Karl Kautsky

Are the Jews a Race?

Chapter VI
Mental Qualities of the Jewish Race

There is not much to be gotten, therefore, out of the bodily traits of the Jewish race. Even the racial anti-Semites themselves do not display any very great confidence in the certainty of such traits, in spite of all their bombast concerning the profound natural gulf separating the Jewish race from the other races. They are very careful not to draw practical inferences from their race theories, or to demand – let us say – the political disfranchisement, the prohibition against marrying “Aryan” persons, or the elimination from Europe of every man who displays a “Jewish countenance”. Nor do they recognise every man as an Aryan who fails to possess this countenance. They are finally brought to the pass of recognising as the natural “race trait” of the Jews only the records of the Bureau of Vital Statistics.

But of course, the wickedness and disaster involved in the Jewish race is not based upon the peculiarity of their bodily traits, but on their mental traits, not on their crooked noses and crooked legs, but on their crooked morality. The high intelligence, the close solidarity of the Jews, are not virtues but vices. For they make the evil qualities more dangerous, namely, his importunity, his destructive, purely negative criticism, and, particularly, his heartless, ruthless desire for gain. In order to prove that the Jew is a born criminal, our racial anti-Semites bring no more destructive argument to bear than the overwhelming assertion that the Jew is a born capitalist. They claim that all the vulgarity of the capitalist mode of thought, which the Teutonic individual has had the greatest difficulty in acquiring, has been inherent in the Jewish blood from the beginning of history. Long before the slightest trace of capitalism was in existence, the Jew had already been impregnated by some miracle with the capitalist mode of thought and feeling, an undistinguishable race trait for all times and countries, and in all modes of production. It is therefore not surprising that the Jew leaves all his competitors far behind in the game of capitalist competition, thus injuring the Christian proletarians beyond repair by causing them to be exploited not only by “blond beasts” who had to be artificially trained to this capitalist viciousness.

The thorn in the flesh of these theorists is the mental qualities of the Jews. The fact that these qualities include a number that were unpleasant to their Jewish neighbours was an observation frequently made long before the days of the racial anti-Semites. But formerly these traits had been ascribed to their peculiar social situation, to their oppression, their limitation to a few fixed callings. It had formerly been assumed that with the elimination of this exceptional situation, these peculiarities also would disappear. Under these circumstances, a criticism of the Jews usually developed into a criticism of state and society and into a demand for social and political reforms. But it is possible to escape the necessity of making such demands if the mental qualities of the Jews are considered to be an inextinguishable race trait.

“Race alone may often serve only to cloak our ignorance,” says Fishberg, “particularly if all the conditions of the environment have been ignored.” [1]

No doubt this is often the case. But just as frequently we find “race” resorted to as a means of preventing any criticism of society, any effort to secure its further evolution, or even the investigation of its nature, the conception of race being used in such instances in order to nullify the influence of the milieu – including also the artificial, social milieu – on man.

We have observed in the preceding chapter that the Jews are a mixed race, but we were nevertheless in a position to indicate the traces of the bodily traits of one of the geographical races of which this mixture is composed. We can no longer say anything concerning its mental traits, for mental traits are so intangible and variable that it is difficult if not impossible to assign permanent mental traits with definiteness to a certain race. This impossibility becomes the greater in the case of a prehistoric race of which no written documents are preserved. We completely lack any material for determining the mental qualities of the races out of which the population of Palestine was built up several thousands of years ago.

But it is very difficult even to outline the characteristics of a nation on the basis of its written evidence. It is even very daring to judge a man on the basis of certain of his writings. Many individualities express themselves differently in their writings than in their real character. Personal observation itself is not sufficient to enable us to grasp the entire inner life of an individual; in fact, the individual is in the dark concerning much of his own individuality. He is aware of his inner life only where it enters his consciousness, and even his conscious mental life is coloured, simplified, idealised, by memory.

What little information we have concerning the life of earlier races is in the form of certain expressions by certain individuals. It is as a rule entirely impossible to determine at this late date to what extent these expressions are typical, if only for the class involved, not to mention the entire people.

