ack in July, the Spanish far-left coalition Podemos/UL protested against the visiting President Obama with a cartoon that showed an obliging black man slipping a stash of dollar bills into the pocket of a wide-eyed, grinning orthodox Jew. This portrait of America’s first black president as a humble house slave was shocking enough, as well as evidence that racism is not solely the preserve of the extreme right. But the Jewish caricature, complete with a Star-of-David-embossed kippah, peyos, and a dollar sign on his shirt, was the familiar character that has consumed the anti-Semitic imagination for centuries.
Professional anti-Semites don’t innovate very much. From the hellfire writings of the early Church fathers to the warped imaginations of the Podemos graphics department, agitation against the Jews has always been marked by common themes: original sin, rejection of the divine, observance of a law that elevates the material above the spiritual, usury, ritual murder for religious or political gain, treachery, clannishness, overwhelming power exercised in secret.
That is one reason why reading anti-Semitic texts can be so mind-numbing. Once you’ve acclimatized to the demonic language and wild idiocy, it all becomes rather dull. For that reason alone, the Italian academic Michele Battini is to be congratulated for his perseverance in wading through volumes of anti-Semitic texts penned by long-forgotten figures—among them minor aristocrats, fanatical monarchists, violent anarchists, and other exotic types. The result is his important new book, Socialism of Fools.
Battini’s focus is the relationship of anti-Semitism to anti-capitalism. The American scholar Jerry Z. Muller covered similar ground in his 2010 book, Capitalism and the Jews, but while Muller paid the greatest attention to recognized intellectuals like Montesquieu, Marx, and Sombart, Battini’s dive into the archives of the lower divisions of European thought, much of it from the 19th century, offers valuable insight into the propensity of Jew-hatred to swell among the ranks of the disaffected.
The title is taken from an 1894 interview with the German socialist leader August Bebel. With the phrase “socialism of fools” (which Battini says is more accurately translated as the “socialism of the imbecile”), Bebel got at the most important change in anti-Semitic thinking since the charge of “deicide.” That was, and is, blaming the ravages brought by the advancing market economies of the 19th century upon the Jews as a collective—which was and is expressed politically, as Battini writes, by identifying “the cause of that catastrophe with the emancipation of the European Jews.”
Exhibit A in Battini’s catalog is an 1806 French text, Sur les Juifs, authored by one Viscount Louis de Bonald. Temporarily exiled from France by the revolution of 1789, Bonald returned to his country to find the ancien régime undergoing a relentless institutional and intellectual attack. His immediate foes were the revolution’s philosophes, many of whom regarded the emancipation of the Jews as a necessary condition for a regime of political and economic liberalism. The combined and connected arrival of a market economy with full civic and political equality for the Jews—which caused Adam Smith, in the Wealth of Nations, to joyfully exclaim that Jews were now “active citizens of the State: a title which, contemplated by the newly enacted Declaration of the Rights of Man, would be regarded as the highest degree of happiness, and honor to which a human being could aspire!”—was for Bonald a horror.
Moreover, he continued, the philosophes had been duped. While they preached universalism, the Jews were exploiting their emancipated status by remaining “stubbornly faithful” to their own non-French law, expressed most provocatively through the practice of lending money at interest, or “usury.” Infuriated and resentful at the spectacle of Jewish financiers becoming “the high and mighty Lords of Alsace,” Bonald ridiculed the distaste of the philosophes for “feudalism” when “I know of nothing more feudal for a province than eleven million mortgages owed to the usurers.”
Battini argues that there were two main consequences to Bonald’s screed. First, it set the basis for contributions from later anti-Semites like the Catholic writers Edouard Drumont and Charles Maurras, who saw in Jewish emancipation the final surrender of the church to secular authority, as well as socialists like Pierre Proudhon—author of the famous “property is theft” maxim—whose identification of the Jews with “usury” allowed Bonald’s ideas, as Battini says, to enter “the realm of socialist literature.”
Second, Battini asserts that Bonald’s text, despite having “hitherto been ignored by scholars of modern anti-Semitism,” should properly be regarded as “a paradigmatic document of anti-Jewish anticapitalism”—in other words, as a foundational text for this particularly lethal form of anti-Semitism. This is a key observation, since that dubious honor is often awarded to Karl Marx for his 1844 work “On the Jewish Question.”
