From Ambivalence to Betrayal – 3

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Left vs. Right

Most of the kids marching against Israel on college campuses today were not even born in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, meaning they have little to no idea how much their rhetoric and actions are built on nearly 150 years of political tactics honed during the near 150 year “Age of Ideology” that began in the mid-19th century and ended with the demise of the USSR.

But the behaviors we see among anti-Israel activists today did not emerge from thin air.  For just as current Students-for-Justice-in-Palestine types insist that any true liberal must embrace their agenda  (the PEP argument noted previously), Marxist ideologues in previous eras scoffed at progressives who “merely” wanted to improve the lives of workers or solve pressing social issues, rather than replace the entire capitalist system through a spasm of revolutionary violence.

And once it turned out that the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” was only ever going to be a dictatorship, the ruthlessness of Soviet action was matched by a ruthlessness of language in which their every crime was denied and every accusation against it buried in a mountain of rhetoric insisting that the Marxist cause by judged solely by its theoretical goal of creating heaven on earth.

In service to the cause, nothing was off limits: not civic society within the USSR and not multi-national institutions outside of it, which is why tyrannies allied with the “movement” were so successful in corrupting virtually every organization dedicated to human rights and international law, turning them from potential moderating influences in an increasingly interconnected world to weapons of war.

Accusing those that created and perpetuated this system of cynicisms would be an error, for the people who split progressive and labor movements for their own ends, who ardently rejected any criticism of their crimes (while perpetually attacking their opponents) were driven by fanaticism that more resembled religious fervor than rational calculation.

The Jews played an unusual set of roles during this Age of Ideologies.  While Medieval religious anti-Semitism was still rife when the political terms “Left” and “Right” were first coined (they applied to which side of the king one sat at the National Assembly at the time of the French revolution, BTW), by the time Karl Marx was writing what would become the sacred texts of the Marxist faith, negative reaction to Jews were being cast in economic and political vs. religious terms.

To Marx (a German who had long ago abandoned his own Jewish heritage), the continuation of the Jews for nearly two Millennia after the fall of the Jewish state was a political aberration growing out the need of powerful Christian elites for a class of moneylenders, rent collectors and economic middlemen to do their financial dirty work.  This allowed kings and clerics to gather their rents and borrow the cash needed for their lifestyles and wars.  And when their own loans came due, they could always sick the mob on these despised Jewish landlords and “loansharks,” and begin the cycle again with a new set of Jews ready to play the game of politically powerless financial middlemen.

This novel description of Jewish history was fleshed out in Marx’s famous essay On the Jewish Question, a work that today seems rife with anti-Semitic stereotypes, portraying Jews as congenial “hucksters” whose One God is actually Mammon.  But when he wrote it, Marx had a different agenda in mind.  For, according to the theories he was developing, the capitalist system was in the process of replacing the Jewish middlemen of antiquity with a class of capitalist (consisting of people of all faiths) which (according to Marx) meant the economic deformities once managed by a persecuted Jewish minority was now becoming the cornerstone of the modern political/economic system.

Thus his call to free Europe from the Jew was really a call to free society from the “hucksterism” represented originally by the Jews but which now infested all of capitalist society.  And what of actual Jews who (like Marx’s parents and grandparents) were not simply economic abstractions?  As with most human beings, they had a role to play within Marx’s developing theoretical framework.  In this case, they (meaning the Jews as a distinct people) were meant to disappear once their economic role became irrelevant as man passed into a new post-capitalist era.

To someone like Marx, this proposition was not entirely fanciful.  For hadn’t many people born into Jewish families (including Marx himself) shed their religious identity once they encountered European enlightenment?  And if Marx and others he traveled with were able to successfully toss aside their Jewishness, wasn’t that the ultimate solution to “The Jewish Problem” once a classless society freed from capitalism eliminated the need for Jewish middlemen and Jewish “husksterism” (whether practiced by Jews or Christians) entirely?

The reason Robert Wistrich’s From Ambivalence to Betrayal starts its narrative with “ambivalence,” is that the historic inevitability of Jewish assimilation and disappearance predicted by Marx meant that outright hostility towards Jews as Jews did not need to play a role in the political movements inspired by his works.

But this also meant that that actually defending Jews against the racism being directed against them (especially by purely anti-Semitic political parties emerging in countries Germany and France in the decades following Marx’s death) was equally irrelevant to the Marxist-informed Left.  Which is why you began to see condemnations of anti-Semitism (insults and violence directed at the Jews) balanced by equally vehement condemnations of “philo-Semitism” (attempts to defend Jews from these racist attacks), with arguments that Jews defending their own interests were guilty of parochialism and selfishness echoing to today.

As already noted, Marx’s theories about the redemptive power of Jewish assimilation and disappearance were confirmed by his own experience, as well as the experience of other hyper-assimilated Jews attracted to various Socialist movements.  But as these “enlightened” Jewish and non-Jewish Socialist began to encounter unassimilated Jews (especially those of Eastern Europe) and as Eastern and even Western Jews began to advocate for distinct Jewish political and even national rights, ambivalence turned to hostility which became more and more virulent as the “inevitable” world revolution never materialized, shaking Communist faith to its core.

And like so many disappointed millennialists, the revolutionary Left had someone to blame and a new cause to believe in (hostility to the Jews and their state) once their original Messiah failed to appear.


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One Response to From Ambivalence to Betrayal – 3

  1. Mike Lumish December 11, 2012 at 6:42 pm #

    Very interesting, Jon. And nicely done.

    The history of the tension between Jewish nationalism and international socialism, from the 19th century until today, is something that we very much need to be aware of as we advocate for the State of Israel. This is necessary backdrop so I am glad that you, and Wistrich, are highlighting it.

    Although I have not yet read From Ambivalence to Betrayal, I am now very much looking forward to doing so.

    I definitely have my quibbles and criticisms of your first two parts in this series, quibbles and criticisms that I will be happy to articulate shortly, but this last part is important reading, I think.

    Thank you for it.

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