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March 2002 • Vol 2, No. 3 •

The Jewish Question:
A Marxist Interpretation 

By A. Leon

Ediciones Pioneras, Mexico, D. F., 1950


Zionism was born in the light of the incendiary fires of the Russian pogroms of 1882 and in the tumult of the Dreyfus Affair—two events which expressed the sharpness that the Jewish problem began to assume at the end of the Nineteenth Century.

The rapid capitalist development of the Russian economy after the reform of 1863 made the situation of the Jewish masses in the small towns untenable. In the West, the middle classes, shattered by capitalist concentration, began to turn against the Jewish element whose competition aggravated their situation. In Russia, the association of the “Lovers of Zion” was founded. Leo Pinsker wrote Auto-Emancipation, in which he called for a return to Palestine as the sole possible solution of the Jewish question.

In Paris, Baron Rothschild, who like all the Jewish magnates viewed with very little favor the mass arrival of Jewish immigrants in the western countries, became interested in Jewish colonization in Palestine. To help “their unfortunate brothers” to return to the land of their “ancestors,” that is to say, to go as far away as possible, contained nothing displeasing to the Jewish bourgeoisie of the West, who with reason feared the rise of anti-Semitism.

The bible of the Zionists

A short while after the publication of Leo Pinsker’s book, a Jewish journalist of Budapest, Theodor Herzl, saw anti-Semitic demonstrations in Paris provoked by the Dreyfus Affair. Soon he wrote The Jewish State, which to this day remains the bible of the Zionist movement. From its inception, Zionism appeared as a reaction of the Jewish petty bourgeoisie (which still forms the core of Judaism), hard hit by the mounting anti-Semitic wave, kicked from one country to another, and striving to attain the Promised Land where it might find shelter from the tempests sweeping the modern world.

Zionism: The product of the last phase of capitalism

Zionism is thus a very young movement; it is the youngest of the European national movements. That does not prevent it from pretending, even more than all other nationalism, that it draws its substance from a far distant past. Whereas Zionism is in fact the product of the last phase of capitalism, of capitalism beginning to decay, it pretends to draw its origin from a past more than two thousand years old. Whereas Zionism is essentially a reaction against the situation created for Judaism by the combination of the destruction of feudalism and the decay of capitalism, it affirms that it constitutes a reaction against the state of things existing since the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 of the Christian era. Its recent birth is naturally the best reply to these pretentions.

As a matter of fact, how can one believe that the remedy for an evil existing for two thousand years was discovered only at the end of the Nineteenth Century? But like all nationalism—and even more intensely—Zionism views the historic past in the light of the present. In this way, too, it distorts the present-day picture. Just as France is represented to French children as existing since the Gaul of Vercingetorix; just as the children of Provence are told that the victories that the kings of Ile de France won over their ancestors were their own successes, in the same way Zionism tries to create the myth of an eternal Judaism, eternally the prey of the same persecutions.

Zionism sees in the fall of Jerusalem the cause of the dispersion, and consequently, the fountain-head of all Jewish misfortunes of the past, present and future. “The source of all the misfortunes of the Jewish people is the loss of its historic country and its dispersion in all countries,” declares the Marxist delegation of the “Poale-Zion” to the Dutch-Scandinavian committee.

After the violent dispersion of the Jews by the Romans, their tragic history continues. Driven out of their country, the Jews did not wish (oh beauty of free will!) to assimilate. Imbued with their “national cohesiveness,” “with a superior ethical feeling,” and with “an indestructible belief in a single God” (see the article of Ben-Adir on Anti-Semitism” in the General Encyclopedia), they have resisted all attempts at assimilation. Their sole hope during these somber days which lasted two thousand years has been the vision of a return to their ancient country.

Zionism has never seriously posed this question: Why, during these two thousand years, have not the Jews really tried to return to this country? Why was it necessary to wait until the end of the Nineteenth Century for a Herzl to succeed in convincing them of this necessity? Why were all the predecessors of Herzl, like the famous Sabbatai Zebi, treated as false Messiahs. Why were the adherents of Sabbatai Zebi fiercely persecuted by orthodox Judaism?

Naturally, in replying to these interesting questions, refuge is sought behind religion. “As long as the masses believed that they had to remain in the Diaspora until the advent of the Messiah, they had to suffer in silence,” states Zitlovski,i whose Zionism is moreover quite conditional. Nevertheless, this explanation tells us nothing. What is required is precisely an answer to the question of why the Jewish masses believed that they had to await the Messiah in order to be able to “return to their country.” Religion being an ideological reflection of social interests, it must perforce correspond to them. Today religion does not at all constitute an obstacle to Zionism.ii

In reality just so long as Judaism was incorporated in the feudal system, the “dream of Zion” was nothing but a dream and did not correspond to any real interest of Judaism. The Jewish tavern owner or “farmer” of Sixteenth-Century Poland thought as little of “returning” to Palestine as does the Jewish millionaire in America today. Jewish religious Messianism was no whit different from the Messianism belonging to other religions. Jewish pilgrims who went to Palestine met Catholic, Orthodox and Moslem pilgrims. Besides it was not so much the “return to Palestine” which constituted the foundation of this Messianism as the belief in the rebuilding of the temple of Jerusalem.

