10/09/2018 by Ian
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)
Abram Leon and Zionism
Part 2 of Socialist Fight educational on the Jewish Question
This is the second part of the Socialist Fight educational on Abram Leon’s work The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation.
In part one last month, to recap., I explained at length and in some detail Leon’s theory of the Jews as a people-class of merchants and traders in medieval, i.e. feudal and similar societies that were based on natural economies and the production of use values as the basis for class exploitation, and not commodity production.
I explained how in Leon’s view, which I share, finding that economic niche in the societies that succeeded antiquity is the reason why Jews as a distinct group still exist today. If that had not happened, Jews would have simply been absorbed by other peoples as happened to the Phoenicians.
To Leon, the Jews were not the bearers of capitalism as a mode of production, but rather an epiphenomenon of pre-capitalist societies, a commodity and money trading layer that depended for their economic role on the absence of capitalist relations of production, i.e. commodity production.
It was inevitable that the role of commodity traders in a natural economy would be done by people seen as foreigners, or having a foreign religion. This is a recurring phenomenon around the world.
Once capitalist production, in the form of manufacture and the organisation of handicrafts, began to emerge even in embryonic form, so did capitalist traders linked to such production, who proceeded to drive the Jewish ‘foreigners’ out of trade and into purely usury, where they became a pariah, persecuted population until the bourgeois revolution emancipated them.
But while the Jews were emancipated by the bourgeois revolution in the West, there was a lag of several centuries before the same process began in Eastern Europe, where the bulk of Jewry were concentrated after having been driven out of the West those centuries earlier.
By the mid to late 19th Century, when the crisis of the loss of the Jews’ social and economic role came to a head in the East, Jews in the West were well on the way to complete assimilation, and were highly disturbed by the beginning of a mass exodus of millions of persecuted and impoverished East European Jews to the West.
Defining the Jews today; defining Zionism
This is where the weaknesses in Leon’s predictions, and some of the later elements of his analysis begin. I will start by quoting two somewhat counterposed quotations from the later part of his book. In Chapter 6, “The Rise of Capitalism” he wrote:
“Judaism has therefore undergone a very important transformation in the capitalist epoch. The people-class has become differentiated socially. But this process, while of considerable scope, is accompanied by a multitude of contradictory tendencies, which have not as yet allowed the crystallisation of a stable form for Judaism in our period. It is far easier to say what Judaism has been than to define what it is.” (p215)
In terms of a definition, Leon is evidently leaving things somewhat open-ended. That is his initial impulse in terms of definitions. Here he equates ‘Judaism’ with the people-class, i.e. with Jews as a population group, and we can take it as read therefore that by Judaism he means not the religion, but the human group involved.
Then we come onto the nature of Zionism. Leon wrote in Chapter 7, The Decay of Capitalism, that:
“In reality, Zionist ideology, like all ideologies, is only the distorted reflection of the interests of a class. It is the ideology of the Jewish petty bourgeoisie, suffocating between feudalism in ruins and capitalism in decay.” (p240)
Here I think we see Leon’s weakness in embryo. He (correctly) refuses to make a final definition of the nature of ‘Judaism’ for the historical period that he was in, he leaves it open-ended as it has not yet crystallised into a ‘stable form’.
But he does not leave open the question of the nature of Zionism, an important force at the time he was writing, but rather defines it as simply the ideology of the Jewish petty-bourgeoisie, in effect as a petit-bourgeois nationalist force.
The formulation “suffocating between feudalism in ruins and capitalism in decay” explains why he does not make the usual qualification that Marxists usually make about petty-bourgeois nationalist ideologies, that the purpose of such ideologies for a given petty-bourgeoisie means that that stratum sees it as a means to become a bourgeoisie itself, ruling its own nation.
Leon, it is pretty clear, believed such an aspiration by this particular petit-bourgeoisie to be a non-issue, because in his view the Jews were doomed if capitalism was not overthrown:
“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)
There is no reproach to Leon in my analysis. Earlier I used Donald Rumsfeld’s useful point about ‘known unknowns’ versus ‘unknown unknowns’ to underline that for Leon in the historical situation he was in, the outcome of WWII can only be described as an ‘unknown unknown’.
