Abram Leon

The Jewish Question



The premises for a scientific study of Jewish history

The scientific study of Jewish history is yet to transcend the stage of idealist improvisation. Serious historians have boldly attacked the field of history as a whole in the spirit of Marx, and have in large measure conquered it for the materialist outlook. Jewish history, however, still remains the chosen land of the “god-seekers” of every variety. It is one of the few fields of history where idealist prejudices have succeeded in entrenching and maintaining themselves to so great an extent.

How many oceans of ink have been spilled to celebrate the famous “miracle of the Jew!” “What a strange spectacle are these men who have, in order to preserve the sacred trust of their faith, braved persecutions and martyrdom,” exclaims Bédarride. [1]

The preservation of the Jews is explained by all historians as the product of their devotion through the centuries to their religion or their nationality. Differences among these historians begin to appear only when it comes to defining the “goal” for which the Jews preserved themselves, the reason for their resistance to assimilation. Some, taking the religious point of view, speak of the “sacred trust of their faith”; others, like Dubnow, defend the theory of “attachment to the national idea.” “We must seek the causes for the historical phenomenon of the preservation of the Jewish people in their national spiritual strength, in their ethical basis, and in the monotheistic principle,” says the General Encyclopedia which contrives in this way to reconcile the various viewpoints among the idealist historians. [2]

But while it is possible to reconcile these idealist theories with one another, it is hopeless to try to find some ground for reconciling these same theories with the elementary rules of historical science. The latter must categorically reject the fundamental error of all idealist schools, which consists of putting under the hallmark of free will the cardinal question of Jewish history, namely: the preservation of Judaism. Only a study of the economic role played by the Jews can contribute to elucidating the causes for the “miracle of the Jew.”

To study the evolution of this question is not exclusively of academic interest. Without a thorough study of Jewish history, it is difficult to understand the Jewish question in modern times. The plight of the Jews in the twentieth century is intimately bound up with their historical past. Every social formation represents a stage in the social process. Being is only a moment in the process of becoming. In order to undertake an analysis of the Jewish question in its present phase of development, it is indispensable to know its historical roots.

In the sphere of Jewish history, as in the sphere of universal history, Karl Marx’s brilliant thought points the road to follow “We will not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but we will look for the secret of the religion in the real Jew.” [3] Marx thus puts the Jewish question back on its feet. We must not start with religion in order to explain Jewish history; on the contrary; the preservation of the Jewish religion or nationality can be explained only by the “real Jew,” that is to say, by the Jew in his economic and social role. The preservation of the Jews contains nothing of the miraculous. “Judaism has survived not in spite of history, but by virtue of history.” [4]

It is precisely by studying the historical function of Judaism that one is able to discover the “secret of its survival in history. The struggles between Judaism and Christian society, under their respective religious guises, were in reality social struggles. “We transmute the contradictions of the state with a specific religion, like Judaism, into the the contradiction of the state with specific secular elements.” [5]

The general pattern of Jewish history is presented (with various slight nuances) somewhat as follows according to the reigning idealist school: Up to the destruction of Jerusalem, as late as the rebellion of Bar Kochba, the Jewish nation was in no wise different from other normally constituted nations, such as the Roman or the Greek. The wars between the Romans and the Jews resulted in dispersing the Jewish nation to the four corners of the world. In the dispersion, the Jews fiercely resisted national and religious assimilation. Christianity found no more rabid adversaries in its path and despite all its efforts did not succeed in converting them. The fall of the Roman empire increased the isolation of Judaism which constituted the sole heterodox element after the complete triumph of Christianity in the West.

The Jews of the Diaspora, in the epoch of the barbarian invasions, did not at all constitute a homogeneous social group. On the contrary agriculture, industry, commerce were widely prevalent among them. It was the continuous religious persecutions which forced them to entrench themselves increasingly in commerce and usury. The Crusades, by reason of the religious fanaticism they engendered, violently accelerated this evolution which transformed the Jews into usurers and ended in their confinement in ghettos. Of course, the hatred against the Jews was also fanned by the latter’s economic role. But the historians attribute only a secondary importance to this factor. This condition of Judaism continued up to the French Revolution, which destroyed the barriers that religious oppression had raised against the Jews.

