Books of the Month

The Jewish question can only be resolved by the working class

November 21, 2022
After “Kristallnacht,” a deadly Nazi assault on Jews in Germany, the SWP, others protest at German Consulate in New York, November 1938, demand Washington admit Jewish refugees.
Socialist AppealAfter “Kristallnacht,” a deadly Nazi assault on Jews in Germany, the SWP, others protest at German Consulate in New York, November 1938, demand Washington admit Jewish refugees.

The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation by Abram Leon is one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for November. Leon was won from Zionism to Marxism by supporters of Leon Trotsky. He wrote the book while a leader of the communist movement in Belgium as the second imperialist world war opened. In 1944, he was arrested and sent to Auschwitz where he died in the gas chambers at age 26, along with over a million others. The excerpt is from the introduction to the book by Dave Prince. Copyright © 2020 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission. 

The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation was completed by Abram Leon in 1942 in Belgium during the war-time occupation by Germany. As the twin slaughters of World War II and the Nazis’ “Final Solution” were unfolding, Leon wrote the book to explain the foundations of Jew-hatred in the imperialist epoch, as well as the road to its eradication.

“There is no solution to the Jewish question under capitalism,” he said, “just as there is no solution to other problems posed before humanity, without profound social upheavals,” revolutionary upheavals. “Unless the deep roots of the Jewish question are eliminated, the effects cannot be eliminated.” …

In the imperialist epoch, Jew-hatred fulfills a special function for the ruling classes. It is not simply one among other forms of bigotry and discrimination, nor another variety of racism, “white nationalism,” or xenophobia. Anti-Semitic words and deeds can’t be dismissed, much less “understood,” as unfortunate “tropes,” “political correctness” in defense of the Palestinian people, or inadvertent lapses in respecting the right to worship.

It is a deadly illusion that bourgeois democracy and its competing capitalist parties can be counted on to protect Jews in times of severe social and political crisis, as growing sections of the propertied classes become convinced their rule itself is under threat. It is a deadly illusion for the Jewish people, and for the working class and its allies, to believe that Jew-hatred will somehow just disappear.

Such misconceptions defy the history of the place of Jew-hatred — its particularplace — in the defense of capitalist wealth and state power under severe crisis conditions. Its persistence, Leon says, is not based in the working class. Under the Nazis, “The ghettos and the yellow badges [did] not prevent the workers from feeling a growing solidarity with those who suffer most from the afflictions all humanity is suffering.”

Jew-hatred is not a division withinthe working class, promoted by the rulers to pit one group of workers against another. It is not aimed at exacerbating competition for jobs among workers, in order to minimize resistance to exploitation. Under capitalism, such divisions fomented by the ruling class do form the material basis for racist discrimination and bigotry based on skin color, sex, immigration status, language, and more.

Virulent anti-Semitism is different both in its origins and in its purpose.

At times of sharp capitalist dislocation, insecure layers of the middle classes in town and country — facing loss of income, jobs, homes, farms, small businesses, and careers — look for someone to blame. They fear the abyss. They fear being thrown into the proletariat, down among the “deplorables,” who have nothing to sell or live on in a crisis but their less-and-less-often-purchased labor power.

With class-struggle leadership pointing the way in action, the working class and its organizations — by fighting decisively and winning victories that also benefit broad sections of small producers and proprietors — can divide such petty-bourgeois layers whose future proletarian condition looms before them. Many can be won to the revolutionary workers movement and its vanguard party, but only through the example of working-class struggle.

If class-collaborationist misleaders of the working class succeed in blocking such a revolutionary alternative, however, it is not only the labor movement that will be thrown back. Seeing the brutal reality that the current social order offers them nothing but more misery, millions in the petty bourgeoisie become open to an anticapitalism fueled by bitterness, resentment, prejudice, and hatred. So do some desperate and demoralized working people, especially those for whom the crush of debt slavery has become the main source of their exploitation by capital.

It is incorrect “to accuse big business of having brought about anti-Semitism,” Leon points out. Amid the turbulent economic and social crises of the 1920s and 1930s, as the capitalist rulers in Germany felt threatened by the prospect of proletarian revolution, “Big business only proceeded to make use of the elementary anti-Semitism of the petty-bourgeois masses,” Leon says. …

What is the root of the petty bourgeoisie’s “elementary anti-Semitism”? Where does the myth of “Jewish capitalism” come from?

Leon answers these questions by tracing the origins of modern Jew-hatred through the sweep of recorded history and class society. He takes us from antiquity, through feudalism, to the rise of capitalism with its creation of the modern working class, and then the opening of the death agony of capitalism and the imperialist world order it dominates. …

[U]sing extensive historical sources, Leon makes the case that for two millennia, from antiquity through the rise of industrial capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Jews are “historically a social group with a specific economic function. They are a class, or more precisely, a people-class.”

In the imperialist epoch, it is for these reasons that Jew-hatred originates in the petty bourgeoisie and both the ultraright and the radical left wings of bourgeois and middle-class anticapitalist politics. It is only when growing numbers among the ruling families no longer see another way to maintain their rule, however, that sections of them begin encouraging and financing initially small but violent fascist parties and their fighting units to attack workers’ picket lines, meetings, and social struggles. These layers of big business do so with the aim of smashing the trade unions and working-class political parties, in order to drown in blood every act of resistance to the disaster imposed on the toilers by capital.