The sources of Zionism

All of these idealist conceptions of Zionism are naturally inseparable from the dogma of eternal anti-Semitism. “As long as the Jews will live in this Diaspora, they will be hated by the ‘natives.’” This essential point of view for Zionism, its spinal column so to speak, is naturally given different nuances by its various currents. Zionism transposes modern anti-Semitism to all of history; it saves itself the trouble of studying the various forms of anti-Semitism and their evolution. However, we have seen that in different historical periods, Judaism made up part of the possessing classes and was treated as such. To sum up [the idealist conception], the sources of Zionism must be sought in the impossibility of assimilation because of “eternal” anti-Semitism and of the will to safeguard the “treasures of Judaism.”iii

In reality, Zionist ideology, like all ideologies, is only the distorted reflection of the interest of a class. It is the ideology of the Jewish petty bourgeoisie, suffocating between feudalism in ruins and capitalism in decay. The refutation of the ideological fantasies of Zionism does not naturally refute the real needs which brought them into being. It is modern anti-Semitism, and not mythical “eternal” anti-Semitism, which is the best agitator in favor of Zionism. Similarly, the basic question to determine is: To what extent is Zionism capable of resolving not the “eternal” Jewish problem but the Jewish question in the period of capitalist decay?

Zionist theoreticians like to compare Zionism with all other national movements. But in reality, the foundations of the national movements and that of Zionism are altogether different. The national movement of the European bourgeoisie is the consequence of capitalist development; it reflects the will of the bourgeoisie to create the national bases of production, to abolish feudal remnants.

The national movement of the European bourgeoisie is closely linked with the ascending phase of capitalism. But in the Nineteenth Century, in the period of the flowering of nationalisms, far from being “Zionist,” the Jewish bourgeoisie was profoundly assimilationist. The economic process from which the modern nations issued laid the foundations for integration of the Jewish bourgeosie into the bourgeois nation.

It is only when the process of the formation of nations approaches its end, when the productive forces have for a long time found themselves constricted within national boundaries, that the process of expulsion of Jews from capitalist society begins to manifest itself, that modern anti-Semitism begins to develop. The elimination of Judaism accompanies the decline of capitalism. Far from being a product of the development of the productive forces, Zionism is precisely the consequence of the complete halt of this development, the result of the petrification of capitalism. Whereas the national movement is the product of the ascending period of capitalism, Zionism is the product of the imperialist era. The Jewish tragedy of the Twentieth Century is a direct consequence of the decline of capitalism.

The impossibility of Zionism

Therein lies the principal obstacle to the realization of Zionism. Capitalist decay—basis for the growth of Zionism—is also the cause of the impossibility of its realization. The Jewish bourgeoisie is compelled to create a national state, to assure itself of the objective framework for the development of its productive forces, precisely in the period when the conditions for such a development have long since disappeared. The conditions of the decline of capitalism which have posed so sharply the Jewish question make its solution equally impossible along the Zionist road. And there is nothing astonishing in that. An evil cannot be suppressed without destroying its causes. But Zionism wishes to resolve the Jewish question without destroying capitalism, which is the principal source of the suffering of the Jews.

At the end of the Nineteenth Century, in the period when the Jewish problem was beginning to be posed in all its sharpness, 150,000 Jews each year left their countries of origin. Between 1881 and 1925, nearly four million Jews emigrated. Despite these enormous figures, the Jewish population of Eastern Europe rose from 6 to 8 million.

Thus, even when capitalism was still developing, even when the countries across the ocean were still receiving immigrants, the Jewish question could not even begin to be resolved (in the Zionist sense); far from diminishing, the Jewish population showed a bad penchant of wanting to grow. In order to begin to resolve the Jewish question, that is to say, in order to begin really to transplant the Jewish masses, it would be necessary for the countries of immigration to absorb at least a little more than the natural growth of Jews in the Diaspora, that is at least 300,000 Jews per year. And if such a figure could not be reached before the first imperialist war, when all the conditions were still favorable for emigration, when all developed countries such as the United States were permitting the mass of entry of immigrants, then how can we think that it is possible in the period of the continuous crisis of capitalism, in the period of almost incessant wars?

