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New International, January 1949


Leon Shields

Views on Anti-Semitism


From The New International, Vol. XV No. 1 (Whole No. 131), January 1949, pp. 30–31.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Recent Developments in Economic Theory and the Resurgence of Anti-Semitism
by Louis B. Boudin
1948, pamphlet repr. from ORT Economic Review, 96 pp.

Boudin’s concept of anti-Semitism strays somewhat from the traditional view held by some in the Marxist movement that all the Jews’ ills can be traced to the special economic role which they have played throughout history. To this wooden concept (economic determinism passed off as Marxism) he has added a new and vital modification: the status of the Jews, he maintains, has always depended not so much upon their economic role as upon the relationship of this role to the economic theories prevalent in society at any particular time.

In the early Middle Ages, according to Boudin, the relationship of the Jews to society was determined by the fact that their income was derived chiefly from money-lending. The Jewish historians are right in pointing out that the Jews were forced into this occupation because all others were barred to them; however, insists the author, this was not due to anti-Semitism but to the fact that medieval “society was organized in tight communities, bound together by religion, custom, and vested rights.” Since, as non-Christians and strangers, they were barred both from land tenure and from membership in the guilds, they were forced into that occupation, usury, which was prohibited to the Christians.

This, however, brought them into conflict with the rest of society. For the economic theory of the Middle Ages held that wealth was created by labor, while money-lending was “barren.” The result of these ideas was a series of restrictions, pogroms and expulsions from various countries.

Boudin shows that the fate of the Jews in the ensuing ages was tied to the economic theories of the times. The Jews gained a toehold in international commerce only during the mercantilist age, for its theory held that international trade was a form of warfare, and consequently those engaged in it were honored as “merchant princes.” But the greatest age of the Jews was ushered in by the victory of the British over Napoleon, and the resultant triumph of the economic theory and practice of laissez-faire. The part played by the Jews in the development of capitalism was tremendous. But their role and status in the nineteenth century was made possible only by the economic theory that trade was a source of wealth, and that “‘the natural laws of trade’ allotted to each participant his just share of the wealth. The ‘rich Jew,’ once an object of opprobrium, became the greatest contributor to the welfare of the community ... The number of Jewish nobles von’s, de’s, barons, and lords, – was legion.”

The turn of this century saw capitalism under attack from new, non-Marxist sources. “Even at this time the terrible events to come cast their shadows before them in the form of the identification of Jews with capitalism.” The leader of these new theoreticians in Germany, Max Weber, ascribed the rise of capitalism to the Protestant religion. But Sombart decided that this was an error, and assigned this role to the Jews.

“It would be a mistake to ascribe Sombart’s opus to anti-Semitism. Rather it would be more in consonance with fact to ascribe his later anti-Semitism to the ‘scientific’ investigations which led him to the ascription to Jews of an exaggerated role in the development of capitalism,” says Boudin.

In the United States he believes that Veblen’s ideas may in the future form the basis for an outburst of anti-Semitism. For “If Veblen’s theories be true, then the worker is not cheated by his capitalist employer, who uses tangible property in his product, but in the various sections of the marketplace, from Wall Street and the Stock Exchange to the ‘sales emporia’ on Fifth Avenue and Main Street. And most of these are Jewish – at least so he will be told.”

The very briefness of the above summary is an injustice to Boudin. Nevertheless, since our concept of the meaning of anti-Semitism itself exerts some pressure on the course of this virulent phenomenon, it is necessary to reserve space for some criticism.

Boudin has grossly overstated the case for the economic interpretation of anti-Semitism. The following are a few instances of the mountain of evidence contrary to his view, which he has ignored.

It is necessary from his point of view to assume that the earliest and chief source of Jewish wealth was usury. However, we have the word of Salo Baron for it that “While in the earlier Middle Ages ‘Jew’ had become, even in legal terminology, a synonym for merchant, from the twelfth century on we find it increasingly identified with usurer.” This is the exact opposite of Boudin’s opinion that the Jews did not become merchants until the mercantilist age.

There is no question that, as a matter of fact, Baron is correct and Boudin is wrong. It is only partly true that the Jews were kept off the land by the objective workings of the feudal system; the direct and conscious intervention of the Church was also necessary. Contrary to the author’s deduction that the impoverished victims of usury were the chief source of hostility toward the Jews in Poland, S.M. Dubnow has documented the fact that anti-Semitism was introduced into that country by the conscious decision of the church, precisely because of its fear of the friendliness of the population toward the Jews; and that until modern times anti-Semitism was kept alive in Poland primarily by the clergy and by the German burghers (the latter were economic competitors of the Jews).

It would be much more correct to say that the status of the Jews has depended upon the totality of their relationship to society, and that their economic role was only one factor, and not the chief one, in this. In the Middle Ages the principal factors were: the religious difference (in my opinion the most important element); the latent nationalism of the people (this is Baron’s discovery); and also the economic relationship.

In general it may be said that Boudin has accepted the statements of the anti-Semites, both of the Middle Ages and of today, too readily at their face value. It is not possible to believe that Sombart first exaggerated the role of the Jews in the rise of capitalism, and only later became anti-Semitic. The direction of a person’s thinking, especially in so emotionally charged a subject, is not subject, is not accidental, even though he himself may not be aware of the motivations which supply the drive for his thoughts. Yet Boudin has uncovered an important fact: before Sombart could permit himself to become consciously anti-Semitic, he first had to convince himself of the harmful effects of the economic activities of the Jews.

Today anti-Semitism is simply one aspect of nationalism – here chauvinism reaches its most unbridled point, because the Jews lack the force to check it. But although this constitutes the underlying motive of the hatred, this is not yet sufficient to produce an overt outburst; for this the chauvinist must first be convinced of the justice of his cause. It is here, in the justification of the atrocity, that the economic theories play their role. It follows that, although an attack on the economic rationalizations cannot remove the cause of anti-Semitism, it can seriously inhibit and cripple its development.

It must be stated that the remissness of all sections of European Marxism except the Bolsheviks in this matter has constituted one of their most serious and symptomatic failures. The counterpart of this attitude in our movement is found in the familiar “lack of interest” in the Jewish question, which is a reflection of the deep incursions that nationalist ideology makes into our ranks.

Although I cannot agree with Boudin as to the specific role that economic theory plays in anti-Jewish prejudice, certainly it is necessary to recognize the valuable service that he has done in demonstrating the close relationship between the two.

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