Several important facts challenge the truth of this pattern:

1. The dispersal of the Jews does not at all date from the fall of Jerusalem. Several centuries before this event, the great majority of Jews were already spread over the four corners of the world. It is certain that well before the fall of Jerusalem, more than three-fourths of the Jews no longer lived in Palestine. [6]

For the great masses of Jews dispersed in the Greek empire, and later in the Roman empire, the Jewish kingdom of Palestine was of completely secondary importance. The tie with the “mother country” was manifested solely in religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem, which played a role similar to that of Mecca for the Moslems. Shortly before the fall of Jerusalem, King Agrippa said to the Jews: “There is no people upon the habitable earth which have not some portion of you among them.” [7]

The Diaspora was consequently not at all an accidental thing, a product of acts of violence. [8] The fundamental reason for Jewish emigration must be sought in the geographic conditions of Palestine. “The Jews in Palestine were the possessors of a mountainous country which at a certain time no longer sufficed for assuring its inhabitants as tolerable an existence as that among their neighbors. Such a people is driven to choose between brigandage and emigration. The Scots, for example, alternately engaged in each of these pursuits. The Jews, after numerous struggles with their neighbors, also took the second road ... Peoples living under such conditions do not go to foreign countries as agriculturists. They go there rather in the role of mercenaries, like the Arcadians of antiquity, the Swiss in the Middle Ages, the Albanians in our day; or in the role of merchants, like the Jews, the Scots, and the Armenians. We see here that a similar environment tends to produce similar characteristics among peoples of different races.” [9]

2. The overwhelming majority of Jews of the Diaspora unquestionably engaged in trade. Palestine itself since very remote times constituted a passageway for merchandise, a bridge between the valleys of the Euphrates and the Nile. “Syria was the inevitable highway of the conquerors ... Trade and ideas followed the same route. It is easy to see that from a very early date these regions were thickly populated, and possessed great cities whose very situation lent itself to commerce.” [10]

The geographic conditions of Palestine therefore explain both the Jewish emigration and its commercial character. On the other hand, among all nations, at the beginning of their development, the traders are foreigners. “The characteristic of a natural economy is that each sphere produces everything consumed by it and consumes everything it produces. There is consequently no pressure to buy goods or services from others ... Because what is produced is consumed in this economy, we find among all these peoples that the first traders are foreigners.” [11]

Philo enumerates many cities where the Jews were established as traders. He states that they “inhabited countless cities in Europe, in Asia, in Libya, on the mainland and in the islands, along the coasts and in the interior.” The Jews who inhabited the Hellenic islands, as well as the mainland and further to the west, had installed themselves there with commercial objectives. [12] “As well as the Syrians, the Jews were to be found in all the cities, living in small communities; they were sailors, brokers, bankers, whose influence was as essential in the economic life of the time as was the Oriental influence which made itself felt at the same time in the art and the religious thought of the period.” [13]

It is to their social position that the Jews are beholden for the wide autonomy granted them by the Roman emperors. The Jews, “and they only were allowed to form, so to speak, a community within the community and – while the other nonburgesses were ruled by the authorities of the burgess body – [they were permitted] up to a certain degree to govern themselves.” [14] Caesar advanced the interests of the Jews in Alexandria and in Rome by special favors and privileges, and protected in particular their peculiar worship against the Roman as well as against the Greek local priests. [15]

3. Hatred for the Jews does not date solely from the birth of Christianity. Seneca treated the Jews as a criminal race. Juvenal believed that the Jews existed only to cause evil for other peoples. Quintilian said that the Jews were a curse for other people.

The cause of ancient anti-Semitism is the same as for medieval anti-Semitism: the antagonism toward the merchant in every society based principally on the production of use values. “Medieval hostility toward merchants is not solely of Christian or pseudo-Christian inspiration. It also has a ‘real’ pagan source. The latter was strongly rooted in a class ideology; in the disdain which the leading classes of Roman society – the senatorial gentes as well as the provincial curia – felt, out of a deep peasant tradition, toward all forms of economic activity other than those deriving from agriculture.” [16]

However, while anti-Semitism was already strongly developed in Roman society the condition of the Jews, as we have seen, was quite enviable there. The hostility of classes that live from the land toward trade does not eliminate their dependence upon the latter. The landowner hates and despises the merchant but he cannot get along without him. [17]

