Commentary Magazine

Jews and Revolution

To the Editor:

In his stimulating review of my book, Revolutionary Jews from Marx to Trotsky [Books in Review, April], Hyam Maccoby has raised two important points which deserve an answer. First, he appears to regard the hypothesis of Jewish self-hatred as applied to some revolutionary Jews as being “rather hazy,” though elsewhere he accepts my evidence that they actively repudiated their Jewish identity and were even influenced by traditional anti-Semitism. My point was that many Jewish Marxists echoed the negative prejudices of the dominant Christian majority with regard to Jews; that they internalized these prejudices and even suffered from a kind of “ethnic death wish,” namely, that the Jewish collectivity should disappear as rapidly as possible. Their scorn for Judaism and for the defense of legitimate Jewish interests and rights, and their identification of Jews with the worst features of capitalism, appear to me a regrettable manifestation of self-hatred. But I do not assert that this was the primary reason for their involvement in the socialist movement, though I think that in the past insufficient attention was paid to this desire to negate one’s background as a motivating factor in Jewish radicalism.

Mr. Maccoby’s second criticism is, I think, more substantial. Should one not consider the revolutionism of Marx and his disciples as a positive manifestation of Jewish messianism and of the traditional Jewish passion for unity? Here, I am afraid, my heart is with Mr. Maccoby but not my head. If Jewish and Marxian universalism were really congruent, then it is hard to see why so many Jews, and virtually all Communists, reject the parallel. In spite of Mr. Maccoby’s assertion and that of various theologians, philosophers, and historians (including Berdyaev, Bertrand Russell, and Arnold Toynbee), I remain an agnostic concerning the alleged affinity of Judaism and Marxism. Unless one accepts the validity of notions like the collective unconscious, or else believes that there is an identifiable and inherited Jewish pattern of mind, this hypothesis seems difficult to substantiate. Moreover, on the level of historical relevance, I would question its value as far as the topic of my book is concerned.

It seems to me that the preconceptions underlying the attitudes of revolutionary Jews to the Jewish problem definitely belong to the modern, post-Enlightenment era, even if echoes of older Christian stereotypes still play a role. For the secular Marxist revolutionary, Judaism is not primarily a religion, let alone a distinctive culture or the nucleus of a national entity, but a peripheral (and negative) feature of bourgeois society, doomed to disappear with it. True, some individuals like Moses Hess, Aron Lieberman, and Bernard Lazare did search for a secular messianic synthesis of Judaism and socialism, and this eventually led to the emergence of socialist Zionism. In the case of Lazare (and possibly of revolutionaries like Hess or Gustav Landauer), there were identifiable elements of ancient Hebrew prophetism, as I suggest in my book. But unfortunately, they had little influence on the development of international socialism.

On the other hand, the “non-Jewish” Marxist Jews who were intensely antagonistic to Jewish tradition (including its messianism) turned out to be a powerful force in modern history. From the standpoint of Judaism, however, they were a tragic aberration, striking as their analyses of society and politics in general may have been. Isaac Deutscher claimed that they had “transcended” Judaism, by which he meant the ghetto environment rather than a specific religious world view. My position is that one cannot transcend something which one does not know. It is this ignorance of the Jewish tradition, so evident in the careers of the great Jewish revolutionaries, that makes me skeptical of attempts to see in them a positive modern manifestation of “Judaism.” A radicalism predicated on the desirability of dissolving Jewish group identity scarcely seems equipped to point the way to Jewish survival in the contemporary world. I am sure that Hyam Maccoby would agree with me on this.

Robert S. Wistrich
London, England



Hyam Maccoby writes:

I did not deny the existence of Jewish self-hatred in revolutionary Jews, but thought there was some haziness in Robert S. Wistrich’s analysis of this phenomenon and of its consequences. I argued that this self-hatred did not amount to full anti-Semitism (lacking the paranoid element), and that as a factor in the origins of Jewish revolutionary universalism, it was far less important than the positive factor of the universalist messianism of the Jewish religious tradition. Mr. Wistrich points out that he does not regard “Jewish self-hatred” as the primary reason for involvement of Jews in the socialist movement; but he does apparently regard it as the chief Jewish-derived reason, and I would deny this.

Why should so many Jews, afflicted by self-hatred, join a universalist intellectual movement rather than fade quietly into the background by assimilation into various innocuous professions? Were they not seeking a substitute for the Judaism they had rejected—a substitute that would provide the intellectual orientation and stimulation, and the universalist idealism, previously provided by Judaism? True, the revolutionaries took their slogans from the contemporary thought patterns of the Enlightenment; but why the need to be idealistic intellectuals and world-improvers in numbers immensely higher, in proportion, than those of their non-Jewish compatriots? There is no need to postulate a collective unconscious or an “inherited Jewish pattern of mind” in a biological sense. All one needs to postulate is that Jews, like other people, are the product of their previous cultural history, which they cannot obliterate at one blow even if they should want to. Mr. Wistrich, by insisting on conscious identification and “knowledge” as the criteria of cultural influence, overlooks the myriad subtle ways in which cultural attitudes are handed on, even unintentionally.

Bertrand Russell once said that there is a great difference between a Catholic atheist and a Protestant atheist. There is also a Jewish atheist—i.e., one who repudiates Judaism in a distinctively Jewish way, and sometimes unconsciously stands for certain Jewish values in a purer way than conventional believers. I am not, of course, saying that the survival of Judaism lies in the hands of the Jewish atheists, but those concerned about the survival of Judaism would do well not to adopt merely negative attitudes toward the Jewish rebels.

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