Hobson’s “Imperialism” revisited – some critical comments

JVL Introduction

Prof David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, returns to the debate around Jeremy Corbyn and J.A. Hobson’s Imperialism in History Workshop Online, reposted on the JVL website here. (For earlier postings on JVL see here and here).

Here we provide an exclusive response from Prof Donald Sassoon, in which he  discusses the nature of the antisemitism prevalent at the time.

The thrust of Feldman’s argument seems to us to assume that Labour has a special “antisemitism problem”, different from, more intense than, and specific to the Labour Party and the left. Richard Kuper provides a few thoughts about his general approach.

Response to David Feldman

Prof Donald Sassoon, for JVL web
14 June 2019

So now we know that Daniel Finkelstein’s and Jonathan Freedland’s ‘discovery’ that Hobson’s book on imperialism is ‘deeply antisemitic’ was sparked by a short article by David Feldman –just in case anyone believed that their attack on Corbyn’s introduction was based on any knowledge or reading of Hobson. Their intention was to continue their ridiculous campaign on Corbyn’s anti-Semitism.

Feldman then points out that it was ridiculous on my part to suggest that no-one ever pointed out the antisemitic aspects of Hobson’s imperialism. My context was simple: Hobson’s Imperialism was about imperialism, not Jews, was about finance capital, was about the limited benefits of imperialism. In those ten lines, now so well quoted, he links finance with some Jews, namely the Rothschilds. Anyone reading only Finkelstein or Freedland or Feldman would think that the purpose Hobson’s book (400 pages) was to blame imperialism on the Jews. This is simply wrong.

Well before the current, kerfuffle I wrote, as part of my forthcoming book on capitalism between 1860 and 1914 the following text (the book is coming out at the end of June, the passage was written a few years ago) which tried to set the scene of the kind of antisemitism prevailing at the time. I quote the now famous quote by Hobson in what I think is the right, from a scholarly point of view, context which, in this case, is not the alleged antisemitism of the book, but a vague antisemitism which was far from being associated with the left, in fact it was a characteristic of the right – and I provide examples of books which could rightly be called antisemitic because their focus is on Jews.

Here is my text (a couple of pages in a 750 page book):


The anti-Semitism increasingly espoused in Europe was neither of the old Christian form nor of the new pseudo-scientific variety, though it used whatever argument was available. Its real strength was in its connection with nascent forms of demotic nationalism, what Carl Schorske called ‘politics in a new key’.[1] Modern political anti-Semitism became one of the features of this new politics. Some of the Jews reacted by turning toward Zionist separatism.

Migrants are often disliked, and successful migrants are disliked even more. The Jews suffered as did other ‘non-national’ minorities, such as the Germans, the Greeks, and the Armenians in the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Tsarist empires, and later the Chinese in much of South-East Asia, and the Gujurati Indians in East Africa.

Abuse came from all quarters. The august journal of the Jesuits, Civiltà cattolica, virtually the unofficial organ of the Pope, launched regular tirades against the Jews, such as this one in 1880:

….the Jews – eternal insolent children, obstinate, dirty, thieves, liars, ignoramuses, pests and the scourge of those near and far – immediately abused [their newfound freedom] to interfere with that of others. They managed to lay their hands on . . . all public wealth . . . and virtually alone they took control not only of all the money . . . but of the law itself in those countries where they have been allowed to hold public offices.[2]

Leading intellectuals espoused similar views. Antoine Blanc de Saint-Bonnet, a reactionary philosopher, in Restauration française (1851) blamed the Jews for inventing commerce.[3] The more radical and certainly more liberal Werner Sombart (later he was ambivalent about Nazism) in The Jews and Economic Life (Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben, 1911) denounced Jewish money and (contra Max Weber) maintained that Judaism was even more suited to capitalism than Protestantism.[4] Édouard Drumont, founder of the Antisemitic League of France (1889) and author of the best-selling La France juive (1886), explained that the Jew, an ‘instinctive’ merchant, will not miss an opportunity to cheat his fellows. Fortunately, Drumont continued, one could always recognize ‘the Jew’ by the ‘famous nose’, the ears sticking out, one arm shorter than the other, the flat feet, ‘the moist and soft hand of the hypocrite and the traitor’ (la main moelleuse et fondante de l’hypocrite et du traitre); and, of course, they smell.[5] The success of La France juive was considerable, also because the kind of generic anti-Semitism it promoted was widely accepted. It did not even provoke the consternation of socialists, not even that of Jean Jaurès, who became the leader, in 1902, of the French Socialist Party.[6] The nationalist historian Heinrich von Treitschke declared that Jews ‘bear a heavy responsibility for the vile materialism of our time’.[7] Just as alarmed was Theodor Fritsch, author of Die Juden im Handel und das Geheimnis ihrer Erfolgen (The Jews in Commerce and the Secret of their Success, 1913).[8] Paul de Lagarde, a German scholar of the Orient, who, it must be said, hated almost everyone – Catholics, liberals, moderate Protestants, Bismarck, and Imperial Germany – regarded the Jews as the agents of a ‘gigantic conspiracy aimed at the heart of Germany’.[9] Some socialists too, for instance Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Charles Fourier, manifested anti-Semitic sentiments.[10] The great social reformers, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, writing in 1897, held the view (then almost banal, now somewhat eccentric) that the ‘races’ of wage earners could be divided into three groups: ‘the Anglo-Saxon skilled artisan’, who will ‘not work below a customary minimum standard of life; the Negro who will work for low wages, but who will not work at all ‘once their primitive wants are satisfied’; and, finally, the Jew, who ‘will accept the lowest terms rather than remain out of employment’, but then, as he ‘rises in the world’ and acquires new wants, ‘no amount of income causes him to slacken his indefatigable activity’. And this is why they explained that Jewish workers are ‘the poorest in all Europe’, whilst individual Jews are ‘the wealthiest men of their respective countries’.[11] A race-based view of the world was exceedingly common.