There is no doubt that Marx’s writings and private correspondence are peppered with vulgar references to Jews; he once referred to his socialist rival Ferdinand Lassalle as a “Jewish ni**er” and argued, in “On the Jewish Question,” that “money is the jealous God of Israel.” But actually, what really matters for historians is the context in which Marx was arguing. Looked at from that vantage point, his contentions about the Jews were, ironically, comparatively civilized.
The occasion for “On the Jewish Question” was a book on the same topic by Marx’s fellow German, Bruno Bauer, who argued fervently against emancipation. Marx’s response, which Battini says became part of the culture of the Marxist movement, was to support both emancipation and assimilation. Since Judaism and the capitalist economy were essentially the same, Marx came to the conclusion that true emancipation was the “emancipation of society from Judaism.”
If Marx never specified exactly how this state of affairs might come about, and to what extent it would be brought on voluntarily or by compulsion, it is clear that those who claimed his mantle leaned far more toward compulsion. The early Bolshevik Party included a Jewish section, the “Yevsektsiya,” whose primary mission was to stamp out any expressions of Jewish national separatism. Its targets ranged from the socialist “Bund,” which regarded the Jews of the former Pale of Settlement as a bona-fide nationality, to the Zionist movement, which was the main target of the 1919 decision in the Soviet Union to ban the teaching of Hebrew. By the 1930s, the exile of Leon Trotsky (a Jew) and the first of Stalin’s purges unveiled the oft-murderous anti-Semitism that was to define the USSR’s officially “anti-Zionist” policy towards both its Jewish minority and the State of Israel until its dismantling in 1990.
This monstrous lineage—from Marx to Gorbachev—raises the question of how far Battini’s understanding of anti-Semitism as the linkage of anti-capitalism with anti-Judaism can explain developments outside of the French, German, and Italian cultures upon which he concentrates. He recognizes that Marx’s underlying assumptions about Judaism were basically useless when it came to addressing the “oppression and persecution” in Eastern Europe, “in which the prevailing condition of the Jew was not that of the merchant.” But Battini himself does not have much to say about this matter.
Battini is a historian, and the value of his book lies in his thesis that anti-Semitism was a core pillar of the anti-democratic and illiberal thought that flourished in the 19th century on left and right.
The elephant in the room here is Battini’s treatment of the relationship between the anti-Semitic texts and movements which he analyzes and contemporary expressions of anti-Zionism. Readers hoping for a substantive probing of these connections are advised to look elsewhere, although that isn’t necessarily a criticism. Battini is a historian, and the value of his book lies in his thesis that anti-Semitism was a core pillar of the anti-democratic and illiberal thought that flourished in the 19th century on left and right. But he does choose to address the subject in its contemporary form, and what he has to say is so unsatisfying that one questions why he felt the need to include it at all.
He avoids any examination of the role of the New Left in promoting a ‘new-old anti-Semitism,’ and doesn’t consider the meaning of the anti-Semitic terrorism carried out by non-Arab groups.
Battini is correct when he concludes that anti-Semitism in our time revolves around the notion that “‘Judaism’ is power because Israel is an actual political power and because the American Diaspora is a financial power.” Expressed like this, we can perceive the continuity between the anti-emancipatory anti-Semitism of early capitalism and that which has crystallized in its current, globalized form. Yet his claim that Israel’s “prevarications against the Arab populations of Palestine” act as grist to the mill of today’s propagandists is a lazy and commonplace argument—all the more so as the overall thrust of his book makes clear that there was little correspondence between anti-Semitic theorizing and the actual behavior of Jews.
More specifically, Battini doesn’t recognize the major distinction between regarding Israel as an outpost of U.S. power and regarding Israel—and therefore “Judaism” as a form of power—as its source. And that, as we know only too well, is the favorite obsession of the fools and imbeciles who articulate anti-Semitic ideas in the name of opposing racism—another one of those rare innovations of the anti-Semitic mind, and the subject for a different book.