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Daniel Bensaïd (1982): Marxist notes on Jewish emancipation

26 October 2021

Members of the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye, active in the Vilna Ghetto
An understanding of Zionism must start with a historical and materialist analysis: meaning the theory of a people-class as elaborated by Otto Bauer and later Abraham Léon, defended by Weinstock, Rosdolsky, Deutscher, Mandel and others.

The identity of the Jewish people during the centuries of diaspora did not persist by virtue of a metaphysical essence or mission, but by virtue of a social function: that of a people-class fulfilling a global market function in societies primarily producing use values. Because of this, Jews constituted a kind of caste, playing the role of ‘indispensable middlemen in a natural economy’.2

In a pre-capitalist society, a caste is not a simple aggregation of individuals with similar functions. Those who do not see a common culture among these scattered communities turn a blind eye to the most obvious cultural link: religion. This is not the religion of a developed capitalist society, which has become a private matter of belief or faith, a kind of domestic morality, but religion with the function it performs in any pre-capitalist society: the direct political, ideological, and legal cement of a society. More than any other, the Mosaic law is a politics as well as a morality.3

Moreover, this religion teaches its followers that they are a people. It delimits this people and constitutes a factor of exclusion by refusing conversion to Judaism. Because it cements the unity and the difference of this people, the Jewish religion has constituted an obstacle on the way to the monotheistic universalism taken on by Christianity (a contradiction demonstrated by Spinoza).

In multi-national or multi-ethnic societies, the Jews were no less a potential nation than other communities. When Marx says that the Jews maintained themselves not in spite of history but because of history, and when Abraham Leon added that they persisted not in spite of but ‘because of their dispersion’, both recognized at the same time the issue of Jewish unity and historical identity, beyond the fragmentation of communities. Thus, it does not seem heterodox to speak of a millennial history of the Jewish people.

A point of departure, not a point of arrival!

Abraham Leon’s theory of the people-class is the only possible starting point for a materialist and historical explanation of how despite dispersion a cultural, national unity or a politics based on nationality could persist.

The only point of departure, but not the point of arrival. Does ‘the Jewish question’ end with the break-up of this people-class, torn between proletarianization and the rise of big capital? This is the whole issue. As soon as the social vector of the people-class is blown up by capitalist accumulation, does Jewishness become no more than an incoherent survival, a kind of historical aberration, a fossil? Would the Jew, as such, survive as a ghost, or as a pure product of Zionist manipulation? It is again through history that ‘the Jewish question’ bounces back and flies in the face of the optimistic prognosis of its declining importance or disappearance.

The Marxists of 1903, Lenin as well as Trotsky, were as certain of the universal emancipatory calling of the proletariat as the revolutionary bourgeoisie of the Enlightenment was of the universally liberating scope of the Rights of Man. Then came Stalinism. And the certainties of 1903 regarding the Bund gave way to an uncertain stammering, evident in Trotsky himself.
4 There are many reasons for this recoil. First, there is the genocide. We join in denouncing the use it was made of, and continues to be made of, for the propaganda and good conscience of the Zionist authorities. In France the showing of the film Holocaust provided a good example of hypocritical communion between Western bourgeoisie and Jewish establishment. But this does not detract from a massive and unprecedented historical fact:

Auschwitz was the terrible cradle of the new Jewish consciousness and of the new Jewish nation. We, who have rejected the religious tradition, now belong to the negative community of those, who have so many times in history, even so recently and tragically, been singled out for persecution and extermination. For those who have always stressed Jewishness and its continuity, it is strange and bitter to think that the extermination of six million Jews should have given such a new lease of life to Jewry. I would have preferred the 6 million men, women and children to survive, and Jewry to perish. It was from the ashes of six million Jews that the phoenix of Jewry has risen. What a resurrection!5

The second reason is maybe less spectacular, but just as profound and lasting: not only did the first victorious proletarian revolution not resolve the Jewish question in the expected sense of assimilation, but Stalinism wrote a new chapter in the history of antisemitism. The roots of this antisemitism are multiple. Weinstock points out that the NEP revived the traditional commercial function of Jewish communities within transitional society itself. Deutscher notes that Jews, who were much more literate than the average population, after the abolition of the Tsarist numerus clausus became white-collar workers in large numbers. They were integrated into the post-revolutionary middle bureaucracy and thus were ideally placed to become the scapegoats of the Stalinist bureaucracy. To this must be added more directly political reasons and factors internal to the party: the majority of the Jewish Old Bolsheviks could hardly be converted into zealous defenders of Great Russian chauvinism. Many of them ended up in different opposition currents. The general result was a policy of cultural and physical liquidation of Soviet Jews, and the unleashing of openly anti-Semitic campaigns, of which the Slansky trial and the so-called Doctors’ Plot were striking examples.