Naturally, there are enough ships in the world to transport hundreds of thousands, even millions of Jews. But if all countries have closed their doors to immigrants, it is because there is an overproduction of labor forces just as there is an over production of commodities. Contrary to Malthus, who believed that there would be too many people because there would be too few goods, it is precisely the abundance of goods which is the cause of the “plethora” of human beings.

By what miracle, in a period when unemployment has everywhere become a permanent fixture, by what miracle can a country, however great and rich it may be (we pass over the data relating to poor and small Palestine), develop its productive forces to the point of being able to welcome 300,000 immigrants each year? In reality the possibilities for Jewish emigration diminish at the same time that the need for it increases. The causes which promote the need for emigration are the same as those which prevent its realization; they all spring from the decline of capitalism.

It is from this fundamental contradiction between the necessity for and the possibility of emigration that the political difficulties of Zionism flow. The period of development of the European nations was also the period of an intensive colonization in the countries across the ocean. It was at the beginning and middle of the Nineteenth Century, in the golden age of European nationalism, that North America was colonized; it was also in this period that South Africa and Australia began to be developed. Vast areas of the earth were practically without a master and lent themselves marvelously to the establishment of millions of European emigrants. In that period, for reasons that we have studied, the Jews gave almost no thought to emigrating.

Today the whole world is colonized, industrialized and divided among the various imperialisms. Everywhere Jewish emigrants come into collision at one and the same time with the nationalism of the “natives” and with the ruling imperialism. In Palestine, Jewish nationalism collides with an increasingly aggressive Arab nationalism. The development of Palestine by Jewish immigration tends to increase the intensity of this Arab nationalism. The economic development of the country results in the growth of the Arab population, its social differentiation, the growth of a national capitalism.

To overcome Arab resistance the Jews need English imperialism. But its “support” is as harmful as is Arab resistance. English imperialism views with a favorable eye a weak Jewish immigration to constitute a counterweight to the Arab factor, but it is intensely hostile to the establishment of a big Jewish population in Palestine, to its industrial development, to the growth of its proletariat. It merely uses the Jews as a counterweight to the Arab threat but does everything to raise difficulties for Jewish immigration. Thus, to increasing difficulties flowing from Arab resistance, there is added the perfidious game of British imperialism.

Finally, we must draw still one more conclusion from the fundamental premises which have been established. Because of its necessarily artificial character, because of the slim perspectives for a rapid and normal development of Palestinian economy in our period, the task of Zionist colonization requires considerable capital. Zionism demands incessantly increasing sacrifices from the Jewish communities of the world. But so long as the situation of the Jews is more or less bearable in the Diaspora, no Jewish class feels the necessity of making these sacrifices.

To the extent that the Jewish masses feel the necessity of having a “country,” to the extent also that persecutions mount in intensity, so much the less are the Jewish masses able to contribute to Zionist construction.

“A strong Jewish people in the Diaspora is necessary for Palestinian reconstruction,” states Ruppin. But so long as the Jewish people is strong in the Diaspora, it feels no need for Palestinian reconstruction. When it strongly feels this necessity, the possibility for realizing it no longer exists. It would be difficult today to ask European Jews, who have a pressing need to emigrate, to give aid for the rebuilding of Palestine. The day when they will be able to do it, it is a safe assumption that their enthusiasm for this task will have considerably cooled.

A state dominated by imperialism

A relative success for Zionism, along the lines of creating a Jewish majority in Palestine and even of the formation of a “Jewish state,” that is to say, a state placed under the complete domination of English or American imperialism, cannot, naturally, be excluded. This would in some ways be a return to the state of things which existed in Palestine before the destruction of Jerusalem and, from this point of view, there will be “reparation of a two-thousand-year-old injustice.” But this tiny “independent” Jewish state in the midst of a world-wide Diaspora will be only an apparent return to the state of things before the year 70. It will not even be the beginning of the solution of the Jewish question.

The Jewish Diaspora of the Roman era was in effect based on solid economic ground; the Jews played an important economic role in the world. The existence or absence of a Palestinian mother country had for the Jews of this period only a secondary importance. Today it is not a question of giving the Jews a political or spiritual center (as Achaad Haam would have it). It is a question of saving Judaism from the annihilation which threatens it in the Disapora.

But in what way will the existence of a small Jewish state in Palestine change anything in the situation of the Polish or German Jews? Admitting even that all the Jews in the world were today Palestinian citizens, would the policy of Hitler have been any different?

One must be stricken with an incurable juridical cretinism to believe that the creation of a small Jewish state in Palestine can change anything at all in the situation of the Jews throughout the world, especially in the present period. The situation after the eventual creation of a Jewish state in Palestine will resemble the state of things that existed in the Roman era only in the fact that in both cases the existence of a small Jewish state in Palestine could in no way influence the situation of the Jews in the Diaspora. In the Roman era, the economic and social position of Judaism in the Diaspora was very strong, so that the disappearance of this Jewish state did not in any way compromise it.

