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Vol. 74/No. 7      February 22, 2010

The historic roots of
Jew-hatred: A Marxist view
(Books of the Month column)
Printed below is an excerpt from The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation by Abram Leon, a leader of the communist movement in Nazi-occupied Belgium in the early 1940s. In a scientific study of Jewish history from the Roman era to World War II, Leon traces the historical rationalizations of anti-Semitism to the fact that Jews—in the centuries preceding the domination of industrial capitalism—were forced to become a “people-class” of merchants and moneylenders. He explains how in times of social crisis renewed Jew-hatred is incited by the capitalists to mobilize reactionary forces against the labor movement and disorient the middle classes and layers of working people about the true source of their impoverishment. In 1944, at the age of 26, Leon was arrested by Nazi police and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp where he was executed in the gas chambers. Copyright © 1970 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

The Jews lived within the pores of feudal society. When the feudal structure started to crumble, it began expelling elements which were, at one and the same time, foreign to it and indispensable to it. Even before the peasant had left the village for the industrial center, the Jew had abandoned the small medieval town in order to emigrate to the great cities of the world. The destruction of the secular function of Judaism within feudal society is accompanied by its passive penetration into capitalist society.

But if capitalism has given humanity certain tremendous conquests, only its disappearance can allow humanity to enjoy them. Only socialism will be able to lift humanity to the level of the material bases of civilization. But capitalism survives and all the enormous acquisitions turn more and more against the most elementary interests of humanity.

The progress of technology and science has become the progress of the science of death and its technology. The development of the means of production is nothing but the growth of the means of destruction. The world, become too small for the productive apparatus built up by capitalism, is constricted even further by the desperate efforts of each imperialism to extend its sphere of influence. While unbridled export constitutes an inseparable phenomenon of the capitalist mode of production, decaying capitalism tries to get along without it, that is to say, it adds to its disorders the disorder of its own suppression.

Powerful barriers impede the free circulation of merchandise and men. Insurmountable obstacles arise before the masses deprived of work and bread following the breakdown of the traditional feudal world. The decay of capitalism has not only accelerated the decomposition of feudal society but has multiplied a hundredfold the sufferings which resulted from it. The bearers of civilization, in a blind alley, bar the road to those who wish to become civilized. Unable to attain civilization, the latter are still less able to remain in the stage of barbarism. To the peoples whose traditional bases of existence it has destroyed, capitalism bars the road of the future after having closed the road of the past.

It is with these general phenomena that the Jewish tragedy of the twentieth century is tied up. The highly tragic situation of Judaism in our epoch is explained by the extreme precariousness of its social and economic position. The first to be eliminated by decaying feudalism, the Jews were also the first to be rejected by the convulsions of dying capitalism. The Jewish masses find themselves wedged between the anvil of decaying feudalism and the hammer of rotting capitalism.


Capitalism destroyed feudal society, and with it the function of the Jewish people-class. History doomed this people-class to disappearance; and thus the Jewish problem arose. The Jewish problem is the problem of adapting Judaism to modern society, of liquidating the heritage bequeathed to humanity by feudalism.

For centuries Judaism was a social organism within which social and national elements were closely intermingled. The Jews are far from constituting a race; on the contrary, they are probably one of the most typical and conspicuous examples of racial mixture. This does not mean, however, that the Asiatic element is not very noticeable in the mixture—sufficiently outstanding, in any case, to set the Jew apart in the Western nations, where he is chiefly to be found. This real national “base” is supplemented by an imaginary, poetic base, formed out of the secular tradition which attaches the present Jew to his distant “ancestors” of biblical times. On this national base, the class foundation and the mercantile psychology were subsequently grafted. The national and social elements became mixed to the point of complete intermingling. It would be difficult to distinguish in a Polish Jew the part that his “type” has inherited from his ancestors and the part acquired from the social function that he fulfilled in that country for centuries. It must be agreed that the social base long ago acquired greater importance than the national base. At any rate, if the social element came to be added to the national element, the latter could persist only thanks to the former. It is thanks to his social and economic situation that the Jew was able to “preserve” himself.

Capitalism has posed the Jewish problem, that is to say, it has destroyed the social bases upon which Judaism maintained itself for centuries. But capitalism has not resolved the Jewish problem, for it has been unable to absorb the Jew liberated from his social shell. The decline of capitalism has suspended the Jews between heaven and earth. The Jewish “precapitalist” merchant has largely disappeared, but his son has found no place in modern production. The social basis of Judaism has crumbled; Judaism has become largely a declassed element. Capitalism has not only doomed the social function of the Jews; it has also doomed the Jews themselves.  
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