The Jews as People-Class — Abram Leon’s The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation

It is a significant fact, albeit under-recognized, that both the modern academic study of Jewish history and the Marxist critical tradition trace their beginnings to the Kingdom of Prussia in the first half of the nineteenth century. Still, the two bodies of thought share more than just a national origin. Both emerged out of politically active student circles at the very same institution: the University of Berlin.

It was there, in the capital city of Prussian reaction, that in 1836 the first encounter occurred between a young Marx and the philosophy of Georg W.F. Hegel. Hegel himself had taught at the University of Berlin from 1818-1831, and his influence there remained paramount long after Marx had matriculated. The older Prussian, whose theories at one point even rose to the level of pseudo-state ideology, counted among his regular lecture attendees many of the founding members of the Verein für Kultur und Wissenschaft der Juden (“Society for Jewish Culture and Science”). This group, established in 1819 by a handful of young Jewish scholars, sought to establish the study of Judaism and Jewish Culture as a modern academic discipline, subjecting their work to all the scientific rigors of the bourgeois academy—rationalist, secular, historicist, and “non-dogmatic.” This took place not half a decade after the Congress of Vienna (1815); in the interim, the gains achieved for Jewish emancipation under Napoleonic rule were progressively rolled back by the conservative government of King Friedrich Wilhelm III.

This was a precarious moment for Prussian Jews, occurring as it did in the immediate aftermath of the bloody anti-Jewish Hep Hep! Riots of 1819[1] and amid ongoing anti-Jewish restrictions in the academy. The young scholars were eager to contribute toward the achievement of greater legal rights for Prussian Jews, both to strengthen their community’s social ascent and also to improve their own professional class interests. For this purpose, Hegel’s grand historical vision provided the language and the method with which to fit Jewish history into the vast sweep of Europe’s past, not as the consummate foreign element but rather as a native population.

One prominent member of the Verein, the jurist and legal scholar Eduard Gans, was a particularly devoted student and follower of Hegel. In the mid-1820s Gans converted to the Protestant faith to improve his prospects of receiving a faculty appointment. Once he secured a position at the University of Berlin Law School he taught there for the remainder of his career. In Franz Mehring’s classic 1918 biography of Marx, we learn that starting from his first semester in Fall 1836 Marx attended Gans’ lectures on criminal law and the Prussian civil code. According to Mehring, “Gans was the only one of the official university lecturers who exercised any influence on his mental development.” It seems likely that it was Gans who introduced Marx to Hegel.

This closely linked intellectual genealogy, important though it may be, largely represents the extent of any consequential cross-pollination between Jewish Studies and the Marxist tradition. Within the Marxist tradition proper, there has been no shortage of scholars and activists who have attempted to approach Jewish history according to Marx’s historical materialist method. For the most part, these essays and studies were written either during the period of the Second International (1889-1916) or in the aftermath of the Second World War by Frankfurt School affiliated theorists. As a result, they were primarily concerned with orienting their work toward the so-called “National Question” or the experience of Nazism and Jewish genocide, respectively. By and large, these were not substantive, robust studies of the Jewish past but rather polemical interventions into the burning questions of the day. Falling somewhere in the middle of these historical contexts and their particular agendas stands Abram Leon’s The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation (1946).

An expansive and theoretically rigorous study of some two millennia of Jewish history, Leon’s work is distinguished even further by the fact that it was written while the author, a Jew, was leading the Trotskyist underground movement in German-occupied Belgium. After two years under the constant threat of deportation, Leon was arrested by German police while relocating to the southern Charleroi region for party work. He was murdered at Auschwitz in late 1944 aged only 26. His party comrade Ernst Mandel remembered him as defined by the “strength of his character as much as by the maturity of his political judgement.” The book, first published in French two years following Leon’s death, received only limited attention until it was reissued in the late 1960s. It then enjoyed a moment of fleeting prominence on the New Left. As Tal Elmaliah shows in her article “The ‘Revival’ of Abram Leon: “The Jewish Question” and the American New Left,” this was especially the case following the Six-Day War (1967) and the Palestinian liberation movement’s increasing prominence on the international scene.

Leon’s study was penned in a firm prose marked by partisan candor and tightly woven polemics. In The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation he offers a careful Marxist assessment of a most foundational question: what explains the persistence of Judaism on the stage of world history? In approaching the issue, Leon proceeds expressly from Marx’s famous provocation in his “On the Jewish Question” (1843) to “not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, [but rather] for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.” Here Marx is addressing himself to the common view among Hegel’s Republican-minded disciples that Judaism represents some sort of retrograde social element. It must, they therefore reasoned, be done away with in order to effect the successful legal emancipation of Jewish individuals. Marx, at the time, was increasingly skeptical of the idea that productions of the human mind offer any decisive, practical insight into the real movement of history. We cannot begin with Judaism if we wish to understand the role that Jews, insofar as they are socially distinct, occupy within the social relations of production. Instead, Marx offers, we must understand the productive role that Jews, insofar as they are socially distinct, play within society as a whole. What does “the real Jew” actually do every day so that they can wake up the next morning and continue practicing Judaism? This, Marx seems to suggest, is the only salient question to be asked.

