” of its survival in history. …
From the eleventh century on, Western Europe entered a period of intensive economic development. The first stage of this evolution was characterized by the creation of a corporative industry and a native merchant bourgeoisie. The penetration of mercantile economy into the agricultural domain determined the second stage.
The growth of cities and of a native merchant class brought with it the complete elimination of the Jews from commerce. They became usurers whose principal clientele consisted of the nobility and the kings. But the mercantile transformation of agricultural economy resulted in undermining these positions as well.
The relative abundance of money enabled the nobility to throw off the yoke of the usurer. The Jews were driven from one country after another. Others became assimilated, being absorbed mainly by the native bourgeoisie.
In certain cities, principally in Germany and in Italy, the Jews became primarily loan-makers to the popular masses, the peasants, and the artisans. In this role as petty usurers exploiting the people, they were often the victims of bloody uprisings.
In general, the period of medieval capitalism was that of the most violent Jewish persecutions. Jewish “capital” came into conflict with all classes of society. …
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was principally the English, the Irish, the Germans, and the Scandinavians who formed the bulk of immigrants to America. The Slavic and Jewish element became dominant toward the end of the nineteenth century among the masses streaming to the New World.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Jewish masses sought new roads of immigration. But at first it was toward the interior of Russia and Germany that they headed.
The Jews succeeded in penetrating the great industrial and commercial centers where they played an important role as merchants and industrialists. Here we come upon a new and important fact: For the first time in centuries a Jewish proletariat was born. The people-class began to differentiate socially.
The Jewish proletariat, however, remained concentrated mainly in the sector of consumer goods industry. It was primarily of the artisan type. In the same measure as large-scale industry expanded its field of exploitation, the artisan branches of economy declined. The workshop was superseded by the factory. And it thus turned out that the integration of Jews into capitalist economy still remained extremely precarious. It was not alone the “precapitalist” merchant who was forced to emigrate, but also the Jewish artisan worker. Jewish masses streamed in ever larger numbers from Eastern Europe to the West and to America. The solution of the Jewish question, that is to say, the complete absorption of the Jews into economic life, thus became a world problem.
The decline of capitalism
By socially differentiating Judaism, by integrating the latter into economic life, and by emigration, capitalism has laid the bases for the solution of the Jewish problem. But capitalism has failed to solve it. On the contrary, the fearsome crisis of the capitalist regime in the twentieth century has aggravated the plight of the Jews to an unparalleled degree. The Jews, driven from their economic positions under feudalism, could not be integrated into a capitalist economy in utter decay. In its convulsions, capitalism casts out even those Jewish elements which it has not yet completely assimilated.
Everywhere is rife the savage anti-Semitism of the middle classes, who are being choked to death under the weight of capitalist contradictions. Big capital exploits this elemental anti-Semitism of the petty bourgeoisie in order to mobilize the masses around the banner of racism.
The Jews are being strangled between the jaws of two systems; feudalism and capitalism, each feeding the rottenness of the other.