Once more on Zionism and the Jewish Question for Marxists.


15/07/2018 by Ian

The following letter was sent to the Weekly Worker in reply to Tony Greenstein’s criticism of us in last week’s WW. It is to Tony’s credit that he wrote his original letter, but unfortunately the CPGB leadership is not keen to get the core of this debate.

Rather than publish our reply, they chose to publish a piece of flattery of themselves by Dave Vincent, a trade union militant who is also a strong advocate of immigration controls and labour protectionism.  This speaks volumes about their complacency about racism and refusal to mobilise against it, also manifested in their complete absence from the recent anti-fascist mobilisations to combat the Tommy Robinson/’Football Lads’ fascist thug demonstrations.

The problem with Tony Greenstein’s letter in last week’s paper is that, for all his claims to understand Zionism, he shares with the CPGB a refusal to allow, perhaps even an instinctive aversion to, the application of Marxist class analysis to the relationship between Jews in the diaspora, most notably in the imperialist countries, and Zionism. He effectively removes class from his analysis of the dynamics of this relationship. This is linked to his strong conviction that the Jewish Question, which has been a major issue for Marxists since almost before Marxism existed (Marx’s essay on the Jewish Question was one of his earliest published works of what we today call Marxism) should not be addressed today as it is somehow ‘anti-Semitic’ to do so.

Thus Tony writes:

Objectively the interests of Jews outside Israel are not served by the Israeli state, which is a source of anti-Semitism. This is because Israel claims that it represents all Jews when it perpetrates its war crimes. It is becoming clear to ever larger sections of American Jewry that Israel’s tie-up with Donald Trump is inimical to their interests. Donald Trump was propelled to power by riding the tiger of white supremacy and it is universally acknowledged that the Trump presidential campaign was the most anti-Semitic there has been.

This is devoid of class criteria. There are no such things as Jewish ‘interests’ in a classless sense. Of course, it is permissible as a shorthand to use terms like ‘American interests’ or ‘British interests’ to signify the interests of the American or British bourgeoisies, but Marxists have always linked that to the idea that other classes, particularly the proletariat, have distinct interests from their ‘own’ bourgeoisie. I would argue that this is also true of Jews in (relatively) large diaspora concentrations like the US, as well as Israel itself of course.

Tony also, interestingly, more than once attributes to me the view that the ‘power’ of Zionism flows from the ‘overrepresentation’ of Jews in the US government, relative to the Jewish population. But this has never been my position. It is entirely possible (in theory) for there to be no Jews whatsoever in the apparatus of the US government and for the US government still to be forced by the Israel lobby to carry out the wishes of the Jewish-Zionist bourgeois caste. How? Because the governmental apparatus is the servant, ultimately, of the bourgeoisie. And it is the bourgeoisie which contains a disproportionate number of Jews, not the governmental apparatus. Property is more durable than sinecures. The composition of the class, not the apparatus, is decisive.

This would not mean anything if the dominant ideology among Jewish bourgeois were not a form of very aggressive Jewish communalism, political Zionism. But it is. Most (though not all) Jewish bourgeois adhere to that ideology. And they have a share of capitalist property far greater than the mere 2% of the population of the US that happens to be Jewish. This is the product of the unusual class structure of the Jewish population, which is also manifested in the disappearance of the Jewish proletariat, which Tony has himself observed. Actually, the two are arithmetically and logically inseparable.

Bourgeois property brings social power in bourgeois society. And disproportionate bourgeois property brings disproportionate social power therefore – for a highly conscious, communalist faction of the bourgeoisie. Evangelicals are camp followers of this faction, but without a Jewish core they would be powerless religious fantasists.

The relationship of middle-class Jews outside the bourgeoisie to this is bound to be problematic, as their class interests are not identical to that of the Jewish-Zionist bourgeois caste. Traditionally, the middle classes tend to follow the ideological leadership of the bourgeoisie, but there are exceptions to that. They can also be led by the revolutionary proletariat.

In the absence of a Jewish proletarian pole in American (or for that matter, British) society, that role falls to the working class movement in general terms, of which Marxists should be the ideological vanguard. Telling this layer the truth about the communal programme and unusual pan-imperialist configuration of the Jewish-Zionist bourgeois caste is a sine-qua-non for winning this layer to consistently working class, internationalist politics.