In “On the Jewish Question” Marx’s satirical literary flair can sometimes overburden the logical movement of his ideas. As a result, he perhaps underdeveloped a key stipulation: his argument only holds insofar as “the real Jew,” together with other “real Jews,” share common productive relations with which to reproduce their social life. In several years’ time, Marx would come to describe this same notion as shared “relations of production.” Here Leon picks up Marx’s train of thought, explaining— unlike the latter, with minimal rhetorical flourish— that “the Jew’s preservation as a distinct social group [is what] explains their attachment to religious faith.” To summarize this nuanced historical dynamic, Leon introduces his key theoretical contribution in The Jewish Question: the dialectical notion of the Jews as “people-class.” It is once a circumscribed “economic function” ceases to have a dominant role in Jewish social life from within and without, that attachment to religious practice or a “distinct national character” wanes and assimilation commences. This process is referred to as “social differentiation.”

Leon has now set the central issue in what some would term a more “mature” historical materialist cast. From the perspective of method, he insists, practitioners of Jewish history have not moved far beyond Hegelian “idealist improvisations.” This, to reiterate, is the philosophical premise which assigns ideas an independent being separate from the real world, which is itself only the idea’s superficial, phenomenal form. Instead, Leon proceeds from productive human relations—the ground of all social life. Having set out his historical-theoretical toolkit, Leon can now place the titular “Jewish Question” back into history, that is: back into motion.

From Antiquity to Capitalism: Use Values and the Feudal Merchant

The empires of Antiquity which stretched variously from Southern Europe and across the Mediterranean coasts toward South Asia enhanced the commercial importance of the Eastern Mediterranean and with it the importance of Jewish trading activity. It was the Jewish people-class’s commercial involvement which, from a practical perspective, precipitated their geographical dispersion. This was a dispersion, Leon adds, which long predated the Zionist-sanctified emphasis on the 70 A.D. destruction of the Second Temple as the beginning of the Jewish diaspora.[2] The importance of the Jewish role in trans-Mediterranean trade only increased, per Leon, consequent to the declining fortunes of the Roman Empire. As regional power splintered, a diasporic community was well-positioned to maintain trading networks.  This state of affairs continued into the Carolingian Period (750-987 A.D.). As Jewish populations spread northward into Europe, to the extent which commercial activity remained their dominant social role they were able to maintain themselves as a distinct group.

In this period of ascendant feudal social relations, the worldwide Jewish population was principally concentrated in the Mediterranean basin and Western Europe. There, in what Marx calls “the pores” of feudal society, unbound by the natural economies held together by hereditary land rights, the Jewish people-class played a critical role. Consequently, to follow Leon’s dialectical formulation, internal Jewish social differentiation remained of minimum practical consequence and assimilation to ambient society was marginal. To the extent that hostility toward Jews does exist in this particular social formation, Leon contends that it exists as a result of disdain toward the merchant in a predominately agricultural society centered on production for the purpose of consumption. The Jewish merchant does not need to be “bound” to the soil in order to acquire the material necessities of life. He is therefore an irremediably foreign element and the permanent object of suspicion.

The business of lending as a Jewish social activity (i.e. “usury”) emerged closely alongside the commercial role. The latter provides the necessary money reserve for the former. Jewish involvement in lending evolved out of demand for consumer credit on the part of royalty and nobility. By the same turn, it also increased royal and noble hostility against those they sometimes came to rely on in order to finance expensive endeavors.

Leon goes on to argue that around the twelfth century the feudal “natural” economy based on production for consumption starts to weaken. For a variety of reasons, the growing city-based “native” merchant class began to push the “alien” merchant class out of its established commercial networks. As the social activity that the Jewish people-class played in feudal society declines in favor of a developing capitalist mode of production, their protection as a distinct social element ceases to be in the material interest or, oftentimes, within the capacities of the feudal forces once reliant on them. In turn, Jewish political fortunes declined. This broad historical movement is confirmed in spades by the increasing rate of late medieval expulsions from Western Europe, a process which reaches its climax with the Spanish Expulsion of 1492. The critical point here is this: as soon the bourgeoisie appeared as a historical phenomenon bearing a new mode of production it came into conflict with the social reproduction of the Jewish people-class as history had come to know it. Leon summarizes this trend neatly, stating that “the specific economic function of the Jews ends precisely where modern capitalism starts.” During the early modern period there were relatively small Jewish trading communities in Western Europe which successfully adapted to the new conditions effected by global capitalist development. In doing so, however, they no longer filled a socially defined role that was specific to Jews as such. Assimilation follows in due course.