In many quarters, the sinister power of the Jews was discerned behind that of the bankers in a common trope that united anti-Semites of all political stripes. Thus the Proudhonian and anti-clerical socialist Auguste Chirac produced a diatribe against the Jews in his 1883 Les Rois de la république, targeting, as usual, Rothschild, ‘the man, the race, who today exercise . . . a kingly power . . . not in the general interest but in his own exclusive interest’.[12] The liberal anti-imperialist J. A. Hobson was similarly impressed by the alleged powers of the Rothschilds. In his Imperialism (1902) he wrote that European finance was controlled ‘chiefly by men of a single and peculiar race, who have behind them many centuries of financial experience’, that they were ‘in a unique position to control the policy of nations’, and that no ‘great war could be undertaken by any European State, or a great State loan subscribed, if the house of Rothschild and its connections set their face against it?’[13] The obsession with the occult powers of Rothschild had, like many obsessions, only a relative connection with reality. Jews were certainly disproportionately represented in French banking and the more famous big bankers were Jews of German extraction who had acquired aristocratic titles: Baron Jacques de Reinach, Baron Erlanger, Baron Maximilien Königswarter, Count Cahen d’Anvers, Jacques de Günzburg (of Russian origin) and, of course, the Rothschilds.[14] However, the largest banks were truly ‘old French’, banks such as the Crédit Lyonnais, founded in 1863, which by 1900 had become the largest bank in the world.[15] Besides the Rothschilds (whose power had much diminished towards the end of the century) there were other important banking families, not all Jewish, for instance the Hope & Co, a bank founded by Scots and based in Amsterdam, and the Anglo-German Baring Bank. Historically, Jews had very little to do with the invention of banking. Italians were the founders of arguably the world’s oldest bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena (1472), while Berenberg Bank was founded in Hamburg in 1590, by Protestants fleeing persecution in the Low Countries.

On the whole Jews were safest under Islam. In medieval Islam there were no special laws for Jews as there were in Christendom and Jews under Islam were in a better economic position than in medieval Christendom.[16] In the nineteenth century, under the Ottoman Empire, there were numerous attacks on Jews accused of ritual murder but they ‘almost invariably originated among the Christian population’ and the Jews were usually protected by the authorities.[17]

[1] Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, p. 116 and the whole of Chapter 3.

[2] David Kertzer, The Popes against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism, Knopf, New York 2001, pp. 136–7.

[3] Antoine Blanc de Saint-Bonnet, La Restauration française. Mémoire présenté au clergé et à l’aristocratie, Hervé Editeur, Paris 1851, pp. 45–7, 234.

[4] Werner Sombart, The Jews and Modern Capitalism, Transaction Books, New Brunswick and London 1997, pp. 188 and 248.

[5] Édouard Drumont, La France Juive, vol. 1, Éditions du Trident. La Librarie Française, Paris 1986, pp. 19, 34.

[6] Michel Winock, La France et les Juifs, Seuil, Paris 2004, p. 91.

[7] David Blackbourn, The Fontana History of Germany, 1780–1918, Fontana Press, London 1997, p. 308.

[8] Muller, The Mind and the Market, p. 255.

[9] Fritz R. Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology, University of California Press 1974, p. 61.

[10] Roberto Finzi, Anti-Semitism: From its European Roots to the Holocaust, Interlink Books, Northampton, MD 1999, p. 20.

[11] Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Industrial Democracy, Longman, Green & Co., London 1902 (first published 1897), pp. 697–8.

