Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 2/3


Marxists and the Jewish Question

Enzo Traverso
The Marxists and the Jewish Question: The History of a Debate (1843–1943)
Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1994, pp. 276, £12.95

A CONSIDERABLE amount of very solid research has gone into this book, which cannot be neglected by anyone with the temerity to approach the subject in future. Its stated aim is admitted right from the start as being to ‘try to establish up to what point the theory of the people-class was valid’ by arguing that ‘the economist reduction of the whole of Jewish history to the problematic of the people-class serves to obscure the cultural dimension, as much religious as secular’ (p. 5). Starting with Marx and Engels, going through the Marxism of the Second International, Austro-Marxism, the Bund, the Marxists of Poland and Russia, and ending with Abram Leon, the author tries to establish the one-sided character of the Marxist analysis of the problem. And given the milieu for which he writes, we have the obligatory chapters on Gramsci and Benjamin, in spite of the fact that the former had next to nothing to say about the subject, and the latter was anything but a Marxist.

Considerable strain is placed upon the evidence to make it fit his thesis. After marshalling all the material showing that Rosa Luxemburg repudiated specifically Jewish roots, he can still say that ‘even she could be defined as a granddaughter of the Haskalah’ on the grounds that ‘this declaration of love for the whole of oppressed humanity had a typically Jewish component, namely a universalism that could only be internalised thoroughly by those who had made their lives a meeting-point for the cultures of different nations’ (p. 49). Is not such ‘universalism’ the inheritance of all Marxists? This argument comes uncomfortably close to the contention that Marxist internationalism is part of some world Jewish conspiracy. Otto Bauer, on the other hand, who also denied that there was a territorial solution for the problem of the central European Jews, is accused of ‘a latent form of German nationalism’ that ‘imbued the assimilated Jewish intelligentsia of Vienna’ (pp. 80–1). For arguing against a federal party that would separate the struggle of the Jewish workers from those of the rest of the Tsarist Empire, the Russian Marxists are described as ‘totally incapable of understanding the real nature of the Bund’ (p. 100). Trotsky’s approach ‘completely ignored the national dimensions of the Jewish problem in Russia’ (p. 139), and Lenin had ‘no great concern with theoretical coherence’ (p. 130), even though their point is confirmed when it is later admitted that the Bund took no part in the Russian Revolution that played such a liberating rôle for the Jewish masses, and that its Eighth National Conference meeting in December 1917 had even condemned it (p. 151).

The main target throughout, however, is none of these, but Abram Leon, whose ‘concept of the people-class is founded on a rigid economic determinism which prevented him from seeing the dialectical interdependence between the different historical factors’ (p. 218), a ‘vulgar materialist vision’ which ‘negated the relative autonomy of superstructural phenomena in the historic process’ (p. 213). Traverso brushes aside Nathan Weinstock’s defence of Leon’s thesis in the Pathfinder edition of The Jewish Question in favour of Maxime Rodinson’s criticism prefaced to the French version (see Cult, Ghetto and State, London 1983, pp. 68–117). However, whilst describing Leon’s thesis of the people-class as applicable only to Jewish history in Europe from 1096 onwards, his references to Blumenkrantz, Rodinson and Vidal-Naquet show that outside his own field he is heavily reliant upon secondary sources, and has no first hand appreciation of Jewish history in its full span, either historically or geographically.

Whilst it is indisputable that the narrow range of functions Leon analyses as carried on by the Jews as a people-class belong narrowly within Medieval Europe, it is equally false to deny their widespread involvement in usury, commerce and handicrafts outside these limits. Cuneiform tablets dating as early as the Neo-Babylonian Empire and the Persian period already show Jews adapting to a commercial function in diaspora society, and it was this group that lay behind the subsequent recolonisation of Judaea after the exile, with its resulting theocratic structure. Jews had replaced Syrians in the Mediterranean carrying trade long before the Crusades, and the Turkish Empire of the Khazars in Central Asia accepted Judaism as its state religion precisely because of its position on the Silk Road. The Jews who opposed Muhammad in Arabia were at the centre of long-distance trade, and even the Ethiopian Falashas, probably a split-off from the Monophysite church, fulfilled a specialised function in wider society in craft (especially iron) and petty commerce (though of course many of them remained peasants in rural areas). It is difficult to believe that Judaism arrived in South India and China other than through trading contacts, even if their communities over the centuries adapted to a different function. In the case of China, their earliest large concentration appears to have been at Kaifeng, at the end of the Silk Road, and here there is an obvious parallel with the Sogdians, a trading people who introduced Manichaeism into China via the same route.