Capitalist Development in Eastern Europe: “The Jewish Question” Rebounds

The expulsions from Western Europe led Jewish communities to migrate eastward in Europe, to a primarily agricultural region where feudal relations of production still dominated. As a result, economic conditions there were more favorable to the Jewish people-class. This was to remain the region with the largest Jewish population until the outbreak of Nazi genocidal violence in the mid-twentieth century.

In Eastern Europe, Jewish communities filled a similar, if expanded, range of economic activity as they had in the West. It is as royal power declines in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth toward the start of the eighteenth century that Eastern European feudal society, in Leon’s words, began to “cave in.” As capitalist relations emerge haltingly and unevenly, the position of the Jews as people-class also began to decline. By mid-nineteenth century, social differentiation and emigration ceased to be marginal phenomena. While there did emerge at this point a Jewish bourgeoisie in the growing urban centers of the Russian Empire, this is a comparatively small matter. These Jews who find themselves a niche within regional capitalist development do so not because they are Jews but in spite of it, as beneficiaries of limited residency permits outside the Pale of Settlement and what one historian has termed a tsarist policy of “selective integration” for Jews engaged in occupations considered “useful.”[3]

As the nineteenth century moves onward, we see the emergence of a genuine Jewish proletariat in the growing towns and urban centers of Eastern Europe. When Jewish emigration from these population centers increased drastically toward the latter decades of the century, there is then a sharp rise in Jewish wage-labor in the cities of Western Europe and North America. There they benefit from more advantageous economic conditions as well as greater legal protections. These often-maligned Ostjuden introduce with them a measure of social stratification into extant Western Jewish communities. Eager to maintain their ascent, cement the gains of legal emancipation, and assert themselves as good national citizens, the western Jewish bourgeoisie could not but be concerned (to put the matter lightly) by in-bound Jewish migration. In the late nineteenth century, it was eastern German provinces such as Saxony which saw particularly strong antisemitic political tendencies. This was not, as the historian Ismar Schorsch has noted, because the region had the largest Jewish population in Germany, but rather because it had the largest population of foreign-born Jews.[4]

Jewish wage-labor tended to be employed in the later stages of production as artisans creating consumer goods rather than as factory workers processing raw materials. This, according to Leon, was the direct legacy of the feudal economy. As technological innovation proceeded apace, the factory begins slowly to overtake the artisan workshop. Consequently, Jewish and non-Jewish workers came increasingly into conflict.

In “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt notes that the uneven movement of legal emancipation across nineteenth century Europe did not constitute “an admission of Jews as Jews [sic] to the ranks of humanity, rather than a permit to ape the gentiles.” Leon essentially concurs, noting that legal emancipation “reflected the will of bourgeois society to assimilate the Jews completely.” As Leon narrates, emancipation in Western Europe puts Jewish communities on the path toward total assimilation. However, the rise of capitalist relations in the East, the uprooting of the Eastern Jewish masses, and their proletarianized concentration in expanding urban centers saw the development of two consequential trends: renewed anti-Jewish hostility and a new Jewish national sensibility, i.e. the Zionist movement. Fatefully, the conspicuous return of Jewish visibility in Western Europe occurred precisely as the capitalist-imperialist world system enters its era of self-immolation—“the Jewish masses find themselves wedged between the anvil of decaying feudalism and the hammer of rotting capitalism.”

The Crisis of Capitalism, the Crisis of the Jews

Leon devotes the latter chapters of The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation to assessing the immediate historical roots of the crisis which had engulfed Europe’s Jews at the time of his writing. Essentially in agreement with the dominant Marxist position, Leon characterizes antisemitism as arising out of the interests of the petty-bourgeois class, i.e. small-scale merchants, shopkeepers and the like. This, critically, was the class most threatened by the growth in monopoly capitalism that had characterized the imperialist period and the class in most sustained, direct contact with the small-scale commercial and artisan elements of the Jewish population. The monopoly capitalists or “the big bourgeoisie” possessed on average far greater industrial capital than the typical “Jewish capitalist” who, consequent to their social origins, was commonly engaged in commercial-speculative capital. Where the “big bourgeoisie” comes to represent the productive, tangible, and primarily industrial side of capitalism, the “Jewish capitalist” is identified with the abstract, international, and “rootless” aspect of capitalist development.