Tony speaks of the renowned liberalism of the Jewish population in the US, again in pretty much classless terms. But Marxists do not uncritically cheer for bourgeois liberalism; particularly in the imperialist epoch liberalism has proved treacherous whether in the persons of Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Clinton or Obama. In its Jewish manifestation, some of the most liberal figures in US history have been Jewish bourgeois such as Brandeis and Frankfurter, in an earlier period, as well as people like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner who were murdered for their support for black Civil Rights. There is also the role of Jews in American social democracy. This has rarely, if ever, broken from support to imperialism and has often played an outright counterrevolutionary role.

The liberal US Jewish judge Louis Brandeis was key to drawing up the Balfour declaration and cementing US support for this; he also upheld the imprisonment and deprivation of citizenship of Eugene Debs for anti-war socialist agitation in WWI. Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, both ultra-liberal Jewish bourgeois Justices in the US Supreme Court, were proponents of a Greater Israel encompassing Jordan and parts of Lebanon and Syria. They were key figures in securing the support of US imperialism for the Zionist project. American social democracy, a key liberal force, and some of the key Jewish figures within it, has acted as a seedbed for neoconservatism.

The whole question: “what are the Jews?” is posed by these issues. Anti-Semites will say that Jews are a ‘race’; some of the most sophisticated will say that they are in some way a superior ‘race’ that needs to be cut down to size.

However, Marxists, following in the tradition of Abram Leon, differ, and note that the Jews’ unusual class structure and relation to commodity production and exchange flows from the fact that they were once a class, a commodity-trading people-class in feudal society, as Abram Leon put it. Their culture and accomplishments differ from peoples who had the more ‘normal’ division into different classes (though these divisions also vary widely across the world) in a manner that has something in common with the cultural gulf between classes themselves. The Jews today are not a class, but their current unusual class structure is derived from the fact that they were once a class.

This understanding really flows from Leon’s theory, which in turn flows from Marx’s profound but fragmentary elaboration in The Jewish Question. Anti-Semitism is a reactionary creed that takes elements of these social facts, that are available to anyone who cares to look, and turns them into an anti-humanist ideology that at its most consistent, tries to break up humanity into ‘races’ that in concept are virtually sub-species, one of which (theirs) appropriates the ‘right’ to subjugate or even destroy others.

Obviously Marxists totally reject that. But to reject class analysis of the Jewish Question on the grounds that some of the issues it uncovers can be, and in fact already have been (!!), exploited by the far right, is to abandon a crucial area of social reality to liberalism, and ultimately again to the far right.

Trump is further co-opting and pulling Zionism into the mainstream of the American far right. But this is a two-way process, as Zionism has its own independent base, not least in Israel. This has disturbed some other worms, and some on the traditional far right do not like this much. They like the Zionist far-right ethnic politics: they even try to co-opt it for their purposes (as in re-branding white supremacism as ‘white Zionism’), but some of them are not keen on Jews thereby encroaching on their ‘turf’. That’s how I interpret the white supremacists’ chant: “The Jews will not replace us” at Charlottesville. They are afraid that they are no longer the only supremacists on the block, and are liable to be ‘replaced’ with Jews by the ruling class. Needless to say, this is not an issue that the left should take sides on, which gang of supremacists becomes top dog.

It is good that Tony seems to endorse many of our criticisms of the CPGB over their ‘bourgeois anti-racism’ nonsense. This is a crucial part of what distinguishes our Marxist worldview from what is in reality their form of liberal-Menshevik politics. Our differences over the question of Jews-only groups flow directly from the class criteria and analysis elaborated above; we do not endorse liberal pressure politics and the semi-Bundist strategy that the CPGB and Moshe Machover defend are examples of this; they share key Zionist assumptions, and cannot defeat Zionism. Tony and other advanced militants who look to him need to think this through in class terms.

Ian Donovan

Socialist Fight.

One thought on “Once more on Zionism and the Jewish Question for Marxists.

  1. Ian says:

    Just on this I recieved the following brief comment on this from Tony:

    “Without going into my differences you misinterpret what I say: I say ‘ Objectively the interests of Jews’ ie Jews as individuals not collectively. You respond that ‘ There are no such things as Jewish ‘interests’ in a classless sense’ or indeed in a collective sense. I was not arguing as such but from the perspective of Jews as individuals Zionism is of no benefit to them”

    My response to this is that when middle class people (Tony himself notes that Jews are mostly middle class today) consider themselves as having ‘interests’ as individuals they are actually acting as middle class people in a classic sense, and following some other social force — usually the bourgeoisie. Tony’s idea that Jews (of all classes?) merely act as individuals is another example of Jewish exceptionalism, i.e the idea that Jews somehow are outside the framework of class analysis and differentiation that affects everyone else. We reject that exceptionalism.

    So I think this difference of interpretation comes from different analytical frameworks.


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