Abram Leon and the Jewish Question -1st of 2 Socialist Fight educational discussions


13/08/2018 by Ian


Here is the recording of Sunday’s Socialist Fight educational discussion on Abram Leon’s work. This part deals in some depth with Leon’s theory of the Jews as a people-class in the medieval period, and legacy of that under capitalism. We will be holding a second discussion on Leon and Zionism, to try to analyse the relevance of Leon’s work today in a world where Zionism and Palestine has become a major political issue internationally.


Abram Leon and the Jewish Question

1st of 2 Socialist Fight educational discussions

First of all, I would like to ask, why are we addressing this at all? I think the current attack on the Labour Party utilising the Jewish question as a weapon partially answers that.

As well as the involvement of Zionists in a range of major historical events such as the Iraq War; the so-called ‘war on terror’;  the diversion of the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutionary upsurge into an imperialist campaign to destroy Israel’s most important Arab nationalist opponents in the Middle East: Syria and Libya; the deliberate creation of chaos in the Middle East; the war threats against Iran by Israel and the US.

Zionist involvement in this means that the Israel question has become one of the central, strategic questions of world politics. I wrote something to that effect in the conclusion of my Draft Theses on the Jews and Modern Imperialism four years ago, and events since then have borne that out in a big way. When you touch Israel, its nature and origins, you touch the Jewish question.

Abram Leon’s book, The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation is the most important, and most neglected, Marxist study of the Jewish question. Indeed there are no other synthetic Marxist studies of the question.

Karl Kautsky wrote his book Are the Jews a Race? prior to WWI, but in my view though it implicitly deals with much of the same subject matter and particularly notes the overwhelmingly urban situation and role of the Jews, it does not create a rigorous theoretical framework for understanding the question overall.

Leon’s work does contain a coherent framework for understanding the question. I will go into that in some detail. Leon’s book was written in a very different period from our own, and it had a twofold purpose.

The first of these was to explain the origin of the Jews as a people or peoples, and as a social formation. This was not an exercise in pure history; it was done so that the present and future situation of the Jews could be explained in order to deal with the oppression that Jews suffered from, the oppression from anti-Semites at the time Leon lived.

It was both a theoretical analysis and a guide to action. As Leon himself said:

“To study the evolution of this question is not exclusively of academic interest. Without a thorough study of Jewish history it is difficult to understand the Jewish Question in modern times. The plight of the Jews in the Twentieth Century is intimately bound up with their historical past.  Every social formation represents a stage in the social process. Being is only a moment in the process of becoming. In order to undertake an analysis of the Jewish Question in its present phase of development, it is indispensable to be able to know its historical roots “ (p72)

This is both the book’s strength and its weakness. Don’t misunderstand me: I consider this work to be the major contribution by Marxists so far in understanding the Jewish question. Any future Marxist work updating it will have to be based on its theoretical framework. There is nothing else to compare with it. However, its weakness is precisely in the sphere of ‘becoming’.

In order to make use of his work properly as Marxists, we cannot be sentimental about the author. We have to correct and criticise the errors of perspective in the last couple of chapters of this work. I will begin to address this later on.

But first we must grasp correctly, in order to make proper use of it, the correct core of Leon’s understanding, that of the Jews as a people-class as the root of the Jewish question, in our work as Marxists today.

I will go into this concept in some depth in the main section of this talk, and try to give some sort of grounded understanding of Leon’s theory itself, which is important to grasp as there is a lot of depth and subtlety to it.

From Antiquity to Feudalism

Leon’s understanding of the Jews as a people-class is an extension of Marx’s understanding, in his fragmentary early essay The Jewish Question.  As Marx wrote: “Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew”. This approach, that material reality is paramount and the ultimate determining factor in the evolution of ideas, is what drove Leon’s approach.

Leon began by analysing the Jews in antiquity as one of the key trading peoples of the Mediterranean basin, which then was one of the key centres of emerging human civilisations in the world. Unlike the Phoenicians, who dominated trade in an earlier period, the Jews managed to survive from antiquity into the modern era as a distinct people or group of peoples. Leon sought to explain why.

Contrary to Zionist myth, there was no widespread Jewish exile and dispersion caused by the Romans, even though such things as the suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt and the destruction of the Second Temple are historical events. Their importance is much less than Zionist historians make out.