Leon specifies that the petty bourgeois origins of ideological antisemitism are not necessarily manifest in Nazi racial ideology. Rather, the modern antisemitic political tradition makes ample use of various historical lexicons to grow its appeal. “The Jew” of the antisemitic political imagination is always a somewhat chimerical figure, a caricature of a caricature which draws on the vestiges of pre-capitalist ideological forms.

As Jewish social differentiation proceeded across nineteenth-century Europe and the Jews as people-class weaken, growing urban concentration, worker activism, increasing access to higher education, and entrance into the liberal professions creates a politically diverse secular tradition. This trend, the 1881-1884 wave of pogroms in the Russian Empire, and the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906) are, to Leon, the primary factors in the growth of Jewish nationalist ideology in all its varying forms, i.e. Zionism.

The scorn that Leon has for Zionism reveals itself clearly as the frustrations of a former believer. For him it offers no compelling explanation for the persistence of diasporic Judaism, displaying instead a curious and non-scientific tendency to explain Jewish longevity not through history but rather in spite of history. Leon, as a teenager, had been a member of the Marxist Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair (“The Young Guard”). This organization, among others, drew inspiration in particular from the Zionist theorist Ber Borochov (1881-1917). In short, Borochov contended that in order for the growing Jewish proletariat to take its place in the world socialist revolution it must first achieve a “healthy” class structure—a process which can only take place in a distinct territory that can attract mass Jewish settlement, i.e. Palestine. This is a somewhat tortured caricature of Marxist analysis which has more or less abandoned the dialectical method. Leon’s close attention to the dense web of social relations in which Jewish communities found themselves, his insistence that there can be no endogenous Jewish history as such affirms his position that outside of socialist revolution the “Jewish Question” simply has no answer.

A New Generation of Marxist Jewish Historiography?

There can, of course, be many criticisms leveled at Leon’s work. It is the sort of Marxist study that would be scorned as “mechanical” or “determinist” by those hostile to class analysis. Holes can certainly be poked regarding the specifics of Jewish occupational structure in different periods. In an edition of the text published in 1970, Nathan Weinstock correctly notes in his introductory essay that Leon’s dialectical notion of people-class constitutes not an iron law of history admitting of no exceptions but rather a “tendential law.” It is not necessary, for his theory to hold water, that all Jews should have been traders or “usurers” prior to the rise of significant social differentiation in the capitalist era. The essential point is that shared class interests served a socially synthetic function in the reproduction of Jewish life. This is Leon’s broad historical sketch, his opening salvo in what surely would have been a long and fruitful career as scholar-activist.

Perhaps a weaker criticism of Leon would be that the firmly materialist basis of his analysis allows for little interplay with “superstructural” elements, i.e. ideology. This is fair, but only insofar as it precisely misses the point. In fact, I would counter that considering the foundation of Leon’s study in mid-twentieth century social history, his dialectic is quite nuanced and flexible. More importantly, The Jewish Question was not intended to be a study of ideology but rather a study of social structure.

The Jews were victims of a capitalist world system which they did not create. Perhaps more to the point, it was a social form which was objectively antagonistic to their future as a distinct social element. It was ultimately a nightmare born of capitalist-imperialist crisis which, with a distinctly industrial logic, nearly destroyed them.

Has the past eighty-odd years of Jewish history made Leon’s formula less relevant? This is a question that can only be answered according to one’s political convictions. Regardless, The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation remains a model of committed scholarship written by a passionate and selfless young mind under conditions hardly conducive to such an endeavor. It cries out to us from the depths of fascist horror. A new generation of readers can only hope to pick up Leon’s analysis from where he, tragically, was forced to leave it.

Ilan Benattar is a Ph.D. candidate in Jewish History writing his dissertation on emergent class conflict among Ottoman Jewish intellectuals in the early-twentieth century. His most recent publication is a joint review with Protean Magazine on Raoul Peck’s HBO historical docuseries “Exterminate All The Brutes” and Netflix’s “How To Become a Tyrant.” He tweets at: @BlanIenattar.

[1] A series of anti-Jewish riots from August to October 1819 which began in Bavaria and spread throughout the German Confederation. The riots, in which non-Jewish rioters from a variety of social backgrounds participated, expressed violent hostility to Jewish legal emancipation. The phrase “Hep Hep!” probably originates in the traditional call used by German shepherds to gather their flock.

[2] The current scholarly consensus in Jewish Studies holds the same.

[3] cf. Benjamin Nathans, Beyond The Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2004).

[4] Ismar Schorsch, Jewish Reactions to German Anti-Semitism: 1870-1914 (NY, NY: Columbia University Press, 1972).