The triumph of Christianity did not bring any notable changes in this regard. Christianity, at first the religion of the slaves and the downtrodden, was rapidly transformed into an ideology of the ruling class of landed proprietors. It was Constantine the Great who laid the foundation for medieval serfdom. The triumphal march of Christianity across Europe was accompanied by an extension of feudal economy. The religious orders played an extremely important role in the progress of civilization, which consisted in that epoch of developing agriculture on the basis of serfdom. There is little astonishing in the fact that “born in Judaism, formed at first exclusively of Jews, Christianity nevertheless nowhere during the first four centuries found more difficulty than among them in acquiring partisans for its doctrine.” [18] As a matter of fact, Christian mentality during the first ten centuries of our era viewed everything connected with economic life from the basic standpoint “that a merchant can with difficulty do work pleasing to God” and that “all trade implies a greater or lesser amount of cheating.” [19] The life of the Jews appeared completely incomprehensible to St. Ambrose who lived in the fourth century. He despised the wealth of the Jews profoundly, and firmly believed that they would be punished for it by eternal damnation.

The fierce hostility of the Jews toward Catholicism and their determination to preserve a religion which admirably expressed their social interests are therefore quite natural. It is not the loyalty of the Jews to their faith which explains their preservation as a distinct social group; on the contrary it is their preservation as a distinct social group which explains their attachment to their faith.

Nevertheless, like the hostility in antiquity toward the Jews, Christian anti-Semitism in the first ten centuries of the Christian era never went to the extreme of demanding the annihilation of Judaism. Whereas official Christianity mercilessly persecuted paganism and heresies, it tolerated the Jewish religion. The condition of the Jews continued to improve during the decline of the Roman empire, after the complete triumph of Christianity and up to the twelfth century. The more economic decay deepened, all the more did the commercial role of the Jews grow in importance. In the tenth century, they constituted the sole economic link between Europe and Asia.

4. It is only from the twelfth century on, parallel with the economic development of Western Europe, with the growth of cities and the formation of a native commercial and industrial class, that the condition of the Jews begins to worsen seriously, leading to their almost complete elimination from most of the Western countries. Persecutions of the Jews take on increasingly violent forms. As against this, in the backward countries of Eastern Europe, their condition continued to flourish up to a fairly recent period.

From these few preliminary considerations, we can see how false is the general conception prevailing in the sphere of Jewish history. Above all the Jews constitute historically a social group with a specific economic function. They are a class, or more precisely, a people-class. [20]

The concept of class does not at all contradict the concept of people. It is because the Jews have preserved themselves as a social class that they have likewise retained certain of their religious, ethnic, and linguistic traits. [21]

This identification of a class with a people (or race) is far from being exceptional in precapitalist societies. Social classes were then frequently distinguished by a more or less national or racial character. “The higher and lower classes ... are in many countries the lineal representatives of the peoples conquering and the peoples conquered of an anterior epoch .... The race of the invaders ... formed a military nobility ... the invaded race ... not living by the sword but by the compulsory labor of their hands ....” [22] Kautsky speaks in the same vein: “Different classes may assume the character of different races. On the other hand, the meeting of many races, each developing an occupation of its own, may lead to their taking up various callings or social positions within the same community: race becomes class.” [23] [24]

There is evidently a continuous interdependence between racial or national and class characteristics. The social position of the Jews has had a profound, determining influence on their national character.

There is no contradiction in this idea of a people-class; and it is even easier to show the correspondence between class and religion. Whenever a class attains a certain degree of maturity and consciousness, its opposition to the ruling class takes on religious forms. The heresies of the Albigenses, the Lollards, the Manichaeans, the Cathari, and other innumerable sects that swarmed in medieval cities, were the initial religious manifestations of the growing opposition to the feudal order by the bourgeoisie and the people as a whole. These heresies nowhere reached the level of a dominant religion because of the relative weakness of the medieval bourgeoisie. They were savagely drowned in blood. It was only in the seventeenth century that the bourgeoisie, increasing in power, was able to bring about the triumph of Lutheranism and above all of Calvinism and its English equivalents. [25]

Whereas Catholicism expresses the interests of the landed nobility and of the feudal order, while Calvinism (or Puritanism) represents those of the bourgeoisie or capitalism, Judaism mirrors the interests of a precapitalist mercantile class. [26] [27]

What primarily distinguishes Jewish “capitalism” from genuine capitalism is that, by contrast with the latter, it is not the bearer of a new mode of production. “The merchant’s capital is pure, separated from the extremes, the spheres of production, between which it intervenes.” “The trading nations of the ancients existed like the gods of Epicurus in the intermediate worlds of the universe or rather like the Jews in the pores of Polish society.” “Both usury and commerce exploit the various modes of production. They do not create it, but attack it from the outside.” [28]

The accumulation of money in the hands of the Jews did not arise from a special mode of production, from capitalist production. Surplus value (or surplus product) came from feudal exploitation and the lords were obliged to yield part of this surplus value to the Jews. Hence the antagonism between the Jews and feudalism, but hence likewise came the indestructible bond between them.