The Jewish diaspora or exile happened centuries before that, and was a product of what was essentially economic migration, caused by the relatively inhospitable nature of Palestine to a large population, and proselytism to the then-religion of the Hebrews.

Indeed the Hebrews in the diaspora no longer spoke Hebrew in the main; possibly the greatest number of them spoke Greek particularly in the period of the Greek city states and the later Hellenic empires, that preceded the rise of Rome.

The survival of the Jews is basically bound up with the fall of the Roman Empire, and the collapse back into a predominantly natural economy based on agrarian exploitation of an enserfed peasantry, which became the dominant mode of production after antiquity.

The prior dispersal of the Jews, whose dominant ethos had originally been trade given the position of Palestine as a hinterland or buffer country between two great ancient empires, that of Egypt and Assyria (and later Babylonia), provided the impetus for the spread of Christianity.

This was originally a Jewish heresy that gained many converts from the already widely dispersed Jews, and was thus able to gain a ready-made geographical spread that would have been inconceivable without that.

Christianity, though earlier persecuted by pagan Rome, with its ‘universalism’ was adopted by the Roman rulers themselves in the period of the disintegration of the old unitary empire.

In different forms it became the ideology of both the major components of the Empire as it splintered into Rome and Byzantium, and as the slave-based mode of production was replaced by agrarian feudalism, it became the dominant ideology of the new agrarian ruling classes that came to rule Europe.

Catholicism emerged in the West; Orthodox Christianity from Byzantium in the East, spreading northward in due course into what became Russia, among other places.

The Jews, as a dispersed minority of traders, were in the position of being the embodiment of commodity exchange in economies that were built on agrarian relations to which commodity relations were fundamentally alien.

The mode of exploitation of the serfs in a classical feudal economy was exploitation in kind. The serfs worked for part of their week, as much as half, for the lord on his own land, and for the remainder of the time for themselves on their own plots of land. In return, the lord supposedly supplied the serfs with ‘protection’ from being plundered by criminals, or other lords, or whoever.

Over the lords there were the kings, who themselves received tributes from the lords supposedly in return for the same kind of ‘protection’ from greater plunderers. I suppose you can say that feudalism was a kind of glorified protection racket, but that would be ahistorical and judging a very different society by today’s norms.

Obviously the generation and distribution of the normal means of life were the preserve of feudalism and the natural economy. But the ruling classes themselves, as is always the case, desired luxury goods.

This was the starting-point of the Jews as a people class. Such luxury goods, spices, silks, and also very importantly slaves, as a subsidiary luxury for kings and lords, were the preserve of a special class of merchants whose trade in commodities was a different ethos to the natural domestic economy.

In addition to this, there was the trade in money itself, through loans at interest, which was always present and implicit in this situation; the Jews were a money reserve for the aristocracy to turn to when they needed it. This later acquired a special significance.


As Leon puts it:

 “Above all the Jews constitute historically a social group with a specific economic function. They are a class, or more precisely, a people class” (P79-80)

Far from being an oppressed minority throughout history, in the early medieval period, which in the West lasted from the fall of Rome through the period of the consolidation of feudalism under Charlemagne, who was the architype of feudal kingship in the West, through to the 12th Century, the Jews were a highly privileged population, considered an indispensable supplement to feudalism by the ruling classes.

This was true until the 12th Century in the West. It was true for much longer in the East; it did not even begin to change there until the 17th Century and even then it took until the 19th Century for change to get properly underway. It is arguable that it never ceased to be true in many Middle Eastern countries, where Jews played a broadly similar role, until the mid-20th century.

By the 12th Century in the West we saw the beginning of commodity production, and hence the beginning of the emergence of native traders and merchants who traded in early handicraft goods, woollens, woven cloths, mined metals, salt even. These were produced or extracted domestically and thereby provided an opportunity for home-grown traders. This new breed of traders immediately came into conflict with the Jews who had previously held a monopoly of commodity trading.

As commodity production advanced in the West, there was major social, political and ideological change. Such things as the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation were the product of this change and they meant that home-grown trade, linked to commodity production, destroyed the Jews’ monopoly of trade and basically drove them out of the mercantile field.

