Book Review: The Jewish Question

Enzo Traverso,
The Jewish Question: History of a Marxist Debate (Brill, 2019)

Reviewed by Chamsy el-Ojeili, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand


(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version forthcoming in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)


Written in the second half of the 1980s as a doctoral thesis under the supervision of Michael Lowy, and first published in French in 1990, Traverso frames this revised second edition of The Jewish Question as both a “study in Marxist self-criticism” and “a history of Jewish self-interpretation”, as an exploration of “a symbiotic relationship between a theory and an intellectual minority”, and as a “story of crossing heresies” (p. xi). This story takes place over a century, from Marx’s 1843 On the Jewish Question, to markers such as Leon Abram’s The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation (completed in late 1942), the Warsaw uprising, the Holocaust, and its setting is Eastern and Central Europe. After the war, the story ends, a rupture occurs, in which “Jewish culture became less and less Marxist and, conversely, Marxism became less and less Jewish” (p. xviii), the Nazis erasing Yiddishland and Jewish socialism, and the Jewish question shifting to Palestine.

The story, for the most part, is tragic, a tale of Marxist “misunderstanding” (p. 216), or, perhaps more accurately, failure, a failure to properly come to grips with modern anti-Semitism, to recognize and empathize with Jewish aspirations to a distinct identity, to visualize the importance of religion and nation – all of these shortcomings bound up with the “illusions of a teleological vision of history” (p. 220). This is perhaps clearest within Second International Marxist orthodoxy, following faithfully some of the paths already taken in the writings of Marx (“The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism” (p. 18)) and Engels (anti-Semitism as “the reaction of the feudal, declining social layers against modern society” (p. 27)), and captured in Kautsky’s declaration that “the Jewish nation can only triumph by disappearing” (p. 5).

In Central Europe, socialism contained a strong Jewish presence (Jews constituting about 10 per cent of the German socialist movement), and especially attractive to Jewish intellectuals, whose experience of marginalization and discrimination pushed them to “think and act against the current” (p. 33), but also against their fathers. In Germany, “this Jewish intelligentsia was at the same time assimilated, nourished by German culture and rejected by anti-Semitism” (p. 34), living in a no-man’s land, and predisposed because of “identity dilemmas” (p. xii) towards avant-garde movements, especially the universalistic, emancipatory project of socialism. As anti-Semitism began to grow in the late nineteenth century, Marxists responded – Adler in 1887, Kautsky in 1890, Mehring in 1891, Bebel in 1893. Here, anti-Semitism tended to be viewed “as a form of social backwardness that was doomed to disappear with economic development” (p. 63). Excluded in these analyses is what, for Traverso, is pivotal – the possibility of a modern anti-Semitism, the existence of “reactionary modernism”. On the other side, the orthodox Marxist response to the birth of Zionism was to curtly dismiss it as a “new, somewhat bizarre form of Jewish nationalism” (p. 64). In Bauer, as in the rest of the Marxist mainstream, the problematic of assimilation dominated, despite his more thoughtful consideration of the national question, because the Jews did not constitute a proper nation in the Centre and West, and, in the East, the dissolution of a Jewish community of destiny was already in motion. Kautsky came to similar conclusions – at times, defining Jews as a caste rather than a nation, at other moments speaking of the dissolution of Jewish nation-ness (territory and language) – seeing assimilation as a ineluctable part of the march of history: the Jew, says Kautsky, “disappears where he is treated as free and equal” (p. 78).