Such evidences are extremely important as a means of determining the course of events, the problems faced by the human beings of the period and people in question, the stage of their knowledge and ability, the goals of their aspirations, the natural and artificial environment in which they moved. But he who would go beyond these things, he who would infer their entire inner life from these materials, will be able as a rule to deliver merely the production of his own imagination; this product will be interesting chiefly as a characterisation of the investigator rather than of those investigated. Nothing is more difficult than to place oneself inside another’s skin.

Even if there existed anywhere a civilised nation corresponding to a pure race, and which had preserved its race purity for thousands of years, we should not be able to trace its mental idiosyncrasies through these thousands of years with such precision as to be able to state which elements must be assigned to heredity and which to the influence of the environment.

But in the case of a mixed race, the mere attempt to make such a distinction would be ridiculous.

There is more likelihood of success if we begin, not with the race, not with the environment, not with the past, but with the present. In this case, we can at least determine to a certain extent, by means of numerous observations, what alterations in the mental character are produced at this day by alterations in the environment. Proceeding from this knowledge, we may then with a certain definiteness interpret many evidences of former times. For we are then proceeding from the known to an explanation of the unknown, while to make the assumption that any mental characteristic known to us is a race trait is equivalent to the opposite process of explaining the known by means of the unknown.

The former method, that which begins with the environment, is quite sufficient to explain the mental traits observable in the greater number of the Jews of the present day. We need only to note the influence of the urban environment on human beings at this day, the alterations in the country-dweller when exposed to the influence of city life, and then to recall that the Jews are the only race on earth that has constituted a purely urban population for approximately two thousand years: we now have an almost perfect explanation of Jewish traits. They are an exaggerated form of urban traits in general. I used the urban traits as early as 1890 in order to explain the Jewish character: [2] The Jew has become the city dweller par excellence. The uniformity of the artificial environment imparted to the Jews everywhere a uniform mental type, in spite of all the variations in their natural environment, and all the differences in the inherited race elements. If this uniform type should be accepted as a race type, the descendant of the homo alpinus might be designated as the homo urbanus.

Until long after the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the circumstances under which the great masses of the population lived in cities were – regardless of the country or race concerned – so destructive that it was impossible for them to maintain their numbers by natural increase alone. If there had not been a constant accession of new forces from the country, they would have died out repeatedly. A large fraction of the urban population consists everywhere of elements derived from the provinces; only an insignificant fraction can point to city ancestors for more than a century past. The Jews, however, have accomplished the astounding feat of so adapting themselves to urban life as not only to maintain themselves for two thousand years as an almost exclusively urban population, but even to increase in numbers under these conditions.

This may have been in part the operation of an unconscious process of selection, resulting in the elimination of all those unsuited to urban life. In the case of the non-Jewish population, this process was not necessary, since it was constantly interrupted by the accession of new elements from the country districts, who married into the established families, thus bringing about a mingling of selected and non-selected elements.

It is very questionable whether natural selection, in the form of the survival of the fittest, has had much influence on evolution. But there is no doubt that it has had an immense influence on the shaping and maintaining of species by means of the elimination of those unfit for the given environment.

In addition to this unconscious adaption, there is also a conscious adaptation. We have already pointed out that the Jew is far more inclined to consult a physician, and to observe the physician’s orders conscientiously, than is the non-Jew, and also, that the Jew – at least in the ghetto – is far less addicted to alcohol. This difference between Jew [and] non-Jew is at bottom again merely a difference between city-dweller and country-dweller.

Owing to the conditions of his life the latter is far superior to the city-dweller in strength; he is rarely ill. In the fullness of his strengths he despises disease. Owing to his love of displaying his vigour, and to his fear of appearing to be a weakling, he considers it a disgrace to be sick; besides, he is often too ignorant to have confidence in a physician.

The case with alcohol is similar. Alcohol is far less injurious to the vigorous peasant than to the neurasthenic city dweller. And, the better his nervous state, the greater his muscular energy the greater will be the quantities of alcohol he can consume without injury. Competitive drinking becomes a means of displaying bodily vigour, and he who avoids such tests is considered a coward.

