“The Jewish Question: History of a Marxist Debate” – a review

Enzo Traverso’s The Jewish Question: History of a Marxist Debate was first published in French in 1990.

In this updated and completely revised second edition, Enzo Traverso carefully reconstructs the intellectual debate surrounding the “Jewish Question’ over a century of Marxist thought.

Reviewed here by Deborah Maccoby, it is published by Haymarket Books and is available in the UK at a reduced price of £11.99 from Blackwell’s (delivery free).

The Jewish Question: History of a Marxist Debate,

Enzo Traverso, 2nd Edition, Haymarket Books, 2019, 221pp.

Reviewed by Deborah Maccoby

Like the Talmud, this book is a record of arguments: a debate not between rabbis in the first centuries CE but between Marxists – most of them Jewish – in Central and Eastern Europe between 1843 and 1942. Traverso’s The Jewish Question was first published in 1990; this is the second edition, with a new Preface and an additional chapter called “Post-War Marxism and the Holocaust”.

The original near-century timespan divides Karl Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question”, written in 1843, from Abram Leon’s book The Jewish Question, completed in 1942. And the specific area is chosen for the reason that it was essentially only in Central and Eastern Europe that an internal Marxist debate developed around “the Jewish Question”. Traverso argues that in France debates between Socialists on the subject were “outside Marxism”, instead being part of the opposition between Socialists and anti-Semitic nationalists. And in the United States, Traverso writes, the immigrant working class was still so multinational that there were no problems with a specific Jewish Socialism; hence no debate.

The debate centred on one issue: assimilation. As the inheritors of the Enlightenment, many Marxists believed, in common with many Enlightenment thinkers, that the ultimate goal of the liberation of Jews from discrimination and persecution was the disappearance of Judaism and of the Jews as a people – both considered as a kind of fossilised relic. In fact, the tendency of the classical Marxism portrayed in this book was to view the Jews not in terms of religion and culture at all, but rather as an economic caste.

Traverso begins with Marx’s definition of Jews in 1843 as “Geldmenschen” (“men of money”), whose secular religion was money – a religion that, Marx argued in this essay, had become the basis of bourgeois society in general, so that liberation of society from the domination of money would mean the “real self-emancipation of our time” – i.e. the disappearance of Jews into universal humanity. Traverso argues against the accusation that Marx was an antisemitic self-hater, pointing out that “On the Jewish Question” was a work of Marx’s immaturity; it does not reflect his mature thinking. Marx’s 1843 essay, Traverso argues, should also be seen in historical context; he quotes Hannah Arendt, who wrote that “On the Jewish Question” could only be understood in the light of the conflict between emergent “pariah” Jewish intellectuals such as Marx and Heine and the rich bankers – the “Court Jews”– who still survived as a group at that time; Marx’s attack was really aimed at the “Court Jews”.

Nonetheless, in later chapters, Traverso traces the influence of Marx’s youthful essay on later Marxist concepts of the Jews – concepts that tended towards the perception of Jews as an economic caste. The ultimate expression of this tendency (though blended with contrary opinions) was Abram Leon’s book The Jewish Question. Leon described the Jews as a “people-class”, which had played its real economic part in society before the rise of capitalism, as merchants and later (after the emergence of a Christian merchant bourgeoisie that displaced the Jews) as usurers. Leon argued that the Jews’ economic usefulness had become outdated; as a result, many Western Jews were in the process of assimilating. But, in Traverso’s summing –up of Leon’s thesis:

 “The Jews of the East remained caught between feudalism in decomposition and decadent capitalism….they remained attached to a historically doomed economic function and they could no longer integrate themselves into society. It was this contradiction that produced modern anti-Semitism, transforming the Jews into scapegoats for the economic crisis. This also happened in the West, where the global crisis of capitalism gave a new boost to anti-Semitism; the Nazi regime turned the anti-capitalist hatred of the pauperised petty bourgeoisie against the Jews.”

Traverso strongly criticises Leon’s theory of the “people-class”, pointing out that it is only relevant to Jewish history from the eleventh century CE onwards in Christian Europe, whereas Leon “conceived it as a universal paradigm and projected it on to the entire history of the Jewish Diaspora”. Citing various critiques of the theory, Traverso concludes: “The theory of the people-class fatally appears both mono-causal and inspired with a form of economic determinism”. In his concluding chapter, he writes that “the Jewish Question reveals the blindness of Marxists to the significance of both the religion and the nation in the modern world”. And he points out that perceiving anti-Semitism only in economic terms also blinded Marxists to the real nature of Nazism.

But the book is of course a record of a debate; and, as well as tracing the main Marxist current on the Jewish Question, Traverso focuses on the opposition. In Eastern Europe, most Jews throughout the 1843-1942 period, unlike those in Central Europe, experienced persecution and isolation – with the result that a strong sense of secular national identity developed among many Jewish Marxists. Traverso calls these Marxist Jews “Judeo-Marxists”, to distinguish them from the Jewish Marxists who subscribed to the assimilationist side of the debate. But the Judeo-Marxists had their own internal debate, between the Bund – Jewish Marxists who formed an extra-territorial, Yiddish-speaking secular national identity within Eastern European Marxism — and Zionists, who wanted to forge a Jewish nation in Palestine. Traverso points out that Zionism – which could not provide any real answer to the Jewish Question — was itself a form of assimilation; its central aim was to “normalise” the Jews by making them like all other peoples. And Traverso writes that “Socialist Zionism did not escape the blind alley of European colonialism”; in their turn, Marxist Zionists required the assimilation of the Palestinian Arabs.