As Leon commented about these ideological changes in the West:

“Whereas Catholicism represents the interests of the landed nobility and the feudal order, while Calvinism (or Puritanism) represents those of the bourgeoisie or capitalism, Judaism mirrors the interests of a pre-capitalist mercantile class

“What primarily distinguishes Jewish ‘capitalism’ from genuine capitalism is that, by contrast with the latter, it is not the bearer of a new mode of production. ‘Here we have commercial capital in its pure form, quite separate from the extremes, the spheres of production, between which it mediates’ (Marx, Capital)” (82)

The consequence of this is that Jews were driven out of a number of Western countries, including Britain and France, and usury became the dominant economic activity of the people-class, as they had been driven out the trade in goods. Leon characterised the process thus:

“But now Jewish capital, primarily commercial in the preceding period, becomes almost exclusively usurious. It is no longer the Jew who supplies the lord with Oriental goods but for a certain time it is still he who lends him money for his expenses. If during the preceding period ‘Jew’ was synonymous with merchant, it now begins increasingly to be identified with ‘usurer’

“It is self-evident that to claim, as do most historians, that the Jews began to engage in lending only after their elimination from trade, is a vulgar error. Usurious capital is the brother of commercial capital…. In reality the eviction of the Jews from commerce had as a consequence their entrenchment  in one of the professions which they had practiced previously“ (p139-140)

In fact, as feudalism went into deeper and deeper decline, and commodity production gained more and more leverage within feudal states, the more untenable and contradictory the Jews’ position, as a class of money traders and usurers, became.

An epiphenomenon of feudalism, not capitalism

This is a crucial point that needs to be understood theoretically. Jewish commodity exchange in the medieval world was not capitalism. There is a work called “The Jews and Modern Capitalism” by a would-be Marxist (at one point), Werner Sombart, that basically tries to say that the Jews were the bringers of capitalism. But he is simply wrong.

For commercial capital in the form that the Jews were bearers-of depends on the absence of productive capital, of commodity production. The mode of commodity circulation the Jews were central to is an epiphenomenon of the feudal mode of production, and nothing to do with the capitalist mode of production.

It is because it appears in some ways alien to the dominant feudal mode of production that commodity exchange under feudalism tends to be done by those seen as foreigners, or with a ‘foreign’ religion.

The Jews’ religion, and its preservation, can be explained through this social role.  Those who ceased to regard themselves as Jews tended to drop away from this social role. On the other hand, there were cases of conversion to Judaism in order to partake of what was at times a privileged position.

Similar, though not identical, phenomena have occurred in other parts of the world, not involving Jews, such as overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, etc.  A ‘foreign’ layer becomes the commodity-trading class in a pre-capitalist, natural economy.

Once commodity production began to develop, a different group, part of a nascent capitalist class, of merchants who sell the products of capitalist commodity production, arose, and these were not seen as ‘foreign’ but organic to the society. They rapidly pushed aside the Jews wherever this development took place.

It was common practice for royal powers in Europe to use the Jews to rob particularly the nobility. Put simply, the Jews would take as collateral for loans important assets of lords, and even the Church, and then appropriate them when the debt was defaulted.

It was common for Jews to act as tax farmers, either directly, taking over functions that used to be those of the royal power or the nobility simply by virtue of having land and other assets that had been surrendered to them by defaulters

But then the royal power would first expel the Jews, then ‘relent’ on surrender of assets to the king by the Jews. This was a repeated pattern in France, for instance. So in effect the royal power would allow the Jews to rob the nobility, then the kings would rob the Jews.

Indirectly, then, the royal power would rob the nobility using the Jews as instruments.

As feudal Europe became more and more commodified, Jews even found their position as usurers to the nobility undermined. Increasingly we had the phenomenon of ghettoization, with distinct living areas, from which Jews lent money to the poor peasants, with collateral such as tools and other essential items, to meet the exactions of decaying feudalism.

Meanwhile the nobility in particular were quite prepared to incite the rural population in general against the Jews, in part as a diversion from their own depredations, but these diversions had a real social basis, as the Jews as usurers were intimately and closely involved with those at the bottom of society who they were instrumental in driving into penury.

A Dialectic of Separation

There is a complex dialectic to this in the two halves of Europe.  Whereas the decay of European feudalism dates in effect from the 11th or 12 Centuries; in Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, Romania and the big one, Russia, it really lagged behind by centuries.