After WWII – New Period and New Perspectives
I mean the enormous changes brought about by the Second World War, the defeat of Nazi Germany by US imperialism and Stalinist Russia in alliance, the survival of the USSR and its conquest of Eastern Europe.
Then you had the Yugoslav revolution led by partisan-guerrillas, the Chinese revolution and the later creation of deformed workers states in Vietnam, Cuba, etc. There was the rapid dismantlement of the British and French colonial empires after the war, which was intertwined with this. Not least, there was the creation of the state of Israel, which also happened in this context.
All these developments were inconceivable to the pre-war Trotskyist movement and particular to cadres in the position of Leon, who it should be remembered not only authored this analysis during the war, but was involved in leading his movement in resistance activities to the Nazi occupation, that cost him his life.
The Trotskyist movement could not have foreseen these things in detail. In fact Leon’s whole outlook is based on the conception, completely comprehensible in its day, that no significant further economic development was possible under capitalism, and that capitalism in the late 1930s was in its ‘death agony’ as Trotsky put forward as the immediate perspective of the Fourth International, whose programme was titled ‘the Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International’:
“The economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth. Conjunctural crises under the conditions of the social crisis of the whole capitalist system inflict ever heavier deprivations and sufferings upon the masses. Growing unemployment, in its turn, deepens the financial crisis of the state and undermines the unstable monetary systems. Democratic regimes, as well as fascist, stagger on from one bankruptcy to another.
“The bourgeoisie itself sees no way out. In countries where it has already been forced to stake its last upon the card of fascism, it now toboggans with closed eyes toward an economic and military catastrophe. In the historically privileged countries, i.e., in those where the bourgeoisie can still for a certain period permit itself the luxury of democracy at the expense of national accumulations (Great Britain, France, United States, etc.), all of capital’s traditional parties are in a state of perplexity bordering on a paralysis of will.
“The “New Deal,” despite its first period of pretentious resoluteness, represents but a special form of political perplexity, possible only in a country where the bourgeoisie succeeded in accumulating incalculable wealth. The present crisis, far from having run its full course, has already succeeded in showing that “New Deal” politics, like Popular Front politics in France, opens no new exit from the economic blind alley.”
We have to make a distinction here, between the nature of the epoch and short-terms crises. It is indisputable that the gargantuan crisis of the Second World War, just as much as the First World War, posed the imperative need point blank for the overthrow of capitalism.
It posed the possibility of the collapse of capitalist civilisation into barbarism. Indeed, it is arguable that Nazi rule in Europe was a form of barbarism, with its scourging of much of the continent, its extermination of millions of people on the basis of the most barbaric racial ideology which amounted to a reversion to the mentality of witch-doctors, at the level of the relations between entire peoples.
But it does and did not necessarily follow that such a terrible crisis would necessarily mean the end of capitalism, if the working class failed to overthrow the system.
Nor that the system did not have enormous reserves left in it that, in the absence of working class revolution, could pull the system back together again and, by the application of material force to secure an economic revival, could not make major changes in the specifics of many of the features that appeared to be intractable in the period of the preceding crisis.
We have the benefit of hindsight. This does not entitle us to reproach those who fought in pre-war conditions, in difficult circumstances we can barely imagine, who were unable to see into a complex future accurately.
But neither can we be reproached for using hindsight to the full. We must use hindsight to analyse the faults and weaknesses of the Trotskyist movement that preceded us. If we don’t use this to the full, we deserve to be reproached, as “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. (George Santayana), often cited by Marxists.
Capitalist Revivals and the Danger of Barbarism
With the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear that the ‘death agony of capitalism’ is not necessarily expressed in a final depression and collapse that it is unable by any means to pull out of.
Though such a thing cannot be ruled out in the imperialist epoch, it is more the case that capitalism, in its reactionary phase, goes into a series of social and economic convulsions that repeatedly threaten humanity with barbarism and/or annihilation, which can be interspersed with periods of considerable further development of the productive forces.