[12] Auguste Chirac, Les rois de la république. Histoire de Juiveries, Dentu, Paris 1888, p. 135 (new edition).

[13] J. A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study, James Pott and Co., New York 1902, p. 64.

[14] Jean-Yves Mollier and Jocelyne George, La plus longue des républiques, 1870–1940, Fayard, Paris 1994, pp. 129–30, 154.

[15] Pierre Birnbaum, ‘Le role limité des juifs dans l’industrialisation de la société francaise’, in Les Juifs et l’économique, ed. Alain Médam and Pierre-Jacques Rojtman, PUM, Toulouse 1992, pp. 174–5.

[16] Mark R. Cohen, ‘Medieval Jewry in the World of Islam’, in The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies, eds Martin Goodman, Jeremy Cohen and David Jan Sorkin, Oxford University Press 2002, pp. 198–200.

[17] Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam, Princeton University Press 2016, p. 158.

Richard Kuper writes:

Like every other reader, I imagine, I am shocked by the things Feldman cites Hobson as writing about Jews, and the way many of these ideas resonated in parts of the Liberal and Labour Left at the time. It should be taken for granted that I condemn them, but I’m stating it anyway since failing to denounce antisemitism at every turn is, nowadays in Britain, often taken as apologising for, or enabling, it.

Such indeed is the crime Jeremy Corbyn is accused of by Finkelstein and others who followed in his footsteps, captured so well in the headline to Jonathan Freedland’s article Jeremy Corbyn is either blind to antisemitism – or he just doesn’t care. And in case anyone misses out on the egregious crime Corbyn has committed it is spelt out in the standfirst: “Labour’s leader may claim he didn’t see the racism in JA Hobson’s book. But can the party indulge that delusion?”

I want to make four points in relation to Feldman’s argument

1. I was surprised that Feldman did not explain how Hobson’s work on finance capital became a staple of left and anti-imperialist analysis. This was through the way it was taken up, providing the analytical framework for one of the most popular texts of the C20, Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. It is through that work that Hobson was known to generations of socialists in the last century.

In that work Jews are not mentioned. Not once. And the name Rothschild appears but once, accompanied by that of Rockefeller. It – like the Hobson book Lenin drew on so heavily – was an attempt to analyse finance capital. It focused on the system, and not the individuals who happened to be the finance capitalists. As Feldman recognises, Hobson “could have done without it [antisemitism]…” His “concern for the many not the few, his attack on finance capital and his opposition to Zionism, were not inherently antisemitic positions…”

No-one denies that for Hobson they “became [so] at different points in his career”. But not in any serious way in Imperialism, nor in the left tradition that descended via Lenin’s use of Imperialism… (If anyone suggests that Lenin was a closet antisemite they might care to read his 1919 speech on anti-Jewish pogroms – below.

2. So what is the problem Feldman is setting out to explain? It’s not clear to me, but I think he takes it for granted that there is a widespread problem of antisemitism on the left. Even before we get to Hobson we are told about “the venom directed against Jews and discharged by some Labour Party member, candidates and councillors…” and the “noisy insouciance of some leftists in the face of this evidence…”. What evidence? I want to scream, how widespread? does it stack up? and much more (and following the links Feldman provides does nothing to convince me of the scale, persistence or deep-rootedness of the problem he claims to be identifying).

So many of the accusations of alleged antisemitism do not stack up. See Journalists, check your evidence on antisemitism! for a general analysis of the statistics together with detail on the innumerable cases of misrepresentation of claims of antisemitism from the Oxford University Labour Club furore onwards (on which see Jamie Stern-Weiner Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t got an ‘antisemitism problem’. His opponents do.) Also Stern-Weiner’s piece in October 2017 Labour Conference  or Nuremberg Rally? Assessing the Evidence and the literally dozens of articles on the subject posted in the JVL website. And on the failure of mainstream media see Justin Schlosberg’s Labour, antisemitism and the news – a Media Reform Coalition report…

And once again to avoid misrepresentation, I have to add – and even stress – that yes, there are cases of antisemitism of the classic kind on the left and in the Labour party; that it would be surprising in a mass party of over half-a-million people it there weren’t. What we need – and what has not been forthcoming – is evidence that it is more widespread or pernicious in the Labour party than elsewhere in society

3. Assuming with vestigial evidence at best that “the problem” takes the form it does, leads Feldman to search for an explanation overwhelmingly in the notion of “political culture”.

“Political culture”, he writes, “is a sedimented thing; layers build over time. It brings into view the Labour movement’s past and how it resonates today.”

That is all very well, as far as it goes. But layers erode, as well as building up, and something found to exist today may have its roots in something that existed a hundred years ago and more. Or it may not.