As for the lord, so too for the Jew, feudalism was mother earth. If the lord needed the Jew, the Jew also had need of the lord. It is by reason of this social position that the Jews were nowhere able to rise to the role of a ruling class. In feudal economy, the role of a merchant class could only be a clearly subordinate one. Judaism could only remain a more or less tolerated cult. [29]

We have already seen that the Jews in antiquity had jurisdiction over their own community. The same was true in the Middle Ages. “In the plastic society of the Middle Ages, each class of men lived according to its own customs, and under its special jurisdiction. Outside the judicial organization of the state, the church had its ecclesiastical courts, the nobility its feudal courts, and the peasants their manorial courts. The burghers in their turn, obtained their échevins’ courts.” [30]

The specific organization of the Jews was the Kehillah. Each cluster of Jews was organized into a community (Kehillah) which lived its own social life and had its own juridical organization. It was in Poland that this organization attained its highest degree of perfection. According to an ordinance issued by King Sigismund II in 1551, the Jews had the right to choose judges and rabbis whose duty it was to administer all their affairs. Only in actions between Jews and non-Jews did the Voyevoda courts intervene. Each Jewish community was free to choose a community council. The activities of this council, called Kahal, were very extensive. It collected taxes for the state, apportioned the general and special taxes, directed the elementary schools and high schools (Yeshibot). It had jurisdiction over all questions concerning trade, artisanry, charity. It took care of settling conflicts between members of the community. The power of each Kahal extended to the Jewish inhabitants of surrounding villages.

With time the various councils of Jewish communities made a practice of assembling regionally at regular intervals to discuss administrative, juridical, and religious questions. These assemblies thus assumed the aspect of miniature parliaments.

On the occasion of the great fair of Lublin, a sort of general parliament assembled in which the representatives of Great Poland, Little Poland, Podolia, and Volhynia participated. This parliament was called Vaad Arba Aratzoth, or the “Council of the Four Lands.”

Traditional Jewish historians have not failed to discern a form of national autonomy in this organization. “In old Poland,” says Dubnow, “the Jews constituted a nation having autonomy, with its own internal administration, courts and a certain juridical independence.” [31]

Clearly, it is a gross anachronism to speak of national autonomy in the sixteenth century. This epoch knew nothing of the national question. In feudal society, only the classes had their special jurisdictions. Jewish autonomy is to be explained by the specific social and economic position of the Jews and not at all by their “nationality.”

Its linguistic evolution also reflects the specific social position of Judaism.

Hebrew disappeared very early as a living language. The Jews everywhere adopted the languages of the peoples among whom they lived. But this linguistic adaptation generally occurred in the form of a new dialect in which we again find some Hebraic expressions. There existed at various times in history Judo-Arabic, Judo-Persian, Judo-Provençal, Judo-Portuguese, Judo-Spanish, and other dialects, including, of course, Judo-German which has become present-day Yiddish. The dialect thus expresses the two contradictory tendencies which have characterized Jewish life; the tendency to integration in the surrounding society and the tendency to isolation, deriving from the socioeconomic situation of Judaism. [32] [33]

It is only where the Jews cease constituting a special social group that they become completely assimilated in the surrounding society. “Assimilation is no new phenomenon in Jewish history,” states the Zionist sociologist Ruppin. [34]

In reality, while Jewish history is the history of the preservation of Judaism, it is at the same time the history of the assimilation of large sections of Judaism. “In Northern Africa, in pre-Islamic times, great numbers of Jews were engaged in agriculture, but of these, too, the vast majority have been absorbed by the local population.” [35] This assimilation is explained by the fact that the Jews by turning agriculturists ceased to constitute a separate class. “Could they at all have taken to agriculture, they could hardly have done so without scattering through the country and its numerous villages, which, in spite of the difference in religion, would probably in a few generations have resulted in complete assimilation. Engaged in commerce and concentrated in towns, they formed agglomerations and developed a social life of their own, moving and marrying within their own community.” [36]

Let us also recall the numerous conversions of Jewish landed proprietors in Germany in the fourth century; the complete disappearance of the Jewish warrior tribes of Arabia; the assimilation of the Jews in South America, in Surinam, etc. [37]

