Abram Leon

The Jewish Question


Toward a solution of the Jewish question

It is incorrect to state that a solution for the Jewish problem has been needed for two thousand years. The very fact that in the course of this long period such a solution was not found best demonstrates that it was not necessary.

Judaism was an indispensable factor in precapitalist society. It was a fundamental organism within it. That is what explains the two thousand year existence of Judaism in the Diaspora. The Jew was as characteristic a personage in feudal society as the lord and the serf. It was no accident that a foreign element played the role of “capital” in feudal society. Feudal society as such could not create a capitalist element; as soon as it was able to do so, precisely then it ceased being feudal. Nor was it accidental that the Jew remained a foreigner in the midst of feudal society. The “capital” of precapitalist society existed outside of its economic system. From the moment that capital begins to emerge from the womb of this social system and takes the place of the borrowed organ, the Jew is eliminated and feudal society ceases to be feudal.

It is modern capitalism that has posed the Jewish problem. Not because the Jews today number close to twenty million people (the proportion of Jews to non-Jews has declined greatly since the Roman era) but because capitalism destroyed the secular basis for the existence of Judaism. Capitalism destroyed feudal society; and with it the function of the Jewish people-class. History doomed this people-class to disappearance; and thus the Jewish problem arose. The Jewish problem is the problem of adapting Judaism to modern society of liquidating the heritage bequeathed to humanity by feudalism.

For centuries Judaism was a social organism within which social and national elements were closely intermingled. The Jews are far from constituting a race; on the contrary, they are probably one of the most typical and conspicuous examples of racial mixture. This does not mean, however, that the Asiatic element is not very noticeable in the mixture—sufficiently outstanding, in any case, to set the Jew apart in the Western nations, where he is chiefly to be found. This real national “base” is supplemented by an imaginary, poetic base, formed out of the secular tradition which attaches the present Jew to his distant “ancestors” of biblical times. On this national base, the class foundation and the mercantile psychology were subsequently grafted. The national and social elements became mixed to the point of complete intermingling. It would be difficult to distinguish in a Polish Jew the part that his “type” has inherited from his ancestors and the part acquired from the social function that he fulfilled in that country for centuries. It must be agreed that the social base long ago acquired greater importance than the national base. At any rate, if the social element came to be added to the national element, the latter could persist only thanks to the former. It is thanks to his social and economic situation that the Jew was able to “preserve” himself.

Capitalism has posed the Jewish problem, that is to say, it has destroyed the social bases upon which Judaism maintained itself for centuries. But capitalism has not resolved the Jewish problem, for it has been unable to absorb the Jew liberated from his social shell. The decline of capitalism has suspended the Jews between heaven and earth. The Jewish “precapitalist” merchant has largely disappeared, but his son has found no place in modern production. The social basis of Judaism has crumbled; Judaism has become largely a declassed element. Capitalism has not only doomed the social function of the Jews; it has also doomed the Jews themselves.

Petty-bourgeois ideologists are always inclined to raise a historical phenomenon into an eternal category. For them the Jewish question is a function of the Diaspora; only the concentration of the Jews in Palestine can resolve it.

But it is pure childishness to reduce the Jewish question to a question of territory The territorial solution has meaning only if it signifies the disappearance of traditional Judaism, the penetration of Jews into modern economy, the “productivization” of the Jews. By a detour, Zionism thus returns to the solution proposed by its worst enemies, the consistent “assimilationists.” For the Zionists as well as for the assimilationists it is a question of doing away with the “cursed” heritage of the past, of making workers, agriculturists, productive intellectuals, of the Jews. The illusion of Zionism does not consist in its desire to attain this result; that is a historical necessity which will cut its own path sooner or later. Its illusion consists in believing that the insurmountable difficulties which decaying capitalism puts in the way of these tasks will disappear as if by magic in Palestine. But if the Jews were unable to find a place in economic life in the Diaspora, the same causes will prevent them from doing so in Palestine. The world today is so much a unit that it is sheer folly to try to build within it a haven sheltered from its storms. That is why the failure of “assimilation” must of necessity be followed by the failure of Zionism. In this period when the Jewish problem takes on the aspect of a terrible tragedy, Palestine can be no more than a feeble palliative. Ten million Jews find themselves in a huge concentration camp. What remedy can the creation of a few Zionist colonies bring to this problem?

Well then—neither assimilation nor Zionism? No solution at all? No, there is no solution to the Jewish question under capitalism, just as there is no solution to the other problems posed before humanity—without profound social upheavals. The same causes which make the emancipation of the Jews an illusion also make the realization of Zionism impossible. Unless the profound causes for the Jewish question are eliminated, the effects cannot be eliminated.