There are no celebrations in the country without extensive intoxication. This condition occasionally leads to brawls, to murder and other killings, but otherwise has no injurious effect on the healthy peasant. In the city, where there is less opportunity for varied physical movement in the open air, and where the work to be accomplished is either more mental or more monotonous, and is performed in confined quarters and shops, the need of neutralising the feeling of an exhausted nervous condition becomes greater, the desire for alcohol is greater than in the country , the opportunities for obtaining alcohol are more numerous but its effect is more destructive. This is clearly apparent today, with great masses of the population living and working in cities, and with the present comparative, if not absolute cessation in the arrival of new elements from the country, as compared with the size of the city population. This condition, as well as the progress of a knowledge of physiology, is giving rise to a more and more energetic struggle with alcoholism. In this matter, the Jews have a lead of centuries, not in the requirement of abstinence, but in their abhorrence of intoxication; not so much because of a scientific knowledge, as because of their social position. The nations of the south are less inclined to be immoderate than those of the north. The Jews, coming from the south, and now living among Teutons and Slavs, being cut off from their environment, were not exposed to the temptations of this environment. Furthermore, the defenceless Jew was always far more exposed to danger than the non-Jew, and therefore sobriety was far more necessary to him. An intoxicated Jew who would transgress the laws would have brought great misfortune not only upon himself but upon the entire Jewry of his home town. This is perhaps the best explanation that can be offered for the moderation of the Jews. Although originally serving only to render the position of the Jews more secure, and perhaps practised as a habit handed down from their Oriental home, this abstinence has necessarily had an extremely favourable hygienic influence.

Of similar importance is the Jew’s respect for learning, particularly for medicine. In the crude and ignorant condition which settled down over Europe during the migration of nations, the Jews were for a long time one of the few asylums still retaining remnants of ancient civilisation. As a result, they preserved a higher respect for science than their environment, and also practised science more intensively, except where this tendency was frustrated by the exclusiveness of the ghetto. The high level to which the art of healing had been developed among the Greeks was maintained in the first place by Jewish physicians, then further developed in the Orient, and passed on to the Arabs. Their better medical understanding was handed on to the Jews of the north from the Orient and from Spain.

By reason of a gradual natural selection, as well as owing to a conscious adaptation to their conditions of life, the Jews were finally enabled to resist the destructive influences of the city environment more successfully than the new arrivals from the provinces. While the non-Jewish city population was subject to constant renewal every few generations, the Jews had become a purely urban population.

The peculiarities of their historical position not only limited the Jews to the cities, but to certain callings within the cities.

They had to live as strangers among strangers, which is not so difficult for merchants. At first, merchants not only undertake to purchase and sell goods, but also to transport them, and such convoys of goods had often to be personally conducted or at least personally supervised. The trade in commodities required that the merchants travel and sojourn in foreign countries, and all those nations which had a trade in commodities had adapted and accustomed themselves to the presence of foreign merchants among them.

The Jews, who found themselves compelled to leave their homeland, found it easiest to get along in foreign countries as merchants. Furthermore, it was those Jews whose mental makeup was best adapted to trade who were most likely to venture abroad.

In their original home the Jews, like any other nation, gave birth to all the classes and vocations natural to their social conditions. They displayed as little as any other people the mental limitation considered by anthropo-sociologists as the determining characteristic of the various races, namely, a turning of their faculties to one calling or to a few callings at most. They showed as much aptitude for agriculture as for trade and industry; as much for military service as for the art of government; as much for philosophy as for poetry. For the mind of the individual human being is far richer in its aptitudes than many a race theoretician can imagine. It is only the barriers of a narrow, monotonous life that cause an individual to develop only a few of his faculties to their full capacity, and perhaps to hand them on to his progeny in a more pronounced form, while other faculties may become stunted through desuetude.

The Jews outside of Palestine were therefore obliged to turn to trade chiefly. We therefore find them a trading nation at an early date. They thus must surely have developed emphatically those abilities needed by the merchant, and this great capacity must in the course of many generations of such activity within the same families have finally produced hereditary aptitudes and traits.

However, the Jews did not limit themselves to trade. Wherever possible, they resorted to other vocations also, particularly in cities where there were great numbers of Jews. Trade can never support more than a small minority, for trade is non-productive. Trade may under certain circumstances facilitate production but can never replace it. The Jews could not constitute a large fraction of the population of a city except where they were permitted to practise some other calling besides that of trade, perhaps a handicraft. On the other hand, where great numbers of Jews were living together, artisans and members of the liberal professions, such as physicians, who were of Jewish extraction, had better opportunities to maintain themselves as they found among their numerous co-religionists a strong support and an adequate market for their products and services. In antiquity, wherever the Jews lived together in great numbers, for instance, in Alexandria, we find also many artisans among them, in spite of that mysterious race predilection which is supposed to have made the commercial spirit an ineradicable characteristic of every Jew from the very beginning of history, in other words, long before there was any such thing as trade.

