Class, Caste and Marxist Theory – reply to David Walters2
07/05/2016 by Ian
The letter below is a reply to a previous letter by David Walters, published in the Weekly Worker of 21 April. In it Walters attempts to put forward a critique not only of our Marxist analysis of the origins of Zionism and the Jewish Question, as put forward in my draft Theses on the Jews and Modern Imperialism from Sept 2014 and other succeeding materials, but also of Abram Leon’s theory of the Jews in medieval Europe as a ‘people-class’. But it is clear from reading Walters’ letter that he fundamentally misunderstands both our position, and Abram Leon’s, in such a way as to render his contribution incoherent.
This letter, which the Weekly Worker failed to publish, clarifies just what Leon’s position was, and what our position is. A correct understanding of both, which unfortunately Walters evidently does not possess, can only lead to the conclusion that our position today is simply the application of the Marxist method that Leon employed in his classic work The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation to the post-WWII reality and the formation and rise to world prominence of Zionism and the state of Israel.
David Walters shows in his letter (21 April) that he does not understand either the Marxist analysis of Abram Leon in The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation, or the analysis put forward by Socialist Fight today. There is so much wrong in his rendition of Leon, who he says defined Jews as a “people-caste” during the medieval period in Europe, and with his rendering of our position, where he says that we also define Jews as a whole as a “people-caste” to this day, as to render what he says a confused mish-mash. So let me clarify what these positions actually are.
I will start with some definitions. For Marxists, a class is a social group which has a relationship with the means of production that is different and usually antagonistic to other groups of the same type, that is, classes. Hence classes tend to struggle against each other for material resources (wealth) in any given society. Under capitalism, the working class and the capitalists fight over resources in the form of money or exchange value, i.e. wages on the one hand, surplus value becoming profit on the other. In pre-capitalist feudal Europe, the main class antagonism was between the peasantry, and the aristocracy that exploited them by customarily taking a share of the agricultural products the peasantry produced. This, unlike under capitalism, was a conflict over use-values, not exchange value. These are class struggles.
A caste on the other hand, refers to a specialised grouping within a particular class. It has broadly the same interest as the bulk of the class, but something modifies its relationships, giving it some interests that are distinct, while it remains part of the same class. These are crucial differences when analysing the Jewish Question, which David Walters, like Tony Greenstein, says does not exist. But whereas Tony Greenstein tried to deny this with an elaborate series of sophistries in his letter of 14 April (refuted in detail at http://wp.me/psqig-1am), Walters does not even rise to this level.
Abram Leon defined the Jews in early-to mid-medieval Europe as a “people class”. They fulfilled a distinct economic function as the repository of merchants’ capital in a society whose mode of exploitation was based on use value, not exchange value. In such a society, the bearer of exchange value had to be something seen as ‘foreign’ to that society, a ‘foreign’ religious group that engaged in trade as a specialty, particularly overseas. It obviously was a class, as its relationship with economics was unlike either of the main classes of feudal society. It was not a distinctive part of a larger class, not a ‘caste’. Those who ceased to be part of this class generally ceased to be Jewish (and vice versa). To get this wrong shows a severe lack of understanding of Leon’s theory. It is impossible to accurately criticise something if you cannot say what it is.
Conversely, Walters says that we, Socialist Fight, still define Jews as a ‘people-caste’ (replicating this absurd error about Leon’s theory) to this day. This is not true either – the ‘people-class’ ceased with the end of feudalism. In some ways it was redundant before that, as the rising bourgeoisie pushed them out of their privileged position in trade proper and drove them into the degraded field of usury, where they became a ghettoised, often persecuted population- when not driven out completely. This was largely complete in West Europe by the 13th Century. It lingered on for much longer in Eastern Europe because of the feebleness of the bourgeoisie in that region, commented on extensively by Marx.
The people-class ceased to exist with the emancipation of the Jews by the French Revolution and its repercussions abroad. As a result, Jews were absorbed into other classes, the bourgeoisie, the petit bourgeoisie, and as an artisan-proletariat. That is our position; it is utter nonsense to suggest that we consider that Jews are still a people-class (or even more absurdly, a ‘people-caste’; this latter thing never existed!).
What we do note is that Jews became overrepresented in the bourgeoisie, when they were absorbed into capitalism. That does not mean that all Jews became capitalists, not at all. But a qualitatively greater proportion became so than for non-Jews. This is completely comprehensible given the history of Jews in the earlier period, where their main social function was dealing with commodities. In a society where commodity exchange and indeed commodity production became the general form of economy, it is completely obvious that a people with that history would be suited to be successful, and become overrepresented among the class of commodity producers and dealers, i.e. the bourgeoisie.
It is not Jews as a whole that constitute a caste today in the USA and elsewhere. It is the overrepresented Jewish layer of the bourgeoisie. It was in the interest of this developing caste that the idea of Jews being a ‘nation’, alongside all the other nations of Europe in the era of nationalism in the 19th Century, was formulated. Shlomo Sand narrated this at some length in his The Invention of the Jewish People. He did not give it a specific class basis, but the desire of this bourgeois layer for some sort of ‘national’ project to give itself an ideological purpose was what was behind it. Then the question of territory obviously arose, but this remained problematic for a long time as the only way to hope to gain such was by manoeuvring among the Great Powers, as subsequently happened.
