Jews & Socialism

While Messiah Tarried: Jewish Socialist Movements, 1871-1917.
by Nora Levin.
Schocken. 554 pp. $24.50.

East European Jews and their descendants have historically been quite susceptible to the blandishments of socialism. In the socialist movement Jews could feel themselves members of a “universal” humanity rather than a small and frequently despised people; through socialism, they believed they could escape the disabilities imposed by their particular ethnic and religious origins. Even after the protective cover of socialism had proved illusory—something that happened early on—many Jews were reluctant to abandon it. Instead, they attempted to change it to meet their own needs.

By the end of the 19th century there was a proliferation of parties and groups within the Jewish socialist community, all holding to the basic tenets of socialism but differing on the Jewish question. The Jewish-socialist Bund, for example, agreed with Otto Bauer and Karl Renner that the answer to the nationality problem in a socialist society should be national cultural autonomy within the host country; the Poalei Zion saw the end of persecution only in a return to the ancestral Jewish homeland where socialism could be built and ethnic freedom enhanced; the “territorialists” favored a Jewish-socialist homeland, with or without historical ties; a fourth group of Jewish socialists favored total assimilation into the majority group—the disappearance of the Jewish people and of Judaism in a socialist commonwealth devoid of nationalism in any form.

Nora Levin’s book is primarily historical in its emphasis, discussing in great detail the various movements that waxed and waned during the forty-six years between the first stirrings of Jewish socialism in 1871 and Lenin’s coup d’état in 1917. She does a workmanlike job of describing the complicated network of interrelationships and often bitter rivalries that characterized the Jewish-socialist world during this period. Although there is no scarcity of studies of Jewish socialism, most are limited to specific parties and tendencies; Professor Levin’s work is useful in providing an overall look at the subject and a synthesis of previous scholarship in the field.

Unfortunately, however, there are two major questions to which Professor Levin has failed to address herself: Why did so many East European Jewish intellectuals become socialists? And in what way did they come to modify their basic ideas of socialism and Jewishness?

Some non-Jewish scholars have addressed themselves to the first of these questions, with minimal success. Harry W. Laidler, for example, has argued that socialism is implicit in the Jewish prophetic tradition, especially in the teachings of Amos. But this would hardly explain the socialist upsurge in the Pale of Settlement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period during which atheism and the rejection of biblical teachings were the very foundation stones of Jewish socialism.

It has similarly been argued, following Jean-Paul Sartre, that since Jews were excluded from society, they would naturally ally themselves with the chief antagonists of the social order. This argument, too, is seriously flawed, for the prime antagonist of society at that time was not social democracy, which claimed the largest Jewish adherence, but rather Anarcho-Communism, which numbered relatively few Jews among its supporters.



The Jewish attachment to socialism becomes even harder to understand in view of the anti-Semitism which has historically permeated this movement. The pre-Marxian “utopian” socialists like Fourier, Brisbane, and Proudhon despised Jews no less than did their “scientific” socialist successors, and did riot hesitate to disseminate classical, stereotyped anti-Semitic slanders. Karl Marx himself, the inventor of scientific socialism and a descendant of eminent rabbis, was the author of an anti-Semitic diatribe worthy of an Alfred Rosenberg or a Houston Stewart Chamberlain.

In the American socialist movement, too, hatred of Jews was endemic. Julius Wayland, whose Appeal to Reason was the leading molder of socialist opinion from 1900 to 1917, blamed virtually all of the sufferings of American workers and farmers on “Jew bankers,” and August Spies, who died on the gallows for the 1886 Haymarket bombings, wrote anti-Semitic articles in which he blamed Polish Jews for the poverty and degradation of American coal miners. As late as 1932, anti-Semitism played a significant role in the attempt to unseat Morris Hillquit as the American Socialist party’s national chairman. Even those socialists who were not overtly antagonistic toward Jews refused to express their opposition to anti-Semitism openly for fear that workers would be alienated and the socialist vote might decline.



