Abram Leon wrote "The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation" in 1941
when he was all of 24 years old and at a time when his hands were filled
leading the Belgian Trotskyist movement under conditions of fascist
repression. Eventually, the Gestapo captured him and sent him to
Auschwitz. He did not make it out alive.
Leon's first involvement with radical politics was with the Hashomir
Hatzoir, a Zionist-socialist youth group. He grew disenchanted with
Zionism and became a Trotskyist at the time of the Moscow trials. This
showed a certain independent streak since the Hashomir-ites were
pro-Stalin, as well as being Zionist.
While Leon devoted himself to the Trotskyist movement from this point
on, he never lost interest in the "Jewish Question." He was anxious to
answer the claims of the Zionists, as well as explain the virulent
anti-Semitism that had swept Germany. What was the explanation for the
failure of the Jews to assimilate? Why had this peculiar combination of
race, nationality and religious denomination persisted through the ages?
What was the nature of the hatred against the outsider Jew?
Leon took his cue from Karl Marx who wrote in " On the Jewish Question",
"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." This led Leon to
examine the socio-economic relations that might explain both the
identity of the Jews and, by the same token, their persecution.
He believed that the key to understanding the Jewish question was their
status as a "people-class." The Jews, according to Leon, "constitute
historically a social group with a specific economic function. They are
a class, or more precisely a people-class." That economic function is
tradesman. The Jew, from the days of the Babylonian exile, have
functioned as tradesmen. Their location in the Mid-East facilitated
commercial exchanges between Europe and Asia. As long as the Jew served
in this economic capacity, the religious and national identity served to
support his economic function.
Leon was strongly influenced in his views by Karl Kautsky, a leader of
the Second International, who theorized the identity of a class with a
people in pre-capitalist societies: "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." The chief difference between Kautsky and
Leon is that Leon made the equation between class and people specific.
Where Kautsky saw tendencies, Leon saw a dialectical unity.
The period that lasted from classical antiquity to the Carolingian epoch
was a time of prosperity and relative well-being for the Jews. In the
Hellenistic era, Jews were part of the commercial elite in cities such
as Alexandria, Antioch and Seleucia. The rise of the Roman Empire saw
their continued success, as cities such as Alexandria continued to
function as trading centers between the West and East. The role of Jews
at Alexandria was so important that a Jew, Tiberius Julius Alexander,
was appointed Roman governor of the city.
It is important to note that what united the Jews in this period was not
wealth and power per se, but their economic role as tradesmen. Within
the group were poorer peddlers and artisans. In the decline of the Roman
Empire, many of these individuals were hardest hit. Their desperation,
argues both Kautsky and Leon, explains the emergence of the Christianity
cult which expressed class hatred of the rich in theological terms.
With the advent of the middle ages, the economic role of the Jew shifts
somewhat. This is the period when the native merchant class begins to
sell commodities produced in artisan workshops, the embryonic form of
the factory. The trade that the Jew engaged in prior to this period was
separate from production, but the Christian tradesman is part of the
network of commodity exchange. Leon notes that "The evolution in
exchange of medieval economy proved fatal to the position of the Jews in
trade. The Jewish merchant importing spices into Europe and exporting
slaves, is displaced by respectable Christian traders to whom urban
industry supplies the principal products for their trading. This native
commercial class collides violently with the Jews, occupants of an
outmoded economic position, inherited from a previous period in
These circumstances force the Jew to make his living as a usurer. He
lends money to the feudal lords and the kings to finance their war
expenditures and their luxuries. One of the main ways this is done is
through "tax farming." The King "farms out" the collection of tax
revenues to a "Court Jew", who gets a percentage of the take. My family
name "Proyect" means the "counting house of a tax farmer."
This primitive form of banking eventually clashes with banking based on
the production of exchange values, which has been emerging during the
same period as that of the artisan workshops and early factories. The
usurer is hated not only by the lord to whom he charges high interest,
but by the peasants who confront the Jew in his capacity as tax
collector. The hatred builds to a fever pitch in places like London,
Lincoln and Stafford, England in 1189 when massacres of Jews take place.
Shakespeare's "Shylock" reflects the lingering animosity toward the Jew
long after these historical events took place and the Jew had been
driven out of England. The most infamous campaign against the Jew took
place in Spain during the Inquisition, when they were burned at the
stake. The true motive was economic rivalry, according to Leon.
The Jews take flight to Eastern Europe and Poland in particular, where
feudalism continues long after the emergence of capitalism in the West.
An 1810 travel diary notes the following: "Poland should in all justice
be called a Jewish kingdom... The cities and towns are primarily
inhabited by them. Rarely will you find a village without Jews. Jewish
taverns mark out all the main roads... Apart from some are manors which
are administered by the lords themselves, all the others are farmed out
or pledged to the Jews. They possess enormous capitals and no one can
get along without their help. Only some very few very rich lords are not
plunged up to their neck in debt with the Jews."
In the late nineteenth century, capitalist property relations begin to
develop in the Polish and Russian countryside. Lenin writes about this
development in order to refute the Narodniks who held out the
possibility of a village-based socialism. The transformation of
Christian peasants into landless and debt-ridden laborers has dire
consequences for the Jew who is not integrated into the new forms of
capitalist property relations. They continue to act as intermediary
between the peasant and plebeian masses in the countryside on one hand
and the wastrel nobility in the big city on the other. As tensions
arise, the first pogroms take place.