On the central debate between the assimilationists and the Judeo-Marxists, Traverso quotes Vladimir Medem, the theoretician of the Bund, criticising “the abstract internationalism of the Bolsheviks” with particular reference at the end to Lenin:

“In order to attract the working-class, the internationalist ideas need to be adapted to the language spoken by the workers and to the concrete national conditions in which they live. Workers should not be indifferent to the conditions and the development of their national culture, for it is only through it that they can participate in the internationalist culture of democracy and the world socialist movement. It is obvious, but V[ladimir] I[lyich] turns a blind eye to all of this”.

This lesson is extremely topical in view of the recent British General Election, in which a right-wing Brexiteer Tory Party in England and Wales and the Scottish National Party in Scotland swept the board. In England and Wales, in my view, the left was defeated mainly because it did not take sufficiently into account the “national culture” of the working-class.

Another opponent of the assimilationists was Walter Benjamin, to whom Traverso devotes a fascinating chapter, explaining his unique, romantic synthesis of Judaism (in particular the Jewish mystical and Messianic tradition), German culture and Marxism. In the other parts of the book, Traverso depicts such a dazzling array of characters and arguments that he doesn’t manage to go into any one thinker in depth, the result being at times too rapid and complex; but here he achieves his own in-depth synthesis of the personal and the intellectual (as he does in the chapter devoted to Abram Leon).

Both Benjamin and Leon died in the Holocaust; Benjamin committed suicide at the Spanish frontier in 1940; while Leon was murdered in Auschwitz at the age of 26 (The Jewish Question was completed when he was 24). In the penultimate chapter, added for the second edition, Traverso discusses various attempts by Marxist thinkers, such as the Frankfurt School, to explain the Holocaust. He concludes that all these Marxist theorists “had abandoned any illusion of historical teleology”; i.e. the Marxist belief – inherited from the Enlightenment – in “the idea of progress in which history was envisaged as a linear development….. the development of productive forces under capitalism growing inevitably closer to the advent of the socialist order”. As Traverso puts it: “the Holocaust demonstrated that economic advancement and technological progress….could be a march towards catastrophe”.

Convincing though Traverso’s critique is of the “abstract internationalism” and economic reductionism of the assimilationists, he seems to me to go too far in the direction of particularity. Despite his discussion of the Jewish Messianism of Walter Benjamin, Traverso never brings out the Jewish dialectical paradox of being a separate nation that is dedicated to universalism – i.e. to the idea of One God and to the indestructible, eternal and universal values that this concept represents. This is surely the central reason for the survival of the Jews as a people for two thousand years; and this surely also helps to explain why so many Jews were attracted to the internationalism of Marxism (Traverso’s view of Judaism as a particularist religion seems to lie behind his dismissal – which I find unconvincing — of the idea that Marx was fundamentally, even if unconsciously, influenced by his Jewish heritage.) Citing Maxime Rodinson, Traverso writes:

“In the Diaspora, Yahweh remained the God of Israel, identified with a people, and it was not possible to participate in his cult without belonging at the same time to his people. In Rodinson’s words: ‘the conjunction in Judaism of religious and ethnic particularisms, inside pluralist societies of weak unifying force, ensured its survival’.” (Italics in original).

As a great monotheistic religion that gave rise to two other great monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, Judaism is surely more than a “cult” (and the name “Yahweh” sounds like a primitive tribal god).

Traverso seems at the end to put his faith in “identity politics” as a substitute for the failed illusions of Marxism. He ignores the controversial nature of “identity politics” that has been pointed out by many critics of the UK’s multiculturalism model: the dangers of social division and fragmentation, as everyone divides into rival oppressed groups. And it is never possible to resolve who within them has the right to speak on behalf of the various oppressed groups. The Board of Deputies has recently provided an excellent illustration of this problem by demanding that the Labour Party “engage with the Jewish community via its main representative groups and not through fringe organisations and individuals”.

But even by disagreeing with Traverso I am entering into the argument that this book stimulates in the reader. This is a rich, complex, fascinating, if at times difficult, intellectual history that brings to life an old debate that is still very topical and relevant today.




Comments (3)

  • RH says:

    ” … in my view, the left was defeated mainly because it did not take sufficiently into account the “national culture” of the working-class.”

    I leave aside the main issues raised in this article just to note how, post-election, every interest group is using Labour’s defeat to fly their own flag over the debris.

    Actually the truth is that, above all, it’s not over-complicated to find an over-arching truth . Not this time ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, but that :

    “It’s the media, stupid”

  • JanP says:

    Response to RH. Not sure if this has anything to do with the above article. Yes, the media played a part. But Brexit divided everyone, political parties, families, communities etc.

  • Deborah Maccoby says:

    [JVL web editor writes: please do not use this book review as the place to have an extended debate about Brexit. It was mentioned in passing in the review and the author is being given this chance to reply. The review was about so many other things besides!]

    On the question of how far Labour’s Brexit policy contributed to Labour’s defeat, I recommend this article by Edmund Griffiths:


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