The law of assimilation might be formulated as follows: Wherever the Jews cease to constitute a class, they lose, more or less rapidly, their ethnical, religious, and linguistic characteristics; they become assimilated. [38]

It is very hard to trace Jewish history in Europe at several important periods, because the economic, social, and political conditions were so different in various countries. Whereas Poland and the Ukraine were completely feudal at the end of the eighteenth century, in Western Europe we witness an accelerated development of capitalism during this same period. It is easy to understand that the situation of the Jews in Poland bore far more resemblance to the situation of the French Jews in the Carolingian Era than to that of their coreligionists in Bordeaux or Paris. “The Portuguese Jew of Bordeaux and the German Jew of Metz are two absolutely different beings,” wrote a French Jew to Voltaire. The rich bourgeois Jews of France or Holland had virtually nothing in common with the Polish Jews who constituted a class in feudal society.

Despite the marked differences in conditions and in the tempo of economic development of the various European countries inhabited by the Jews, a careful study permits the delineation of the following main stages of their history:

1. Precapitalist period

This was also the period of the greatest prosperity of the Jews. Commercial and usurious “capital” found great possibilities for expansion in feudal society. The Jews were protected by the kings and princes, and their relations with other classes were in general good.

This situation lasted up to the eleventh century in Western Europe. The Carolingian epoch, the culminating point of feudal development, was also the apex of Jewish prosperity.

Feudal economy continued to dominate Eastern Europe till the end of the eighteenth century. And the center of Jewish life shifted more and more to that area.

2. Period of medieval capitalism

From the eleventh century on, Western Europe entered a period of intensive economic development. The first stage of this evolution was characterized by the creation of a corporative industry and a native merchant bourgeoisie. The penetration of mercantile economy into the agricultural domain determined the second stage.

The growth of cities and of a native merchant class brought with it the complete elimination of the Jews from commerce.

They became usurers whose principal clientele consisted of the nobility and the kings. But the mercantile transformation of agricultural economy resulted in undermining these positions as well.

The relative abundance of money enabled the nobility to throw off the yoke of the usurer. The Jews were driven from one country after another. Others became assimilated, being absorbed mainly by the native bourgeoisie.

In certain cities, principally in Germany and in Italy, the Jews became primarily loan-makers to the popular masses, the peasants, and the artisans. In this role as petty usurers exploiting the people, they were often the victims of bloody uprisings.

In general, the period of medieval capitalism was that of the most violent Jewish persecutions. Jewish “capital” came into conflict with all classes of society.

But the unevenness of economic development in the Western European countries operated to alter the forms of anti-Semitic struggles.

In one country, it was the nobility which directed the struggle against the Jews; in others, it was the bourgeoisie, and in Germany, it was the people who unleashed the movement.

Medieval capitalism was practically unknown in Eastern Europe. There was no separation between merchants capital and usurious capital. In contrast to Western Europe where “Jew” became synonymous with “usurer,” the Jews in Eastern Europe remained mainly traders and middlemen. Whereas the Jews were progressively eliminated from the countries of the West, they constantly strengthened their position in Eastern Europe. It was only in the nineteenth century that the development of capitalism (it is no longer corporative capitalism this time, but modern capitalism, which appears on the scene) began to undermine the prosperous condition of the Russian and Polish Jews. “The poverty of the Jews in Russia dates only from the abolition of serfdom and of the feudal regime in rural property. So long as the former and the latter existed, the Jews found wide possibilities for subsisting as merchants and middlemen.” [39]

3. Period of manufacture and industrial capitalism

The capitalist period, properly speaking, began in the epoch of the Renaissance and manifested itself at first by a tremendous expansion of commerce and the growth of manufactures.

To the extent that the Jews survived in Western Europe – and only a few were left there – they took part in the development of capitalism. But the theory of Sombart, who attributes a decisive activity to them in the development of capitalism, belongs to the sphere of fantasy. Precisely because the Jews represented a primitive capitalism (mercantile and usurious), the development of modern capitalism could only prove fatal to their social position.

This fact does not at all exclude – far from it – the individual participation of the Jews in the creation of modern capitalism. But wherever the Jews were integrated into the capitalist class, there they were likewise assimilated. The Jew, as a great entrepreneur or shareholder of the Dutch or English India Company, was already on the threshold of baptism, a threshold, moreover, which he crossed with the greatest of ease. The progress of capitalism went hand in hand with the assimilation of the Jews in Western Europe.