And that development of the productive forces under imperialist capitalism itself poses an acute threat to the future of humanity, as we are now beginning to see with the environmental crisis that the recent heatwaves (including in Lapland and Greenland!) have brought to the fore.
This is not a crisis of capitalist economic collapse, though we have seen this posed with the Credit Crunch, but just as much of its socially harmful expansion.
The Transitional Programme is not a religious text, but a method that outlives the specific conjuncture of its creation. Thus this perspective is still palpably true today, though not necessarily in exactly the same way that Trotsky and Abram Leon saw it then:
“All talk to the effect that historical conditions have not yet “ripened” for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception. The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only “ripened”; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. The turn is now to the proletariat, i.e., chiefly to its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.”
This vindicates the main epochal thrust of the Transitional Programme for the entire post-WWII period, even though some of its specific elaborations, from the period of the Great Depression, are not always appropriate.
From Leon’s standpoint these were unknown unknowns.
There was a speech by Trotsky in the late 1920s where he dimly foresaw the possibility of a new, prolonged capitalist expansion after a bloody war and depression in which millions of European workers would die from starvation.
But at the time that was mere conjecture. The reality of the depression and seeming ‘death agony’ of capitalism made it appear remote.
Zionism: An Impossible Dream?
So back to Leon; in a footnote in the last chapter of his book, we find the following prediction:
“The disappearance of Hitler can change nothing fundamental in the state of the Jews. A transitory improvement of their condition will in no wise alter the profound roots of twentieth-century anti-Semitism” (in footnote, p224)
This is a clear prediction, from his perspective and vantage point. Then we find another prediction about the supposed impossibility of the creation of a Zionist state in the Middle East:
“Therein lies the principle obstacle to the realisation of Zionism. Capitalist decay – basis for the growth of Zionism – is also the cause of the impossibility of its realisation. [emphasis in original] The Jewish bourgeoisie is compelled to create a national state, to assure itself of the objective framework for the development of its productive forces, precisely in the period when the conditions for such a development have long since disappeared. The conditions of the decline of capitalism which have posed so sharply the Jewish question make its solution equally impossible along the Zionist road. And there is nothing astonishing in that. An evil cannot be suppressed without destroying its causes. But Zionism wishes to resolve the Jewish question without destroying capitalism, which is the principal cause of the suffering of the Jews [emphasis added]” (p242).
And Leon says that even if a Zionist state is somehow created in spite of everything, it will make no difference to the position of the Jews:
“A relative success for Zionism, along the lines of creating a Jewish majority in Palestine and even of the formation of a ‘Jewish state’ , that is to say, a state placed under the complete domination of English or American imperialism, cannot, naturally be excluded. …. “The situation after the eventual creation of a Jewish state in Palestine will resemble the state of things that existed in the Roman era only in the fact that in both cases the existence of a small Jewish state could in no way influence the situation of the Jews in the Disaspora….. The temple will perhaps be rebuilt but the faithful will continue to suffer.” (p245-6)
And yet again:
“What can Zionism do to counteract such a disaster? Is it not obvious that the Jewish question is very little dependent upon the future destiny of Tel Aviv but very greatly upon the regime which will be set up tomorrow in Europe and in the world? The Zionists have a great deal of faith in a victory of Anglo-American imperialism. But is there a single reason for believing that the attitude of the Anglo-American imperialists will differ after their eventual victory from their pre-war attitude? It is obvious that there is none. Even admitting that Anglo-American imperialism will create some kind of abortive Jewish state, we have seen that the situation of world Judaism will hardly be affected” (p247)
This has clearly been falsified by history. The Jews are no longer a pariah population threatened with extermination in the advanced countries, or indeed anywhere. The Israeli state was created after the Second World War, despite Leon’s stated belief that the ‘realisation’ of the Zionist state was ‘impossible’.
And despite Leon’s caveat that even if an ‘abortive’ Jewish state were created by ‘Anglo-American imperialism’, it would not affect the situation of world Jewry who would “hardly be affected” and would “continue to suffer”.