The situation of Jews in the East was completely different. If we find a certain homogeneity among Jewish Marxists in Central Europe – “assimilated and assimilationist, of bourgeois origin, Aufklarer, for the most part indifferent not only to religion but also to the Jewish cultural heritage” (p. 51) – the same cannot be said of the East, where heterogeneity was key: “assimilated and Yiddish speaking; assimilationists, partisans of Jewish national autonomy, and even Zionists; the offspring of rich families but in most cases of lower middle class extraction; finally, cosmopolitan, because of tsarist persecution or displacement through Jewish emigration” (p. 52). Pogroms, the concentration of the Jewish proletariat in certain sectors, the flowering of Yiddish literature, expulsion of Jews from the university 1887-1905, the disintegration of the traditional structures of Jewish life – in the East, such factors shaped a number of distinctive Marxist Jewish trajectories. In dealing with this heterogeneity, Traverso suggests a five-fold typology of Eastern Jewish Marxist intellectuals: Bundists, socialist Zionists, assimilated Jews of Russian social democracy, red Cosmopolitan Jews, assimilated leaders of Polish social democracy.

In Lenin’s approach, we find “contradictory oscillation” (p. 82) – in 1903, Jews do not form a separate nation, in 1905, they are a “nationality deprived of all rights” (Lenin p. 82). In his 1913 treatment of the national question, Stalin suggests that Jews had never formed a nation, while he “joked” in private about the need to organize a pogrom to eliminate the “Jewish faction” of the Bolsheviks. Until the 1930s, Trotsky, although often flexible, largely followed Lenin, viewing anti-Semitism as an Eastern vestige of feudalism. Luxemburg, meanwhile, especially hostile to any hint of nationalism beyond the realms of spiritual and cultural identity, saw assimilation as both a goal and a historical tendency (“for the disciples of Marx and for the working class a Jewish question as such does not exist” (p. 10)), but framed anti-Semitism as both modern (one face of capitalist barbarism) and archaic. Across these Eastern social democratic thinkers, above all, assimilation was “deliverance” and, in all cases, we find a “complete lack of references to the concrete life of the Jewish communities of Russia” (p. 99).

Things are very different in the case of what Traverso calls Eastern European “Judeo-Marxism”, the main expressions of which were socialist Zionism (Ber Borokhov) and Bundism (Vladimir Medem). The social background of Judeo-Marxism was “a structurally marginal and ethnically homogeneous proletariat with the cultural background of an extraterritorial national minority” (p. 102). 1905 is a turning point – the year the Bund adopted a programme of cultural national autonomy and in which socialist Zionism was born. Traverso provides compelling detail on the shape of the Jewish proletariat of the time, and on the interactions between the Bund and Russian social democracy – Plekhanov, for instance, characterizing the Bundists as “Zionists with seasickness” (p. 106). Medem, the first Marxist to reject assimilation as a goal, arguing for Jewish national-cultural, rather than territorial autonomy, fervently rejected such associations, viewing Zionism as a reactionary “national mirage”. Within socialist Zionism, which did seek a territorial solution to the Jewish question, only Borokhov can be plausibly described as a Marxist. Creatively developing the Marxian focus on production to include historical conditions of production, encompassing culture and worldviews, Borokhov insisted on the possibility of healthy proletarian forms of nationalism. If, in this, and in his valuation of Yiddish, we see a creative break from orthodox Marxian thinking on the Jewish question, Borokhov’s territorial solution in Palestine, says Traverso, uncritically converged with imperial European imaginings of colonizable spaces and peoples in the non-European world.

Hobsbawm has noted the triple impact on Jews of the collapse of the pre-1914 bourgeois world, 1917, and anti-Semitism. In an intermezzo chapter, Traverso touches on this matrix, focussing on Jews and the Bolshevik Revolution. Here, he underscores a central paradox – that almost half of the members of the Petrograd Soviet Bureau in April 1917 were Jews, while the Pale of Settlement remained at the margins of the revolutionary wave. It was during the Civil War that Jews moved in real numbers towards the Soviet regime, under the pressure of White anti-Semitism – the Bund declaring in 1919, “the Red Army is our army” (p. 130). Faced with such counter-revolutionary anti-Semitism and with a Bolshevik regime that took Emancipation as its symbol and adopted legislation against anti-Semitism, the choice for Jews, says Traverso, was an easy one, and Jews began entering the state apparatus, universities, liberal professions, and industrial proletariat on a mass scale. And, in the decade that followed, before Stalin’s reversion to Great Russian nationalism, state policy was relatively accommodating to national and cultural (if not religious) autonomy, with 831 Yiddish schools operating in the Ukraine alone, by the early 1930s.