The ghetto and the wheel [the badge that Jews sewed on their clothes in the Middle Ages] have reappeared—symbols, moreover, of the tragic destiny toward which humanity is being driven. But the very exacerbation of anti-Semitism prepares the road for its disappearance. The driving out of the Jews provides momentarily a kind of living space for the petty bourgeoisie. “Aryanization” creates jobs for some tens of thousands of unemployed intellectuals and petty bourgeois. But in attacking the apparent causes of their misfortunes, the petty bourgeoisie has merely strengthened the operation of the real causes. Fascism will accelerate the process of proletarianization of the middle classes. After the Jewish petty bourgeoisie, hundreds of thousands of shopkeepers and artisans were expropriated and proletarianized. Capitalist concentration made gigantic progress. “Improvement in the economic situation” took place only at the price of preparation for the second imperialist war, the cause of enormous destruction and slaughter.

Thus the tragic fate of Judaism mirrors with singular sharpness the situation of all humanity The decline of capitalism means for the Jews the return to the ghetto—although the basis for the ghetto disappeared long ago, along with the foundations of feudal society Similarly, for all humanity capitalism bars the road of the past as well as the highway to the future. Only the destruction of capitalism will make it possible for humanity to benefit from the immense achievements of the industrial era.

Is it astonishing that the Jewish masses, who are the first to feel-and with special sharpness—the effects of the contradictions of capitalism, should have furnished rich forces for the socialist and revolutionary struggle? “On various occasions Lenin emphasized the importance of the Jews for the revolution, not only in Russia but in other countries as well .... Lenin also expressed the thought that the flight of a part of the Jewish population ... into the interior of Russia, as a result of the occupation of the industrial regions of the West, had been a very useful thing for the revolution—just as the appearance of a large number of Jewish intellectuals in the Russian cities during the war had also been useful. They helped to smash the widespread and extremely dangerous sabotage which confronted the Bolsheviks everywhere immediately following the revolution. Thus they helped the revolution to survive a very critical stage.” [1] The high percentage of Jews in the proletarian movement is only a reflection of the tragic situation of Judaism in our time. The intellectual faculties of the Jews, fruit of the historic past of Judaism, are thus an important support for the proletarian movement.

In this latter fact lies a final—and not the least important—reason for modern anti-Semitism. The ruling classes persecute with special sadism the Jewish intellectuals and workers, who have supplied a host of fighters to the revolutionary movement. To isolate the Jews completely from the sources of culture and science has become a vital necessity for the decaying system which persecutes them. The ridiculous legend of “Jewish-Marxism” is nothing but a caricature of the bonds that actually exist between socialism and the Jewish masses.

Never has the situation of the Jews been so tragic. In the worst periods of the Middle Ages entire countries opened their doors to receive them. Today capitalism, which rules the whole world, makes the earth uninhabitable for them. Never has the mirage of a Promised Land so haunted the Jewish masses. But never was a Promised Land less capable of resolving the Jewish question than in our time.

The very paroxysm, however, that the Jewish problem has reached today, also provides the key to its solution. The plight of the Jews has never been so tragic; but never has it been so close to ceasing to be that. In past centuries, hatred of the Jews had a real basis in the social antagonism which set them against other classes of the population. Today, the interest of the Jewish classes are closely bound up with the interests of the popular masses of the entire world. By persecuting the Jews as “capitalist,” capitalism makes them complete pariahs. The ferocious persecutions against Judaism render stark naked the stupid bestiality of anti-Semitism and destroy the remnants of prejudices that the working classes nurse against the Jews. The ghettos and the yellow badges do not prevent the workers from feeling a growing solidarity with those who suffer most from the afflictions all humanity is suffering.

And the greatest social explosion the world has ever seen is finally preparing the liberation of the most persecuted pariahs of our planet. When the people of the factories and the fields have finally thrown off the yoke of the capitalists, when a future of unlimited development opens up before liberated humanity, the Jewish masses will be able to make a far from unimportant contribution towards the building of a new world.

This does not mean that socialism, brought to maturity by a wave of a magic wand, will remove all the difficulties that stand as obstacles to the solution of the Jewish question. The example of the USSR shows that even after the proletarian revolution, the special structure of Judaism—a heritage of history—will give rise to a number of difficulties, particularly during the transition periods. During the time of the NEP, for instance, the Jews of Russia, utilizing their traditional business experience, furnished numerous cadres for the new bourgeois class.

Moreover, the great mass of Jewish small tradesmen and petty artisans suffered greatly at the beginning of the proletarian dictatorship. It was only later, with the success of the Five Year Plan, that the Jews penetrated en masse into Soviet economic life. Despite certain difficulties, the experiment was decisive: hundreds of thousands of Jews became workers and peasants. The fact that white-collar workers and functionaries constitute a considerable percentage of wage-earning Jews must not be considered a matter for concern. Socialism is not at all interested that all Jews should take up manual occupations. On the contrary, the intellectual faculties of the Jews should be put to widest use.