If Judaism did not completely disappear in the West, it was owing to the mass influx of Jews from Eastern Europe. The Jewish question, which is now posed on a world scale, therefore results primarily from the situation of Eastern Judaism. This situation is, in turn, a product of the lag in economic development of this part of the world. The special causes of Jewish emigration are thus linked with the general causes behind the emigration movement of the nineteenth century.

The general emigration of the nineteenth century was caused in large measure by the failure of capitalist development to keep pace with the crumbling of feudal economy or manufacture economy. The ranks of the English peasants, evicted by the capitalization of rural economy, were swelled by the artisan or manufacturing workers displaced by machines. These peasant and artisan masses, eliminated by the new economic system, were driven to seek a livelihood across the ocean. But this situation was not indefinitely prolonged. Because of the rapid development of the productive forces in Western Europe, the section of the population deprived of its means of subsistence was presently able to find sufficient work in industry. That is the reason why, in Germany, for instance, emigration to America, which was very strong in the middle of the nineteenth century, dwindled almost completely toward the end of the century. The same applies to England and other countries of Western Europe. [40]

While the disequilibrium between the crumbling of feudalism and the development of capitalism was disappearing in Western Europe, it was growing worse in the backward Eastern European countries. The destruction of feudal economy and primitive forms of capitalism proceeded there much more rapidly than the development of modern capitalism. Increasingly greater masses of peasants and artisans had to seek their road of salvation in emigration. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was principally the English, the Irish, the Germans, and the Scandinavians who formed the bulk of immigrants to America. The Slavic and Jewish element became dominant toward the end of the nineteenth century among the masses streaming to the New World.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Jewish masses sought new roads of immigration. But at first it was toward the interior of Russia and Germany that they headed. The Jews succeeded in penetrating the great industrial and commercial centers where they played an important role as merchants and industrialists. Here we come upon a new and important fact: For the first time in centuries a Jewish proletariat was born. The people-class began to differentiate socially. The Jewish proletariat, however, remained concentrated mainly in the sector of consumer goods industry. It was primarily of the artisan type. In the same measure as large-scale industry expanded its field of exploitation, the artisan branches of economy declined. The workshop was superseded by the factory. And it thus turned out that the integration of Jews into capitalist economy still remained extremely precarious. It was not alone the “precapitalist” merchant who was forced to emigrate, but also the Jewish artisan worker. Jewish masses streamed in ever larger numbers from Eastern Europe to the West and to America. The solution of the Jewish question, that is to say, the complete absorption of the Jews into economic life, thus became a world problem.

4. The decline of capitalism

By socially differentiating Judaism, by integrating the latter into economic life, and by emigration, capitalism has laid the bases for the solution of the Jewish problem. But capitalism has failed to solve it. On the contrary, the fearsome crisis of the capitalist regime in the twentieth century has aggravated the plight of the Jews to an unparalleled degree. The Jews, driven from their economic positions under feudalism, could not be integrated into a capitalist economy in utter decay. In its convulsions, capitalism casts out even those Jewish elements which it has not yet completely assimilated.

Everywhere is rife the savage anti-Semitism of the middle classes, who are being choked to death under the weight of capitalist contradictions. Big capital exploits this elemental anti Semitism of the petty bourgeoisie in order to mobilize the masses around the banner of racism.

The Jews are being strangled between the jaws of two systems: feudalism and capitalism, each feeding the rottenness of the other.

* * *


1. I. Bédarride, Les juifs en France, en Italie et en Espagne (Paris 1867), p. i.

2. General Encyclopedia (Yiddish) (Paris 1936), vol. 3, pp. 454–55. Article of Ben-Adiron anti-Semitism.

3. On the Jewish Question, Selected Essays by Karl Marx (New York 1926), p. 88.

4. ibid., p. 92.

5. ibid., p. 52.

6. See Arthur Ruppin, The Jews in the Modern World (London 1934), p. 22.

7. Flavius Josephus, Works (London 1844), p. 693.

8. “In the first place we know of no hostile power which might have forced our people before the final destruction of Jerusalem to spread out through all of Asia Minor, the Mediterranean islands, Macedonia, and Greece.” Dr. L. Herzfeld, Handelsgeschichte der Juden des Alterthums (Braunschweig, 1879), pp. 202–3.