Stalinist anti-Semitism was part of an overall reactionary and counter-revolutionary bureaucratic politics, one which we stubbornly fought. But we cannot prevent the doubt and suspicion generated by this policy from spilling over into the entire workers' movement, just like Stalinism made the very idea of socialism suspect to millions of workers.

Finally, the third reason is the very foundation of the State of Israel, which created a fait accompli, giving a territorial base to a part of the Jewish people and establishing in Palestine a ‘national Hebrew community’.

Weinstock sees the formation of this ‘national community’ as starting even before the founding of the State of Israel:

Thus an autonomous Jewish society developed gradually in Palestine at the start of the century, with its own working class and an embryonic bourgeoisie, fusing the Zionist settlers, who came from varying backgrounds, and the indigenous Jewish population into a homogeneous national whole. The adoption of Hebrew as a common language cemented the cohesion of the new entity. These early years witnessed the beginnings of the constitution of a new nationality in the Middle-East, born of the specific process of separatist Zionist colonization and the Palestinian-Jewish melting pot: the Israeli nation in embryo.6

And adding further on:

Far from constituting a class of foreign oppressors, the Palestinian Jews gradually became transformed into a new Hebrew nation, structured in accordance with the classical capitalist schema: a ruling bourgeoisie and an oppressed proletariat.7

The very title of Weinstock’s book is indicative of the recognition of this new national fact, distorted and threatened by the very Zionism that claims to be its only defender. We should not underestimate the effect of this new fact on the entire diaspora. By subjecting them to the same persecution, Nazism had already brought the Ashkenazi and Sephardic branches together. The Sephardic Diaspora of North Africa and the Middle East was subsequently thrown in disarray by the effects of decolonization and developments in the Jewish-Arab conflict. It is therefore not possible to consider the State of Israel as a refuge for solely Central European immigration: 65 per cent of the Israeli Jewish population is Sephardic.

Thus the dialectic between the State of Israel and the Diaspora is complex. This dialectic allows the Jewish establishment in France and in the United States to reconcile socio-economic assimilation with the continuing reference to a national identity, one that has finally taken material form. The ultra-Zionist declarations of the ex-Maoist Bernard-Henri Lévy should be considered as grimly symptomatic: ‘The existence of a strong state, playing the game of the strongest, is something very important for a Jew, even if the Jew in question, meaning myself, will in all likelihood die in France.’8

Vladimir Rabi rightly underlines the particularity of this new Zionism by proxy within the Diaspora: ‘A strange Zionism, a Zionism without financial participation (the 700,000 Jews of France participate less than the 19,000 Jews of Switzerland); without aliyah (an average of one thousand per year) and without political power. This is what we can call “Zionism by proxy”.’9 True. But when the State of Israel is seriously threatened, the vast majority of the Diaspora will function as an external border guard of the ‘national community’. So far, each crisis has illustrated this, and this is one aspect of the problem: one cannot fundamentally separate the material existence of a national community in Palestine from an evanescent and volatile diaspora, doomed to gradual assimilation.

The genocide, Stalinist anti-Semitism, the founding of the State of Israel: here are the three reasons that, contrary to the historical prognosis of the beginning of the century, brought back to the fore the Jewish question. They are powerful reasons. The prognosis of social assimilation has not been invalidated, but the paths towards it are infinitely more tortuous, just like those towards the socialist revolution. In 1937, Trotsky was infinitely more cautious and reserved than in 1903: ‘The Jewish question, I repeat, is indissolubly bound up with the complete emancipation of humanity.’10 To claim that the question as such has been settled de facto by the break-up of the people-class is something else. Trotsky is indisputably right. But while waiting for this complete emancipation on the horizon of history, for the disappearance of social classes and the state, the question persists and cannot be ignored.

A historically unresolved issue

Then, how to characterize it? The separation of the people-class in proletariat and bourgeoisie, the tendency to assimilate in both directions, did not lead to a pure and simple dissolution of the community. Its existence and the persistence of its identity take place in a new context. It is possible and probable that with a happier outcome of the revolution in the USSR, and without Nazism (which melted a scattered unit under one star), the matter would have been settled. But this is not the case.