Jews do not “continue to suffer” at the hands of world capitalism, they are now in a very different situation. The Jewish state created in 1947-49 is 70 years old and shows no sign of disappearing. Nor is it a ‘creation’ of Anglo-American imperialism, though both powers played an important role in its creation.
It was created in a reactionary ‘War of Independence’ in part against British colonial rule, during which its forces struck major military blows against British forces in Palestine; notably the bombing of the King David Hotel, which made it militarily and politically impossible for the British to maintain their ‘mandate’ which they then relinquished.
Though Israel benefited from much diplomatic support from US imperialism and the Truman administration at the time it was created, there is considerable evidence that that support was not freely given, but was the result of determined, aggressive activity by the incipient Israel lobby at that time.
This made it politically very difficult for the Truman administration not to support the foundation of a Jewish state, despite grave misgivings from many including the president himself that by doing so they were damaging US imperialist interests in the wider world.
Genesis of the Zionist State
A useful and very detailed study of this comes from a liberal Jewish US commentator, John B Judis, whose work GENESIS: Truman, American Jews and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) is an immensely detailed study of this period.
I will not quote this at length here, but I do note that some of his explanations about how the tragedy of the Nazi holocaust paradoxically allowed Israel to be created, despite the fears of some in the Zionist movement itself that paralleled some of Leon’s predictions of Zionist failure, are quite powerful.
In particular the fact that a much larger Jewish state, including much of Lebanon and Sinai, and all of what is now Jordan, was envisaged by Ben Gurion and other Zionist founders to accommodate a much larger pre-Holocaust Jewish population. This population existed, but they had no way to prevail upon them to migrate to Palestine.
According to Judis, it was actually the horror of the Nazi holocaust, and the extermination of several million European Jews, described by Ben Gurion as a ‘tragedy’ for Zionism, that made the migration of a much smaller number of Jews to Palestine politically feasible, because of the impulse to flee the theatre of genocide.
The smaller number of Jews migrating meant that Zionist territorial aspirations had to be scaled back, but it without Hitler’s genocide, it is highly unlikely that even that smaller number of Jews would have been inclined to migrate to Palestine. So that partially explains one of the flawed predictions made by Leon, which no one could have fully anticipated at the time.
However, despite the heavily lobbied help from US imperialism diplomatically, particularly in the newly-founded UN and in terms of relations with the outgoing British colonialists, it is clear that Israel, while manoeuvring between the various older imperialist powers, was and is an independent imperialist force in its own right.
This was underlined by Israel’s defiance of both the US and USSR in the Suez crisis of 1956, in a bloc with both France and Britain, when Israel as the main player in the war against Nasser was the last to accede to the US/Soviet demand to withdraw.
And it was even more underlined by the incident of the USS Liberty in 1967 during the Six-Day War, where Israeli aircraft and naval forces attacked a US ship off Sinai that was too close and too capable of monitoring Israeli actions and war communications, killing 34 US seamen and wounding over 100. It does appear that the most likely motive was to stop an Israeli massacre of Egyptian troops being recorded by the Liberty.
An Independent Force
The significance of the USS Liberty incident is similar to that of the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946. It was a dramatic demonstration that the Zionists are no-one’s lackeys, but a separate and independent force that manoeuvres for position among the Great Powers, while serving none of them.
This is also shown by the obvious power that Israel wields in the advanced capitalist countries of the West; for instance the ability of Netanyahu to march into the US Senate and demand that the US toes the line of Israel’s demand for aggression against Iran. The Obama White House defied him and signed a deal with Iran to lift sanctions in exchange for nuclear ‘co-operation’ and lucrative trade deals that benefited US and European companies. As predicted by myself, before Trump was elected, Netanyahu got his way.
One way or another, the bourgeoisie find a way to line up and support Israel. The campaign against Corbyn in the Labour Party, backed by virtually the entire British ruling class, but spearheaded by Israeli agents as the vanguard, is another case in point.
