A Fertile Error
The Jews and Modern Capitalism.
by Werner Sombart.
Translated by M. Epstein. With an introduction by Bert F. Hoselitz. The Free Press, Glencoe, III. 402 pp. $4.50.
An interesting study could be made of the fertilizing effect of error in the intellectual world. What a revolution has been caused in historical studies by the enormous errors of those misguided but prolific Germans, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Werner Sombart! The importance of these men is that they obliged scholars to ask new questions: the fact that their own answers were erroneous is a secondary matter. Immediate falsities were soon exposed; ultimately a whole new science was born and more scrupulous thinkers gave exacter answers. Indirectly the new science and the exacter answers owe their existence to the first challenge.
The errors of Werner Sombart were certainly heroic. Himself an economist, not a historian, erudite indeed but careless of evidence, he was suddenly inspired by Max Weber’s thesis about the relation of the Protestant ethic to capitalism to offer an alternative answer. Why, in the 16th century, had the center of economic power shifted from Southern to Northern Europe, from the Mediterranean to Antwerp, London, and Amsterdam? The discovery of America and the East Indies is no answer—is Hamburg really nearer to the Far East than Venice? Some other explanation is required. Weber had supplied one ideological explanation: Protestantism had created the capitalism of the North. In search of another, Sombart hovered briefly over a desperately insufficient understanding of history, and then, seeing it, or thinking he saw it, pounced. In 1492 the Jews had been expelled from Spain, in 1495 from Portugal, and later from some Italian cities. Whither had they gone? Some few had gone to Northern Europe. What need of further argument? The thesis is proved: “Modern capitalism is nothing more nor less than an expression of the Jewish spirit”; it only needs to be illustrated. Sombart’s book The Jews and Modern Capitalism, which appeared in Leipzig in 1911, is the illustration of it, rich, suggestive, intellectually irresponsible, and in its political consequences ultimately disastrous. Himself a Gentile, an admirer of the Jews, he became involuntarily a Founding Father of anti-Semitism.
To maintain his thesis Sombart made a number of suppositions. First, he supposed that the Jewish religion was inherently capitalist (all the “capitalist” elements which Weber had detected in Puritanism were conveniently found by Sombart to have been borrowed from Judaism). Then he assumed that all medieval commerce in Europe had been in the hands of the Mediterranean Jews. Then he supposed that the economic expansion of Northern Europe followed the sudden arrival of these exiled Mediterranean Jews. Finally, to round off his thesis, he supposed that all the greatest financiers and merchants of these new economic centers were really Jewish. Unfortunately all these suppositions are totally wrong.
Sombart’s definition of Judaism as an essentially “capitalist” religion is as demonstrably erroneous as Weber’s similar definition of Calvinism. Religions in fact have no essential or immutable character: they respond to social circumstances and are subject—although of course the faces of the dogmatists are saved—to radical change. Calvinism may at one time have served the capitalist bourgeoisie of Geneva; but in the end it proved most appropriate to the backward crofters and fishermen of Scotland and Zeeland. The economic doctrines of Christianity were developed in a period of natural economy, in the Dark Ages; but they were soon adjusted to the needs of a fiscal empire, a commercial society. Similarly Judaism, first formulated among primitive pastoral tribes in landlocked hills, was only afterwards adapted to the cosmopolitan commercial life of a scattered people. This dependent aspect of religion was totally overlooked by Sombart as by Weber: consequently both were obliged to select their evidence. They selected such evidence as seemed to support their theories: they could easily have selected such as would ruin them.
Sombart’s evidence that medieval European commerce was controlled by the Jews is just as selective, and the conclusion deduced there from consequently just as wrong. “Already in the Middle Ages,” he writes, “we find that everywhere taxes, salt-mines and royal domains were farmed out to the Jews.” To whom did the French and English kings farm out their taxes, their mines, their domains? To the Florentine bankers, the Franzesi, the Scali, the Frescobaldi. In Italy, the center of medieval capitalism, the Jews played no part at all, and it was Italians, not Jews, who developed capitalism in the rest of medieval Europe. Sombart’s ignorance of medieval Italian capitalism is extraordinary. Faced with the inescapable figures of the great Genoese financiers of the 16th century, he simply refuses to believe in them. To suppose that members of the old Genoese aristocracy, Grimaldi and Spinola, really indulged in profitable trade is, he declares, self-evidently absurd: clearly it must have been immigrant Spanish Jews who, in the 16th century, “brought new blood into the decrepit economic body of Genoa.” The fact that the Genoese aristocracy, the Grimaldi and Spinola themselves, so far from being a decrepit caste, had been a mercantile oligarchy, governing a great trading empire for continuous centuries, is simply ignored. Indeed, for his medieval assumptions, Sombart consistently ignores not only Italy but all Europe outside Spain and Portugal. There, for special reasons, the Iberian Jews, or Marranos, had largely controlled the trade of the Peninsula; but the Iberian Peninsula neither was nor is Europe.