Being exclusively city-dwellers, they naturally did not favour those callings for which the new arrival from the country is best adapted, but those for which city life is the best preparation: such callings are those, on the one hand, which require much intelligence and theoretical knowledge, and which, on the other hand, do not demand much physical strength. When they turn to handicraft, they become, therefore, tailors rather than smiths, while the surplus of the merchant families, which cannot be absorbed in commerce, or which does not need to practise commerce, turns to purely mental labour.

Trade not only develops an excellent material foundation for mental labour, by favouring the prosperity of the families concerned, but far more by reason of the excellent natural talents encouraged by it. In my book, Foundations of Christianity, I already pointed out the connection between “trade and philosophy”. [3] I have shown in that work that industry develops rather the abilities required by the reproductive arts, while trade develops rather the capacities for mathematical, abstract thought, but also for investigation and mental speculation, the tendency to associate with elements known those unknown elements that are necessarily connected with them. Furthermore, world commerce expands the horizon beyond that which is customary and traditional.

To be sure, scientific speculation is not to be regarded as identical with commercial speculation. But they differ not in the abilities required for them, but in the conditions of their application. Occupation with trade, investigation and speculation from an interested standpoint, are a great obstacle to disinterested investigation and speculation, in other words, to scientific work, and vice versa.

“Trade develops the necessary ability for scientific purposes, but not its application to scientific ends. On the contrary, where trade secures an influence over learning, its effect is entirely in the direction of doctoring the results of learning for its own purposes, of which our present-day bourgeois learning presents numerous examples.

“Scientific thought could only be developed in a class that was endowed with all the gifts, experience and knowledge involved in trade, but also liberated from the necessity of earning a living, and therefore possessing the necessary leisure, opportunity, and pleasure in disinterested investigation, in the solution of problems without regard to their immediate, practical and personal outcome.”

These conditions were realised in antiquity in some of the Greek commercial cities, but also in a number of Jewish settlements, particularly in Alexandria. We have already pointed out the importance of the Alexandrian Jewry in the history of medicine. Its importance in the development of philosophy is equally considerable.

Their respect for science and their desire to provide the scholar with an existence free from material care distinguished the Jews of the Middle Ages as mentally far superior to their barbarous environment. The Church was one of the communities, besides the Jews, which maintained alive the remnants of ancient civilisation in the midst of the Christian-Teutonic barbarism, and for this the Church has been not a little praised. But little attention has been given to the fact that the Church was practising a mental selection of the most dubious kind. In the Jewish families marriage and parenthood on the part of the most intelligent were assiduously encouraged. [4] The Catholic Church absorbed the most intelligent elements of the Christian families and doomed them to celibacy, forbade them to reproduce. This was equivalent to the precise opposite of the Jewish process of selection; the Church was practising a breeding of the most stupid, of course only during the period in which it served as the goal of the most intelligent men in the nation. [5]

Leeky, in his Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, describes in glowing words the enthusiasm of the Jews for learning:

“While those around them were groveling in the darkness of besotted ignorance; while juggling miracles and lying relics were the themes on which all Europe was expatiating; while the intellect of Christendom, enthralled by countless superstitions, had sunk into a deadly torpor, in which all love of enquiry and all search for truth were abandoned, the Jews were still pursuing the path of knowledge, amassing learning, and stimulating progress with the same unflinching constancy that they manifested in their faith. They were the most skilful physicians, the ablest financiers, and among the most profound philosophers; while they were only second to the Moors in the cultivation of natural science. They were also the chief interpreters to Western Europe of Arab learning. But their most important service, and that with which we are now most especially concerned, was in sustaining commercial activity. For centuries they were almost its only representatives.” [6]

Such were the circumstances under which the mental character of Judaism developed – and not from its “race” – whatever that may mean – but from the historical peculiarity of its social evolution. Precisely this historical evolution imparted to the Jews those qualities needed by capitalism, those qualities most conducive to success under capitalism. The capitalist mode of production is predominantly urban in character; it concentrates the mass of the population in cities, makes the provinces economically dependent on the cities. It transforms all of production into commodities production, makes all of production dependent on the trade in commodities. It abolishes the handicraft routine, and replaces it by the application of science to all fields.

