Jews throughout the 20th century were attacked as either Communists or rich capitalists. According to this view there was some kind of conspiracy here to overthrow society as we know it. This is pure racist anti-Semitism, which Marxists utterly reject. Jews around the world, and in Israel, belong to different classes and thus have different interests. How does this affect their thinking? Walter Leon looks into the question and connects it to the ups and downs of the class struggle.
Article 22 of the Hamas charter, written in 1988, has this to say about the Jews:
“With their money [the Jews] stirred revolutions in various parts of the world with the purpose of achieving their interests and reaping the fruit therein. They were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there.”i
Hamas are not the only anti-Semitic organisation to have claimed a link between Jews and Communism. Nazi publication Der Stürmer frequently and hysterically attacked ‘Jewish Communism’ii. The anti-Semitic pamphlet The Jewish Bolshevism, produced by the White Russians shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, purported to show how Jews had been the driving force behind the Revolutioniii.
Whilst it is true that a quick Google for ‘Jews Communism’ brings back a list of strange websites such as Wake up America and White History, all claiming to show Jewish/Communist conspiracies to take over America, it must be said that the perception of Jews has changed radically over the last 30-60 years. Today, much of the ‘left’ views Jews (or Israelis – more on that later) as a single reactionary bloc dedicated to oppression of the Palestinians and defence of neo-liberalism.iv
So, Jews as revolutionary Communists or Jews as right-wing defenders of a neoliberal world order? Is there any truth in either of these positions? Has there been a shift to the right amongst the majority of Jews?
What is ‘the left’?
Many discussions of the question the attitudes of Jews to the ‘left’, and vice-versa, are hampered by confusion as to what actually constitutes the ‘left’. For example, the British organisation Engage, a group of academics and members of the University and Colleges Union ostensibly set up to combat ‘left-wing anti-Semitism’ (but which in reality devotes much of its website space to articles beautifying Israeli foreign policy from a ‘liberal’ standpoint), includes in the category of ‘the left’ figures such as right-wing Independent journalist Robert Fisk, and liberal newspaper The Guardian. This confusion does not serve for a good discussionv.
For my part, I will be discussing two sections usually considered to be part of ‘the left’: revolutionary socialists (i.e. those Marxists who directly intervene in the class struggle to overthrow capitalism in a practical manner), and the ‘left intelligentsia’ (those academics and public figures who spend their time debating the merits of socialism in their ivory towers, but have little practical connection to the living struggle).
A brief history of Jews in the left
This article is not the place for a detailed discussion of a topic that could span an encyclopaedia, but a brief introduction is necessary. Suffice is to say, at the end of the nineteenth-century, vast numbers of Jews, particularly in Eastern Europe (where sections of the vast peasant populations were transformed into a modern proletariat by the growth of capitalism) entered the revolutionary movement for the first time. A large percentage entered an organisation called the Bund, or General Jewish Labour Union of Lithuania, Poland and Russia. The Bund was a founder member of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the forerunner of the Bolsheviks. As the size and importance of the Bolsheviks grew, many Jews joined them too. (The Bolsheviks even had their own Jewish section.) Comparatively speaking, support for Zionism was small.
As the Bolsheviks grew, many Jews assumed leading positions, including Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, Adolph Joffe and of course Leon Trotsky. Across Europe, Jews played a prominent part in revolutionary politics, including Rosa Luxemburg, and later of course the Militant’s own Ted Grant. Jewish membership of Communist and revolutionary organisations was relatively high: in Britain, approximately 7-10% of Communist Party activists in the early 1950s were Jews even though they formed less than 1% of the national populationvi.
Amongst the ‘left intelligentsia’ I defined earlier, there were also many Jewish members, from Arthur Koestler (though to be fair to him he did engage in the practical struggle by serving in Spain as a republican spy) to David Aaronovitch (whose initial moment of fame was appearing in the 1975 University Challenge team for Manchester University that famously answered every question with either ‘Marx’, ‘Lenin’, ‘Trotsky’ or ‘Che Guevara’). Contemporary examples include Noam Chomsky and Steven Rose (though neither is as young as he used to be).