In that context, Leon’s insistence that if somehow a Jewish state came into existence despite all the reasons that he gave for it being impossible, it would be “abortive” and “under the complete domination of English or American imperialism” was completely falsified by subsequent developments.
That, in a nutshell, is what this presentation is aiming to address. Because as I said in part one, the failure of these predictions to materialise, even approximately, is the reason why Leon’s book today, though many of its insights about history are respected, is not regarded as a guide to action today by anyone else on the left, apart from Socialist Fight. And theory is always a guide to action for Marxists.
There are two strands to this. One is the perspectival problem that I addressed earlier regarding pre-war Trotskyism, the “Death Agony of Capitalism”, and the problems dealing with the post-WWII reality experienced by the Trotskyist movement after Trotsky.
The other strand is a weakness in Leon’s theorisation itself, or part of it. These are linked, but not exactly the same thing. There is a specific ambiguity, or weakness, in the latter part of Leon’s work.
This is not about the concept of the people-class itself. That is spot on, as is his narrative of the Jews in antiquity, early medieval and late medieval times. There is no problem with any of this.
The Jews and Modern Imperialism
The problem is with one of Leon’s later generalisations. Leon says, and I quoted it earlier:
“. The conditions of the decline of capitalism which have posed so sharply the Jewish question make its solution equally impossible along the Zionist road. And there is nothing astonishing in that. An evil cannot be suppressed without destroying its causes. But Zionism wishes to resolve the Jewish question without destroying capitalism, which is the principal cause of the suffering of the Jews [emphasis added]” (p242).
The last phrase is key. And it is wrong, and always was wrong. It actually contradicts Leon’s own theory, if you consider it. Remember that the people-class, and its redundancy, has its origins in pre-capitalist, feudal society, not capitalism.
It is true that the growth of capitalism within the womb of feudal society disrupted the position of the Jews in feudal society. But it also disrupted the feudal society itself, and undermined the positions of the feudal ruling classes as well as the middlemen (i.e. the Jews). The people-class was part of the feudal social and economic system, and what happened to them therefore was a result of the decline of that social system, not capitalism.
By saying that capitalism “is the principal cause of the suffering of the Jews” Leon contradicted his own theory and introduced unclarity. The oppression of the Jews under capitalism was conjunctural, not systemic. That is clear now, as capitalism has survived the revolutionary crisis after WWII and the Jews, almost uniquely for a people who suffered such horrendous crimes (the worst of which were at the hands of German capitalism), have escaped from oppression and joined the ranks of the dominant peoples.
This is only possible because unlike the oppression of the peoples of underdeveloped, semi-colonial countries, which is fundamental to imperialist capitalism and cannot be overcome without its overthrow, the oppression of Jews was a leftover question from feudalism within the advanced capitalist world, in its dominant aspect.
The failure of capitalism to assimilate the Jews in the late 19th and 20th Century was a product of the failure of pre-capitalist relations of production to be sufficiently shaken by capitalist development in the East until several centuries after the same processes began in the West.
This produced a massive, redundant, itinerant Jewish refugee population just at the point when Western capitalism was becoming imperialist and experiencing its first major depressions and imperialist wars.
The Jewish population displaced by the crumbling of Tsarism and its satellites in the East fled westwards, in too great numbers to be emancipated and assimilated by European capitalism in these conditions, unlike earlier generations of Jewish migrants.
This unfortunate population became scapegoats for European capitalism’s most convulsive crisis, in the 1930s, and became victims of Europe’s most barbaric, genocidal excrescences of capitalism, Hitlerite fascism.
The Jewish Question in Historical Perspective
Leon’s could not, quite understandably, see beyond the circumstances of the genocide that he was embroiled in, and generalised that the cause of the Jews oppression was fundamentally capitalism. But there were elements even within his own work that contradicted that, and pointed out why Jews and capitalism could be co-joined, given favourable circumstances. This pre-figured our own understanding of the genesis of Jewish overrepresentation among the imperialist bourgeoisie today.