9. Karl Kautsky in Neue Zeit.

10. Adolphe Lods, Israel from Its Beginnings to the Middle of the Eighth Century (London 1932), p. 18.

11. Lujo Brentano, Die Anfänge des Modernen Kapitalismus (Munich 1916), pp. 10, 15.

12. Herzfeld, op. cit., p. 203.

13. Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne (New York [1939]), pp. 18–19.

14. Theodor Mommsen, The Provinces of the Roman Empire (New York 1887), vol. 2, p. 179.

15. Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome (London 1911), vol. 4, p. 509.

Sombart, in his work of such uneven value, The Jews and Modern Capitalism (London 1913), wherein the worst of absurdities are mixed with highly interesting researches, states: “I think that the Jewish religion has the same leading ideas as capitalism.” (p. 205) This affirmation is correct provided we understand by “capitalism,” – precapitalist trade and usury (As we shall see later [chapter 4], it is false to attribute a preponderant role to the Jews in the building of modern capitalism.) In support of his thesis, Sombart cites many passages from the Talmud and other Jewish religious books which reflect this close connection between the Jewish religion and the commercial spirit. Here are, for example, several of these quotations: “He that loveth pleasure shall be a poor man, he that loveth wine and oil shall not be rich.” Proverbs, 2 1: 17. “Thou shalt lend unto many nations, but thou shalt not borrow.” Deuteronomy, 15:6. “The righteous therefore is prosperous here, and the wicked here suffers punishment.” “Rabbi Eleazar said: The righteous love their money more than their bodies.” Sota xiia. “And Rabbi Isaac also taught that a man always have his money in circulation.” Baba Mezia, 42a.

It is naturally difficult to get a complete picture from a confused welter of texts, written and supplied with commentaries at different epochs and in different countries. The imprint of the commercial spirit is nevertheless clearly discernible in most of these writings. The work of Sombart is in this sense only an illustration of the Marxist thesis that religion is an ideological reflection of a social class. But by maintaining that it is religion which must have been the primary factor, Sombart, like other bourgeois scholars, strives to invert the causal relation.

16. Henri Laurent, Religion et affaires, Cahiers du libre examen.

Aristotle says in his Politics (Jowett translation, Oxford, 1885, vol. 1, p. 19): “The most hated sort [of moneymaking], and with the greatest reason, is usury which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural use of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. And this term, usury which means the birth of money from money, is applied to the breeding of money because the offspring resembles the parent. Wherefore of all modes of making money this is the most unnatural.” Further (p. 221), “citizens ... must not lead the life of mechanics or tradesmen, for such a life is ignoble and inimical to virtue.”

17. Contrary to the opinion of some historians, ancient economy was, despite a fairly important development of commercial transactions, based essentially on the production of use values. “This system [of home or family economy] prevails not only in primitive societies but even in those of Antiquity .... Under this system ... each group suffices unto itself, consuming hardly anything but what it has itself produced, and producing almost nothing beyond what it will consume.” Charles Gide, Principles of Political Economy (Boston 1905), p. 132.

18. Jean Juster, Les Juifs dans l’empire Romain (Paris 1914), vol. 1, p. 102.

19. Laurent, op. cit..

20. “The peasant and the lord during the Middle Ages are not producers of merchandise ... It is true that they exchange their surpluses on occasion, but exchange is for them something fundamentally alien, an exception. Thus, neither the lord nor peasant generally possesses large sums of money. The greatest part of their wealth consists of use values, of wheat, cattle, etc. ... Circulation of merchandise, circulation of money-capital, and money economy in general are fundamentally alien to this form of society. Capital lives, according to the clear expression of Marx, in the pores of this society. It is into these pores that the Jew penetrated.” Otto Bauer, Die Nationalitätenfrage und die Sozialdemokratie (Vienna, 1907), p. 367.

21. Pirenne explains the preservation of the national character by the Germans in the Slav countries as follows: “The principal explanation [of this preservation] is the fact that among the Slays they were the initiators and for long centuries par excellence the representatives of the urban life. The Germans introduced the bourgeoisie into the midst of these agricultural populations, and the contrast between them was, perhaps, from the very first, that of social classes rather than national groups.” Henri Pirenne, A History of Europe (London 1939), p. 328.