Therefore that section of the population will make itself most felt within capitalism whose faculties have been best adapted to urban life, to trade, to scientific labour: this means the Jews.

Of course, Sombart explains the capitalist spirit as well as the power of mental abstraction found among the Jews not on the basis of their urban life, nor of their commercial activity, but as due to the – cattle-breeding practised by the nomads of the desert who were among the ancestors of the Jews thousands of years ago!

“Out of the boundless desert, out of the supervision of flocks, arises capitalism in contrast to the old established economic order. The management of herds has no definitely limited domain, no clearly defined field of activity, for the field of cattle-breeding is unlimited; its practice may be destroyed overnight, or may grow ten-fold in the course of a few years.”

Sombart does not explain how he accomplishes the miracle of causing a herd of cattle to grow ten-fold in the course of a few years; and yet such a revelation would be very valuable as an aid to overcoming the high price of meat. Furthermore, Sombart appears to regard pasture – in the wilderness – as unlimited, as well as the fodder furnished by it, which manifestly must also grow ten-fold in the course of a few years.

This new history of the origin of capitalism continues:

“Here (in the wilderness) alone, in the cattle-breeding economy – never in the sphere of agriculture – could the idea of gain strike root. Here only could economy be adapted naturally to an unlimited increase of the number of products.”

In other words, the idea of unlimited increase, in other words, of unlimited fruitfulness, could only arise in the most unfruitful wildernesses, never in the most fruitful agricultural countries. The sandy desert is the indicated soil for the production of cattle and cattle-fodder in unlimited quantities.

But the desert not only creates the possibility of an unlimited increase of products, but the nomadic mode of pasturing pursued in the desert also creates the impulse to increase “possessions” beyond all limits, without regard to whether they are needed or not. Karl Marx supposed that the boundless proportions attained by the desire for accumulating a hoard, for collecting gold and silver, were a result of the production of commodities. But Sombart knows better. It was not the production of commodities, but the fact that oxen and cows produce calves, that created the boundless impulse – in the desert – of accumulating hoards in cattle, of multiplying one’s holdings in cattle tenfold in the course of a few years, without asking for a moment whether this increased quantity can be put to any use, in other words, for the mere pleasure of counting the number of heads of cattle.

“Here only was it possible for the conception to arise that the abstract quantity of commodities and not the quality of utility is the dominant category of economic life. Here, for the first time, counting was resorted to in economic life. But the elements of rationalism also penetrated into the economic life, owing to nomad habits, which thus (!) become the father of capitalism in almost every respect. Again we find an immensely increased illumination for our understanding of the close relation between capitalism and Judaism, the latter here appearing as the connecting link between the former and nomadism.” [7]

The “immensely increased illumination” which we find here serves only to illuminate the boundless fertility of the wilderness of our professor’s imagination.




1. Fishberg, German ed., p. 86.

2. Die Neue Zeit, Vol. viii, pp. 22 et seq.; cf. also my article, Das Massaker von Kischeneff und die Judenfrage, Die Neue Zeit, Vol. xxi, part 2, p. 303.

3. Op. cit., pp. 203–208.

4. Ibid., p. 207.

5. This condition finally attained absurd dimensions among the Jews of Poland. In the section of his Geschichte der neueren Philosophie that deals with the Jewish philosopher Maimon (born 1754, died 1800), Kuno Fischer says:

“Among the Polish Jews the Talmudists and rabbis enjoyed the greatest prestige. Every family regarded it as a matter of pride to have a scholar of this type among its members, and if none of its sons was a Talmudist, effort was made to secure a son-in-law to embellish the family with such a connection. Young Talmudists were very much in demand as good matches ... Salomon Maimon had attained the third (supreme) degree in the Talmudic learning at the age of nine ... He was married before attaining the age of eleven. He was a husband in his eleventh year, a father in his fourteenth year:” (Section v, pp. 120, 121.)

6. W.E.H. Lecky, History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, New York 1910, vol. ii, p. 103.

7. Die Juden und das Wirtachaftsleben, pp. 426, 426.


Last updated on 4 June 2020