Today the situation of the Jews in the world is very bad; so the re-establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine cannot in any way restore it. In both cases the situation of the Jews does not at all depend on the existence of a state in Palestine but is a function of the general economic, social and political situation. Even supposing that the Zionist dream is realized and the “secular injustice” is undone—and we are still very far from that—the situation of Judaism throughout the world will in no way be modified by that. The temple will perhaps be rebuilt but the faithful will continue to suffer.

The history of Zionism is the best illustration of the insurmountable difficulties that it encounters, difficulties resulting, in the last analysis, from the fundamental contradiction which tears it apart: The contradiction between the growing necessity of resolving the Jewish question and the growing impossibility of resolving it under the conditions of decaying capitalism. Immediately following the first imperialist war, Jewish emigration to Palestine encountered no great obstacles in its path. Despite that, there were relatively few immigrants; the economic conditions of capitalist countries after the war made the need to emigrate less pressing. It was, moreover, because of this light emigration that the British government did not feel obliged to set up bars to the entry of Jews into Palestine.

In the years 1924, 1925, 1926, the Polish bourgeoisie opened an economic offensive against the Jewish masses. These years are also the period of a very important immigation into Palestine. But this massive immigration soon collided with insurmountable economic difficulties. The ebb was almost as great as was the floodtide. Up to 1933, the date of Hitler’s arrival to power, immigration was of little importance. After this date, tens of thousands of Jews began to arrive in Palestine. But this “conjuncture” was soon arrested by a storm of anti-Jewish demonstrations and massacres. The Arabs seriously feared becoming a minority in the country. The Arab feudal elements feared being submerged by the capitalist wave.

British imperialism profited from this tension by piling up obstacles to the entry of the Jews, by working to deepen the gulf existing between the Jews and the Arabs, by proposing the partition of Palestine. Up to the second imperialist war, Zionism thus found itself in the grip of mounting difficulties. The Palestinian population lived in a state of permanent terror. Precisely when the situation of the Jews became ever more desperate, Zionism showed itself absolutely incapable of providing a remedy. “Illegal” Jewish immigrants were greeted with rifle fire by their British “protectors.”

The Zionist illusion began to lose its attractiveness even in the eyes of the most uninformed. In Poland, the last elections revealed that the Jewish masses were turning completely away from Zionism. The Jewish masses began to understand that Zionism not only could not seriously improve the situation, but that it was furnishing weapons to the anti-Semites by its theories of the “objective necessity of Jewish emigration.” The imperialist war and the triumph of Hitlerism in Europe are an unprecedented disaster for Judaism. Judaism is confronted with the threat of total extinction.

What can Zionism do to counteract such a disaster? Is it not obvious that the Jewish question is very little dependent upon the future destiny of Tel Aviv but very greatly upon the regime which will be set up tomorrow in Europe and in the world? The Zionists have a great deal of faith in a victory of Anglo-American imperialism. But is there a single reason for believing that the attitude of the Anglo-American imperialists will differ after their eventual victory from their prewar attitude? It is obvious that there is none.

Even admitting that Anglo-American imperialism will create some kind of abortive Jewish state, we have seen that the situation of world Judaism will hardly be affected. A Great Jewish immigration into Palestine after this war will confront the same difficulties as previously. Under conditions of capitalist decay, it is impossible to transplant millions of Jews. Only a world-wide socialist planned economy would be capable of such a miracle. Naturally, this presupposes the proletarian revolution.

But Zionism wishes precisely to resolve the Jewish question independently of the world revolution. By misconstruing the real sources of the Jewish question in our period, by lulling itself with puerile dreams and silly hopes, Zionism proves that it is an ideological excrescence and not a scientific doctrine.iv

1 On the use of the term, “October Revolution”: The Russian “Socialist Revolution”—which took place on October 25, 1917—also went by the name, the “October Revolution” to distinguish it from the first, failed Russian revolution of 1905. It also served to distinguish the socialist revolution from the second Russian revolution that forced the abdication of Czar Nicholas but stopped short before the task of overthrowing the ruling capitalist class and the establishment of a social and economic dictatorship of the working class. The second revolution in Russia is also referred to by historians as, the “February Revolution.”

i Materialism and the National Question.

ii There is a religious Zionist bourgeois party, Misrakhi, and a religious Zionist workers’ party, Poale-Misrakhi.

iii Adolf Bohm, Die Zionistische Bewegung, Berlin, 1935, Vol. I, Chap. 3.

iv In this chapter, Zionism has been treated only insofar as it is linked with the Jewish question. The role of Zionism in Palestine naturally constitutes another problem.





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