Also, at this time, the Jews begin to undergo class differentiation
under the general impact of capitalism. A Jewish proletariat develops,
which works in small artisan shops producing clothing and household
utensils. This deeply oppressed social grouping is the target of
pogroms, which indiscriminately attack rich and poor Jew alike. The deep
insecurities of this period give rise to the Chassidic sects which
function in much the same way that Christianity functions in the Roman
Empire. It gives solace to a deeply insecure and economically miserable
Eventually the economic suffering takes its toll and mass migrations
back to the West take place, both to Austria and Germany, and across the
Atlantic to the United States. The ancestors of most Jews living in the
United States arrived in this period.
Nobody could have predicted at the turn of the century the awful
consequences of the exodus into Germany. Notwithstanding the vile
utterances of Richard Wagner, Germany had a well-deserved reputation for
tolerance. The German Jews, as opposed to their recently arrived Yiddish
speaking brethren from the East, spoke German and were assimilationist
to the core. Some of the Jewish elites tended to argue for acceptance of
the new Hitlerite regime on its own terms, which they viewed as simply
another species of ultra-nationalism.
For Leon, the rabid anti-Semitism of the post-WWI period fell into the
same category as the age-old forms. It was virulent economic rivalry
that grew out of the collapse of the German economy:
"The economic catastrophe of 1929 threw the petty-bourgeois masses into
a hopeless situation. The overcrowding in small business, artisanry and
the intellectual professions took on unheard of proportions. The
petty-bourgeois regard his Jewish competitor with growing hostility, for
the latter's professional cleverness, the results of centuries of
practice, often enabled him to survive 'hard times' more easily.
Anti-Semitism even gained the ear of wide layers of worker-artisans, who
traditionally had been under petty-bourgeois influences."
When a Trotskyist veteran first presented this theory to me in 1967, it
had powerful explanatory aspects. The true cause of anti-Semitism was
the capitalist system, not some latent and free-floating animus toward
the Jew. The key to the survival of the Jewish people was not the
Zionist state of Israel, but the abolition of the capitalist system.
Recent controversy over the Goldhagen thesis, which tries to explain
anti-Semitism in metaphysical terms, has forced me to rethink Leon's
nominally Marxist interpretation. We must revisit the question of the
explanatory power of Leon's thesis in light of the exterminationist
policy of the Hitler regime. It is very likely that Leon himself had not
been aware of the pending genocide, which did not take shape until 1943
at the Wansee Conference. Leon was trying to explain an anti-Semitism
that was in many ways no more vicious than the anti-Black racism of the
American south. The Nuremburg racial laws of 1935 stripped Jews of their
German citizenry and made intermarriage illegal. This was deplorable,
but after all Blacks could not vote or marry whites in the Deep South in
Another weakness of Leon's work is that he de-emphasizes the people side
of the people-class equation. Most of his work is devoted to an
examination of the Jew's relationship to the means of production, but
very little to their religion, language, culture and values. This is one
of the criticisms found in the chapter on Leon in Enzo Traverso's "The
Marxists and the Jewish Question: The History of a Debate 1843-1943".
The importance of this was driven home to me last night while I watched
a 90 minute documentary on Jewish liturgical music on PBS. There is an
immense variety of influences on Cantorial chanting. The Falashas of
Ethiopia echo African harmonies, while the Turkish Jews employ the oud
and tamboura, typical instruments of the region. In all cases, the
prayers are nearly identical. The narrator of the documentary asks one
Cantor for his explanation of the unity of the Jews over a 3500 year
period, when other nationalities have disappeared from the face of the
earth. His answer: the geographical dispersion of the Jews is the
answer. If the Jews had remained tied to the same territory, they would
have gone the way of the Babylonians, Romans, Greeks, etc. This
certainly makes wonder if an ironic twist lies in store for the state of
It could be argued that this deficiency in Leon has a lot to do with the
exigencies of trying to write about the social and economic factors when
so many others had covered the cultural aspects. It is more likely, as
Traverso points out most tellingly, that the reason for this lack has to
do with Leon's intellectual dependence on Kautsky.
Kautsky's Marxism was deeply problematic. It comes close to economic
determinism. The Second International tended to follow a simplistic
base-superstructure model of Marxism. At its worst, it allowed social
democrats to side with the bourgeoisie against the Russian Revolution.
Since the base of the Russian economy was not fully mature in a
capitalist sense, the Bolshevik seizure of power was premature,
adventuristic and would lead to dictatorship.
The same methodological error appears in Leon. He tries to explain
German anti-Semitism almost exclusively in economic terms. The problem,
however, is that this explanation tends to break down when the Nazi
regime institutes the death camps. After all, there is no plausible
economic explanation for such behavior. It can only be called madness.
In 1933, ten years before the death camps, Leon Trotsky wrote "What is
National Socialism." This article does an excellent job of diagnosing
the madness of the Nazi movement which had just taken power:
"Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not
only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives
alongside of the twentieth century the tenth of the thirteenth. A
hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic
power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio
about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go
to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man's
genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they
possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to
their feet, fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have
been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural
excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now
come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the
undigested barbarism. Such is the psychology of National Socialism."
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