If there are some salutary lessons arising from 1917 and its aftermath, the chapter that follows on the German Left in the interwar period resumes the story of Marxian failure on the Jewish question, with the crushing of post-War revolutionary risings and a new wave of anti-Semitism, which neither the SPD nor the KPD managed to come to grips with. Entertaining dialogue with the Nazis early-on, and sometimes aligning with the fascists against the SPD in the “social fascism” interlude, the KPD’s judgement of the situation was often appalling, Ruth Fisher contending, “Whoever struggles against Jewish capital … is already a class fighter, even if he does not know it… Shoot down the Jew-capitalists, hang them from the lampposts, crush them!” (p. 145). For the Marxists of both parties, anti-Semitism tended to be read as a merely superstructural expression of a fundamentally economic phenomenon (a mystifying diversion from conscious class struggle), and, cheek-by-jowl, as a feudal legacy (or, in Gramsci’s variation, as having its source in the Catholic Church), and, therefore, “not as a possible face of modernity” (p. 142). Similarly, the mass movement quality of fascism was neglected across the board. This is true, too, of less orthodox thinkers, such as Neumann, Marcuse, Bloch, and Guerin (fascism as diverting “the anticapitalism of the masses towards the Jews” (p. 152)). It is the case also with Abram Leon’s work, which, for all of its precocity (Leon died at Auschwitz at 26), ambition, and erudition – thinking the Jews as a people-class, seeking to periodize Jewish history, positing anti-Semitism as rooted in particular modern crisis conditions – remains mono-causal and economically determinist. Leon can be viewed, says Traverso, as the last representative of the traditional Marxian vision of assimilation as historical tendency and progress.

More interesting, for Traverso, is the later work of Trotsky, who came to see anti-Semitism as a malignant convulsion of “capitalism’s death agony” (p. 156), foreseeing “the physical extermination of the Jews” (p. 157), and thus breaking from the assumptions of positivist, evolutionist Marxism. Walter Benjamin, too, provides a very different sensibility, in seeking to join Marxism and Jewish theology, revolution and restoration, in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, and in his critique of technological progress as an instrument of domination. After the Second World War, Lowenthal, Horkheimer and Adorno, Anders, and Marcuse develop some of Benjamin’s themes, breaking a more general European silence on Auschwitz, while Mandel, from the Trotskyist tradition, connected the Holocaust with imperialism, as a fusion between modern racism and the destructive technology of a developed industrial society. (Traverso also mentions Postone’s analysis, built on conceptual elaboration of commodity fetishism, but leaves this strangely under-elaborated.)

The Jewish Question undoubtedly accomplishes Traverso’s aim of reconstructing a historical debate, and more. In doing so, the work illuminates both the diversity of the Marxian tradition and the crucial shortcomings of Marxist orthodoxy. It also very richly sets the scene of the debate, with rich detail and a great wealth of explanatory daring. Perhaps, at times, the book rather overflows with bold suggestions that cannot, for reasons of space, be developed – for instance, Traverso’s notes on the contrasting situation facing Jews in Western Europe, or his observation of the disproportionate Jewish belonging to heretical Marxist currents. The symbiosis between Marxism and Jews might be broken, but the debate remains compelling and important in wider ways – Marxism’s failures, here, as an aspect of broader failures in European thought, around nation, religion, and anti-Semitism, or the lines of connection between the issues Traverso touches and the more recent return of the far-Right. Finally, the book is of significant interest, too, in understanding Traverso’s subsequent trajectory – with notable book-length treatments of Jewish modernity, the origins of Nazi violence, the European Civil War, and Left memory – which, while breaking with older forms of economic primacy and functionalism, and foregrounding culture in the widest sense, remains loyal to the continuation and creative development of the Marxian tradition, motivated, crucially, by the explanatory “black hole” of Auschwitz.

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