From the 12th Century onwards numerous Jews fled from the West of the continent, where the people-class was becoming redundant due to the rise of capitalist trade proper, to Eastern Europe.

Particularly Poland and Lithuania, which had a huge Jewish population, to the extent that some historians contend that the Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth was home to three quarters of the world’s Jews in the 16th century.

The expulsion and/or ghettoization of the Jews in the West was ended by the bourgeois revolutions. Cromwell, for instance, re-admitted the Jews to England centuries after they were expelled under Edward I at the end of the 13th Century.

Earlier the Dutch bourgeois revolution gave refuge to thousands of Sephardic Jews fleeing from the post-Reconquista Spain of the Inquisition. The French revolution was the big one of course, declaring full equality for the Jews; even in degenerated form under Napoleon, the French armies played a liberating role as they marched across Europe, abolishing ghettos and restrictions on Jews wherever they went.

The Napoleonic wars also played a huge role in accelerating the belated decline of feudalism in the East. What was to happen in the East in the 19th Century was somewhat prefigured at the same time as Cromwell’s ascent to power in England. In Polish Ukraine in 1648, where the social hostility to the Jews’ role as usurers to the peasantry ignited a huge uprising of the Cossack peasantry, in which tens of thousands of Jews were massacred.

In general terms Leon gives the context of this when he writes :

“Feudalism progressively gives way to a regime of exchange. As a consequence, the field of activity of Jewish usury is constantly contracting. It becomes more and more unbearable because it is less and less necessary” (p153)

And on the Ukrainian events in particular:

“’The Little Russian peasant bore a deep hatred for the Polish landed proprietor, in his double role as foreigner and noble. But he hated even more, perhaps, the Jewish steward with whom he was in continuous contact and in whom he saw at one and the same time the detestable representative of the lord and a ‘non-Christian’ who was foreign to him both by his religion and his way of life’” (Quoting Graetz, p 189)

“The tremendous Cossack revolt of Chmielnicki in 1648 results in completely erasing seven hundred Jewish communities from the face of the earth.  At the same time the revolt demonstrates the extreme feebleness of the anarchic Polish kingdom and prepares its dismemberment.” (189-190).

But the events in Ukraine were only a foretaste of what was to come. The liberation of the serfs in 1861 under Alexander II of Russia brought about the rapid collapse of the position of the Jews. Leon gives a detailed breakdown of the rise of emigration as the economic basis of Judaism was undermined by nascent capitalist development in Russia, first from the small Jewish towns (shtetls) to the large cities, and later to the West, to Germany, to France, to the United States.

By the beginning of the 20th century 150,000 Jews per year were emigrating to the US.

In the Western countries, the emancipation of Jews had given rise to a partial assimilation of the Jews. Respectable bourgeois Jews played an important, but fairly unobtrusive role in all these countries.

They were highly disturbed by the arrival of large numbers of often impoverished Jewish refugees from the East, which threatened the comfortable positions that many Jewish bourgeois had gained. Indeed Leon hypothesised that if this massive influx had not happened, Jewry in the West would simply have disappeared through assimilation.

The bifurcation of the Jews was a product of the time lag, of several centuries, between the decay and decline of feudalism in the West and that in the East. As Leon put it:

“If Judaism did not completely disappear in the West, it was owing to the mass influx of Jews from Eastern Europe. The Jewish Question, which is now posed on a world scale, therefore results primarily from the situation of Eastern Judaism. This situation is, in turn, a product of the lag in economic development of this part of the world. The special causes of Jewish emigration are thus linked with the general causes behind the emigration movement of the nineteenth century.” (p89)

Indeed, for Leon, such assimilation would have also have been inevitable for the migrant Jews in time, were it not for one other crucial factor: the decline of capitalism, which more or less began in the 1880s with the rise of modern capitalist imperialism, as evidenced among other things by the ‘scramble for Africa’.

Early Imperialism and Anti-Semitism

The rise of anti-Semitism roughly coincided with this decline, which was only later elaborated on by Lenin, Bukharin and others into a new epoch of capitalist decline. For Leon, capitalism, which should have been able to absorb the mass of the Jews and absorb them, proved unable to do so.