And although Traverso shows an awareness that the category of people-class can be applied to other groups, both in Europe and elsewhere (pp. 24, 216), he seems to be unaware that it was precisely in Eastern Europe where these structures played a part in nation-building. For centuries over the whole area many of the ‘non-historic peoples’ existed almost entirely as peasantry, the Polish and Hungarian ‘nations’ as gentry classes, and the bourgeoisie and working class as Germans living in the larger cities, whose constitutions were directly copied from those of the four main Hansa towns. On the other hand, within the Turkish Empire a large part of the commerce was handled by Armenians and Phanariot Greeks.

For all his learning (and it is considerable), Traverso’s solution to the Jewish problem is surprisingly simplistic: classical Marxist thought reveals ‘an incapacity to perceive the significance of the religious phenomenon in history and a difficulty in theorising the nation. Despite its macroscopic obviousness, the religious dimension of the Jewish problem was hidden by the economist reduction of Jewish history to that of an urban commercial caste ... we believe that religion is a factor as important as the economy to the understanding of the Jewish question.’ (p. 234) This use of the royal (or should we say, divine) ‘we’ proceeds from his argument that ‘it is necessary to adopt a new methodological approach – that, for example, developed by the liberation theologians in Latin America – founded on the idea that Marxism and religion are not two irreconcilable universes’ in order to produce ‘a transcendence of the Marxism/religion antinomy’ (p. 179). Traverso’s preoccupation with ‘liberation theology’ has already shown us what sort of ‘transcendence’ he has in mind with his Philistine attack on Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours from the standpoint of universal morality in Critique Communiste (no. 140, Winter 1994–95). This has an all too familiar ring to those of us in Britain who remember how the ‘Communist-Christian Dialogue’ marked an important stage in the Communist Party of Great Britain’s formal break with Marxism, which is of necessity firmly grounded in a militant atheism.

The discovery that it was their religion that preserved the Jews as a ‘peculiar people’ is hardly an original one. It can be got from any Bible, any synagogue, and any church. It also begs the question, not even mentioned in Traverso’s investigation, of how and why this religion transformed itself so completely over the centuries, from its wide diversity both inside and outside Palestine before the destruction of Herod’s temple, to its unitary Talmudic form by the end of the first millennium AD, not to mention the no less radical changes since. For none of this can be understood without an analysis of the changing circumstances of its existence.

More interesting than this rather flat and banal outcome to such an accumulation of painstaking research is the route by which it was approached. The materialist critique of religion is, of course, rooted very firmly in the analysis of class. ‘The Jewish question’, notes our author, ‘is revealing also of the backwardness and limitations in the approach taken by Marxists toward forms of oppression not directly related to class, such as national, but also racial and sexual oppression ... [which] corresponded absolutely to the opposition to feminism and the very idea of an autonomous movement for women’s liberation.’ (p. 235) As the tendency to which Traverso belongs moves ever further from a class analysis of society, it is not at all surprising that it should find ‘autonomous’ solutions to human oppression, whether they lie in bourgeois feminism or in other directions. Its sections have been organised along the lines of the Bund for some time, not only with regard to feminism, but in the USA, where for many years they have called for a separate black party, and with Basque nationalism in Spain. These remarks of Traverso’s are perfectly consistent with his criticism of Lenin’s view of the Bund as ‘a great indifference, if not a veritable blindness, toward a culturally vibrant and dynamic Jewish community’ (p. 132), for Lenin pointed out that whereas ‘the bourgeoisie always places its national demands in the forefront, and does so in categorical fashion, with the proletariat, however, these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle’ (The Right of Nations to Self-Determination).

Identity politics, ‘the politics of the personal’, as they are fashionably called, whether religious or otherwise, lead to fragmentation and impotence. Oppression is always felt in particular ways and by particular individuals, but ending it is a universal task.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 29.9.2011