It is thus clear that, even under the relatively difficult conditions of a backward country the proletariat can solve the Jewish problem. The Jews have penetrated en masse into Russian economy. The “productivization” of the Jews has been accompanied by two parallel processes: assimilation and territorial concentration. Wherever the Jews penetrate into industry, they are rapidly assimilated. As early as 1926 there were hardly 40 percent of the Jewish miners in the Donets Basin who spoke Yiddish. Nevertheless the Jews live under a regime of national autonomy; they have special schools, a Yiddish press, autonomous courts. But the Jewish nationalists are continually deploring the abandonment of these schools and this press. Only in those places where fairly dense masses of Jews have been colonized, especially in Birobidjan, do we witness a kind of “national renaissance.” [2]

Thus life itself demonstrates that the problem which so bitterly divides Judaism—assimilation or territorial concentration—is a fundamental problem only to petty-bourgeois dreamers. The Jewish masses want simply an end to their martyrdom. That, socialism alone can give them. But socialism must give the Jews, as it will to all peoples, the possibility of assimilation as well as the possibility of having a special national life.

The end of Judaism? Certainly. Despite their apparently irreconcilable opposition, assimilationists and nationalists are agreed in combating Judaism as history has known it—the mercantile Judaism of the Diaspora, the people-class. The Zionists never stop repeating that it is a matter of creating a new type of Jew in Palestine, altogether different from the Jew of the Diaspora. They even reject with horror the language and culture of the Judaism of the Diaspora. In Birobidjan, in the Ukraine and the Donets Basin, even the old man discards his secular dress. The people-class, historical Judaism, has been definitively doomed by history Despite all its traditional pretensions, Zionism will not culminate in a “national renaissance” but, at the most, in a “national birth.” The “new Jew” resembles neither his brother of the Diaspora nor his ancestor of the era of the fall of Jerusalem. The young Palestinian, proud of speaking the language of Bar Kochba, would probably not be understood by his ancestor; in reality, the Jews in the Roman era spoke Aramaic and Greek fluently but had only a vague knowledge of Hebrew Moreover, neo-Hebrew, in the nature of things, is going further and further away from the language of the Bible. Everything will add up to estrange the Palestinian Jew from the Judaism of the Diaspora. And tomorrow, when national barriers and prejudices begin to disappear in Palestine, who can doubt that a fruitful reconciliation will take place between the Arab and the Jewish workers, the result of which will be their partial or total fusion?

“Eternal” Judaism, which, moreover, has never been anything but a myth, will disappear. It is puerile to pose assimilation and the “national solution” as opposites. Even in those countries where Jewish national communities will eventually be created, we will be witnessing either the creation of a new Jewish nationality; completely different from the old, or the formation of new nations. Moreover, even in the first case, unless the people already established in the country are driven out or the rigorous prescriptions of Ezra and Nehemiah are revived, this new nationality cannot fail to come under the influence of the longtime inhabitants of the country.

In the sphere of nationality, only socialism can bring the widest democracy. It must provide the Jews with the opportunity of living a national existence in every country they inhabit; it must also give them the opportunity of concentrating in one or more territories, naturally without injuring the interests of the native inhabitants. Only the widest proletarian democracy will make possible the resolution of the Jewish problem with a minimum of suffering.

Clearly, the tempo of the solution of the Jewish problem depends upon the general tempo of socialist construction. The opposition between assimilation and the national solution is an entirely relative one, the latter often being nothing but the prelude to the former. Historically, all existing nations are the products of various fusions of races and peoples. It is not excluded that new nations, fanned by the fusion or even the dispersion of nations now existing, will be created. However it may be, socialism must limit itself in this sphere to “letting nature take its course.”

Thus in a certain sense socialism will return to the practice of precapitalist society. It was capitalism by virtue of the fact that it provided an economic basis for the national problem, which also created insoluble national contradictions. Before the capitalist era, Slovaks, Czechs, Germans, French, lived in perfect understanding. Wars did not have a national character; they had interest only for the possessing classes. The policy of compulsory assimilation, of national persecution, was unknown to the Romans. Submission of barbarian peoples to Romanization or Hellenization was a peaceful process. Today, national-cultural and linguistic antagonisms are only manifestations of the economic antagonism created by capitalism. With the disappearance of capitalism, the national problem will lose all its acuteness. If it is premature to speak of a worldwide assimilation of peoples, it is nonetheless clear that a planned economy on a global scale will bring all the peoples of the world much closer to each other. But the hastening of this assimilation by artificial means would hardly seem to be indicated; nothing could do more harm. We still cannot foresee exactly what the “offspring” of present Judaism will be; socialism will take care that the “birth” will take place under the best possible conditions.



1. S. Dimanstein, Lenin on the Jewish Question in Russia (Russian) (Moscow, 1924). Quoted by Otto Heller, Der Untergang des Judentums (Vienna, [1931]), p.230.

2. We touch here on the Jewish problem in Russia only in passing.