Many of the Jewish socialists, moreover, knew about the anti-Semitism in the movement’s ranks, and did nothing about it. Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Yiddish socialist Forward, was a delegate to the 1891 congress of the Socialist International at which Paul Agyriades of the French left-wing Parti ouvrier socialists revolutionaire delivered himself of a tirade against philo-Semitism and persuaded his fellow socialists to remain silent in the face of Czarist outrages. For more than thirty-five years thereafter Cahan declined so much as to mention this tirade or the International’s failure to speak out. Nor was Cahan’s silence unique. Almost all of the socialist intellectuals had read Marx’s Zur Judenfrage and the letters in which he characterized his opponents as “nigger Jews.” Many of these intellectuals were Jews, yet their silence on the subject was deafening. And despite Marx’s overt anti-Semitism, his portrait continued to decorate Bund, Hashomer Hatsair, Workmen’s Circle, and Farband meeting halls and schools.

Jews lent their considerable intellectual and organizational talents to socialist movements in both Europe and the United States and helped them achieve some modicum of political and intellectual respectability. In Czarist Russia, the Bund gave the Social Democratic Workers party its only mass-based section—the non-Jewish segment of the party was minuscule. In the United States, Morris Hillquit, a Latvian Jew, and Louis Boudin, a Russian-born Jew, gave the Socialist party whatever intellectual base it could claim. Victor Berger, an East European Jew born in Galicia (though he was thought by all to be a German), was the Socialist party’s only effective political organizer. And of the three most consistent socialist districts in the United States, two were Jewish—Brooklyn’s Brownsville and the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

It was not only that many Jews became socialists; they also remained loyal to socialism long after their non-Jewish fellow believers had turned away. Even after the Communist International hailed the Arab pogroms in Palestine in 1929, large numbers of Jews remained loyal to that illegitimate offspring of the socialist movement.



Why? It would seem that no serious work purporting to be a study of Jewish socialist movements can avoid the questions of why so many Jews frequently went against their own national self-interest in order to work for the “emancipation” of an antagonistic mankind. But Professor Levin scarcely confronts this question. Though she does acknowledge socialist anti-Semitism, she fails in more than 500 pages to come to grips with the problem. This failure may be due in part to the author’s own credulity about socialism. She accepts at face value all the myths that have surrounded socialism, and never questions the assumptions that socialists were animated by totally altruistic motives. Nowhere does she examine the psychological probability that Jewish socialists may have been as desirous of escaping from the disabilities inherent in being a Jew, or of achieving personal power, as they were of achieving universal salvation.

Nor does Professor Levin fully examine the actual achievements of the East European Jewish socialists. Admittedly some of them were instrumental in forming major labor organizations in the United States, but the halcyon days of these unions came after their leaders had abandoned the myth of socialism. Admittedly too, the socialist Zionists were instrumental in creating today’s Israel, but they too achieved that feat only after they had recognized that the national impulse was more important than the universalist ideology which they had proclaimed. The Israel which the Poalei Zion helped develop has little to do with the socialism preached by Ber Borochov or his intellectual heirs.



Professor Levin has also made a few errors of fact and emphasis, more annoying than significant, perhaps, but symptomatic of the book’s failings. She calls Abraham Cahan a labor leader, which he never was; she denigrates the role of non-Jewish socialists in the Jewish labor movement; she misinterprets the American socialist debate on immigration between 1907 and 1912; she devotes more than twenty pages to Borochov, whose actual influence on the Zionist movement was more apparent than real, and makes only passing reference to Berl Katznelson, whose influence on Labor Zionism from 1909 to 1944 was immense. Most important, she makes too frequent use of secondary sources that are at times little more than fictional works passing as history. For her discussion of American socialism, for example, Professor Levin cites Ira Kipnis’s The American Socialist Movement, 1897-1912, the least substantial of the histories of the party, and the same is true of a good number of her other sources. A more extensive use of primary materials might have led the author to ask the pertinent questions which could have made this a major work. As it is, the book is creditable but seriously flawed.

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