The picture today at first glance seems somewhat different. The case of David Aaronovitch is instructive: he first came to prominence for his antics on University Challenge, and as a student was active in the Young Communist League and the NUS Broad Left. However, he has since moved to the right, and as a journalist (writing in The Times, Murdoch’s scurrilously anti-Union paper) was a strong supporter of the US-lead invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Aaronovitch isn’t the only prominent Jewish intellectual to swing sharply to the right over the past decades. The Euston Manifesto Group includes a number of Jewish intellectuals formerly on the left (including Norman Geras and Eve Garrard). Supposedly promoting a “renewal of progressive politics”vii, in reality the Manifesto serves as justification of British, American and Israeli foreign policy under the guise of ‘promoting liberal Western values’. (One hopes the slaughtered Iraqis, Afghans, Lebanese and Palestinians are grateful for their schooling in such ‘enlightened’ Western values.) Many of this group were strong supporters of Tony Blair and his project to destroy the Labour Party.
Particularly in the US, prominent Jewish organisations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center supported the Invasion of Iraq in 2003viii, and have repeatedly slandered the revolutionary movements in Venezuela and across Latin Americaix. It is easy to get the impression that Jews today tend to side with the oppressor against the oppressed, the reactionary against the progressive. But is this the whole story?
Disorientation of the intelligentsia when presented with a crisis
Firstly, it hardly needs pointing out that the Jewish people are subject to the same forces that affect everyone else. Whilst conditions peculiar to the Jewish people mean these forces are expressed in a somewhat unique way, the roots of the changes in Jewish political views are in the great political convulsions that have shaken the world.
Following on from this, it is also important that the left intelligentsia, with its lack of grounding in Marxism and the class struggle, has always become disorientated and confused when presented with any sort of crisis. One common manifestation of this confusion is a need to ‘take sides’ when two reactionary forces are fighting each other. This is not a recent phenomenon – after the Second World War, after the reactionary nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy had become obvious, a number of ‘left’ intellectuals chose to side with the imperialist West, believing the Soviet Union to be the bigger impediment to socialism!
For (Jewish) Arthur Koestler and (distinctly non-Jewish) George Orwell, this included working for the British state to undermine the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of Britain. Their motivation was their first-hand observation of the crimes the Stalinists committed during the Spanish Revolution (brilliantly described by Orwell in his book, Homage to Catalonia), and possibly some belief that the newly-elected Labour government represented some path towards ‘democratic socialism’ (whereas in reality this government only ever offered welfare reforms within the confines of capitalism, and faithfully supported US foreign policy). Koestler produced anti-Communist propaganda for the Westx, and Orwell of course produced his infamous list of Communist ‘infiltrators’ for the British secret servicexi.
There are obvious parallels between this and groups like the Euston Manifesto Group supporting the invasion of Iraq against ‘reactionary’ Saddam Hussein. Of course, one should not side with the Stalinist bureaucracy, or the Baathists (or Islamic fundamentalists). But nor does one need to side with imperialism, whose aims are to conquer and plunder, not to spread ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. Marxists understand the need for the working class to take a position independent of reactionary forces, and, leading the other layers of oppressed and poor, fight for the conquest of power. Furthermore, the Stalinist bureaucracy did not succeed in destroying all the gains of the Bolshevik Revolution (such as the planned economy), meaning the destruction of Stalinism and its replacement by capitalism would always be (and indeed, was) a massive reactionary step.
The fact that all ‘intellectuals’ become disorientated in a crisis took a special form amongst Jewish intellectuals: the long-running hostility between Jews and Arabs meant that the tendency of intellectuals to ‘pick a side’ was more likely to cause Jewish intellectuals to pick the side ‘fighting the Arabs’. But it represents the same false method as other sections of the ‘left’ supporting the Iranian regime in its oppression of Iranian workers, trade unionists and radical students, its Holocaust-denial and anti-Semitic demagoguery.
The disintegration of the revolutionary left
One may ask, ‘why are there no longer many Jewish Bolsheviks?’ But then one may equally well ask, ‘why are there no longer many Bolsheviks?’ The collapse of the left, inside and outside the mass organisations, certainly over the past two decades, has been staggering. The Communist Party of Britain (the Stalinists), once numbering tens of thousands of members, now numbers less than 1000. This pattern has been repeated across Europe, where the old Stalinist parties have a fraction of the membership or influence they once did. The Trotskyist Militant Tendency, a section of which renamed itself the Socialist Party, once numbered several thousand members, but has dwindled to less than 1000 active members. In the US, the Socialist Workers’ Party is a pale shadow of the party it once was. And so on.