The links have to be shown, not intuited, as Feldman seems to do. For example: “[t]here isn’t a simple straight line that leads us from Hobson to the present”” is followed immediately by “Nevertheless, antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism and the representation of the powerful and monied “few” as Jews, recur within the left.”

The only response I can make is “Yes, but…”. How much? How widespread? How important? How embedded? There is little recognition here that “antisemitism”, even when it is real which it is not to be taken for granted, has also become politicised, a great stick to beat the leadership of the Labour party with. [Feldman recognises that “antisemitism served a political function” in Hobson’s day, mobilising support among the newly enfranchised electorate; but what is its function today? It is rather easier to identify a function for allegations of antisemitism today, which makes it essential not to accept at face value almost evidence-free assertions about its presence and extent.]

4. Finally, how to deal with Feldman’s “problem’ (whatever it is).

I confess I don’t understand Feldman’s distinction when he says: “Antisemitism is too often seen as a political problem to be faced down rather than an ethical problem to be confronted.” Neither option for dealing with it seems likely to be of much use.

Yes, Labour sometimes talk as though antisemitism can be eliminated by showing “zero tolerance”. But it is especially bodies which claim misleadingly to speak for “the Jewish community” or “Jews in the Labour party” like the Board of Deputies of the Jewish Labour Movement that insist on the need to face it down with “zero tolerance” (by which they mean the implied guilt of anyone accused of antisemitism, without investigation, due process, evidence or proportionality). And, with “antisemitism” extended to include criticisms of Israel that others judge go too far, nothing would better guarantee the devaluing of any serious campaign against antisemitism. For if everything is antisemitic, none of it will be felt to matter…

But “an ethical approach” is not the answer either. Such an approach immediately turns into a moral condemnation of racism in all its forms (I’ll raise a toast to that) but very often includes an inability to make any distinctions between kinds and degrees of racism and, more importantly, ways of dealing with the problems identified, in which education surely has a primary role to play (see, for example, Dialogue and Retribution – Rethinking Labour’s Disciplinary Methods).

What we need is indeed a political approach, but one conceived in the round. This would involve a combination of proper disciplinary procedures, still not in place despite the acceptance of the Chakrabarti principles some years ago now (see Warning: avoid entrapment by Labour Party questionnaire), combined with a thoroughly open political discussion in which the history and the nature of antisemitism (as well as the conflict between Israel and Palestine, without the danger of being accused of conflation) can be explored. Just as was recently been called for by Peter Hain and Daniel Levy who say, correctly, that “a procedural solution cannot resolve what is primarily a political problem”.

Speech by Lenin’s March 1919 ‘On Anti-Jewish Pogroms’,  (in Collected Works, Vol. 29)

Anti-Semitism means spreading enmity towards the Jews. When the accursed tsarist monarchy was living its last days it tried to incite ignorant workers and peasants against the Jews. The tsarist police, in alliance with the landowners and the capitalists, organised pogroms against the Jews. The landowners and capitalists tried to divert the hatred of the workers and peasants who were tortured by want against the Jews. In other countries, too, we often see the capitalists fomenting hatred against the Jews in order to blind the workers, to divert their attention from the real enemy of the working people, capital. Hatred towards the Jews persists only in those countries where slavery to the landowners and capitalists has created abysmal ignorance among the workers and peasants. Only the most ignorant and downtrodden people can believe the lies and slander that are spread about the Jews. This is a survival of ancient feudal times, when the priests burned heretics at the stake, when the peasants lived in slavery, and when the people were crushed and inarticulate. This ancient, feudal ignorance is passing away; the eyes of the people are being opened.

It is not the Jews who are the enemies of the working people. The enemies of the workers are the capitalists of all countries. Among the Jews there are working people, and they form the majority. They are our brothers, who, like us, are oppressed by capital; they are our comrades in the struggle for socialism. Among the Jews there are kulaks, exploiters and capitalists, just as there are among the Russians, and among people of all nations. The capitalists strive to sow and foment hatred between workers of different faiths, different nations and different races. Those who do not work are kept in power by the power and strength of capital. Rich Jews, like rich Russians, and the rich in all countries, are in alliance to oppress, crush, rob and disunite the workers.

Shame on accursed tsarism which tortured and persecuted the Jews. Shame on those who foment hatred towards the Jews, who foment hatred towards other nations.

Long live the fraternal trust and fighting alliance of the workers of all nations in the struggle to overthrow capital.

Comments (1)

  • The real problem of much of this is that Feldman’s article in the Jewish Chronicle begs the question ‘why’ – why now? this is an attempt by an academic to ingratiate himself with the Jewish establishment. Not once is there any analysis of antisemitism today compared with a century ago when left antisemitism could be said to exist.

    [This comment has been edited – web editor]

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