22. Augustin Thierry, History of the Conquest of England by the Normans (London 1856), vol. 1, pp. xix–xx.

23. Karl Kautsky, Are the Jews a Race? (New York 1926), p. 58. My emphasis. Inasmuch as the divisions between the various classes in precapitalist times are airtight, it often happens that national differences persist for a very long time. They manifest themselves particularly in language differences. The language of a conquered people used to be demoted to the role of a despised popular tongue, while the language of the conquerors became the language of “high society”. In England, the Norman aristocracy continued for many centuries to use French while the people spoke Saxon. It is from the fusion of these two languages that modern English was formed. In the long run, the language differences faded away. The Burgundians, the Franks, and other barbarians quickly started speaking the language of their subjects. On the other hand, the Arab conquerors imposed their own language on conquered peoples. These language differences between classes disappeared completely only with the advent of the bourgeoisie to power.

24. “Some classes, the ruling, the peasant and the merchant classes, for instance, arose from the union of different ethnological elements ... their characteristic differences are original. Such classes antedate the state and are the more easily maintained in it because their differences are both anthropological and moral.” Ludwig Gumplowicz, The Outline of Sociology (Philadelphia 1899), p. 134.

25. This scientific view has been perforce accepted for a long time by all serious historians.

26. “... Jewish capitalism was speculative pariah-capitalism, while Puritan capitalism consisted in the organization of citizen labor.” Max Weber, General Economic History (New York 1927), p. 381.

27. The correspondence between class and religion is, naturally, not absolute. All of the gentry were not Catholics, nor were all adherents of Calvinism bourgeois. But the classes do leave their imprint on religion. Thus, “revocation of the Edict of Nantes at the end of the seventeenth century exiled about 100,000 Protestants, almost all inhabitants of the cities and belonging to the industrial and commercial classes; for the Huguenot peasants, converted only in name, hardly left the kingdom.” Henri Sée, Economic and Social Conditions in France during the Eighteenth Century (New York 1927), p. 9.

28. Karl Marx, Capital, Kerr Edition, vol. 3, p. 716.

29. The sole known exception was a Mongol tribe, the Khazars, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, who adopted Judaism in the eighth century. Was there perchance a relation between the commercial function of this tribe and its conversion to Judaism?

30. Henri Pirenne, Belgian Democracy (London 1915), p. 46.

31. Lecture by Dubnow at a meeting of the Ethnographic Historical Society of St. Petersburg. [See also S.M. Dubnow, History of the Jews in Russia and Poland (Philadelphia 1916), vol. 1, p. 103. – Tr.]

32. As early as the fifth century before Christ, the Jews of the Diaspora spoke Aramaic. Later, they mainly used Greek. “The inscriptions [in the Jewish cemeteries in Rome] are mainly in Greek, some written in an almost unintelligible jargon; some are in Latin, none in Hebrew.” Ludwig Friedlander, Roman Life and Manners under the Early Empire (London 1910), vol. 3, p. 178.

33. It would be interesting to investigate why the Jews in the Slavic countries kept the German dialect (Yiddish) for so long a time.

34. Ruppin, op. cit., p. 271.

35. Ruppin, op. cit., p. 132.

36. Ruppin, op. cit., p. 132.

37. In the epoch of the development of capitalism, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, assimilation in Western Europe generally meant penetration into the Christian capitalist class. The penetration of the Jews into the capitalist class may be compared to the “capitalization” of feudal properties. In the latter case, too, the struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism terminated in some cases with the total expropriation of the feudal class (as in France), and in other cases with the penetration of feudal elements into the capitalist class (as in England and Belgium). Capitalist development has had a similar effect upon the Jews. In some cases they were assimilated; in others they were eliminated.

38. As a general rule the persecutions of the Jews were social in character. But the lag of ideology behind the social superstructure can account for certain purely religious persecutions. In some regions, the Jews were able to preserve their special religion for a fairly long time despite their transformation into agriculturists. In such cases, the persecutions were designed to hasten their conversion. What distinguishes religious persecutions from social persecutions (under a religious guise) is their less violent character and the feeble resistance of the Jews. Thus, it appears that in Visigoth Spain the Jews were in part agriculturists. Consequently, the Visigoth kings never thought of expelling them, as Ferdinand and Isabella did later. On the whole, purely religious persecutions must be considered as exceptional.

39. Werner Sombart, L’Apogée du Capitalisme (Paris 1932), vol. 1, p. 430.

40. “The economic progress of the principal European countries in the last quarter of the nineteenth century arrested the flow of emigration, but there soon began a second wave, comprising for the most part emigrants from the agrarian countries of Europe.” Vladimil Voitinski, Tatsachen und Zahlen Europas (Vienna 1930), p. 60.

Last updated: 29 June 2020