The result was that a huge, oppressed Jewish population became economic and political outcasts from the economic system itself, increasingly targeted by a new racialised demagogy from demagogic defenders of the system itself as some kind of demonic force, as in the ideology of the Protocols and Hitler, which Leon likens to a religion of the petty bourgeoisie directed ironically against the petty bourgeois spirit of the Jews:

 “Everywhere is rife the savage anti-Semitism of the middle classes, who are being choked to death under the weight of capitalist contradictions. Big capital exploits this elemental anti-Semitism of the petty-bourgeoisie in order to mobilise the masses around the banner of racism.” (p91)


The primary commercial and artisan nature of Judaism, heritage of a long historical past, makes it Enemy Number One of the petty-bourgeoisie on the domestic market. It is therefore the petty bourgeois character of Judaism which makes it so odious to the petty bourgeoisie. But while the historical past of Judaism exercises a determining influence on its present social composition, it has effects no less important on the representation of the Jews in the consciousness of the popular masses. For the latter, the Jew remains the traditional representative of the ‘money power’”. (p229-230)

Or in another point:

“The first to be eliminated by decaying feudalism, the Jews were also the first to be rejected by the convulsions of dying capitalism. The Jewish masses find themselves wedged between the anvil of decaying feudalism and the hammer of rotting capitalism. (p220)

Thus Leon drew the conclusion that, without the overthrow of capitalism, the Jewish people were effectively doomed.

It is for this reason that he considered Zionism to be a false solution for the Jews, and his critique of Zionism was grounded in this, that Zionism would ultimately prove ineffective as it would not change the fact that the cause of the Jews plight was the inability of capitalism to absorb them and liquidate the legacy of the people- class.

The problem is that capitalism has not been overthrown.  Zionism was triumphant in Palestine and is now playing quite an important role in the world, despite Leon’s predictions, apparently on the basis of his theory, that this was impossible. Jews are no longer a pariah population, as they were in Leon’s day, even though Leon thought that only a socialist revolution could save them from that situation. So this needs to be explained properly and in some depth.

An ‘Unknown Unknown’

Leon could not have known what was to happen after the Nazi holocaust, and after the Second World War. One paradoxically useful point made (after 9/11) by Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s defence secretary during the Iraq invasion and the ‘war on terror’, is that there is a difference between ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’.

There are things that you don’t know about, but you can make a reasonable guess and hypothesis about what they might be, based on previous experience, observation of current events, etc., so even when you are taken by surprise by something, it is not devastating.  But there are also sometimes things that are unexpected that you really know nothing about, which are outside of a current understanding, and which completely flummox you based on your current understanding.

This is relevant when dealing with the last couple of chapters or so of Leon’s work, and is possibly the main reason why this work has been so neglected. For Leon made some predictions, based on the understanding of these questions that he had developed at the time, about Zionism, its future, the future of the Jews,  that turned out to be wildly wrong.

History and politics are unforgiving; errors of perspective and prediction can lead to a work being dismissed.

Some on the left pay homage to the power and coherence of Leon’s analysis of the Jewish question in antiquity and medieval history, and indeed its analysis of the plight of the Jews under imperialist capitalism up to his own time, but because of its erroneous predictions do not see it as a guide to action today.

Leon in his tentative predictions was trying to deal with some things that were in fact ‘unknown unknowns’ from his vantage point in time and placement. But there are also arguably a couple of times at the end of the work when he does not correctly apply his own theory, or draw the full conclusions of it. He was a prisoner of his time; in fact he died a murdered prisoner in a Nazi death camp. So there is nothing to reproach him with.

This is actually a complex subject in its own right. While I was putting this talk together I originally intended to deal with all of it at once. But while doing this, I concluded it is too large a subject and needs to be treated separately. So I will put together part 2 of this educational, on Abram Leon, Zionism and Trotskyism today, for a few weeks’ time when we can arrange it.

One thought on “Abram Leon and the Jewish Question -1st of 2 Socialist Fight educational discussions

  1. […] Here is the recording of Sunday’s second Socialist Fight educational discussion on Abram Leon’s work The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation.  This tries to analyse the relevance of Leon’s work today in a world where Zionism and Palestine has become a major political issue internationally. (Part 1 is available here) […]


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