Montesquieu & the Jews
To the Editor:
Gertrude Himmelfarb’s exploration of Jewish, Victorian, and capitalist ethics receives confirmation from a welcome direction [“Victorian Values/Jewish Values,” February]. Long before Marx began fulminating about “the emancipation of mankind from Judaism” (Judaism understood as synonymous with huckstering, i.e., capitalism), and long before Beatrice Webb, that hybrid Victorian-socialist, spoke approvingly of the “Always Enlightened Selfishness” of the Jews, the French philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1755) had acknowledged—and in his understated way, celebrated—the Jewish role in the advent of modern capitalism.
In a chapter of The Spirit of the Laws entitled “How Commerce Broke Through the Barbarism of Europe,” Montesquieu credits the Jews with the resuscitation of commerce in its revolutionary modern form. . . .
According to Montesquieu, the independence of commerce from theological-political control produces more than prosperity and material goods; it fosters tolerance and peace and humanity. . . .
Montesquieu concludes this chapter on the Jewish origins of capitalism with one of his most famous pronouncements: “We begin to be cured of Machiavellism, and recover from it every day. More moderation has become necessary in the councils of princes. What would formerly have been called a masterstroke of politics would be now, independent of the horror it might occasion, the greatest imprudence.”
The subsequent history of this nobly liberal paragraph contains a painful irony: in the next century it served as the inspiration for Maurice Joly’s Dialogues in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, a work attacking Louis Napoleon’s policy of world domination by the transparent device of making Machiavelli its spokesman and Montesquieu its opponent. It was Joly’s work which was then plagiarized to create the infamous hoax The Protocols of the Learned Elders of lion (Machiavelli’s parts went verbatim to the rabbis and Montesquieu’s rebuttals were purged). The Protocols had considerable influence in stirring up anti-Semitic feeling both in Russia and Germany, where czarist pogroms and eventually Nazi death camps would prove Montesquieu to have been wrong in his prediction of safety for the Jews and the demise of Machiavellism. . . .
Beatrice Webb’s point about the absence of “social morality” among the immigrant Jews also echoes Montesquieu, although he regarded this absence as characteristic of any commercial people. Unlike Marx, Montesquieu did not think Judaism was in essence capitalist; for instance, Montesquieu did not find the record of the ancient Jews as traders and merchants particularly distinguished. It was only in response to Christian persecution that the Jew became homo economicus. Here is how Montesquieu described the decent, but ungenerous ethos of capitalism: “The spirit of trade produces in the mind of a man a certain sense of exact justice, opposite, on the one hand, to robbery, and on the other to those moral virtues which forbid our always adhering rigidly to the rules of private interest, and suffer us to neglect this for the advantage of others.” . . .
Already in his own day, Montesquieu regarded England (whose nobility, unlike that of other European powers, had entered into trade) as the exemplar of the modern commercial republic. The failure of the new arrivals in the 19th century to attain the heights of Mrs. Webb’s “social morality” may be due, in part, to their having imbibed “the general spirit” of the British nation more completely than either the remnant of tradition-sodden natives or the cell of Fabian reformers.
In Margaret Thatcher’s Britain it seems the contest is no longer between a capitalist and an aristocratic ethic, but between capitalism and welfare-state socialism, the endowment of Mrs. Webb and her friends. . . . If Mrs. Thatcher succeeds in the daunting task of restoring the Victorian virtues, Montesquieu’s assessment of the English will again be accurate: “They know better than any other people upon earth how to value, at the same time, these three great advantages—religion, commerce, and liberty.”