Rosdolsky, who shared Abraham Leon’s theses, nevertheless wrote:

No doubt the identification of Jewishness with capitalism, which we find in the 1844 text, was already incorrect at the time, not only because capitalism had already outgrown its antediluvian forms—commercial and usurious capital—but because, on the other hand, the Jews themselves, due to the capitalist process of class differentiation, were increasingly losing their character as the mercantile people par excellence and, from a people-class transformed into a modern nationality.11

A singular nation, as Rousseau already said: ‘Separate from the others, yet not merged with them’. A people in diaspora, a nation without territory, national community, nationality; all definitions have been tried. Undoubtedly, the issue is obscured by a restrictive definition of what a nation is, one that reduces it to the nation-state, a form under the aegis of an ascendant national bourgeoisie (unifying a national market), or of an anti-imperialist proletariat realising, on the road to its social emancipation, national democratic tasks left unresolved by the bourgeoisie. It is such a conception that led Marx and Engels ultimately to reactionary positions on ‘peoples without history’.

On the level of Marxist theory, the debate has not ended. It oscillates between Stalin’s normative definition, listing the indispensable criteria for recognizing the factual existence of a nation, and Bauer’s fluid definitions, which retain a variable combination of criteria, none of which (not even territory) are absolutely indispensable.

Again, the key is historical. In the era of rising capitalism and of the formation of national markets, the national question is not posed in the same terms as in the era of imperialism and late capitalism. In the first case, it leads mainly to the formation of new nation-states. In the latter, it tends to be directly related to the perspective of cultural autonomy within a planned economy and socialist democracy. For the sake of clarity, the latter can be referred to as a nationality question instead of a national question. This does not imply any less the recognition of a community and of a national fact.12

Assimilation is a historical perspective, not an immediate response

It is incorrect to simply say that assimilation is the solution of the Jewish question. It is more correct to say, as Trotsky did, that the solution lies in the complete emancipation of humanity, without neglecting the rhythms and forms of the decline of national issues and cultural autonomy. Assimilation will likely take this form. But it cannot be a political line or a slogan in response to Zionism. Until the labour movement has demonstrated in practice its ability to resolve the Jewish question, the Jewish national community cannot be asked to trust the natural laws of assimilation into the proletariat.

For the time being, this ability has not been demonstrated.13 Therefore, the prospect of assimilation, however likely, cannot be an answer to the demand for national rights. That is why we recognise as legitimate the right of Jewish communities to defend themselves as Jewish communities against antisemitic campaigns. It is up to us to ensure that the workers’ organizations demonstrate their effectiveness in this struggle.

On the immediate response to the Jewish question, Lenin and Trotsky varied significantly. In 1903, Lenin characterized the Bundist idea of a Jewish nation as ‘absolutely untenable scientifically’ and ‘reactionary politically.’14 He took refuge behind the supposed competence of Kautsky and Bauer on the subject to characterize the Jewish community not as a nation, but as a caste.

In his critical remarks on the national question from 1913, Lenin speaks of ‘the most oppressed and persecuted nation—the Jews.’15 Already in 1905 he recognized that: ‘The Jewish workers, as a disfranchised nationality, not only suffer general economic and political oppression, but they also suffer under the yoke which deprives them of elementary civic rights.’16

And again in 1913, he criticized Bauer for excluding the Jews from his project of cultural national autonomy: ’he excludes the only extra-territorial (not having its own territory) nation from his plan for extra-territorial national autonomy’.17

Therefore there can be no doubt, that from 1905 onwards, Lenin approaches the Jewish question as a particular national question, one which does not call for a separate revolutionary party any more than it does for other nationalities. The unitary structure of the party simply corresponds to the unity of the strategic target of the proletarian revolution: the Tsarist state apparatus.

Indeed, while acknowledging the reality and complexity of national issues in Russia, Lenin celebrates ‘capitalism's world-historical tendency to break down national barriers, obliterate national distinctions, and to assimilate nations.’18

Lenin sought the solution in positive proposals favouring the right to form associations, in education and the use of national languages. Faithful to the lessons of the Critique of the Gotha Programme, he understood that after taking power formal equality between small and large nations, between the oppressors and the oppressed of the previous day was not enough. It is necessary to compensate for the accumulated inequalities that are concretely manifested in daily life. Lenin spoke out in favour of the development of the language and literature of the labouring masses of the recently oppressed nations. The overcoming of national particularisms requires first of all the recognition of national rights, not passively, but with the active contribution of the party: ‘the Party's task in relation to the labouring masses of these national groups is to help them to make the fullest use of their guaranteed right to free development.’19

The Jews were treated as one nation among others and a commission on Jewish affairs was created as part of the government.