This decline was due partly to the objective factors discussed above, and partly to subjective factors. In both the SWP and the Militant, the respective leaderships were inadequate when faced with difficult objective conditions. Regarding the SWP, the post-war boom in the US (where for the first time, ordinary workers could afford commodities like cars and fridges, fostering in many the illusion that capitalism could generate wealth for all), coupled with the degeneration of the Soviet Union and the treachery of the Stalinist bureaucracy, caused them to view the Soviet Union as ‘imperialist’, and fail to defend the gains of the October revolution. It was seen as at best a matter of indifference (and at worst a good thing!) whether the Soviet Union was destroyed. For that section of the old Militant tendency that later went on to form the Socialist Party, the crushing defeat of the British working class (cumulating in the 1984 Miner’s strike) at the hands of the Thatcher government, coupled with the degeneration and swing to the right of the British Labour Party, was enough to cause them to eventually abandon any understanding of the relationship between the workers and their mass organisations. They have since degenerated into ultra-left adventurism.
Across the world, the working class has suffered a series of terrible defeats, particularly in the 1980s. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher’s Tories succeeded in inflicting a defeat so heavy on the Labour Movement that the wounds have taken many years to heal. As a result, many revolutionaries dropped out of the movement in despair, and without the anchor of a revolutionary party and active participation in the movement, quickly became disorientated and disillusioned. This happened to Jews just as much as to anyone else. Again, the special conditions of the Jewish people (such as the existence of a conservative and predominantly middle-class Jewish ‘community’ ready to welcome disaffected Jewish socialists into the fold) meant that this affected Jews in a particular way.
The question of Israel and Zionism is also of great importance. In 1948, the State of Israel was proclaimed in Palestine, leading over 700,000 Palestinians to either flee or be driven out of their homes (their descendents to this day live in squalid refugee camps). The imperialist powers and the Stalinist bloc were complicit in this horrific ethnic cleansing, which lead to retaliatory pogroms in many Arab countries against Jews living there.
The terrible anti-Semitism Jews had faced, culminating in the Nazi genocide, meant that many Jews overlooked the crimes committed against the Palestinians in creating Israel, feeling that they at last would be safe from persecution. Of course, it turned out exactly as Trotsky predicted: Zionism was a “cruel trap” for the Jews, who have been locked in bitter conflict with their Arab neighbours for 60 years.
The Holocaust had a profound effect on the consciousness of European Jews, partly because it was carried out in ‘civilised’ Germany (where, up until Hitler came to power in 1933, Jews were integrated more than in other European countries), and partly because of the scientific, industrialised nature of the genocide. (In camps like Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, the Nazis had created ‘killing factories’ to murder as many people in the most efficient way possible). The mundane nature of the operation (there were Nazi bureaucrats in charge of booking tickets on the trains to transport Jews to the camps) is perhaps the most shocking part of all.
Fear of a repeat of this tragedy meant it was easier for the Israeli ruling class to produce cynical propaganda along the lines of ‘if we don’t hammer the Arabs into the ground, they’ll rise up and kill us, just as the Nazis did’. Many Jews, inside and outside Israel, began (reluctantly) to accept this logic. This put them at odds with the majority of the left, who recognised the Palestinians as the innocent victims of the Nazi genocide of the Jews. For this, the Soviet Union must take much of the blame. It utterly failed to provide a revolutionary alternative to the Jews of Palestine, many of whom still had a great deal of respect for the Soviet Union and the achievements of October. Instead, the Stalinists supported partition, and the Communist Party of Palestine split into Jewish and Arab sections!
It is also worth noting that the nature of the Israeli state has changed dramatically. Whilst we have no illusions in a mythical history of ‘Israeli socialism’ (the Kibbutzim were isolated communes on ethnically-cleansed land), nonetheless early Israel has a strong social model (at least for Jews). Jewish Israelis enjoyed full employment and a reasonable standard of living. Many of the key industries were nationalised (albeit in a very bureaucratic way), meaning Jews around the world who defended Israel felt they were defending a ‘progressive’ state which looked after its people (ignoring that elephant in the corner, the Palestinians).