Further, even if capitalism was developed in those Northern cities which received some (and only some) of the exiled Peninsular Jews, did this development in fact follow their arrival? When were the Jews first allowed to resettle in England? Timidly and tentatively they were readmitted by Cromwell in 1655, but it was still many years before they could trade freely or exercise financial power; and the City of London had been a great money market long before Cromwell. As for the specific instances advanced by Sombart, they are totally false. He states that the English Long Parliament was financed by Jews and that it was the Spanish Jew Carvajal who supplied the English Republic with funds. The financial methods of the Long Parliament and of Cromwell are well known: they were excise, land tax, capital sales, and loans from privileged companies and a few great financiers, all known and all English: there is no evidence that Carvajal (an army contractor and luxury merchant) ever lent them a penny. The same can be shown of Antwerp and Amsterdam, the basis of whose prosperity long preceded the arrival of the exiled Jews. In fact it is clear that the Jewish émigrés resorted to the Northern capitals not to create prosperity but to participate in it. They did indeed specialize and become rich in certain trades—in bullion, jewelry, luxuries, and army contracts—but even here their greatest contribution was not to the already developed economy of Northern Europe, in which they merely found themselves private corners: it was in the backward Turkish Empire, whither—ignored by Sombart—the majority of them had gone.
Finally, Sombart’s use of evidence to prove that every great financier, every great financial discovery, was really Jewish is utterly irresponsible. Essential to his thesis is the Jewish character of the Dutch East India Company. To prove this desperate assumption would seem impossible—but not to Sombart: a glance at the portraits of the early governors is enough to convince him of their Jewish birth. And then there is the great Dutch imperialist, the founder of the company’s empire in the East, Jan Pieterszoon Coen. Surely his real name was Cohen, and he a Jew—just as the real name of John Law, the Scottish founder of French banking, was presumably (as surmised by an anti-Semitic writer in the days of the Dreyfus case) Levi? And then there is Columbus—has not he also been claimed as a Jew? Indeed, since his expeditions were financed, in part, by confiscated Jewish goods, the discovery of America was really a Jewish achievement, and “Columbus and the rest were but managing-directors for Israel.” One might as well say that Nazism was a Jewish movement’ since it too was financed, in part, from confiscated Jewish property.
What need of further words? Sombart’s thesis, as a thesis, is rubbish, and even the incidental truth which it may sometimes contain becomes, by his authority, worthless until tested at the source. Nevertheless, in a preposterous way, the book is a classic, for Sombart stated a problem which others have answered less wildly than he, and are answering still. His claims may be absurd, but at least we cannot deny the economic importance of the Jews—whether of the aristocratic Sephardim, the exiled Peninsular Jews, on whom Sombart based his theory, or of the far different German Jews by whose later activities he so indiscriminately illustrated it; and if we now give less larid illustrations, less naive explanations of that fact—explanations drawn not from belief but from environment, from that self-conscious independence of surrounding society which the Jews have shared with other economically successful groups: Syrians in Rome, Armenians in Persia, Parsees in India, Moriscos in Spain, Huguenots in England, Quakers in England and America—at least we owe to Sombart part of the occasion for such an answer; and this, I have suggested, is the function of a classic.
Unfortunately Sombart achieved something else also. When Weber and he advanced their theories, each thought he was cl¡iimìng a triumph for his chosen class. Was not capitalism itself a triumph, the basis of wealth and liberty and culture? Weber offered to the Protestants, Sombart to the Jews, the splendid boast of its paternity. Aìas, our generation has reversed the formula. Capitalism, which is indeed the basis of our civilization, has been identified by resentful ideologues with its incidental abuses and the very word has become almost an insult. Who now wishes to be the father of that child? instead of gratefully adopting the claim which Weber too generously offered them, Protestants now indignantly deny the charge and impute it, as incorrectly, to the protesting Jesuits. But these are the disputations of schoolmen: in the real world no one has suffered more cruelly from an intended compliment than those whom Sombart thought that he was honoring: the Jews. The clients of Weber have merely been denounced as capitalists and plutocrats; those of Sombart have been massacred.