Confronted with the rise of Nazism and the revival of anti-Semitism in the USSR in the context of bureaucratic degeneration, Trotsky was extremely cautious and no longer dared to predict the rapid disappearance of the Jewish question as a national question:

I do not know whether Jewry will be built up again as a nation. However, there can be no doubt that the material conditions for the existence of Jewry as an independent nation could be brought about only by the proletarian revolution. There is no such a thing on our planet as the idea that one has more claim to land than another.20


The same year, he recognized that Jews, and not only those living in the USSR, had the same national rights as any other nationality:


A workers’ government is duty bound to create for the Jews, as for any nation, the very best circumstances for cultural development. This means, inter alia: to provide for those Jews who desire to have their own schools, their own press, their own theatre, etc., a separate territory for self-administration and development […] If this or that national group is doomed to go down (in the national sense) then this must proceed in the same way as a natural process, but never as a consequence of any territorial, economic, or administrative difficulties.21


Finally, later still, he admitted that the course of history had counteracted, contrary to all expectations, the prospect of a rapid decline of the Jewish national question:


When I was young, I had rather the tendency to prognosticate that the Jews of different countries would be assimilated and hence the Jewish question would disappear almost automatically. The historical development in the last quarter of century has unfortunately not confirmed this perspective […] It is necessary to count on the fact that the Jewish nation will continue to exist for an entire coming historical period.22


Trotsky envisaged, even within the framework of a triumphant socialism, a need for international planning of the topography of nations to satisfy the real need for territory that nourishes Zionism. In no way did he conceive of assimilation as an immediate solution, and even less as a forced solution

In fact, Lenin and Trotsky's approach is clear and largely pragmatic: it is a question of removing all obstacles to the unification of the proletariat, by removing the mistrust of oppressed nationalities through a wide-ranging recognition of their national rights. They do not start from a normative and restrictive definition of the nation, but from the concrete problem posed by national demands.

For those who have been oppressed and disenfranchised, assimilation and the erosion of national particularity cannot be the simple negation of their existence. Instead, they begin with the negation of the negation, i.e. the affirmation of their national identity. This inevitably raises the question of the stance of a revolutionary party. It certainly begins with the inalienable recognition of the right to self-determination, but it implies on the level of the oppressed nationality itself shouldering the responsibility for its national manifestations and not abandoning it to bourgeois nationalist currents.

The alternative to Zionism will only be effective if it is posed simultaneously by Jews within the Jewish communities.

The form of the Palestinian future cannot be predicted

The State of Israel is not a state like any other, but a state with a colonial structure that was from the outset based on campaigns for ‘Jewish labour’, on kibbutz that repressed the fellah, on economic apartheid and on a trade unionism reserved for Jews (at least from 1920 to 1967).23 It is not by chance that this state was proclaimed at its foundation ‘the Jewish state in the land of Israel’, and that it maintains a religious character; it is not by chance that racial discrimination is codified by the Law of Return of 1950 and the Nationality Law of 1952. This State is the logical outcome of the Zionist project of Moses Hess who, starting from the very beginning of Zionism, conceived of the return of Jews to Palestine in the carriages of the French colonialist expeditions. It was born of the expropriation of the Palestinian people and at the cost of the formation of a new ‘nation without territory’: the Palestinians. This is not the least of paradoxes.

The Hebrew nationality in Palestine is now in the position of the oppressor, at the expense of the Palestinians. The nationalism of the oppressed and the oppressor cannot be equated, nor can the violence of either. Zionist terrorism is a state terrorism, having at its disposal a standing army, a police force and the secret services of a bourgeois state that is supported by imperialism.

In the face of this oppression, we unconditionally support the national rights of the Palestinians. And it is to our credit that we can quote the programmatic document of the Palestinian Trotskyists who, as early as 1939, affirmed ‘[their] complete solidarity with the Arab nationalist movement and [their] unconditional support for the [following] immediate demands of the Arabs: a) a halt to Jewish immigration; b) the prohibition of further land purchases by the Jews; c) an Arab national government’.24

Precisely because we considering the Zionist state in essence as a colonial state, the destruction of its colonial structures has a transitional dynamic. This is what Weinstock called de-zionization:

Israeli revolutionaries understand this to mean the destruction of Israel's oppressive and colonial socio-economic and political structures [...]. But is de-zionization not a smokescreen for maintaining the status quo under a new legal wrapping? No. It presupposes the radical destruction of existing political and social structures, without which it cannot be achieved. Yet, some would say, de-zionizing Israel is ultimately working towards the existence of an Israeli state, which is contrary to the objectives of the Palestinians who precisely want the abolition of this mono-ethnic and colonial-based entity that was established on their territory. The truth is that one cannot predict the precise constitutional form of the future Palestine without resorting to empty prophesying, or worse, substituting oneself for the people concerned. We can only state principles: the right of return for refugees, self-determination for Palestinians, free exercise by Israelis of their national rights. Such a programme can be conceived in a unitary Palestinian framework, as well as in a federal or confederal structure, or even in an Arab whole. The main thing is to understand that it is not possible to evade the Israeli national problem by verbal subtleties. Let the ineffective gargle hollow formulas such as ‘so-called Israeli state’, ‘so-called Israeli nation’, ‘Zionist colony in occupied Palestine’... which reflect their ideological destitution; they think they are solving the problem by denying it. The destruction of the Zionist structures of Israel—which necessarily requires the participation of Israeli revolutionaries themselves—leaves room for different institutional formulas. What is crucial is the need for the Israeli community to integrate itself in one way or another with the Arab revolutionary movement.25

1 Originally published in French as ‘La question juive aujourd’hui’, Critique Communiste N°11, September 1982 and available online at [danielbensaid.org/La-question-juive-aujourd-hui?lang=fr].

2 Nathan Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah (London, 1989), p. 6.

3 Indeed, Salo Wittmayer Baron one-sidedly emphasized this religious factor as the glue of a dispersed community. It is nevertheless necessary to underline the striking confessional character of the State of Israel and the role that religion continues to play in defining the community.

4 As Alain Brossat notes in his article on the Bund (Fourth International, No. 2, September 1980) the Bund was a Jewish socialist workers' organization in Russia.

5 Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew. And other essays (London, 1968), p. 51.

6 Weinstock, Zionism, p. 88.

7 Ibid, p. 182.

8 Quoted in ‘Catalogue pour des Juifs de maintenant’, Revue Recherches, No. 38, September 1979.

9 Ibid.

10 From an interview given by Leon Trotsky to correspondents of the Jewish press upon his arrival in Mexico. Republished in Fourth International, Vol. 6 No. 12, December 1945, pp. 377-379, online at: [https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1940/xx/jewish.htm].

11 ‘La Neue Rheinische Zeitung et les Juifs’, Etudes de Marxologie, no.7 (Aug. 1963). Also see his critique of Marx and Engels on the national question.

12 Bauer's idea of national cultural autonomy as a way of resolving national issues within the Austro-Hungarian Empire without breaking its unity may have some validity as a response to nationalist demands in the era of declining capitalism and as an alternative to the multiplication of nation-states. But this would require that regional bodies play an important role in socialist planning, as Lenin himself suggested: ‘This particularly calls for wide regional autonomy and fully democratic local self-government, with the boundaries of the self-governing and autonomous regions determined by the local inhabitants themselves on the basis of their economic and social conditions, national make-up of the population, etc.’ Lenin, ‘Resolutions of the Summer, 1913, Joint Conference of the Central Committee of the R.S.D.L.P. and Party Officials’, online at: [https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/sep/30b.htm]

13 In Le Défi national (Paris, 1978-1979) Arieh Yaari provides an impressive sample of contemporary Soviet antisemitism.

14 Lenin, ‘Position of Bund in the Party, in Collected Works vol. 7(London, 1977),, p. 100.

15 Lenin, ‘Critical Remarks on the National Question’ (1913), available online at: [https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/crnq/2.htm#v20pp72-023].

16 Lenin, ‘To the Jewish Workers’ (1905), available online at: [https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/may/31.htm].

17 Lenin, ‘“Cultural-National” Autonomy’ (1903), available online at: [https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/nov/28.htm].

18 Lenin, ‘Critical Remarks on the National Question’ (1913), available online at: [https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/crnq/3.htm].

19 J.V. Stalin, ‘The Immediate task of the Party in the National Question’, (1921), available at: [https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1921/02/10.htm]. The theses were drafted by Stalin and adopted by the Tenth Congress of the R.C.P.(B.)

20 Leon Trotsky, ‘Reply to a question about Birobidjan’, in: On the Jewish Question (New York, 1970), p. 18.

21 Trotsky, ‘Interview with Jewish correspondents in Mexico’, in: On the Jewish Question (New York, 1970), p. 19.

22 Trotsky, ‘La Question Juive’, in Oeuvres vol. 12 (Paris, 1982), p. 111.

23 In an article in Rouge, we wrongly used the expression ‘a state like any other’ in describing the State of Israel. In its context, this should not have been misleading, since it was exclusively used in a polemical sense against the illusions of original Zionism that claimed to found a communal state and instead founded a class state, a ‘goy state’.

24 Weinstock, False Messiah, p. 199.

25 N. Weinstock, ‘Sionisme, antisionisme, désionisation’, Quatrième Internationale, no. 46, November 1970, p. 45.

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