However, as the world entered capitalist crisis in the late 1970s and 1980s, this collaboration between capitalists and trade-union bureaucrats began to break down, and a ‘traditional’ right wing emerged in the form of Likud. Israel’s state sector was privatised, unions were undermined by the use of (primarily Palestinian) casual labour, and the social wage of Israeli Jews was relentlessly attacked. Nowadays, Jews who (for the same reasons as they always have) defend Israel are defending a state which, far from looking after its citizens, exploits them viciously, constantly attacking their standard of living. In modern day Israel, Jewish pensioners pick up food from supermarket floors because their pensions don’t allow them to live. Binyamin Netanyahu, the ‘Israeli Thatcher’ responsible for many of the attacks on Jewish workers, is widely respected amongst Jews the world over, not for his hawkish foreign policy (which many Jewish liberals rightly reject), but for his economic policies, which (apparently) ‘saved Israel’. These changes in Israeli society have without doubt tended to encourage a layer of formally liberal Jews, out of support for Israel, to adapt themselves to a neoliberal and free-market worldview.
A brief word on Jewish ‘communal organisations’
The right-wing attitudes of the ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center come as no surprise to anyone who understands the Jewish people not as a single bloc, but as a group riven by class divisions. As in any community or ethnic group, the ‘communal organisations’ have always represented the wealthy elite of the Jewish community, who adapted themselves to the ruling classes of the countries they settled in (particularly Britain and the US), and often had scant regard for poor and working-class Jews. Hence the British Board of Guardians (forerunner to the Board of Deputies) supported the notoriously anti-Semitic 1905 Aliens Act, aimed at curbing Jewish immigration to Britain, partly for fear that many of the Jewish immigrants were ‘Communists’ and would undermine the position of this communal elitexii, partly because they (as MPs and even peers) were thoroughly wedded to the British ruling class.
Similarly, the communal organisations in the US were set up, and funded, by wealthy Jews, and unsurprisingly reflect the interests of the wealthy. It is not that Jews are threatened by the Latin American revolution, rather the US ruling class feels threatened, and a section of the US ruling class claims to speak on behalf of all Jews.
Who are ‘the Jews’?
In many ways, religion in the West has become the preserve of the middle-class, now that the working class can no longer be coerced or frightened into observance to the same extent that it could previously xiii. This also applies to Judaismxiv. Throughout the Western world, there are high levels of Jews leaving the community, ‘assimilating’xv.
Due to these processes, the demographic of the Jewish people has altered dramatically. Statistics on religion are based on self-identification of the people being asked – who knows how many working-class ‘Jews’ no longer identify themselves as such? The mass Jewish proletariat of Tsarist and Soviet Russia is gone – today’s Jews (or those who consider themselves such) have a very different class composition. Therefore it is hardly surprising that the basis for a mass Jewish revolutionary movement is gone.
This essay may seem somewhat disjointed, but that is an inevitable consequence of the complexity of the subject matter. Simplistic denunciations of ‘Jews abandoning their morality’ and ‘turning from oppressed to oppressor’ (accusations hurled by Jew and non-Jew alike) are worse than useless. I’ve tried to chart the many dialectical forces that have affected the world population over the past 60 years, and show how, due to the special historical and material conditions of the Jewish people, these forces have affected Jews in a special way.
Some Jews became split from the left over the question of Israel, and this split will not be healed until a revolutionary movement develops which can unite the Israeli and Palestinian workers and poor against their imperialist oppressors, and provide a class-based solution to the problems of the Jews and the Palestinians.
As revolutionary Marxists, we concern ourselves little with the fate of the ‘left intelligentsia’ (whether Jewish or gentile), which has always splintered and fragmented when faced with any sort of political test. To borrow Trotsky’s phrase, they are ‘political eunuchs’, so of little interest to us.
As for the decline of ‘Jewish Bolshevism’, we feel sure that the emergence of a serious revolutionary movement, capable of challenging the capitalist system and its bourgeois ideologues, will attract many Jews to its banner, just as has happened in the past.
iv For example, the International Socialist Organisation, an American sect, justifies the boycott of Israel partly in moral terms, seemingly arguing that Israeli Jews ‘deserve’ to be boycotted because they supposedly overwhelmingly have reactionary views:
“And, incidentally, Israel’s Gaza assault had the support of 84 percent of Israeli Jews, according to opinion polls.
“Of course, there are Israeli Jews who will become disgusted with Zionism and turn against it (Orr and Machover are clearly testament to this). But we can’t ignore the fact that an overwhelming majority of Israelis support their government’s violent and racist policies against Palestinians–because those policies allow Israel to continue existing on stolen land.” (Source: The ISO Responds to the “Anti-Semitism” Slur of the SWP)
xv ‘Marrying out’ is a good indicator of Jews drifting away from the community: Jews Who Marry Out Slip Away, Studies Say. Now What?