For instance, when discussing the experience of the NEP in the Russian revolution, Leon wrote:
“… The example of the USSR shows that even after the proletarian revolution, the special structure of Judaism—a heritage of history—will give rise to a number of difficulties, particularly during the transition periods. During the time of the NEP, for instance, the Jews of Russia, utilising their traditional business experience, furnished numerous cadres for the new bourgeois class.” (p254)
Leon’s close co-thinker during World War II was Ernest Mandel, who furnished the original introduction to Leon’s book. He wrote in similar vein, paraphrasing the views of Ber Borochov, a socialist Zionist thinker who was one of Leon’s earlier political mentors, whom he subsequently broke with:
“The social composition of other peoples resembled a pyramid having at its base hundreds of thousands of miners, metal workers, railroad workers, etc. and then passing through large layers of handicraftsmen, topped off by ever thinner strata of businessmen, industrialists and bankers. But the social composition of the Jewish people resembled an ‘inverted pyramid in which large handicraft strata rested on narrow layers of workers – who were moreover engaged in nonvital sectors of industry – and had to bear the full weight of an enormous mass of businessmen.” (p21-22)
Again, this clearly showed why Leon’s statement that capitalism “is the principal cause of the suffering of the Jews” was mistaken, and contradicts the entire thrust of his own theory.
In fact Leon and Mandel’s statements, quoted above, contain in embryo our own understanding of the overrepresentation of Jews in the bourgeoisie, and how the formation of Israel, which as explained above was certainly brought into existence by means of the Nazi genocide, has played a key role in drawing Jews to the right, exorcising the spectre of ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ that drove the bourgeoisie to accept the counterrevolutionary demonology of anti-Semitism.
One further ambiguity is when, as quoted earlier, Leon says that Zionism was the movement of the Jewish petit-bourgeoisie. What he failed to understand was that that petty-bourgeoisie was an aspiring bourgeoisie, and that the means available to it to achieve that were both Zionism, and upward mobility. Leon believed that impossible under capitalism, but history proved him wrong on that.
The large-scale exodus of Jews from Eastern Europe to the United States and Western Europe, particularly, provoked fear and consternation at first from the established, near-assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie in the West, but after that was overcome, it led to a synthesis.
It led part of the Jewish bourgeoisie, an increasingly bold part, initially centred on part of the Rothschild family, who were divided over this, to embrace Zionism and finance the beginnings of its settlement of Palestine. Leon’s work does not really cover this facet of Zionism, it discounts it as being impossible, based on the misconception that capitalism “is the principal cause of the suffering of the Jews”.
But this was the genesis of the Jewish-Zionist caste within the bourgeoisie whose existence, social weight through disproportionate representation, and quasi-national consciousness is responsible for the power of Zionism in Western societies.
So the Jewish question is a paradox. The truth is, without Zionism, the Jews, who are in reality quite compatible with capitalism, would simply disappear as a distinct group into the bourgeoisie and the middle classes, and the Jewish question as a distinct question would cease to exist.
This is because the Jews are not a ‘race’ at all – ‘race’ is in general a myth – despite what both Zionists and anti-Semites believe. They are the remnants of a medieval trading class, who ought to have just been absorbed into the middle and upper classes of capitalist society, but because history is not a straight line, have had to go on a tortuous and perilous journey to get to that point.
The Jewish question has transmuted today into its opposite. In Leon’s day he was analysing and trying to account for the fate of the Jews as an oppressed population. Today we are dealing with the consequences of that phenomenon being transformed into its opposite, of Jews, as a distinct population with a claimed state power, oppressing the Palestinian Arabs and in fact threatening the Arab world, and possibly humanity itself, with destruction.
The Jewish question today, to summarise, is about Zionism – and nothing else! It has no relevance otherwise. But Zionism is not just about Israel, though Israel is its centrepiece, the only one conceivable. The Jewish question is about liberating the Palestinian people from Jewish-Zionist oppression and setting free the Jewish people from their seemingly cursed history to join the rest of humanity on genuinely equal terms.
That is a key, strategic task of socialists and communists today.