This does not and never did define the Jews as a ‘people-caste’ – (that phrase comes purely from Walters), but at the point when the most conscious elements of this caste achieved their aim of a state, with the formation of Israel in 1947-9, and the consolidation of that state and its support among Jewry outside Israel, then it could be said that the reactionary project of social engineering that aimed to make the Jews into a nation, achieved some degree of success. It did not make Jews into a nation, but it did have the effect of creating a form of collectivity without the real prerequisites of nationhood – stable territory. It made Jews into a semi-nation. So for an accurate characterisation of what Jews are today, they are a semi-defined, semi-nation without a stable territory led by an unstable Zionist caste within the bourgeoisie whose central base is in Israel, but which spans several imperialist states while being materially linked by the Israeli ‘Law of Return’ racist citizenship law. Of course that does mean that all people of Jewish origin are in tune with this, it should not need saying.
It is the existence of this caste, this state, and this semi-nation that means that the Jewish Question is as central today as it has ever been, as this semi-nation is an important component part of modern imperialism, actively oppresses the Palestinians and is a key component of world reaction today. This is certainly a different form of the Jewish Question from when Leon wrote about the Jews as an oppressed population. But there is also an important continuity, which flows logically from Leon’s analysis of what happened to the people class after its dissolution into other classes. He did not live to see the unfolding of the huge change that the formation of Israel in the aftermath of the genocide gave to the contours of the Jewish Question.
Walters’ conception of imperialism is that it is monolithic, exclusively WASP dominated and that other ethnic groups – particularly Jews, are just playthings for the WASP bourgeoisie. He claims that nothing has changed about the relationship between the US and Israel since 1948. But this is itself nonsense; contrast Suez with the cover up of the USS Liberty incident, or with the support of US politicians of both parties for Cast Lead andProtective Edge, for example. The Bush administration fully planned to attack Iran (and Syria and other places) in the late 2000s, as Wesley Clark made clear in 2007. It was thwarted by military setbacks in Iraq that made it unfeasible. Then there is the fact that the front-running candidates of both Democrats and Republicans are transparently hostile to Obama’s deal with Iran. This has a great deal to do with Israeli influence.
Imperialist policy evolves through contradictions of its own: it is not omnipotent, uniform or rational. If it were, it could not have gone from anti-Semitism as mainstream to philo-Semitism as an equally mainstream ideology in a few decades. There was an element of anti-Semitism in McCarthyism; today the new McCarthyism is pro-Israel and uses fake ‘anti-semitism’ allegations as a key weapon. People like Greenstein and the CPGB, and possibly even Walters himself, are complicit in it.
Subliminally through this perspective Walters is forced to minimise the role of Jews in anything concerning racial oppression. This can only be a product of a belief that Jews are in some way inherently progressive as a people. But Marxism rejects this concept of progressive and reactionary peoples; we instead focus on material relations of oppressor and oppressed in the here and now.
Walters notes that only 6% of millionaires are Jewish in the USA. But Jews are only 2% of the population of the US. This is three times overrepresentation. By contrast, US blacks, who are 12% of the US population, only have 0.1% of the millionaires. Do the maths! When it comes to much wealthier billionaires, the differences are much more dramatic. It is acknowledged that up to 40% of billionaires in the US are Jewish, which is 20 times overrepresentation. Yet there is only one black billionaire in the US, Oprah Winfrey, out of at least 400. This is incredible under-representation of blacks. In that regard, Walters’ remarks that…:
“The real problem resides in holding on to a fake concept of a ‘Jewish’ bourgeoisie…. In fact, there is no such thing. There are ‘Jewish’ members of the ruling class, even as, in the US, there are black and Chicano millionaires and bankers.”
… are completely disingenuous, and hide the truth.
These figures do not tell the whole story, as there is a history of some oppression of Jews in the US, though it hardly compares with the black population. Walters denies that blacks are excluded from the US ruling class, but this figures shows that in effect they are, their representation is nugatory. That is an index of a racist society whose treatment of the oppressed at home cannot be separated neatly from its activities abroad. The social power of the Jewish-Zionist caste within the US bourgeoisie is an important factor in the role of the US in the Middle East, just as the overt racism of the WASP bourgeoisie in an earlier period was an important factor in the support of US (and British) imperialism for white supremacist, colonial forces in Africa and elsewhere, as well as racism at home.
A conceptual problem with analyzing the contemporary Jewry as a semi-nation is that membership in nations is mutually exclusive. The problem arises when you ask whether a Jew residing in a semi-colony belongs to an oppressed or oppressor nation.
But a semi-nation is not a nation. So the principle, assuming it is absolute, is not violated. It is bent somewhat, which can produce tensions and contradictions. Such as phenomena like anti-semitism, when you get a particular kind of nationalist backlash against the bending of the rules.
Though so far that has not proven true, as the original anti-semitism was driven more by fear of the radical role of Jews in the workers movement, which unfortunately is no more.